Railway Maintenance, By Brian Solomon

Header Photo: Drew Jacksich

I must be honest that before picking up Brian Solomon's Railway Maintenance I was not very familiar with much of the equipment railroads use to maintain their track and keep trains on time. While I knew a little about the more well known tools of the trade like the snow plow and rail grinder, even these machines I was unfamiliar with in terms of how they operated. This book covers these subjects and many more including track maintenance, defect detectors, ballast work, surfacing equipment, and even the beloved speeder. If you are interested in grasping a general understanding of rail maintenance (also referred to as MOW or "Maintenance of Way") you should certainly start with Mr. Solomon's book. As another title from MBI Publishing (a company that has seemingly released all of the best known books you can find about trains over the last decade or so) it was first released in 2001 and as a paperback edition is much cheaper than some of their other hardcover books.

Brian opens Railway Maintenance with a preface and acknowledgements. Here he openly admits that he knew very little as well about maintenance equipment. It's interesting, most railfans (myself included) always enjoy studying areas such as industry history, freight and passenger cars, and of course locomotives but hardly ever give much thought to the stuff used in keeping the tracks in good shape. Today, this equipment is highly advanced and technical to operate using microprocessors and computers, at least for those companies that can afford it (usually only the large Class Is). Smaller lines either outsource their maintenance needs or make do with dated equipment or standby hand tools such as picks and crowbars. In any event, Mr. Solomon concludes this opening section by giving thanks to those who helped out with the book. Included here are well known names like Mike Schafer, Mel Patrick, Richard Steinheimer, Mark Hemphill, and others.

In chapter one, Brian begins the book by providing a background and history of the track structure itself. If you are not familiar with what types of materials were used during the early years, how the standard gauge of 4 feet 8 1/2 inches was adopted, or the development of the classic "T"-rail these opening discussions offer a good look at each. The reading about rails is particularly interesting as it covers how the it has transitioned over the years from standard "stick" rail (which came in lengths of 39 feet) to today's quarter-mile strands of ribbon-rail, also known as continuous welded rail or CWR. Additionally, Mr. Solomon discusses how rail weight is measured (such as 60 pounds, 90 pounds, 100 pounds, etc.). Finally, the chapter concludes by looking at the other areas of the infrastructure including crossties, spikes and tie plates, and also ballast/sub-ballast.

During chapter two Railway Maintenance begins highlighting actual equipment used starting with track geometry cars, defect detectors, and their various testing methods. From a historical standpoint this chapter is interesting as it provides a background of the most well known company in this field, Sperry Rail Service. If you have ever seen those bright yellow converted Doodlebugs (now mostly retired) or similar cars humming down the rails these are owned by Sperry. Today, they operate much newer equipment and sometimes even use hy-rail trucks to test the rails. In any event, Brian talks about the company's start up by its founder Dr. Elmer Sperry and how he revolutionized the maintenance industry in the late 1920s saving railroads hundreds of thousands of dollars (and who knows how many lives) by being able to detect unseen cracks inside the rail.

In chapter three the book takes a look at the various equipment used to keep the ballast and roadbed in proper shape and in good order. Here you will learn about such MOW contraptions as ballast cars, ballast cleaners, undercutters, shoulder cleaners, ditch diggers, and the multiple uses of Jordan Spreaders (which were once commonly used to profile the ballast and double as snow plows). Perhaps the most important points discussed in this chapter is the highly important role of ballast and its contour. Interestingly, ballast is not only used as a means to support the rails and ties but also acts a drainage mechanism that keeps water away from the equipment mentioned, which is enhanced by the angle of the slope/profile. Water is, of course, not kind to steel and will expedite the rotting process for wooden ties.

Moving into chapter four the book begins looking at the various types of MOW surfacing equipment used today including tampers, spike pullers, spike inserters, tie cranes, ballast regulators, relaying machines, tie extractors/inserters, various specialized cranes, spike reclaimers, and tampers (because there are so many this is one of the longest chapters in the book). As the Mr. Solomon explains, we have certainly came a long way and saved thousands of hours of work since the days of large gangs of men doing this same type of work. From a railfan perspective chapter five is quite fascinating as it highlights the explosive world of the rail grinders. These machines provide a Fourth of July show like no other and offer the noise to match. The chapter looks at the different types of grinders used today and highlights the most well known such company, Loram.

In chapter six Railway Maintenance looks at the once common speeders as well as the hy-rail trucks, which replaced them. Brian provides a brief history of the antiquated handcars as well. Aside from the look at rail grinders, perhaps the best piece of equipment is saved for last, the snow plow and the many types. Here the book discusses the common wedge plow, the legendary rotaries, and the more modern equipment like the snow blower. Overall, as with nearly every MBI book the photography presented is excellent. However, the best asset Railway Maintenance offers is a detailed look at the most least understood of all types of railroad equipment.