Working on the Railroad

I work with a client that has an office about 25 yards from a train track and recently the railroad company decided it was time to do some maintenance on a large length of the track including that piece by the office. That ‘maintenance’ consisted of replacing all the ties under the rails. If you’ve ever handled a railroad tie it’s heavy, probably 100 plus pounds, and it’s treated with creosote, not the kindest stuff to get smell or get on your skin.

So picture how you might go about replacing all those ties, approximately 3000 per mile. Would it add to the problem if I told you that the rails are welded together forming one big long rail? How long would it take?

We got to watch this over the course of about a week. They have maybe 10 different machines, all mounted on wheels that ride on the track and they had at least two sets of machines working in parallel. The process went something like this:

  1. Remove spikes
  2. Remove 4 out of every 5 ties
  3. Drop replacement ties out to the side
  4. Insert new tie under the rails (rails never taken up)
  5. Sweep away loose gravel
  6. Stage a new nailer plate on each tie on each side
  7. Lift up the rail and side the nailer plate between rail and tie
  8. Nail the rail in place
  9. Lift up the rail, insert forklift type arms into soil on each side of tie and compact the soil so that tie is at perfect height and is level
  10. Verify rail spacing and level
  11. Clean up

It’s one guy per machine driving, maybe 5 more doing the odd cleanup or staging job. The machine that inserts the new ties (which we nick named “the stuffer”) is pretty amazing. Big arm slides out, claw grabs the ties, just pushes it under the track. Takes about 30 seconds. It’s the first picture below.

Great engineering, great process. If you ever the get chance to watch it’s worth it. We were able to watch from up close on the street as well as from the roof of the first floor, spending 5 minutes here and there to see how it was progressing. I grabbed a handful of the old spikes which get discarded (recycled probably) and they were in pretty good shape, mildly rusted. I’m planning to clean one up and I’ll post a before and after photo in a follow up post!