Track inspection 101

Four key takeaways from a beginner’s track inspection workshop
Welded rail is often heated to achieve proper rail movement before welding joints to ensure track stays “happy.”
Travis Dewitz
1. Know thy thermal forces!
For John Zuspan, principal at Track Guy Consultants, the most important takeaway for any student in his introductory track inspection course is that rail forces increase with temperature changes. So, knowing that the rail can move (compress or tense), even in moderate temperatures, means knowing that track forces can build up for miles and release at a single point, causing a track buckle.

“There are as many as 1,000 track buckles a year. Every single one has a potential of derailing a train,” says Zuspan, who is a recognized authority in track maintenance.

Key elements to remember are the rail neutral temperature at which compression and tension are equal in the rail, leaving what Zuspan calls “happy” rail; monitoring the rail’s temperature and condition with thermometers and strain gauges; and making certain that track crews keep track in top condition. Loose tie plates and inadequate ballast can’t grip a tie, encouraging buckling.
2. Maintain above the minimum
Federal Railroad Administration track classes range from “excepted” or 10-mph freight-only track to Class 9, or 200-mph track. In order for a railroad to legally operate at a given track-class speed, the track must meet FRA-prescribed minimums for the number of effective ties in 39 feet, allowable deviance from track gauge (561/2 inches), spacing between rail joints, degree of cant (modern railroads lay rails to lean slightly inward for better safety and ride qualities), drainage ability of ballast, and so on.

Zuspan says that every now and then, a railroad will maintain track to the FRA minimums instead of creating and following a maintenance plan. The danger is that inattention to main-tenance will likely mean increasingly more serious problems are missed, leading to a greater chance of FRA fines and derailments. In a phrase, “do more than the minimum.
Wood crossties keep tracks in place.
Steve Sweeney
3. Don’t skimp on ties
Crossties are the one element that holds the spacing, or gauge, between rails and distributes a train’s weight to the roadbed, while being expected to perform in all weather conditions and temperatures.

Zuspan recommends hardwood ties, especially oak, for most freight applications that meet guidelines from the Railway Tie Association: 8-foot, 9-foot, or 8-foot, 6-inch-long crossties, with a rectangular profile that are a minimum of 7 inches wide, when 6 inches tall, or 8 to 9 inches wide when 7 inches tall. With proper drainage in the ballast underneath, these ties can last 20 to 30 years and maybe longer with modern borate treatments that prevent rot from the inside out.

“The extra life you get on spending a few extra bucks is worth it,” Zuspan says. Although “good” ties can cost $100 each to buy and install, they can last twice as long as softwood ties. Zuspan limits what he says on concrete, composite, steel, and plastic ties to the following: “They have their uses.”
4. Maintain the right-of-way as though the railroad depends on it (it does)
Right-of-way maintenance involves most of the simple but necessary dirty jobs on a railroad: clearing ditches, cutting trees, killing grasses and wayside vegetation, adding ballast, and even moving snow.

The most important reason is drainage. Water that accumulates in poorly drained ballast or backs up from clogged ditches rots ties and wears on ballast more, and weakens the structure of the track up to the point of deforming the roadbed. This can shorten the life of track components by 30 to 40 percent. Tall grass or trees in the right-of-way interferes with train crews’ ability to see problems in the track ahead or at grade crossings and can prevent them from seeing signals.

Railroads also need to periodically refresh their ballast as required or by million-gross-ton basis as the stones underneath the track will wear by abrasion.
Continuous welded rail enables a CSX Transportation train to glide through Deshler, Ohio.
Brian Schmidt
About the course
The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s engineering department offers continuing education courses for professional engineers and railroad workers around the country at different times throughout the year. Each course is tailored to a specific need the engineering department perceives in the railroad industry, including basic knowledge of track inspection and maintenance. “Maintaining and Inspecting Railroad Track” was given in Madison, Wis., in Sept. 2013 for nearly 100 students who work for government, Class I railroads, and railroad contractors. John Zuspan of Track Guy Consultants was the lead instructor for the course and its 14 topics.

This story originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Trains Magazine.
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