I was driving Mom around the area so she could run some errands--taking her shopping, to buy her monthly supply of smokes, drop off some dry cleaning, etc, etc. While she ran into the cleaners', I ate lunch, looking at the Mo-Pac main line...and saw something rather disturbing.
I used to be heavily into trains. Every time my brother-in-law Carl was around he and I would go out and do some train-watching. It was great fun; and I was a budding model railroader. As I got older I drifted away from fiddling with model trains, although I still have all my rolling stock, including a nice Athern MP-1500 locomotive that I got for Christmas in 1982. (I think it was 1982.)
I actually got to drive an MP-1500, once--about fifty feet forward, then fifty feet back. Somewhere there is a picture of me at the controls of the thing with the biggest grin I've ever worn in my life. The MP-1500 is an EMD locomotive (Electro-Motive Division of General Motors) which is primarily used for switching cars, but the MP designation means "multi-purpose". When I decided to ask for an Athern model locomotive for Christmas I specified the MP-1500 because I had gotten do drive one, once.
Stuff I've Driven
Now that I think of it, I've herded a good number of machines. In chronological order:
powerboats (including personal watercraft)
In all the time I've spent looking at trains and such I have never seen rails in the condition I saw the main-line rails in on Tuesday afternoon.
It probably comes as no surprise that train tracks are made out of several parts. Individual pieces of rail are around 20 to 40 feet in length, and they are typically manually assembled on-site. A series of wooden or concrete ties are laid down; footer plates are installed atop these, and the rails lain atop these footer plates. Spikes or bolts then hold the rails down against the ties, sandwiching the footer plates between rails and ties. The rails are joined with joiner plates that span the joint, and are bolted through the rails with very large bolts.
This method has several advantages. First, the joints are staggered, like bricks, so that as the trains travel over the track, the joints go clickety-clack (in Japanese, gatan gaton, which I think sounds better). In Russia they lay them out like model railroad tracks, in sections, with the rail ends even; and the trains go BAM-BAM-BAM as they pass over the rail joints. Staggered rails lead to a quieter ride and less wear-and-tear on the running gear.
Second, if any one component of the track fails, it can be replaced without having to replace the entire works. You can pull a rotten tie out and replace it with a fresh one, just by digging a bit and pulling a few spikes. A bad section of rail can be cut out and replaced, or the entire piece of rail (however long it may be) can be replaced in its entirety.
But such maintenance is critical. These rails carry a lot of tonnage, both in instantaneous terms (ie as the trains travel over them) and in aggregate. The gauge (width) of the track must be maintained; failure to do that will result in derailments.
Railroad cars have flanges on their wheels, but most of the time the flanges do not actually contact the inner side of the rail. Most of the time, the cars are kept on-track by the taper of the wheel face; the flange is only there to ensure the wheel cannot ride off the rail. If the track narrows a bit, the car rides a bit higher; if it widens a bit, it rides a bit lower. In general the track is set up so that the wheel flanges almost never ride on the inside of the rail.
Besides the track maintenance, the cars themselves must be maintained. In an emergency stop, it's not uncommon for the wheels of cars to lock up--but when you drag a railroad car over a section of track (even an empty one!) the wheels will "flat spot". There is an enormous amount of pressure riding on that miniscule contact area between wheel and track, and although the steel is smooth, it is not perfectly so. Perfectly smooth steel would reduce or eliminate the tractive effort that the locomotive could supply, thus making the whole exercise utterly worthless. So if you drag a car, wheels locked, down the track, you grind a flat spot into the wheels of the car. When this happens, the wheels must be removed and either turned (lathed) round, or replaced.
If you have ever waited for a freight train to go past, I can guarantee you have heard a car with flat wheels; you may not have known it, but you have heard it. When you hear a car go by that is going BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM, you are hearing those flat spots hit the rails; that is a car which has been dragged over the rails with its brakes locked.
Flat wheels do not do your rails any favors. If a typical rail car weighs 40 tons empty, and it has eight wheels on it, for each revolution of each wheel you are hitting that rail with the force of five tons per square inch. This is why the car goes BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM, even loaded, as it rolls down the track: 10,000 PSI is a force to be reckoned with. The elasticity of the steel makes up for some of it, but not all. It's hard to believe that rail (which weighs tens of pounds per linear inch) can actually deflect, but it does--a little. And the wheel will deform, as well, just a bit. But even so, every revolution of every flat-spotted wheel is a 10,000 pound hammer blow.
One of the reasons steam locomotives are no longer used--other than the fact that they're much less energy efficient than turbocharged diesel/electric locomotives--is that the driving wheels did much the same sort of thing to the rails. The huge counterbalances in the driving wheels offset but did not eliminate the pounding forces due to the swinging of the drawbars; steam locomotives literally pounded rails to death. But locomotives are heavy things, by necessity.
And over the past couple of years I have gauged the growth of the economy by how many trains I've heard running down the old Mo-Pac line: more than I ever remember hearing, even during the 1980s. There have been nights when I, sitting here at my computer and working on a novel or just surfing the net, have counted a handful of trains going through town in a single hour on a Sunday night. In fact, while I have been working on this entry, I've heard at least three. And while waiting for trains I have heard an inordinate number of flat wheels going by--more than I ever remember hearing.
I mention all this because of what I saw Tuesday afternoon; I wish to place it in the proper perspective.
I was eating some kind of wrap-sandwich-thing from Kentucky Fried Chicken when my eyes fell upon a rail joint close to the van. I actually got out of the van and walked over to the track to look at it: where the joint should have been straight across, I could see that the rail ends had been pounded down to the point that the rail heads had deformed. The top of one of the rails had actually spalled away, leaving a rusty crater with radiating cracks.
As I further looked over the track I saw that none of the joints in sight were in any better repair. One joint was so bad that the joiner plate--itself a non-trivial piece of steel!--was damaged. I counted at least ten jutting spikes within forty feet of where I stood. The ballast around the ties--the rock and slag which keeps the railroad bed in place, allowing for drainage of rain, and such--was eroded away in many spots.
In short, this track is not being maintained.
The track is not being maintained. The cars are not being maintained. And rail traffic seems to be at an all-time high, at least on this railroad line.
See why I'm worried?