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 – 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.

Cleaning Track

11 12 2012

Keeping the rails clean is a necessary evil in model railroading. And for decades, modelers have been searching for the best way to keep the rails shining. To see if your track needs to be cleaned, just rub you finger across the top of the rail. First, you’ll probably want to run to the sink and wash your hands. Then come back and clean your track.

Liquid Cleaners

maintenance kit

The 6-62927 maintenance kit includes liquid track cleaner and a track eraser.

There are many liquid cleaners on the market, including in Lionel’s maintenance kit (6-62927). These can be applied with a soft cloth or paper towel.

There are some household cleaners that will work as well. Through our extensive testing on our own test tracks, we recommend a cleaner like Goo Gone ®. This is strong enough to cut through the grease, it’s easy to find, and wipes up cleanly. Plus it will leave your train room smelling like oranges.

You can also use this cleaner on wheels. Simply put some on a paper towel and lay it across the track. Drag your cars back and forth across the wet towel to remove most of the dirt. Finish on a dry towel. For locomotives, place the towel under one set of wheels at a time and apply power to the rails. Let the locomotive do all the work! Of course you can also install the simple wheel cleaners we showed in an earlier blog and you’ll minimize your need for this chore.

Abrasive Cleaners

cleaning eraser

Don’t forget the accessory rails when cleaning.

Sometimes the most effective cleaner is a little grease – elbow grease that is. Track cleaning blocks or erasers can be found at most hobby shops. One is also included in the Lionel maintenance kit.

These cleaning blocks are rubbed across the top of the rail to remove stubborn oil and dirt. They are designed to be stiff enough to clean the track, but not abrasive enough to scratch it, which would result in even worse electrical conductivity.

When choosing a track eraser, look for something designed for this purpose. Sand paper and steel wool may seem to make the job go faster, but they’ll do a lot more damage in the long run. Steel wool can leave tiny metal shards which get pulled into the armatures of your locomotives’ motors (not to mention your fingers!)

These erasers are also helpful for cleaning in the small spaces between switch points where the sides of the rails need to stay as clean as the top.

Track Cleaning Cars

cleaning car

The Lionel track cleaning car uses spinning pads to clean the rails.

Nobody likes to clean track – so why not let the trains do it for you? Lionel has made several different track cleaning cars over the years. Other manufacturers have too. Some of these use liquid cleaners, some an abrasive block.

To get the best results from any cleaning car, there are two things you must do. First, run it regularly. These cars do best when only taking a little dirt off at a time. If the track is allowed to get too dirty, they won’t keep up or potentially even operate at all.

Second, change the cleaning pads often. When working by hand, it is easy to see when it is time to grab a new cloth. With cleaning pads often out of sight on the cars, it is tempting to just let them run and run and run. But a dirty pad only spreads the grime around.

Like most chores, it is easy to put off cleaning your track until the next time you run your trains. But doing it frequently will make each job not only faster but more effective. So, have you checked your rails lately?

Easy Wheel Cleaners

28 11 2012

When it comes to maintaining our models, the most important and routine task is cleaning the rails and wheels. As important as it is, it is a project that nobody really enjoys. What if there was a way to keep your wheels clean while you run your trains? Here is a solution so easy you’ll want to give it try!

These easy-to-make wheel cleaners can be adapted to any type of track, including American Flyer two-rail (you’ll just need one less wire!) All you need is some solid 14 gauge (or similar) wire, and paper towels.


Four wire staples provide an anchor for an easy wheel cleaner.

First, cut four (3 for 2-rail) lengths of wire about 2 inches in length. Make a 90 degree bend about 1/2 inch from each end, forming a “U” shape.

These large staples will go on the outside and in between each of the rails. Drill holes in the roadbed, or your benchwork, between the ties and press the wires into the holes. For fast track, about a 3 tie spacing works well. Be careful not to drill through the bus bar or any electrical connections on the underside of the base. With 14 gauge wire, a 1/16″ drill will provide a perfect fit.

The tops of the wires should be below the tops of the rails. Make sure the wires do not touch any of the rails either.


An ordinary paper towel is an effective cleaning pad.

Now, cut an ordinary paper towel into 1 inch wide by about 3 to 4 inch long strips. Thread the paper towel strip under the wires and over the rails.

As you run your trains, the paper towel will remove a little bit of the dirt from each wheel as it crosses. As the dirt builds, just slide the paper towel a little to the left or right to give a clean pad. When the towel is too dirty or ragged to use, just pull it out and replace it.


To clean your wheels, just run your trains! You can slide the pad over for longer use as it gets dirty.

Simply remove the paper towels when you want to take pictures or video of the layout and the wires will not be very distracting. To make the cleaners a little less conspicuous, you can paint the wires flat black. (Or you could pull them out all together.)

You can put these in multiple locations around your railroad for more effective cleaning. The more you run your trains, the more you’ll clean your wheels. And cleaner wheels mean better running trains. Plus, you’ll find yourself cleaning the rails a little less frequently too.