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Edition #266  March 15, 2016

Concrete Failure?

Photographer: Kevin N. Tomasic

                                                                                 Photo by  Kevin N. Tomasic


Concrete Failure?

A recent trip to the east slope of Sand Patch revealed a startling sight—big piles of concrete ties up at Mance, just east of the general store. These ties weren’t being installed; no they’d been pulled out during a summer maintenance blitz. Working our way eastward down the hill we found other large piles of cast away concrete. In looking over the mainline, it was plain to see that all of the new ties were wood and no concrete ties remained.

Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s concrete ties were all the rage—a 55 to 60 year lifespan was bandied about, versus only 20 to 25 years for wood. Plus, we didn’t have to concern ourselves with that nasty creosote and we were saving all those trees. Concrete ties were the future! The only real drawback seemed to be that they weighed around 750 pounds each, meaning that they couldn’t be manhandled like wooden ties at 200 pounds apiece. Since mechanization was taking over most mainline railroad MOW work this wasn’t a big issue. They were laid on B&O’s toughest grade, the aforementioned east slope of Sand Patch, no doubt as a test to prove their viability and durability.

Here we are in 2015, some 35 years have gone by and the vaunted ties sit in a heap, no doubt heading to a crusher or to end up as part of some weird retaining wall. I’ve seen no reports from CSX as to why they were removed, but I did find a few anecdotes about concrete tie failures on line—a phenomenon called rail seat abrasion, wherein the rail slowly works against the concrete tie, grinding away one side of the area where the rail sits. This is particularly prevalent in hilly, curvy, heavy duty mainlines and causes the rail to lean to one side. Another fact that came to light was that if the ballast isn’t tamped tight to the tie, the hard rock ballast actually grinds against the softer tie, causing it to turn to powder, fouling the ballast. And finally, that concrete ties shatter and start to spall after a derailed wheel set rolls across them. I’m guessing that the concrete tie designers thought of these things, but figured they’d overcome them in time, but it sure looks like they ran out of time.

To be honest, it’s nice to see and smell wood ties up on Sand Patch—those concrete ties always looked a little too perfect-- they looked liked they belonged on a fancy passenger mainline under 150 MPH electrics, not under slow rocking coal and grain drags. Maybe that’s where they belong.

Kevin N. Tomasic


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