The ballasting and ties are just as important as the actual rails. According to Brian Solomon's book, "Railway Maintenance: The Men And Machines That Keep The Railroads Running," ballast performs three primary functions; it acts as a stabilizer in keeping rails and ties firmly in place, distributes the weight evenly throughout the ties, and carries water away from the track structure. The latter purpose is perhaps the most important. Not only will rails rust and ties rot when exposed to water for long periods but its presence will eventually undermine the entire right-of-way. Properly maintained trackage features ballast several inches above the roadbed, profiled at an angle towards ditches which carry away the water. A well-manicured line is also free of grime, dirt, or other substances which could foul the ballast and prevent it from efficiently doing its job. Crushed stone works best since it acts as a sieve while providing a good support base. Like anything left in the weather ballast will acquire significant debris after years of exposure. A machine known as a ballast cleaner carries a singular job of cleaning these stones, extending its life without the need of constant replacement.
Before the invention of mechanized equipment the entire process was done by hand. Crews would shovel out the stone (a tedious process that also meant digging out the rocks between the ties), then use a large screen to remove particulates. Depending on the route not every line featured liberal use of expensive crushed stone. On lightly used branches or secondary corridors sometimes spent coal (cinders) was substituted or in other cases very little, if any, ballasting could be found! The most common type of cleaner is the shoulder ballast cleaner, which scopes up rock to each side of the track, cleans it onsite and then returns it to the right-of-way. However, as Mr. Solomon notes these machines only clean up to 40% of the ballast. The remainder beneath the rails cannot be reached requiring a more powerful device known as an undercutter. It will pick up the entire track, dig out the stone, and place everything in waiting trucks or hoppers to be carried away. They tend to be used only when needed since the stone cannot be immediately cleaned and redeposited along the right-of-way.
For years railroads used an army of employees, known as section hands, to keep a particular block of main line serviceable. Their responsibilities included everything from replacing worn ties and potentially broken rails to cleaning ditches. Today, the largest, newest and most impressive types of equipment will almost always be found on the large Class I's (BNSF Railway, Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, CSX Transportation, Kansas City Southern, Norfolk Southern, and Union Pacific). Smaller railroads also occasionally boast their own arsenal of machines but usually contract out this work to companies like R.J. Corman, which began as a single-man operation in 1973 headed by Rick Corman. He provided maintenance, via a solitary backhoe, for any railroad which would hire him. Mr. Corman eventually built his empire into a massive operation that today includes short lines, dinner trains, equipment rentals, signal systems, and of course MOW services operating in 24 states. For more reading about the types of maintenance equipment please visit the links above.
Beyond physical tasks is the complex maintenance of the rail. Known as ultrasonic and induction testing companies such as Sperry Rail Service are contracted to find the tiniest of cracks within the rail to prevent potential disasters and derailments. Defect detection cars have greatly advanced in their ability to find these problems although their use can be traced back to the early 20th century. If such issues are not constantly monitored an accident is only a matter of time. When a crack forms the rail will eventually give out and a derailment will occur. As railroads progress into the future infrastructure components of today will almost certainly become obsolete like the tell-tale, roundhouse, and interlocking tower. But, important components like the rails, ties, and ballasting most likely will not change much over the next century just as they haven't during the past 100 years.
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