Railroad ties

Railroad ties, the support beams that run between steel rails, are integral to railroad construction.

Ohio is no stranger to the railroad. In fact, it plays an outsize role in the history of America’s expansive rail network.

The mighty Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, America’s oldest line, connected the port of Baltimore to the American interior beyond the Appalachians, opening a world of trade.

To this day, even as the old rail operators have gone defunct, Amtrak provides passenger rail to Cleveland and Cincinnati, connecting Ohio’s northern and southern metropolises with both coasts.

Physically speaking, what makes that connection? The symbol for a railroad is eminently familiar: two parallel lines connected by a series of perpendicular lines.

Today, we’ll be taking a closer look at those perpendicular lines. Along with the paired steel rails, railroad ties are necessary to keep this important infrastructure together. While it may seem to skeptics as if the railroad is 19 th -century technology in a 21st-century world, a guide to the different materials we use for railroad ties reveals the ways in which infrastructure has evolved.

Wood and Creosote

This is what we think of when we think of railroad ties: wood between steel, well-worn wood that’s anything but polished and sleek. As a preservative against the elements, wooden tie manufacturers treat ties with creosote, a tarry byproduct of coal processing. Manufacturers soak the wood in creosote to preserve it, extending each tie’s lifespan to about 8 to 15 years.

Due to its carcinogenic properties, repair crews should avoid handling creosote-treated wood without proper rail repair equipment. Despite their short lifespans and toxic treatment, wooden ties still claim a nearly 93 percent market share.

Concrete

Concrete railroad ties are strong and durable without the lingering threat of toxic chemicals. New and recently repaired railroads often feature these concrete alternatives. Precast, prestressed concrete ties can last up to 50 years with proper installation, care, and avoidance of derailments.

These factors, along with avoiding the designation of hazardous material that attends creosote-soaked wooden ties, make concrete the new standard. Concrete ties require considerably less maintenance than old-fashioned wood, but as one would expect, they cost much more upfront.

Rubber and Plastic

Even more environmentally friendly than concrete may be railroad ties that use recycled plastic. Disused tires and plastic bottles can form a composite that supports

steel rails for years — longer than wood ties can. Because of the sound-deadening qualities of rubber and plastic, it’s possible that these composite ties may even cut down on some of the noise that trains generate — a boon to people who live along these lines.

Steel on Steel

One of the materials we use for railroad ties is the same that we use for the rails themselves: steel. While other countries’ railways are flocking to steel construction, American rail operators remain mostly apprehensive.

Though long-lasting and easy to ship, steel ties can confound the electrical signal systems we use to keep trains running safely. Railroad crews will still sooner take their chances with wood.

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