What is the Wood Under Train Tracks Called?

Rail sleepers, also known as railroad ties or crossties, are an essential component of railway tracks. These are rectangular-shaped beams that support the rails and maintain the gauge, or the distance between the rails. Rail sleepers are traditionally made of wood, but modern railway systems also use concrete or steel sleepers.

The importance of rail sleepers in railway tracks cannot be overstated. They help to distribute the weight of the train evenly, preventing the rails from shifting and maintaining the stability of the track. Without rail sleepers, the rails would be susceptible to warping, bending, and deformation, which would cause derailments, accidents, and expensive repairs.

We will explore the different types of rail sleepers, their materials, and their functions in railway tracks. We will also discuss the production, treatment, maintenance, and replacement of rail sleepers to ensure the durability and safety of the rail network. Understanding the critical role of rail sleepers is essential for anyone involved in the construction, maintenance, or operation of railway tracks.

Overview of Rail Sleepers

Rail sleepers, also known as railroad ties or crossties, have been an essential component of railway tracks since the earliest days of train travel. They are used to support the rails and maintain the gauge, or the distance between the rails, as well as to distribute the weight of the train evenly.

The most common types of rail sleepers are wooden, concrete, and steel. Wooden sleepers are the traditional material used for rail sleepers, and they are still used in many rail networks today. Concrete sleepers, also known as concrete ties, are becoming more popular because they are more durable and require less maintenance than wooden sleepers. Steel sleepers are also used, but they are less common due to their higher cost.

The history of rail sleepers dates back to the early 19th century, when wooden sleepers were first used on the earliest railroads. These sleepers were often made from hardwoods such as oak or teak, which were durable and resistant to decay. As rail travel became more popular and rail networks expanded, the demand for sleepers grew, and new materials and manufacturing techniques were developed.

The purpose of rail sleepers in railway tracks is to provide a stable base for the rails and to distribute the weight of the train evenly. They help to absorb the shocks and vibrations of passing trains, preventing damage to the rails and ensuring a smooth ride. By maintaining the gauge and stability of the track, rail sleepers also play a vital role in ensuring the safety of passengers and cargo.

Wooden Rail Sleepers

Various types of wood are suitable for making rail sleepers, but some are more suitable than others. In North America, the most commonly used wood species for rail sleepers are white oak, red oak, and a mix of hardwoods.

In Europe, softwood species such as pine, spruce, and larch are commonly used. Tropical hardwoods like jarrah, azobé, and karri are also popular choices in some regions.

Characteristics of Good Rail Sleeper Wood

The ideal wood for rail sleepers should be strong, durable, and resistant to decay and insect damage. It should also have good bending strength, stiffness, and be able to withstand high impact forces.

Moreover, the wood should be easy to work with, which means it can be cut, drilled, and shaped without splitting or cracking.

Production and Treatment of Wooden Rail Sleepers

Wooden rail sleepers are usually made from logs that have been sawn into the required size and shape. The sleepers are then treated with preservatives to prevent rot, decay, and insect damage.

The two most common types of preservatives used for wooden rail sleepers are creosote and copper chrome arsenate (CCA). Creosote is a black, oily liquid that is a by-product of coal tar distillation. It has excellent water-repellent properties and is highly effective at preventing decay and insect attack. CCA is a water-based solution that contains copper, chromium, and arsenic, which provide excellent protection against decay, insects, and fungal growth.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Wooden Rail Sleepers

One of the main advantages of wooden rail sleepers is their low cost and availability, making them an affordable and practical choice for railway tracks. Wooden rail sleepers are also easy to work with, which makes them ideal for situations where the track has to be laid in uneven terrain.

However, wooden rail sleepers are susceptible to weathering and decay, which can reduce their lifespan and require frequent replacement. Additionally, the treatment process of wooden rail sleepers involves the use of hazardous chemicals, which can pose a risk to workers and the environment.

Concrete and Steel Rail Sleepers

Railway sleepers can also be made from concrete or steel, which offer some advantages over traditional wooden sleepers.

Concrete sleepers, also known as concrete ties, are made from precast concrete and are often used for high-speed railways and heavy-duty tracks. Steel sleepers are made from rolled steel sections and are commonly used in subway and light rail systems.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Concrete and Steel Rail Sleepers

One of the main advantages of concrete and steel sleepers is their durability. They are less susceptible to damage from the elements and require less maintenance than wooden sleepers. They also offer greater stability and are less likely to shift or move over time. Concrete sleepers are also fire-resistant, making them a safer option in areas prone to wildfires.

However, one disadvantage of concrete and steel sleepers is their higher cost compared to wooden sleepers. They are also heavier and more difficult to handle, which can make installation and maintenance more challenging. Concrete sleepers can also be brittle and may crack under heavy loads, while steel sleepers are prone to corrosion.

Types of Concrete and Steel Rail Sleepers

There are several types of concrete and steel sleepers available for use in railway tracks. Some types of concrete sleepers include monoblock sleepers, twin-block sleepers, and bi-block sleepers. Steel sleepers come in various shapes and sizes, including bulb angle sleepers, Vignoles sleepers, and grooved rail sleepers.

Production and Treatment of Concrete and Steel Rail Sleepers

Concrete sleepers are typically manufactured using precast concrete and are designed to withstand the weight and pressure of trains passing over them. Steel sleepers are made by rolling steel sections into the desired shape and size.

Both concrete and steel sleepers can be treated with various coatings and treatments to increase their durability and resistance to corrosion. These treatments can also improve their overall lifespan and reduce the need for frequent maintenance.

Maintenance and Replacement of Rail Sleepers

To ensure the safe and reliable operation of railway tracks, it is necessary to maintain and replace the rail sleepers regularly.

Importance of Regular Maintenance on Rail Sleepers

Rail sleepers are exposed to a wide range of environmental factors, including temperature fluctuations, moisture, and heavy loads. These factors can cause damage and decay to the sleepers, which can lead to track instability and pose a safety risk to trains and passengers. Regular maintenance of rail sleepers is, therefore, essential to prevent any potential issues from occurring.

Inspection of Rail Sleepers for Signs of Damage or Decay

Regular inspection of rail sleepers is crucial in identifying any signs of damage or decay. Inspection can be carried out visually or using specialized equipment, such as ultrasound testing. Common signs of damage or decay include cracks, splits, rot, or insect infestation.

Measures to Prevent Damage and Decay on Rail Sleepers

Preventive measures can be taken to prevent damage and decay on rail sleepers. These measures include using preservative treatments, applying protective coatings, or using non-corrosive fasteners to fix the sleepers to the rails. Additionally, proper drainage can help prevent moisture from accumulating around the sleepers, which can cause decay.

Cost-Effective Maintenance Techniques

To ensure the safe and reliable operation of railway tracks, maintenance of rail sleepers is crucial. However, maintenance can be costly, and there are various cost-effective techniques that can be implemented. For example, routine inspection and repair can help prevent major damage and the need for costly replacements. Moreover, applying protective coatings and preservatives can extend the lifespan of the rail sleepers, reducing the frequency of replacements.

When to Replace Rail Sleepers

Inevitably, rail sleepers will eventually need to be replaced. The lifespan of a rail sleeper depends on various factors such as the material used, the environmental conditions, and the amount of usage. A rail sleeper that has reached the end of its lifespan will show visible signs of decay and damage, and it will no longer be able to maintain track stability. It is essential to replace the sleepers promptly to ensure the safe and reliable operation of the railway tracks.


In summary, rail sleepers play a crucial role in maintaining the stability of railway tracks. They serve as a support system for the rails and help distribute the weight of trains evenly across the tracks. Wooden sleepers have been the traditional material of choice for rail sleepers, but concrete and steel sleepers have also gained popularity due to their durability and strength. Each type of sleeper has its advantages and disadvantages, and the choice of material depends on various factors such as cost, maintenance, and local climate conditions.

Regular maintenance of rail sleepers is essential to prevent damage and decay, and cost-effective techniques such as re-sleepering and timber replacement can help extend the lifespan of rail sleepers. Furthermore, advancements in sleeper materials and maintenance techniques offer exciting possibilities for the future of railway track design.

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