The earliest aspects of railroad infrastructure are, of course, the track and roadbed. Railroad track,
as with railroading itself, has its roots in England where years coal
mines had been using horses or mules to pull carts that used flanged wheels to operate on wooden or strap-iron rails (which was essentially a wooden rail with a piece of flat iron attached to the top). This type of track remained in use as late as the 1840s (by this point strap-rail was the norm) until solid iron "T"-rail
was introduced, developed by Robert Stevens president of the Camden
& Amboy Railroad, it was a revolutionary design still used to this
day. The "T"-rail replaced the unstable and dangerous strap-rail
(which was simply thin pieces of iron attached to wooden planks) that
caused the deadly phenomenon of "snake heads" (which was an iron strap
that came loose and was peeled upward by a passing car wheel it acted as a can opener when the next train passed over the broken rail literally ripping the train apart and almost always killing passengers and sometimes crewmen) was replaced by solid iron rails.
Throughout most of the 19th century iron was the primary choice for
railroad track and every other structure being built. However, in the
1890s the much stronger and durable steel was introduced. Steel was not
only much stronger than iron but because it had a longer lifespan
railroads were willing to pay a little more for it as in the end it
meant an improved bottom line. It was not until the 1950s that railroad track would see another major change. That decade saw the first use of continuous welded rail (CWR), also known as ribbon rail,
which is laid in lengths of 1,500 feet or so (roughly a 1/4-mile),
rather than 39-foot track bolted together. Aside from saving railroads
millions in maintenance costs and derailments CWR does not buckle,
because it resists thermal expansion and contraction.
|Maine Central U18B #401 and GP7 #574 work a southbound freight through Lincoln, Maine on August 5, 1981.|
Once the benefits of CWR were realized the industry quickly began
replacing its most heavily trafficked main lines with the new type of
railroad track and by the 1970s most of these routes employed it. Even
better for railroads was the fact that CWR did not necessarily have to
be purchased new. If a rail line already contained the desired track weight (such as 100, 110, or 120-pound rail) it could simply be welded into strings and relaid costing only the maintenance time required.
The one drawback to CWR is its tendency to kink, or turn into
spaghetti, during the high heat of summer. Known as sun kinks this
phenomenon can result in either slow orders or the movements to be
suspended entirely until the night or late evening when cooler
temperatures allow the track to settle back into place. However, warm
temperatures are needed when installing CWR as doing so in cold weather
when the steel tends to contract can result in buckling and warping when
warmer weather prevails.
During the late 19th century railroad track could weigh less than 80 pounds (typically measured per yard) but as the decades passed and locomotives and cars grew larger the rails have had to follow. Today, the major rail
arteries around the country employ track that weight at least 120
pounds but some can weight up to 140 pounds. Interestingly, relics can
still be found out there, particularly on tourist railroads that can
contain railroad track dating back to the late 1800s and be no heavier than 90 pounds.
Today, with trains so heavy and the required weight of the track now well in excess of 100 pounds new rail
can be very expensive so when purchasing it railroads try to closely
match it with whatever type of service it is intended for. For
instance, if a rail line only sees short or infrequent trains such as on branch lines these typically are not as heavy as long coal drags, which will, naturally, require much heavier rail. In any even, early railroad track has given way to the much heavier and more comfortable (in terms of the ride) ribbon rail. And, CWR has become a science into itself as railroads must make sure they install the rail correctly and in warm enough temperatures to keep kinking from occurring.
|An early Burlington Hi-Rail car, in this case a 1960 Mercury Monterey, inspects the main line at Leland, Illinois as it rolls past the depot on the morning of July 26, 1963. Note that during this era "stick" rail (commonly known as jointed rail) was commonly used before welded seams were employed.|
For more reading about railroad track you may want to consider the book Railway Maintenance Equipment: The Men and Machines That Keep the Railroads Running
from noted author Brian Solomon. While Solomon's book primarily
focuses on railroad maintenance equipment across its 128 pages it
highlights the track itself throughout, in relation to it being
maintained. I own this book myself and have used it as reference
material for this site many times. It's a great read on an often little
understood area of railroading. If you're interested in perhaps
purchasing this book please visit the link below which will take you to ordering information through Amazon.com, the trusted online shopping network.