By Ed Gordon
contributing writer 

Track maintenance

Train Talk


March 5, 2022

Ed Gordon

Ballast Regulator working across from Loves.

It's that time of year. Every year during February and March the railroad performs maintenance of the tracks in the Tehachapi pass.

Railroad maintenance-of-way has long been an important part of railroading. Parked on the tracks, across from the truck stops, was a row of gondolas, open-topped rail cars with low sidewalls, making them ideal for higher-density bulk cargo. Unlike open-topped hoppers, gondolas have no side or bottom release doors and thus cargo must be manually unloaded from the top. These cars are to collect the old wooden ties as they are removed. These cars are followed by two engines and a row of flatcars loaded with new concrete ties to replace the removed wooden ties. Flatcars consist of a flat, open deck that's typically made from wood or steel. They're primarily designed for carrying unusually large, long or irregularly shaped cargo.

During the 19th century the work was performed entirely with manual labor, pick and shovel. Large gangs of labors could be found all along the main line keeping the track open for daily use.

Naturally, the task was both backbreaking and dangerous.  It was not until the early 1900s that the first forms of mechanization appeared.  One of the most popular was the do-it-all Jordan Spreader. This easy-to-maintain and relatively simple machine could perform a wide-variety of tasks ranging from ballast regulation to snow removal.

They were used throughout the 20th century and can still be found on some railroads today.  As time passed, and technologies improved, newer designs with specialization in mind eventually replaced the Jordan. Technologies improved, newer designs with specialization in mind eventually replaced the Jordan.  Take, for instance, the ditch cleaner, which effectively returns ditches to maximum efficiency.  Another is the undercuttter, a contraption capable of removing ballast from beneath the track all by itself.

Today there is also equipment to quickly and efficiently insert ties, plates and spikes.  These machines, and others, have largely removed the human element.  However, there is not always mechanized equipment available and the age-old task of doing this by hand still endures today.

The most important aspect behind any rail maintenance-of-way program is keeping the track and right-of-way in working order.

During the industry's early days a wide-variety of gauges were utilized ranging from two to six feet.  Eventually, the industry settled on the "Stephenson Gauge" (standard gauge) of 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches. The use of such an odd width can be traced back to England, birthplace of the railroad. It was based from the width of ancient Roman chariot roads found there.  The practice carried over to the United States and, like England, eventually adopted as its standard.

Ballast regulators are one of the last, if not the last, machines you will see during track maintenance as they follow behind the tamper and work to properly sculpt new crushed stone evenly across the right-of-way. In doing so, regulators clear the stone from the ties and also angle the ballast to the proper slope so that efficient drainage is restored.

Railroad ballast regulators are essentially a Jordan Spreader, replacing the iconic maintenance machine decades ago on Class I railroads as the primary means in which to contour ballast because regulators are self-propelled and Jordan's are not. Like the Jordan Spreader, ballast regulators also can be equipped to handle multiple tasks. Aside from ballast profiling these include plowing snow, cutting brush and cleaning or digging ditches.


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