Track Spikes And How and Why Railroads Install Them
From Someone Who Knows

Back in April, 2011 I was exchanging emails  with a Norm Ramos who worked on railroads. He contacted me looking for a source for G scale spikes. He wanted to build a G scale railroad outside using real spikes. Norm told me he was 88! Now there's inspiration for you. I don't know if he ever got the model railroad built. He sent me some fascinating information about track spikes and track laying that I would like to share with you.

branchline track
branchline track

"Norm Ramos wrote: 

"I didn't mention in my email to you that I actually got a chance to design, maintain, and let contracts to various RR Maintenance Companies for the construction and maintenance, and track levelling, due to the tracks expanding and contracting TWICE a day....

Do you know the things that look like "LOCK WASHERS" on the bolts in the Rail Joiners ( Joint Bars ), well they are not lock washers !!!! They are in fact COMPRESSION DEVICES that LIMIT the bolt-up pressure to allow the the rail to take advantage of track movement. They will allow the end gaps in the rail to do the job, and not act as a solid locked up length of track.

So, you never want to bottom out or tighten them until they "ACT" like lock washers [because] that will lock up the rail... . From my years of experiences with maintaining (14) miles of track, (2) big 136 lb. rail yards, (70) # 8 and (2) # 9 turnouts, and rail that dates back to WWII, some in the warehouse areas was on hand hew'n Oak Ties, with "NO" rail plates. We replaced the plates at $5.00 each on various contracts to level the rail, due to the rail wearing down into the ties, also "SWAPPING" the outside and inside rails on CURVES to equalize wear on the rail heads. 

Here's another thing that has become thought to be true, but is NOT... That is, that primarily SPIKES are used to hold the RAIL down onto the ties. This is not so. The spikes should only be driven down into the tie to where they are snug to the RAIL, allowing the rail to move freely back and forth, this another way also, to keep the rail from binding on the rails, that will cause the ties to move with the rail and disturb the ballast that SUPPORTS the rail and drains the water away. The ACTUAL use of the SPIKES is to KEEP the rail in GAUGE between the (3) usual GAUGE BARS per standard (39) foot length of rail. 

Also when the Ties are NEW only (2) spikes per tie plate (4) per tie, should be used, and placed diagonally, per specifications... When the spikes become loose after years of use, HARD WOODEN PLUGS, that can be purchased from railroad suppliers, are driven into the EXISTING HOLES (if the TIE is in good condition), and then the spikes are re-driven into the other (2) unused holes in the tie plate. 

Also most Track SPECIFICATIONS require that the rails should overlap or extend by (12) or (13) feet, per (39) foot rail (1/3) of its length, so that rail joints never occur opposite each other (which would place both joints occurring on the same tie, thus placing the whole wheel weight on one tie (NOT GOOD). 

And I suppose you already know that TIE PLATES are tapered on a slope of 1/40, to TILT the rails web to the inside, thus also rotating the rail heads to the inside. This is the same angle as the TIRES on the wheels of the train, for differential diameters... . Speaking of wheels, we used to hate it when the commercial RR's would move our freight on rail cars that had WORN THIN FLANGES that would DERAIL the cars by picking the Switch Points. So on some of the tighter radius curves, we would put point guards on the rails to prevent this "DAMN" derailing... ."

Lots of interesting facts from Norm that I didn't know. 

I still like hand-spiking model railroad rail on my HO layout (but never considered it for my G-scale indoor layout).  I try to avoid having the ends of rail opposite each other to avoid derailments. Norm's explanation adds a whole new dimension to my knowledge of track spikes and track laying.

If you're into hand-laying model railroad track, go to these links for a few tips from my own experience to help you get started.

Derailment at the real Utopia
derailment at Utopia

It's now possible to buy excellent turnouts with lots of detail and add tie plates and joint bars, at least in HO scale.  Track can certainly be a model, too!

It's amazing how adding detail to trackwork in the foreground can make your layout come alive. There are many great modeling ideas on layouts in the train photos gallery of my website.

Also, after hearing from Norm and not having an answer as to where he could purchase G-scale track spikes, I started a page for questions and answers from visitors to my website. If you have a question, or an answer, send it to me on my Contact me page and I'll add it. Hopefully, together we can help others.


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