Workin’ on the railroad

CSX replaces ties in a five-mile stretch of railroad through Lansing, Illinois

by Melanie Jongsma

LANSING, Ill. (June 18, 2019) – The process actually started a few weeks ago when inspection trucks rode along the CSX rail lines in Lansing, using specialized x-ray scanners to examine the wooden ties that support the steel rails. Since wood rot happens from the inside out, it’s difficult to see from the exterior until a tie completely fails. The x-ray machine finds hollow or damaged ties, and a technician marks the rail with green paint to indicate where replacements are needed.

Not all damage is visible from the exterior, so an x-ray system is used to inspect railroad ties. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)
Green paint is applied to the rail to indicate ties that need to be replaced. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

When the number of defective ties is determined to be at an unacceptable percentage, replacement is scheduled. The acceptable percentage varies according to the type of track and the speed of rail traffic it is designed to handle.

Two weeks in Lansing

The CSX tie team began work in Lansing on Monday, June 17, at 6:30am and worked all the live-long day until 8:00pm. There are about 3,200 ties in a mile, and in the five-mile section through Lansing, they will replace 5,600 ties. “That’s about 1,200 a mile, and that’s not bad. That’s normal,” said Eli Brewer, CSX Railway Machinist. “We’ve been up to 2,000 ties in a mile—and that’s bad.” It will take the team about two weeks to complete all the replacements.

Eli Brewer (right) and Jeff Philipps are railway machinists with CSX. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

Steps in the process

One of the first steps in the replacement process is pulling the spikes out of the ties and removing the plates. Then the ballast (stone) is cleared from the outside of the track, and the loosened ties are pulled out and left along the track. Those ties can be seen in the video below, which shows the next step—picking up the discarded spikes and plates and moving them into position:

A crane-like piece of equipment moves in to clear the old ties from the work area—it even picks up some of the other trash along the track! That clears the way for another machine to lay the new ties in the proper places so they can be inserted:

There are about 35 machines on this tie team, each with a specialized job to do. There are duplicates of some of the machines so that if a breakdown occurs, the team can continue while the equipment is being fixed. Jeff Philipps says that it would take millions of people to do the jobs that these machines now do, and not only would that be cost-prohibitive, but it’s difficult to find people who want to do that kind of difficult, dangerous, physical labor. What this machine can do in a few minutes—lift the track and insert a new tie—used to take dozens of men several hours:

Machines have not completely replaced human workers; they have simply changed the kind of work that people do. This next step in the process shows people positioning a machine that will brush the ballast off the rails and ties. The worker runs the equipment with a remote, and other workers follow, using hand tools to pick up plates and position them between the rail and the ties:

Another machine comes through to align the ties correctly:

And then a hydraulic spiking machine drives spikes into the plates that have been positioned on the new ties:

Philipps says this is state-of-the-art equipment that can drill a spike in two seconds. The previous machine took up to five seconds.

With the new ties secured, the ballast needs to be returned:

Occasionally the work has to stop because a train is using the other track. Since some of the tie replacement equipment has arms that extend, and because pieces of ballast are sometimes thrown into the air, the team shuts down until the train has passed them:

The GRM 3000 T moves in to lift the track, and special arms shove the ballast under the ties and tamp it in place:

Then a stabilizing machine loaded with counterweights rides on the rails:

Finally a regulator moves in to groom the ballast back to its proper profile:

The ballast around Lansing railroads is granite, which provides stability for the tracks and helps with drainage, which can deter wood rot. Ballast also helps minimize vegetation along the tracks, which makes it easier for crews to do maintenance.

Once the tie replacement is complete, a crew comes in to reconnect the signals. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

Variable weather conditions make it difficult to predict the average life of railroad tie in the Chicago area. That’s why CSX is continually monitoring track conditions—maintenance is an ongoing process.

This section of work took about five hours to complete. On Monday, the team worked from 6:30am until after 8:00pm, and they started again at 6:30am Tuesday.

From Lansing, the crew will go to Chicago to do rail replacement there.

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3 thoughts on “Workin’ on the railroad”

    • I had to wait for workers to clear the ballast this morning on my way to work. That big ol’ machine made it look easy. Can’t get “I’ve been working on the railroad” out of my head now 🙂

  1. Growing up near railroad tracks, I was often curious about how maintenance was performed. I got a smile, when I read your comment, that they worked “the live long day”! 🙂 Thanks for the informative article and videos!

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