Railroad ties, also referred to as railroad sleepers, is a rectangular object, usually wooden, steel or concrete, that is affixed to the base of the railroad tracks. Railroad ties run across the tracks and provide the foundation for which the rails are supported by and fixed to. They are positioned on to of the track ballast and are largely responsible for ensuring that the track is held to the appropriate rail gauge, the distance between two parallel track rails.
While wooden railroad ties are the most common kind of sleeper used in the U.S., concrete ties are commonly used in other parts of the world like Europe.
There are a variety of railroad ties. Here is an overview of some of the most popular and their use and function.
Wooden railroad ties are generally composed of a hardwood, like oak, maple or birch. Softwoods like cedar, spruce or pine may be more pliable, but they are not as long-lasting as hardwoods and more vulnerable to wear and tear.
Wooden railroad ties are generally treated with certain substances that prevent it from an insect infestation in order to increase its longevity and preserve its structure. But even wooden railroad ties that are preserved with such substances are still at risk for rotting, fracturing or splinting.
Today's steel railroad ties are very different from the weak and poor design of yesteryear. Modern steel railroad ties are an attractive option because not only are they economical, but recent improvements in their design allow them to withstand heavy loads and can operate in suboptimal track conditions and along signalized track ways. Plus, steel ties are considered a more environmentally-friendly choice because they are 100 percent recyclable and require less ballast support than either concrete or wooden railroad ties. They can also contribute to greater longevity of the railway, a reduction in derailments while also meeting the increasingly stricter and more environmentally-stringent regulations of the railway industry.
Yet the antiquated and potentially dangerous ties are still used in many parts of the world, particularly third-world countries, which lack the engineering funds to make safety improvements to their railways.
This more modern version of a railroad tie is directly in line with the green theme of today's world. Rubber or plastic railroad ties rely on recycled plastics and rubbers to develop a tie that is meant to outlive any wooden tie. They are also immune to the threat of an insect infestation and they are able to absorb sound and withstand a heavy impact.
In an effort to use more sustainable and environmentally-friendly operating practices, more and more railway companies are incorporating rubber or plastic ties onto their tracks. Union Pacific and Urethane are two such companies that are leading the way in green railways with their use of recycled rubber or plastic railroad ties.
Concrete railroad ties have become increasingly more popular because of their ability to lend greater support to railways, particularly under high speeds. These ties are readily used in Europe and were first introduced as a wooden tie alternative when wood became scarce or too costly.
While the first concrete railroad ties were developed and perfected in Europe, one of the most well-recognized and widely-used concrete railroad tie in the U.S. is used on the Long Island Rail Road. Amtrak has also updated many of their railroad lines, including those railways in the New York metropolitan area and the Northeast Corridor. Many of these heavily-trafficked railways are now equipped with steel-enforced concrete ties. These changes have led to significant improvements in the safety and durability of today's railways so that they can effectively support the speed, power and girth of today's trains and meet the railway standardization requirements.
Railroad ties are also used as decoration, particularly for commercial and private landscaping foundations. Their raw and natural appearance creates a traditional and rustic look for fences, flower boxes, walkways, raised beds or gardens, borders and retaining walls. But since many used railroad ties also contain elements of residue from the track, such as coal tar, metals and mineralized salts, property owners should use caution when using them as they can likely infuse the surrounding soil with these elements.
Yet because of the popularity of using railroad ties for landscaping and home décor purposes, new wooden beams specifically developed for such design projects can now be found.
Railroad ties can also be used in construction purposes. They can take the place of brick materials, cinder block or other building materials. In addition, railroad ties can be combined with other construction materials to impart a unique design or look to a project.