Railway Track Maintenance
For several years around 1960 I worked for a Swiss company, MATISA, (Materielle
Industrielle SA) that made and sold rail track maintenance machines around
the world. These machines encompassed the very small such as portable saws
for cutting rail on site to the huge, such as Ballast Cleaners which weighed
in at around 50 tons.
I believe that the first specialist maintenance machines supplied to British
Rail were MATISA Standard Tampers and many sidings where working MATISA tampers
were stabled were known as " The Matisa siding " and these were quite numerous
up and down the country. I don't know whether this is still so.
The two main machines concerned with Railway track maintenance are the Tamper
and the Ballast Cleaner. Most of the work can be done with standard versions
of these machines but of course there are specialised machines for maintaining
non-standard track like points and crossings.
"Track description "
Rails are supported by sleepers (ties) which in turn are supported by around
12inches (300mm) depth of ballast. Quality of track is dependent upon several
- The sub-stratum or foundation which supports the track system
- Quality of ballast.
- The sleepers or ties.
- The rail itself
- Rail fastenings
I am not a Civil Engineer so know little about preparing the foundation for
a railway track. However, it's obvious that it must be firm and well drained
Ballast should be hard, sharp stone. Sharp means that is angular in form.
Over a period of use ballast gets its sharp corners rubbed and chipped off
and then will not form the solid bed for the sleeper that is necessary. Imagine
trying to construct a dry stone wall from rounded stones. At long intervals,
therefore, ballast has to be renewed or cleaned. This is done by huge machines
which excavate the ballast, sieve it to remove the detritus and replace it,
together with a top-up of new ballast under the track.
"Sleepers or Ties"
At one time these were exclusively of timber, but reinforced concrete is
used now on all main lines, although examples of wooden sleepers can still
These are made from a manganese steel which is easily weldable, self-hardening
with use, but reasonable to drill or saw. There are two cross-sections of
rail used on train systems - bullhead and flatbottom. The bullhead rail is
supported in a cast steel 'chair' and secured by wedges; the flatbottom rail
rests directly on the sleeper. Bullhead rail is seldom seen now and is virtually
obsolete for mainline track.
Rail sections are specified by a standards number and a weight. I believe
that a typical mainline flat-bottom rail used on UK railways is BS113A - 115lb/yard
or its equivalent in metric measure
Chairs used with bullhead rail are usually secured by coach bolts into wooden
sleepers and the rail secured in the chairs by sprung steel wedges.
Methods of fixing flatbottom rail to sleeper vary a lot. Steel-reinforced
concrete sleepers are most often used today. The rail sits on cast steel plates
and there are many patented fixings. Some use screwed fittings, others employ
spring clips known as 'spikes' that fit into preformed holes in the sleeper.
Spikes were removed using 'Spikepullers' as shown in the illustration.
The model shown could be fitted with a range of jaws to fit a variety
of spikes, some of which are shown.