Rail Trains

Today’s railways use continuous welded rail (CWR) a lot instead of the traditional jointed rail. CWR or “ribbon rail” is a very, very long rail, often a quarter mile in length. CWR is preferred because it is strong and has no joints to sag or fail. Most wheel and track wear occurs at the rail joints, so with super long rails, there are very few joints. The traditional “clickety clack” of wheels over jointed rail is gone with CWR.

Most main lines in North America (and Europe) have a lot of CWR in them and in order to carry these super long rails, specialized rail trains have been developed. These rail trains have a number of cars with racks on them to hold the rails, with bulkheads at each end to prevent the rails from sliding out, and equipment to load or unload the rails.

Ribbon rail beside the tracks
Ribbon rail beside the tracks

CWR is often made by taking traditional 39′ rails and welding them end to end to form the quarter mile lengths. This is done at a factory and the rails are then transported to where they will be installed by rail trains, and dropped beside the tracks for later installation. Track gangs come in to swap rails out, and the used rails are then picked up by work trains (often rail trains).

May 9, 2020

Used rail train at mile 19, CN Rivers subdivision
Used rail train at mile 19, CN Rivers subdivision

I recently spotted this rail train stopped on the north track of the CN Rivers subdivision, just west of the mile 19 marker. I’m told this was a used rail train, picking up old CWR that was left on the side of the track. There were crew on the train itself, probably securing the load before the train could head out.

I thought about flying my drone to record the train, but I decided that it wasn’t a good idea because A) it was windy, and B) I didn’t want to bother the people working on the train. A drone buzzing around would be a distraction and I didn’t want to distract the workers more than my quick picture taking was doing already.

CN 45117 on the end of the rail train
CN 45117 on the end of the rail train

The end of the last car, CN 45117, had a big steel bulkhead to prevent any of those rails sticking out from sliding past the end of the car. I don’t know how the rails are secured in the train – if at all – but it would not do to have a quarter mile rail go sliding out of the end.

That train made me think of other rail trains I’ve seen…

August 21, 2002

Overhead view of empty rail train, CP Winnipeg yard
Overhead view of empty rail train, CP Winnipeg yard

I was up on the Arlington Street bridge in Winnipeg in August 2002, during a family visit, and captured a few views of an empty rail train in the CP yard.

Empty rail train, Winnipeg
Empty rail train, Winnipeg

February 21, 2010

Parked rail train in Winnipeg yard
Parked rail train in Winnipeg yard

In February 2010 I was up on the Arlington Street bridge again in Winnipeg, taking some photos of the yard. I took a few photos of a parked rail train. Note how the rail superstructure is built on old hoppers.

Note the line of parked locomotives behind the rail train. There were about fifty locomotives there, mostly 9100 series SD90s that were later moved to behind the Weston shop buildings.

Keep those rails rolling
Keep those rails rolling

April 17, 2012

CN 6014 West - a rail train
CN 6014 West – a rail train

On April 17, 2012 I caught CN 6014 leading a rail train west out of Winnipeg. I gave chase, because it was a rail train, and because it had two cabeese on the end!

Rail train with two cabooses
Rail train with two cabooses

BC Rail caboose, er, “crew transporter” BCOL 1873 and Operation Lifesaver caboose CN 77014 were bringing up the rear.

You can read more in a previous blog post about this train.

January 15, 2013

Rail train, January 15
Rail train, January 15

On what looks like a brisk January afternoon, I photographed a west facing rail train just west of mile 10 of the Rivers subdivision. You can see an orange-clad worker atop the train in the photo above, so clearly they were stopped. Note the two empty bulkhead flats separating the rails from the locomotive.

I did my best to photograph some of the machinery at the other end. There’s a rail threaded through it. There must be some kind of motor there – note the muffler on top of the orange box – that drives some rollers to propel the rail through the mechanism as the train slowly pulls forward.

Closeup of rail train mechanism
Closeup of rail train mechanism

Zoom out for a view of the rails being discharged from the train. There’s one on each side of the train.

Rails being discharged
Rails being discharged

April 4, 2015

Rail train passing the Rosser grain elevator
Rail train passing the Rosser grain elevator

I came across a CP rail train heading west past the Viterra grain elevator near Rosser, Manitoba on a lovely April afternoon. CP 3085 was pulling the train solo. It seems like most rail trains only have one locomotive on them.

Canadian Pacific rail train
Canadian Pacific rail train

This train had rails on old gondolas – different than CN’s flatcars!

CP 420869 and the end of the rail train
CP 420869 and the end of the rail train

“DANGER – KEEP AREA CLEAR WHILE RAIL IS IN MOTION”

September 20, 2015

CN 5429 heading up a train with rails...
CN 5429 heading up a train with rails…

I was out with Tom Sajnovic on the morning of September 20, 2015, doing a little railfanning. We noticed that a train was getting ready to leave Winnipeg on the Sprague subdivision. This train had a load of rails on the head end, along with some general freight.

The photo above shows them leaving Symington Yard. This location is called “Navin” and is beside the Tinkertown amusement park.

We ended up chasing it to Ste. Anne and photographing it again there. There are more photos in my blog post.

March 13, 2016

Parked CP rail train in Molson
Parked CP rail train in Molson

I was out railfanning east of Winnipeg on March 13, 2016. I saw some action on CN’s Redditt sub, but although I spent some time at Molson on the CP main line, nothing came along. This rail train was parked in a siding there, though, so it wasn’t a total loss going there!

December 22, 2016

Herzog heading up a rail train
Herzog heading up a rail train

A few days before Christmas 2016, I was out near Dugald when I spotted this unusual rail train slowly moving along the CN main line. It featured a Herzog truck on the head end, and a CN locomotive on the tail end.

A lot of equipment!
A lot of equipment!

The truck with its trailer appeared to have all the equipment needed to load or unload rail. There certainly were a lot of electrical and hydraulic cables festooning the rig.

Some of the rail cars were CN 45033, CN 45077, CN 45086, CN 45016, CN 45012, CN 45061, CN 45084, and CN 45085. Note the stairs on the car below – you have to be able to get up to the catwalk somehow!

Stairs here
Stairs here

I’m not sure if the Herzog truck was doing any pulling at all. I assume the CN locomotive at the tail end was pushing. There was a crew in the locomotive – at least an engineer.

CN 8890 bringing up the rear
CN 8890 bringing up the rear

April 28, 2018

Lots of gear
Lots of gear

Late April, 2018, I was traveling down Panet Road, and as I approached the CN crossing (the Redditt subdivision) I saw a westbound rail train going through. I missed the head end but I pulled off to capture the rest of it. The photo above shows some of the machinery going through, including CN 44309 labeled as “Kershaw RPU 103” complete with cranes, and CN 44310 with some kind of machine with rollers.

I’ll draw your attention to the sign in the background…

No relation
No relation

The other end was very exciting, with another caboose!

CN 47113 and a caboose!
CN 47113 and a caboose!

For those keeping score, some of the rail cars on this train were CN 47149, CN 47116, CN 47150, CN 47152, CN 47107, CN 47113, and CN 47057. The caboose was Operation Lifesaver CN 77014, the same one you saw earlier in this post.

Operation Lifesaver caboose CN 77014
Operation Lifesaver caboose CN 77014

March 17, 2019

Rail Train on the Letellier sub
Rail Train on the Letellier sub

In the past few years, CN has been replacing the jointed rail on the Letellier subdivision (that runs down to the US border at Emerson) with CWR. I caught a glimpse of a rail train just north of Bishop Grandin Boulevard in Winnipeg, near the former Manitoba Sugar plant. I wasn’t able to get a decent photo angle, and I was with my family so I didn’t have time to scout around for a better angle.

Just One More Thing

Ribbon rail and a train, May 2011
Ribbon rail and a train, May 2011

Here are a few other rail train related posts and videos from around the Interwebs:

10 thoughts on “Rail Trains”

  1. A nice collection of photos you’ve welded there together, there. I enjoyed them continuously! Quite a lot of variety rolling-stock wise, actually.

    Thanks for sharing, Steve!
    Eric

    Reply
  2. Those are some cool pics. I always thought that would be a fun train to model if I ever get back into that. I was watching a video recently (now I can’t remember which one) which showed a mobile welding train they used to use to make the welded rail.

    Reply
    • I’ve seen the welders at work during the installation. They often have to heat the rail to get it to the “right” length under normal conditions before they can install it.

      Reply
  3. How long would a quarter mile section of track last. I expect some on curves have to b replaced more often. Can the used rail be reused on the other side of the curve. Can the rail be refurbished in any way? I saw one of these trains on the CP main line just north of Barrie , ON. Great photos. Fascinated by the idea of the rail in the carriers going around a curve – there must be some forces at work there. The weight of the rails must keep the cars on the track. Thanks for all the neat photos!

    Reply
    • I know the curves are usually superelevated (like roads) to account for train forces on the curve. Some curves have rail lubricators before the curves to lessen the friction and rail wear. I’ve seen a few lubricators in BC.

      I don’t know if they can take the rail and just use it on the other side of the track. I know the used rail isn’t discarded but is refurbished or perhaps melted down and recast.

      Reply
  4. Actually, CWR generally is reused several times before it is removed from service. A brand new section of rail will typically see service on a main line for a period of time. It will then be replaced by new rail, and reused on a secondary track, from where it will move to a siding, and so on. This is known as “relay rail” and occurs quite often on most Class I railroads.

    Reply
    • Hi Marv, thanks for your comment! I’ve heard of “relay rail” but I thought that only applied to 39′ rail reused in other places. I learned something!

      Reply

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