All Aboard

There is something about trains…

No matter how old I get, I still get a charge out of trains.  At night, in my small town, I often hear the train horn signal the upcoming intersection and enjoy the doppler effect of the sound as it approaches and then fades away.  We recently had some repair work done to one of the train crossings in town, where they actually replaced the rails and the ties.  It got me to thinking about the special casting materials, heat treating the spikes and the rails, and how impressive the finished product is that can withstand high heat and low temperatures, all while supporting the cars that pass above them.  I did some digging and put together info on trains and rail systems that I thought you might enjoy. Funny, it all started with the size of a horse’s ass. Thanks to Wikipedia, YouTube, and Google for the info.  Enjoy!

The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That’s an exceedingly odd number. How did this come about? Here’s the history …

  • Since English expatriates designed the US railroads, they followed the same specs as in England,
  • Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that’s the gauge they used,
  • Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they had used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing. If they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long-distance roads in England, because that’s the spacing of the wheel ruts in the roads,
  • Because Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe (including England) for their legions. Those roads have been used ever since, and
  • Because the Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels.  And since the chariots were made for Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing,
  • Because Imperial Roman army chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the rear ends of two war horses.
  • So, history and logic tell us, the spacing of railroad tracks was determined by some horse’s ass. Now you know! (explains a whole lot about how things get decided, doesn’t it?)

The development of “wagonways” in the 18th century marked a more substantial advancement in track design. These were wooden tracks with metal straps or plates attached to the top surface to reduce wear.

In the early 19th century, cast iron rails replaced wooden ones, offering increased durability and load-bearing capacity. Cast iron rails were joined using chairs (L-shaped metal plates) and were laid on stone or wooden sleepers (what we call ties).

The introduction of rolled steel rails in the mid-19th century was a major leap forward in track design. Rolled steel rails provided superior strength, durability, and consistency, allowing for faster and heavier trains.

The standard length of a rail is typically 39 to 40 feet and the weight of the rail, measured in pounds per yard (lb/yd), varies depending on the required load-bearing capacity – common rail weights range from 85 lb/yd to 141 lb/yd.

To extend the lifespan of the rail and minimize wear, the top surface of the rail (the head) is often heat-treated to create a hardened layer.  Rails are laid with a small gap between them to accommodate thermal expansion and contraction due to temperature changes.

Traditionally, railroad ties were made of wood, such as oak, pine, or cedar typically around 8 to 9 feet long, 7 inches wide, and 9 inches tall. However, concrete and steel ties have become more prevalent due to their longer lifespan and lower maintenance requirements. Ties are spaced along the track at regular intervals to support the rails. The spacing varies depending on the track’s design, but it’s usually around 18 to 24 inches between ties.  Replacing ties video – very cool:

The use of ballast, such as crushed stone, gravel, or cinders, underneath the tracks became a standard practice serving as a stable foundation to distribute the load, and help drain water away from the track, improving overall track stability and longevity. The design of track geometry, including the alignment, curvature, and elevation, became a critical factor in ensuring safe and efficient operations. Engineers carefully planned track layouts to minimize sharp curves, steep gradients, and level crossings.

The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) is considered the first common carrier railroad in the United States. It was chartered in 1827 and began construction the following year, operating its first section of track in 1830.

The completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad was a significant achievement in the mid-19th century. It linked the eastern and western coasts of the United States, dramatically reducing travel time and transportation costs. The transcontinental railroad was completed on May 10, 1869, in Promontory Summit, Utah, when the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads met, celebrated with the driving of the “Golden Spike” made of 17.6-karat gold, was driven into the last tie connecting the rails, symbolizing the joining of the East and West.

Before the implementation of standard time zones in 1883, each city and town in the U.S. had its own local time based on the sun’s position. The development of a standardized time system was essential for coordinating train schedules across the vast country.

In the early 20th century, some urban and suburban rail lines started transitioning from steam to electric locomotives as electrification allowed for faster and more efficient trains, reducing maintenance costs and environmental impact. As demand for faster travel increased, countries began developing high-speed rail systems. These dedicated tracks feature special designs to accommodate higher speeds, smoother curves, and advanced signaling systems. Modern High Speed trains.

The design of railroad tracks continues to evolve, driven by technological advancements, safety considerations, and the need to meet ever-changing transportation demands. Today, modern rail systems incorporate sophisticated engineering practices and materials to ensure safe, efficient, and sustainable transportation of goods and passengers. No surprise, it’s all about collecting and managing data:  CLICK


Me, too.

As you may know the Kowalski Heat Treating logo finds its way
into the visuals of my Friday posts.
I.  Love.  My.  Logo.
One week there could be three logos.
The next week there could be 15 logos.
And sometimes the logo is very small or just a partial logo showing.
But there are always logos in some of the pictures.
So, I challenge you, my beloved readers, to count them and send me a
quick email with the total number of logos in the Friday post.
On the following Tuesday I’ll pick a winner from the correct answers
and send that lucky person some great KHT swag.
So, start counting and good luck!  
Oh, and the logos at the very top header don’t count.
Got it? Good.  :-))))
Have fun!!



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