General Question

toaster's avatar

What happens with abandoned railroad scrap?

Asked by toaster (527 points ) October 6th, 2012

Seeing tracks torn out of abandoned railroads got me to wondering.. When a railroad gets torn out, what happens to the materials such as the rail, ties, miscellaneous hardware? Is it stored and possibly reused, or totally melted down in most cases?

P.S. Is there any estimates of the extent (miles) of abandoned railroad lines in America/Canada? Thanks.

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8 Answers

DrBill's avatar

When they took up the tracks on the backside of my property, I got the land, they took the rails for recycling, the ties were free for the taking by anyone who wanted them.

toaster's avatar

Thanks for commenting, and very interesting. Thanks.

rooeytoo's avatar

Years ago I bought old railroad ties at a lumber yard to use as landscaping timbers. So the ties or sleepers are around, I don’t know about the rail.

marinelife's avatar

“Thousands of miles of railroads have been abandoned in the United States, much of it in the last 40 years.”

You might want to check out abandonedrails.com.

CWOTUS's avatar

Rails and scrap metal in general, and nearly always in the quantities that are discussed here, are usually recycled if the market is right for that. That is, “torn up” rails will be recycled, since the labor to recover them is the expensive part of the effort. After that labor is expended, it would be foolish not to collect them and sell them as scrap metal, since they do have value. (But that value is usually not enough to pay for the effort to pull them up, at least in Western economies. The scrap metal vs. labor valuations may be different in other parts of the world.) Some railways are simply abandoned as being uneconomic for rail traffic, and not worth the labor to tear up and sell the rails.

Ties will generally only be recovered when the whole rail line is being turned over, such as in New England where there are a lot of “rails to trails” bike trails. You can’t very will bicycle over railroad ties, so they have to be dug up. Those don’t have a lot of economic value, except there will always be uses for timbers of that size in good condition. They often go to make landscaping steps, berms, retaining walls, etc. in parks and in other places, including shoring up eroding parts of the same or other trails.

gailcalled's avatar

Years ago, when I first moved to my present home, my then husband gave me a little landscaped garden as a birthday present. The gardeners used railroad ties; I still have them. The only damage has been done by the snow plow that flings them around. in the spring I have them returned to their proper place. The wood was treated, I am sure.

gasman's avatar

Wooden railroad ties are treated with creosote to prevent decay, which often gives train yards a characteristic smell. The ties are not suitable for burning but are used for landscaping as noted already. Today railroad ties are usually concrete.

toaster's avatar

Thank you all for the information and very good link @marinelife. Truly it saddens me some to see these artifacts on industry destroyed and I don’t think I speak alone. Fortunately freight rail transportation still comprises ~⅓ of all freight traffic in this country, which for instance dwarfs Europe’s usage by a 10 to 1 margin. And the prospects are very good for the industry as billions of R&D have been pumped in (“green locomotives”) and many ads softening the harsh image of noxious spewing chimneys on wheels.. IMO Id love to see a majority shift to rail at least to ease interstate/freeway congestion.

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