Welding Rail

A centrally-located rail welding plant in Atlanta turns out quarter mile ribbons of steel to smooth the travel of Southern Railway Trains

A white hot bead of metal spraying showers of sparks takes form around the junction of two rail ends at Southern Railway's central rail-welding plant at Inman Yard in Atlanta.

Air view of Southern's rail welding plant at Inman Yard, showing the flow of rail through the reclamation and welding process. Used rail stored in quarter-mile bolted sections on the rack at upper right (A) has the joint bars and bolts removed (8). Single rails move along the live roll conveyors and storage table conveyors (C) to the straightening and cropping plant (0). Rail lengths ready for welding return on the live-roll conveyors to storage tables (E) and go through the welding cars (F), through the inspection building (G) and are loaded either into storage racks (H) or directly onto special rail cars on the adjacent siding (J) for movement to the point of use.

This is an electric flash weld made with the rail ends joined under enormous pressure. It creates a bond as strong as the rail itself. Rail sections welded in this fashion go to make up the quarter-mile-long ribbons of steel being increasingly used to put down railway track that is stronger, smoother and easier to maintain.

In conventional jointed rail most of the wear that leads to the breakdown of rail surfaces and the need for replacement comes at the rail joints where the ends of rail sections are held together with joint bars. Remove the joints by welding the rail sections together and the occasion for most of the wear is also removed.

Jointed rail replaced by welded rail is brought in still bolted in quarter-mile strands. Bolts and joint bars are removed by automatic machinery and the rail separated into sections for straightening and for cropping the ends.

What is welded rail like in track? A passenger aboard one of Southern's trains senses it as a sudden change in the tempo of the train's passage when it moves into welded rail territory. The ride is much quieter. The rhythmic clickety-clack of the wheels crossing rail joints is gone-replaced by a single click clack at widely spaced intervals.

And what welded rail does for passenger comfort it does for everything that moves over the Southern. It helps give a smooth safe ride to the specially-designed equipment and heavy loads that are an important aspect of modern railroading.

Heart of the railway's rail-welding program is the complex of buildings, cranes, rail storage racks, roller conveyors and welding cars at Inman. Both new and used rail sections come here for welding into ribbon rail but the two kinds are not combined in the same 1,440-foot-long strand of rail.

Sighting along a rail section to locate any bends or kinks to be straightened by the four-way hydraulic press in the reclamation plant.

New rail shipped directly from the supplier in open top gondola cars is unloaded by huge electro-magnetic cranes directly to the storage racks in the yard. From here it moves by roller conveyor to the welding cars.

Whenever welded rail is installed in track, the jointed rail that it replaces is removed from the track-still bolted together in quarter-mile lengths-and returned to Atlanta on the same special rack cars that brought the welded rail to the installation site. On arrival at Inman the quarter-mile-long bolted strands are pulled from the rack cars and fed through a series of machines that automatically remove the nuts from the bolts holding the rail joints, vibrate the rail to shake the bolts and joint bars loose and collect the loosened fittings for possible re-use later.

The separated rail sections roll on remote-controlled conveyors to the reclamation plant. In the first stage all vertical or horizontal bends in the rail are removed in a tour-way hydraulic press. Then the old, worn rail end are cropped off to remove the bolt holes and the first and last rail sections for a 1,440-foot welded ribbon are drilled with new bolt holes for joining the strands of welded rail in the field.

Throughout the reclamation and welding process, rail that needs to be handled in bulk is moved with magnetic cranes.

(Any relay rail considered unsuitable for welding and re-use in the main track rail-laying program is drilled with new bolt holes and moved to a separate storage are for use in prefabricating panel track to construct yard tracks and industry sidings.)

From storage areas, rail sections for welding move along remote-controlled conveyors into one of the three permanently-located railroad cars. Each houses the equipment needed for electric welding of rail into continuous strands.

Sparks fly from the white-hot junction of rail ends as the two rails are brought together under tremendous pressure.

As a weld is made, the 45,000 to 50,000 amperes of electric current flow brings the rail ends to white heat. Fountains of sparks fly from the point where the rail ends join as up to 70 tons of pressure forces the heated rail ends to become literally one piece of metal. The resulting bead of hot metal around the joint is removed and the joint area smoothed with a grinding wheel.

Lengthening strands of ribbon rail from the three cars pass through an inspection house. Each weld is reground and examined with Magnaflux equipment to make sure that there are no cracks or imperfections. As another aid in quality control, an oscillograph measures electric current input, hydraulic pressure and rail travel during welding to record permanently these factors affecting the quality of each weld.

Still glowing, the excess bead of metal scraped from the weld is handled with tongs.

Ribbons of welded rail coming out of the inspection house are fed directly into the special rail train if one is ready on the siding, or into an adjoining storage rack. There are three of these Southern-designed-and-built trains, each consisting of 33 cars. Each carries enough ribbon rail (54 strands) for almost 7 1/2 miles of track, plus all the necessary tie plates, rail anchors, track spikes and other fittings. Each train can also be used to return the jointed track being replaced so that it, too, can be put through the reclamation and welding process.

Southern's rail-welding program began in a small way in 1958, and the first specially-designed rail train could put down only one strand of welded rail at a time.

In the inspection building, the second of two grindings smooths the area of the completed weld.

The following year the rail train was adapted to reel out two strands of welded rail simultaneously, and more than 200 track miles of welded rail were installed at locations around the System. In only two years since has the welded rail installation program dropped below 200 track miles and Southern now has more than 2,000 track miles of smooth-riding ribbon rail.

Like most of Southern's track maintenance, the installation of welded rail is carefully scheduled in advance. In the colder months, rail is laid on lines in the southern part of the System. During the warmer months the rail trains and rail-Iaying forces shift their attention to the northern part of the railway's lines.

Measuring the newly-joined rail sections for absolute alignment, a factor important to the smooth-riding qualities of the rail.

"Southern now buys new rail for welding and use on its System lines and affiliates in only two weights-132 pounds to the yard and 115 pounds to the yard. More than three-quarters of the rail used in Southern's welded ribbon rail has been of these two or very similar" weights. However, appreciable amounts of 100-pound and 90-pound relay rail have gone through the welding process and 5 miles of 70-pound rail have been welded and re-used.

Welded rail has proved itself in making railroading more efficient on the Southern. There's still a lot of work ahead in substituting it for jointed rail but every time a loaded rail train leaves the welding plant in Atlanta it represents a train load of progress in building a better Southern to serve customers better. .

As the three growing ribbons of rail emerge from the inspection building (one from each welding car).

They are loaded directly into one of the special rail trains which will transport the rail to the location where it is to be installed in track. If none of the three special rail trains is available for loading, the ribbons of rail are stored temporarily on a line of steel racks.