Ribbons of Rail: Track Maintenance

Spanning coast to coast, America’s 140,000-mile freight rail network connects the nation’s supply chain and provides a safe, efficient and cost-effective way to ship our customer’s goods. Below we’ve outlined the 101 on railroad track and a few of the ways we maintain and expand this critical network.

1. Railroad’s Steel Spine


While railroad tracks might look much like they did 100 years ago, advanced technology has made railroad infrastructure stronger, safer and more reliable. A railroad track consists of two parallel steel rails set a fixed distance apart, called the gauge. The rails are connected to each other by railroad ties, which may be made of wood, concrete or other material. The rails are fastened to the ties by spikes, bolts or special clips, depending on the type of tie. The ties are set into ballast, which consists of stone particles that help transfer the load of the trains to the underlying foundation.

2. Anatomy Of Railroad Track


Railroad track: Parallel steel rails laid on wooden ties.

Rail: Set of steel bars placed end to end in two parallel lines.

Spike: Piece of metal used to attach the tie plate pad to the rail.

Tie: Wooden or concrete laid perpendicular to and beneath the rails.

Tie plate: Piece of metal that supports the rail.

Ballast: Crushed rock or gravel placed beneath the ties to provide a foundation for the track.


3. Built Stronger, Built Better


Thanks to advancements in steel manufacturing, the quality of steel used for railroad track has gotten much better. Today, the lifespan of rail averages 50-60 years, depending on how much freight is transported annually on the line and other factors. Railroad companies inspect their track using specialized equipment such as track geometry cars and rail defect detector cars, as well as visual inspections. These specialized technologies use laser sensors to detect track wear and tear and alert railroads to potential defects, enabling them to schedule maintenance in a safe, timely and cost-effective manner.

4. People Power


Maintenance of Way employees lay rail, install crossties and build track to ensure trains run safely at optimum track speed. More than 35,000 railroad employees nationwide perform railroad track and bridge work. When rail is scheduled for replacement, a rail gang is sent to the location to do the work. Here, Norfolk Southern has dispatched its Super Rail Gang to a site in Georgetown, KY. This gang, composed of 78 employees and 42 pieces of equipment, has the ability to lay dual ribbons of rail. The machines they use — which stretch for more than a mile from end to end — have greatly enhanced efficiency. In a six-to-eight hour day, the Super Gang can lay eight to ten quarter-mile long ribbons of rail.