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Edition #139, December 1, 2010

Sunny Afternoon in Pittsburgh

Photographer: Alex Mayes

                                                                                 Photo by Alex Mayes

Sunny Afternoon in Pittsburgh

A CSX track crew prepares a rail joint for a thermite weld as an east bound autorack train passes by on an adjacent track in downtown Pittsburgh, PA in August 2008. I happened onto the crew while walking along the sidewalk which parallels the ex-P&LE tracks behind Station Square and watched them for several minutes before the train showed up. As the train approached I lifted my camera and took several photos. The crew stayed focused on their assigned task, seemingly oblivious to the passing train and my presence.

Such scenes are commonplace nowadays on U.S. railroads following the transition from jointed rail to continuous welded rail (CWR) over 30 years ago. The thermite welding process was critical to the introduction of CWR to eliminate rail joints. Patented in 1928 by John H. Deppler, the process uses a highly exothermic combination of chemicals and metals to join the ends of rails, which produces a very strong bond. The chemicals and powdered metals are ignited and then poured into a graphite mold clamped to the heated rail ends. The mold is then removed, and the excess metal is ground off around the rail head. Trains can roll over the new joint in about an hour.  

Most mainlines in the U.S. are CWR; many secondary lines and branches are still jointed rail. Continuous welded rail is a significant improvement over jointed rail in that it requires less maintenance, provides a smoother ride, and trains can travel faster over it. One disadvantage of CWR is extreme heat or cold; hot weather sometimes causes CWR to expand and create sun kinks, and cold weather can cause CWR to break and create pull-a-parts.

Within 15 minutes after taking this photo the crew had completed the pour of molten metal and was waiting for the joint to cool before removing the mold. Later on that evening while we were having dinner at the upscale restaurant in the former P&LE station a CSX coal train rolled by on this track, passing over the new joint-a testament to a job well done by a dedicated CSX track crew.

Alex Mayes

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