On our road I am seeing increasing ammount of new steel railroad ties. Some of the wooden creosote ties are still being used, but more and more I see the steel ties shoved in and locked down using these coiled steel fasteners. Is this the general trend?
Wood is the most common, and oldest in use. They're cheap and plentiful, but are subject to rot. Advances in pressure treating over the last several decades, however, have made wood ties last even longer. I haven't seen anything other than wood ties on my road.
Concrete ties are not subject to rot as wood ones are, but Hoghead made an excellent point describing the wheels coming in contact. It's not just wheels, but any dragging equipment: imagine an operating lever, tie-down, chain, or cable coming loose at track speed: one well placed shot of a heavy enough item at 50mph, and we're talking major damage.
I'm not terribly familiar with steel ties. I do know that they claim to last twice as long as concrete or wood ties, and aren't subject to rot or shattering as wood and concrete are, but the major drawback seems to be price. Consider the thousands, if not millions, of ties a major railroad will purchase in a year; this added expense can add up tremendously in a very short time.
Concrete ties have been in use in many places in California since at least the mid 80s. There were a couple of spots where I have seen steel ties in use. For one, there is a bridge across the Sacramento River near Tehama, Ca. that made use of steel ties.
Of course I have been off of the seat box for about 6 years, so their use may be more wide spread today.
As a foot note, I think they are a poor choice, simply for safety reasons. Sometimes a car may drop a single wheel or pair of wheels off the rail. With wooden cross ties, they can travel many miles, often being detected before a major derailment occurs, with no more damage than cut ties.
Not so with concrete ties. You drop a wheel on them and they explode. No cut ties and a major pile up right on the spot. Perhaps steel ties perform better, but I am unfamiliar with their characteristics, so I can't say. Of the three, they are probably the cheapest.
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