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As I’ve wandered in many places, I have often encountered abandoned railways, or railways still in use surrounded by hundreds of discarded spikes.

It makes sense in most places for scrapyards to be prohibited from buying rails and spikes due to the risk of scavengers causing huge losses of property or life.

But why don’t the railroads recycle or reuse this stuff?

Walking along the busy tracks in Sallisaw, Oklahoma, for example, the discarded spikes are almost as many as those still in the ties. Similar in other places I've wandered. My father used to sell scrap, but it's illegal to sell the spikes—for good reason. But I have little doubt the railroads could sell them if they wanted to.

Likewise, I've walked miles along rusted abandoned track in Indiana, Oregon, and elsewhere. The tracks in Indiana I know were abandoned sometime prior to 1968. The ones here in Oregon have trees thicker than my thigh grown between them.

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    There's a systematic bias here: you don't see all those railway tracks that have been removed. – gerrit Jan 29 at 9:35
  • Good point, meriting an edit to the question. I do know of a spot where some rails have been removed. But they were a branch off a line that has two more unremoved branches growing trees and blackberries. One of those still has the grade crossing signals and barriers. – WGroleau Jan 29 at 15:43
  • Specifically for the USA, Rails to Trails knows about lots of abandoned railways where the tracks have been removed. – gerrit Jan 29 at 15:58
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The old rails are certainly reused frequently here in the UK - they start off being used on high-speed lines. When they're too worn for that they get reused on low-speed lines, and then again on rarely-used sidings (spurs in US parlance).

Once they're too worn to be used as rails at all, they get reused for other things - e.g. fence posts and supports for railway equipment such as signals.

The ones you mention as being still in place may well be because the line in question hasn't been officially closed - that's certainly the case in many places in Europe where lines were just mothballed when services finished, allowing them to be easily reopened if a new service needed them (whereas here they were ripped up very quickly and the land sold off)

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  • One of the places I mentioned, the land is no longer owned by the railroad. – WGroleau Jan 29 at 15:49
  • The high carbon content of rails make them impractical for reuse on anything requiring welding. The nominal weight of 350 lb for an 8 ft length ( for a 6 ft fence ) makes them impractical for fence posts .( Wiki reports typical rail in US and UK is 130 lb / yard.) – blacksmith37 Feb 29 at 15:14
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You are too late. A great tonnage of rail has already been used in the US. There is not "much" left in terms of serious usage. RR rails are hard, that is to say, they have a relatively high carbon content, so they can't be made into just anything.

Concrete rebar WAS a perfect match for old rails, so essentially all old rail became rebar. Rebar is relatively high strength . Rail does wear-out so there was a steady supply for many years but as rail lines were taken out of service and changed from 2 or 3 tracks to one (because computers can manage scheduling trains going two directions on the same track), the amount of rail available has shrunk.

ASTM first wrote specification for new steel rebar in the 70's because old rail had met most of the demand up to that time and there was little demand for "new" rebar. The upside, new rebar is more or less weldable, the rail-rebar would normally crack if welded. To convert rebar to rail you heat to about 2100°F (1149°C, 1422 K) and roll it, this requires a large amount of rail to economically operate serious equipment. I expect in the US, there is not often enough rail in most areas, so the old rail just goes into steel scrap to be remelted.

I can't imagine what you are talking about when you say "scrap yards are prohibited from buying old rail" other than the length may be a problem to handle without proper equipment. And railroads don't use old rail because it is worn out; sort of like putting a bald tire on a car because it can still hold air.

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  • You’ve missed the whole point. I asked why they DON’T recycle it, and you’re telling me they do, in contradiction of the evidence I said I have seen personally. – WGroleau Jan 28 at 23:19
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    The great bulk are recycled but because there were so many , I am sure there are remnants in place . Also because of the length of rails and continuous rail it requires equipment and scheduling to collect them : That is unused track still in place is likely on someone's "to do" list. Also to abandon a track , the ties are also picked up and disposed of which requires other equipment. As far collecting spikes and track plates ( the steel plate between the track and rail) it is a matter of economics ; one can't afford RR union scale wages for people to pick these up . – blacksmith37 Jan 29 at 2:16
  • Well, the ones I mentioned must have been “on the to-do list” for decades – WGroleau Jan 29 at 2:19
  • It does seem an enterprising scrap dealer could collect spikes and track plates ; However they are RR property ,maybe that is why you have found it not easy to sell them. Also , I know from personal experience there can be thorny legal matters to resolve when abandoning a track because of many different property ownership arrangements. – blacksmith37 Jan 29 at 2:26
  • Well, at least in that Oklahoma county, it’s illegal. And, interestingly, though I’ve seen hundreds of discarded spike, I haven’t seen any of the plates. Hmmm. – WGroleau Jan 29 at 2:43
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100% of all railroad steel is recycled... Eventually

On the active railroads (which you should not be walking on, by the way), you're seeing evidence of recent maintenance-of-way.

It is SOP in the rail business to pre-position supplies weeks or months in advance, and then take up to a year to pick up the old scrap. That is because of MoW priorities - they need to do work on northern climes while the weather is favorable, so work in Texas may get put on hold for months... Or traffic conditions, railroad is too busy to hand it to MoW forces for an afternoon... Or simple availability of the machines - it would be insane to pay crews to pick it up by hand when they have a Giant Magnet Machine that can pick it all up while traversing at 10 miles per hour (which matters due to track downtime). But they may have only two Machines in 20,000 miles of track, so they have to wait, wait, wait for the beast's availability.

Railroads matter

It's typical for your basic suburban NIMBY type to figure that trains are yesterday's news, and all those tracks oughta just dry up and die. However that is not true at all. Rail moves 40% of America's ton-miles, and is the only way your local Target or Ikea store keeps its shelves stocked. Rail can move 1 ton of freight 460 miles on 1 gallon of fuel, so this is actually fairly "eco" conpared to trucks - nevermind that two train crew can move 20,000 tons of freight as opposed to only 80 tons if they were truck drivers.

Further, rail is the only transport mode that lends itself to electrification, so it could clean up as the grid does. It's also our best hope for mass intercity transport that is 100% renewable, and remember, French TGV rails are essentially identical to better freight rails. Heck, the John Bull could celebrate its 150th anniversary by steaming down any random freight line, the Acela line, or indeed, the TGV lines. They are that compatible. And nobody ever complained about railroad electrification using minerals that are toxic to manufacture - it's just steel, copper and aluminum.

Removal of a rail line is an environmental nightmare

That dormant (not abandoned) rails-in-place rail line can always be reactivated. Which means industry can go right back to taking rail service, or passenger lines can be extended on the cheap. It costs between $5,000 and $250,000 a mile to reactivate a dormant line. Even if the line needs 100% replacement of ties, rails and ballast (pushing $1 million a mile), the old rails allow use of on-rail mechanized repair equipment and direct delivery of materiél, which can be 2000 tonnes per mile.

Whereas if the steel rail is lifted, it's $2 to $3 million per mile to blaze a new railroad on an old grade. Including double transload of most of that materiél. That's so expensive that I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times it has happened.

Much worse, many abandoned railroads are vulnerable to reversion - rather than buy the land outright, the rail company bought an easement conditional that when the railroad goes away, the land goes back to the underlying landowner. That means the right-of-way itself gets busted up; now you've got an apartment building on the right-of-way, and you'd have to buy it and destroy it to put the railroad back in.

Here's a success story: the Susquehanna Railroad. Their operations shrunk over the years, and part of their line was disused. Some motorcar collectors got permission to cut the trees growing up in the track, using the motorcars to get access. Their real goal was to have a place to ride their motorcars! As business at the Port of Newark grew, there was an opportunity to run massive container trains (instead of trucks). So Susquehanna evaluated whether that was feasible. They rode the line - in a motorcar - and were able to rehab the line cost-effectively because it was passable. Very nice save.

Bottom line: Once the rails are lifted, they never go back down.

So when you see weedy rails, think "Thank God those are still there".

Now, the government is doing several things to help. First, they are buying up defunct rail lines, and keeping them "rail-banked" for future use. Many a heritage railway sets up shop on such a preserved line. Second, they're agreeing to tax disused rail lines same as abandoned ones - so there's no financial incentive to lift the rails. And third, Rails to Trails is allowing the rights-of-way to be captured whole despite reversion clauses, for use by biking trails, pipelines, roads or indeed railroads. So no more apartment buildings on the right-of-way.

Part of Rails-to-Trails allows rights-of-way to be reactivated into railroads again. Again, not likely, but it holds the door open.

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  • You missed the last sentence: The trees I encountered didn’t grow that much in “weeks or months”. Or the one before about tracks unused for more than fifty years. I didn’t mention my most recent encounter: one rail removed from the middle of an abandoned section. And the discarded spikes I mentioned have been there for years. – WGroleau Feb 14 at 4:55
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    @WGroleau No, I saw it. I didn't say "weeks or months". It's you who holds that expectation... that railroad time scales should be anything like your time-scales. Trees growing up through the track is unfortunate but does happen. The Susequehanna Railroad was just like that and was reopened for heavy freight. It wouldn't have been reopened if the rails had been lifted. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Feb 14 at 5:59
  • Sorry. Somebody used that phrase. As for “rails to trails,” I spent a few years on the board of such a group. The fifty-year-old rails are still on part of the trail we developed. – WGroleau Feb 14 at 6:42
  • An abandoned line near my current home does have two section of rail missing, but much of it still there. One of the bridges has been converted for walking/biking (one of the two sections). I keep thinking that if no one wants to recycle the remaining rails, they would make a convenient form to pour cement into. Another section has a business built over the rails. – WGroleau Feb 27 at 1:13
  • @WGroleau Yes, the #1 thing an environmentalist can do to help is to preserve right-of-way. Rails-To-Trails used to be a great friend to that goal, but of late they've turned evil. Now they destroy going-concern freight railways and cherished heritage lines, Here, just off the top of my head: Kingston NY, Pemberton NJ, Walled Lake MI, Noblesville IN (they took out a train that carried 100,000 people to the state fair, what are they thinking!?), and the line to Lake Placid NY... RtT used to favor rail+trail; now they oppose it - they don't want to share! It's not the movement it once was. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Feb 27 at 17:04

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