I've worked on railroads. Not the main line rails, most of that work is by machines, but in industrial facilities. It's simple in theory, but far from easy.
The first rail job I worked on was leveling and tamping storage tracks in a large plastics plant. The pellets were loaded in rail cars, which would either be stored until the market was good, or sent to manufacturers for whatever they happened to do with plastic pellets. The tracks were constantly exposed to varying loads, which included switch engines. The result of these factors were rails that weren't level, or even.
My job was to work with the tamping machine operator. The machine rode the rails, had hydraulic jacks and retractable tamping plates. It could raise the rail and tamp the ballast (rock) that surrounded the rail. As it tamped, somebody had to keep supplying rock to the machine. That's where I came in, I shoveled rock and tried to keep up with the machine. After about a week, we finally finished, which was about four days past what I wanted.
The second railroad job I worked on was to help repair the mess of a derailed switch engine. When the flanged wheels fell off the track, the rail rolled on the side and the wheels destroyed a dozen ties. We had to pull the spikes, change the bad ties, re-spike the rail and level the section of track. The entire job was the result of a Friday evening accident. The switch engine derailed, the railroad company wouldn't switch any more cars until the rail was back in shape and we were available. My boss was glad for the opportunity. Me? I was wary. I had an idea what was soon to happen. We'd start repairs at first light on Saturday morning.
Removing the spikes required a large pry bar called a spike puller. It weighed about 30 pounds, had a large crows foot on one end and a narrow chiseled tip on the other end. Using it required some help with a hand spike driver, which had a long tapered head with hammer on both sides. Using the spike driver, the crows foot was driven onto the spike and then the pry bar was used to pull the spikes. It was like using a claw hammer on steroids. Big heavy stuff, which required little brains but lots of meat ass.
We pulled the spikes on the entire section of rail that had lain over. The rail was fine, but one of the joint bars was cracked. The facility had a few in storage, so after unbolting the rail ( with a really big wrench) we replaced the joint bar, re-bolted the rail and started replacing ties. We had a limited work area and our backhoe only had a large bucket, so removing and replacing the ties required digging around the ties by hand and sliding them under the rail with a set of spike tongs. After the ties were in place, the next step was to gauge the rail and drive new spikes.
Rail sits on what's called a tie-plate. It has four square slots for the spikes, which allow two spikes on each side of the rail. Some are flat, with a raised section to fit against the bottom flange of the rail. Others have two raised edges, which are specially made for a certain size of rail. The have a snug fit, which keeps the rail from shifting in either direction. We had an advantage with setting the rail. We had a backhoe, so we didn't have to use rail tongs and wrestle the rail into place. We, also, had a rail gauge, which we jammed between the rails to insure the 56-1/2 inches required for American rail cars.
Old ties have holes, where the original spikes were driven. Driving a new spike is easy, but it won't hold. To solve this problem, there are spike plugs, which are hardwood plugs that are the same size of the spike. When placed before the spike, they wedge the spike and keep the rail and ties firmly attached. Since we had to re-spike many of the same ties, we had to plug the holes before placing the spikes.
We started driving. I'd spent many hours with a sledge hammer driving form stakes, so my aim was good, although it was a different process. One of us would start the spike and then we'd alternate blows until the spike was driven. It was hard work, but it became harder when we spiked the new ties.
The new ties were hardwood ties, so the dense wood was so hard, a missed hit could bend a spike. Besides the demand for accuracy, each blow only buried the spike about an inch. Driving each spike became a much longer process, which only added to the labor that was already what I considered hard.
We eventually finished driving the spikes, which only left using rail jacks to raise the rail and tamping the ballast under each tie. We finished a little after noon. We'd decided we'd work through lunch to finish. It was Saturday, a beautiful summer day, and everyone had something much better to do than work on a railroad.
As I was driving home, I thought of the morning. We'd accomplished in half a day what railroad machinery would have done in about an hour. Our advantage was we were much cheaper than a rail crew, which would have charged a four hour minimum, besides the high rate of the machinery included in the cost.
The manager of the facility was pleased with our promptness, which brought them back in good graces with the railroad company. They rewarded us with the offer to change the bad ties in their facility. So, by the next Wednesday, a truck load of ties arrived and we went to work. After it was all over, I realized I didn't care much for railroad work.
Since then, we've had a few jobs where we had to repair, or modify, rail in different facilities. I tried driving a few spikes on the last job. After my try, I realized I'm not the young man I used to be. I, also, realized if I had to drive spikes, I didn't want to be the young man I used to be.
In Case You've Wondered
My blog is where my wandering thoughts are interspersed with stuff I made up. So, if while reading you find yourself confused about the context, don't feel alone. I get confused, too.
If you're here for the stories, I started another blog: scratchingforchange.blogspot.com
One other thing: sometimes I write words you refuse to use in front of children, or polite company, unless you have a flat tire, or hit your thumb with a hammer.
I don't use them to offend; I use them to embellish.