Freight Car Friday – Tie Cars

13 06 2014

Fathers Day is this weekend, so what could be more appropriate than a carload of ties! Of course these ties weigh about 200 pounds each, come soaked in creosote and are just slightly less fashionable than most of the ties Dad will get this year.

centerbeam flatcar

A centerbeam flatcar has a load of recycled bridge ties. Although used, the ties may have enough useful life left for resale.

Railroad ties are a vital but easily overlooked part of the railroad’s infrastructure. The ties both support the rails (and the trains upon them) and keep the rails in proper gauge. In North America, the vast majority of ties are still made of wood (preferably oak.) Some heavy mainlines have been converted to concrete ties, which have been far more common in Europe for decades.

Properly treated, a tie can survive many years under the rails. Wood ties are infused with creosote – a thick, sticky and stinky black tar. Like everything else, there is a lot of science behind cutting and treating these ties to ensure they provide the longest service possible the railroads.

raw ties

Loads of untreated ties are bound for a treatment plant. Some of that facility’s finished products are awaiting installation by the neighboring track.

It starts with proper cutting to ensure that the heartwood is in the center. Once properly cut to size, the ties must be dried prior to treatment. Drying requires careful stacking and can take up to eight months to reach the proper moisture content.

Next the ties are loaded into large cylinders. Creosote is added and then the cylinder is heated and pressurized (or depressurized depending on the method used) to force the preservative into the wood. The processed ties are then ready for shipment to the railroads.  The best ties will go to the mainlines. Those that don’t make the cut may still be sold to short lines or used on branch lines and sidings.

finished tie cars

Treated ties head west past the same location. CSX has added special extensions to increase the capacity of these cars.

At one time, most large railroads owned their own treatment plants. Today most have been outsourced. Koppers is the largest company and they are kept plenty busy. Railroads consume more than 20 million new ties per year on average.

Many of these tie treatment plants use their own in-plant narrow gauge railroads to handle the movement of ties in and out of the pressure cylinders. With untreated and treated ties both arriving by rail, the entire operation would make an interesting operation for a model railroad.

NS tie car

Norfolk Southern has also modified cars for tie service. These cars were once used in pulpwood service.

Railroads use a variety of equipment to get the ties from the treatment plants to their storage yards and on to where they are needed. Typically, older equipment is used for this work. Gondolas retired from revenue service are a popular choice. Not only do these company movements not earn revenue, after a few years of carrying creosoted ties, the cars’ utility for other loads is greatly compromised. Some railroads have rebuilt other cars for tie use as well. Norfolk Southern and Burlington Northern have both converted bulkhead flatcars with new gondola sides for example.

dropping ties

A CSX work train drops ties for upcoming work. The crane can creep along the rails added to the tops of the gondolas.

How long does a tie last? There are many variables that can affect that number. Natural defects in the wood are a big factor. So is the environment where the tie is laid and the track maintenance around it. If the ballast is kept properly sloped and clean, ties will last much longer even in humid climates. The amount of abuse inflicted by the trains also of course plays a role. As you would expect, heavily trafficked mainlines require replacement more frequently than sidings and ties on a sharp curve will be worn out faster than those on straight track.


Looks like the Tie-jector just went by! Stacks of ties await installation.

A typical tie will last anywhere from five to ten years on a mainline. If traffic is not as heavy and all other factors are good, a tie can last twenty to forty years. Regular inspections ensure that ties are replaced as, or preferably just before, they fail. Construction standards also call for enough ties beneath the rails that should a single tie fail, it will not cause a larger failure of the track bed or a derailment – up to 3,000 ties per mile on a heavy mainline. Therefore with consistent maintenance, if a railroad replaces 1/5 (or potentially less) of their mainline ties annually it should always stay ahead of the curve.

old ties

Old ties travel by rail too. Old hoppers and gondolas, no longer fit for other service, are a common choice.

Stacks of fresh, or old, ties are a great way to represent a tie replacement project that is about to begin or which has just been finished. Of course with the Lionel Tie-jector you can take it a step further and have some fun as you actually drop the ties around your layout. Today a track hoe on top of a gondola is a more typical way of unloading the ties on the prototype.

gon interior

A look into an empty gondola in tie service quickly shows why they don’t get used for anything else.

After the ties are replaced, the old ties aren’t simply left to rot by the side of the tracks (at least they shouldn’t be.) Old ties are also gathered as soon as practical after a work project and carted off for proper disposal or resale. Old hoppers and gondolas are popular choices for hauling off the old ties. An old hopper filled with used ties would be an eye-catching model and a great way to add a car that would otherwise be “too old” for your era to your layout.

concrete ties

Concrete ties are transported in much the same way, but in smaller quantities per car.

Ties are an important part of the railroads’ operation. With a little creativity, they can add a lot to your model railroad too.


Freight Car Friday – Ballast Cars

18 04 2014

Spring is finally here and with it comes the start of another busy maintenance season on the tracks and rights of way around the country. A proper roadbed is critical for keeping the tracks in proper alignment through all of those “April Showers.” Ballast provides a support for the ties and rail and also helps drain water away from the track. Keeping the ballast clean and replenished, requires a variety of specialized rail cars and equipment.

Ballast Hoppers

converted trucks

This ballast hopper was converted from a PS-2 covered hopper.

Railroads purchase their ballast from quarries in large lots. Online customers are preferred whenever possible of course, and railroads can be very particular about whose stone is used. Even today’s large carriers often purchase ballast from only a handful of suppliers. Often you could tell the owner of the railroad by the color of the ballast such as the Chicago and North Western’s “Pink Lady” stone.

Granite is the rock of choice, but to minimize expense railroads will often blend multiple grades of rock. Yards and sidings typically get a lower grade than the mainline and would see a higher concentration of limestone. In the steam era, cinders were frequently recycled for use in spurs.

UP ballast car

Union Pacific paints its company cars in a distinctive green, including this newer ballast hopper.

The hoppers which transport the ballast are typically no larger than 70 ton capacity cars. While it is not uncommon to see standard hoppers pressed into this service, most ballast cars are designed with different hopper door arrangements which disperse the stone along the sides and parallel with the rails as opposed to dumping piles in the middle of the gauge.

Herzog car

Herzog leases ballast cars like this to many railroads. The doors are pneumatically operated and the train features an extra set of air lines between the cars.

Ever thrifty with company cars, many railroads convert older hopper, gondola and even covered hoppers for use as ballast cars in addition to new purchases. Adding to the fun for modelers, equipment like this often passes down through owners or mergers and is usually at the bottom of the priority list for repainting. When work equipment is painted, different color schemes are often used to call immediate attention to its restricted use.

6-26847 dump car

Lionel and American Flyer side dump cars are perfect for work train duty.

In addition to hoppers, side dump cars are also used. These are normally reserved for right of way projects like fills and embankments. The side dump cars can carry rock, dirt and rip-rap in larger sizes than can be practically handled through hopper doors. And they can drop their load along the side of the rails almost anywhere.

Ballast cars may run as a dedicated train, or mixed in with a regular consist.

Work Equipment

ballast cleaner

A Union Pacific ballast cleaner is hard at work on the busy Nebraska mainline.

The cars used to haul the stone to the work site might be pretty straight forward, but the equipment used to finish the job is anything but ordinary. Once maintained by picks, shovels and sweat, today’s rights of way are groomed by specialized machines large and small – and sweat. While the labor force of a typical “section gang” can rebuild scores of miles of track today, the work is no less demanding and dangerous.

ballast regulator

A ballast regulator kicks up a cloud of dust as it sweeps stones off of the top of the ties. Meanwhile traffic keeps rolling on the neighboring track. Operations are fun to watch, but you would be well advised to keep a safe distance.

Typically ballast work is performed around other maintenance projects, including replacing ties, broken spikes or rail clips and other hardware as part of a comprehensive annual maintenance program.

If the ballast needs to be cleaned, this is done before dropping new stone.  “Cleaning” the ballast involves removing dirt, weeds, and any other impurities including spilled lading from the passing trains. All of these can clog the drainage field, leading to larger and more expensive problems if not kept in check. Ballast cleaners are enormous machines which continuously scoop up the stone, filter it through screens and redeposit the ballast on the track while discharging the waste to the side of the roadbed or into hoppers for removal.

work train

A similar ballast regulator to the one seen above is on its way to the next job along with dozens of other machines aboard a special work train.

After cleaning or after replenishing the roadbed with new ballast, the stones must be tamped around and under the ties to maintain a proper and consistent track profile. The alignment of the rails must be checked again and finally, the new stones must be groomed to a proper profile. These jobs are handled by smaller equipment, usually operated by one or two workers each.

ballast regulator

Lionel has offered models of ballast regulators in the past – an easy way to bring this operation to your layout.

Much of this smaller equipment is usually transported to the work area on board flatcars. In some cases, the workers travel with the train and can stay in bunk cars overnight. Most railroads today however have taken to paying for lodging in a local hotel and busing workers to the job site.

Ballast work is just one of many routine chores on the rails, but it can be an interesting addition to your model railroad. Whether you go with an animated track gang accessory or our more modern ballast regulator, such a scene is sure to draw attention on any layout.

Freight Car Friday – Transporting Track

27 09 2013

Seeing railroad track under a train is nothing unusual – but when it comes to trains carrying the track there are lots of options. The railroad right of way is constantly in need of attention and materials must be transported to the job site some how. How better than by rail?

“Stick Rail”

rail flat

A load of freshly rolled rail from Steelton, PA makes its first trip on a car converted from an older 89′ TOFC flatcar. Note the markings on the new rail.

Since the beginning, rail, ties and other components have been shipped to the work site in individual pieces. Rail typically came in 33 foot lengths – sized to fit nicely in most gondolas. At the work site, the rails were unloaded by a small crane and then placed by hand by several workers using rail tongs.

Rail come in several sizes or “weights.” The heavier the rail the heavier the load it can carry. In the United States, 60 pound (per yard) rail represents the light end, with 212 pounds being the heaviest. Most rail today is 152 pounds. The number of men required to move the rail depended greatly on the weight. Each pair of tongs is a two-man tool and between eight and sixteen men were typically used to move each section of rail.

Rail of this size is relatively easy to transport and install. But the frequent joints (that familiar “clickety-clack”) also increase the opportunity for wear, fatigue and failure. Shorter rail lengths are still used today in many places. In addition to the old 33′ standard, longer cars make 85′ rail lengths more practical.

Welded Rail

welded rail train.

Also coming from Steelton, this Norfolk Southern welded rail train carries stacks of much longer rail. The old boxcar serves both as a tool car and protection for the locomotive in case the rail should shift.

Railroads first began experimenting with continuous welded rail in the 1940s. Also sometimes called “ribbon rail” these extremely long lengths of rail reduce the number of joints and maintenance needed.

These rails are normally transported on long trains, spanning multiple cars, and supported on racks added to converted flat cars or gondolas. These trains make quite an impression as they snake through curves and switches. It is a testimony to the flexibility of steel and the tremendous weight of the railcars that these trains can navigate the trackwork that they do.

Even in these long trains however, the rail is shorter than what is optimal. At the end of the train, a set of special cars are equipped with a machines that can pull the rail from the racks and lower it to the roadbed. As the end of one section is reached, it is welded to the next to create rail sections over a mile in length.

empty car

An empty welded rail flat gives a better perspective on the racks. These cars were made from retired pulpwood flats.

Once deposited next to the existing track, additional machines are used to remove the old rail and replace it with new. Some of these machines can also replace ties simultaneously, rebuilding the entire track bed in one continuous automated motion.

Expansion joints must still be placed at regular intervals to account for the expansion of the rail in hot weather. Generally, railroads prefer to lay new rail when it is hot. If the rail should cool it will break apart. This will at least trigger the automatic signal systems to stop oncoming trains. Rail that expands after installation is more likely to bow out of gauge – just as capable of derailing a train but without providing any warning.

Panel Track

switch panels

Pre-made switches ride in old and newer cars. The rear car came from an 89′ flatcar. The lead cars were built by the Pennsylvania Railroad.

If you thought model railroaders were the only ones who used pre-made track, well think again. For fast reconstruction, railroads will often pre-build track panels to be transported already assembled to the site. This can be used for switches on busy mainlines or for regular track in the event of a derailment. In both of these cases, getting the railroad back together and in operation as quickly as possible is a priority.

These panels must be carried to the job site. Regular track sections typically lay flat on flatcars and can be stacked about three sections tall. Switches must be shipped in sections and carried on an angle due to their width. Again, a crane or other heavy equipment is essential for loading and unloading. These panels are beyond the limits of men and tongs!


A switch panel car or welded rail train would require a lot of modeling effort. Hauling stick rail of various lengths or even straight panel sections however is an easy load project. In addition to the rails, you’ll want to include wood blocks and tie downs to keep your load secure. Send along a crane and some track workers and you’ve got a great scene for a corner of your layout.

Freight Car Friday – Fire Prevention on the Rails

17 05 2013

A railroad fire department? These may be some of the least known of the railroads’ own patrols of emergency response teams. The need for these fire fighters became evident in the earliest days of railroading however.

burning switch tower

The railroad is not immune from fire – and often the rails are the only way to the scene.

Early wood-burning locomotives were notorious fire-starters. The iconic “balloon” and other smoke stack styles of the 19th Century were all designed to help contain burning embers. Left to the winds, these hot ashes could ignite a dry field or forest anywhere along the right-of-way.

Coal burning locomotives lessened the fire risk, but didn’t eliminate it. Sprawling facilities like the Pennsylvania’s Juniata Shops in Altoona had their own fire station. Even today, some steam-powered excursion trains have a patrol car with a fire hose follow the train to put out any hot spots during dry spells.

When steam locomotives were more common, the fire-prevention equipment was larger. Tank cars and retired locomotive tenders were prime candidates for conversion into fire-fighting tankers. Water cannons, hoses and other tools were added. Crews would ride to the scene in a caboose or passenger car.

fire car

Rail grinders put a new profile on the rails – and create a lot of sparks in the process. Fire control cars like this accompany the train.

Although the trains no longer pose a major fire risk themselves, many railroads still maintain fire cars to help protect their property from wildfires started by other means.

Trains of tank cars can douse flames – or in dry times preventative fire retardants – along the right of way. Particularly dangerous operations like rail-grinding trains usually have their own water cars with hoses on the rear. The Swiss have even developed dedicated trains to deal with fire risks in the many tunnels along their lines.

Training Tank

UTLX donated this tank car to the city of Altoona for training – the company has a large repair facility in the old PRR Passenger Car Shop.

Like the railroad police, prevention is as important a role for railroad fire services as putting out the burning fires. Several railroads have used cars to educate the public on fire safety along the right of way.

Additionally, railroads have provided tank cars to local training facilities so that fire fighters will be more familiar with equipment in derailments or fires at industries they serve. Traveling cars from chemical companies and others also roam the country to provide hands-on training. The Massachusetts Volunteer Fire Company maintains one of the largest and most visible fleets of these cars.

Lionel tank

Although nearly every prototype was different, Lionel’s fire tank follows common practices.

Whether you model a fire train in action, or just have one of the training cars passing through on a regular freight train, paying homage to the fire fighters of the rails can make a  nice addition to your model railroad.