Friday, February 6, 2015

Another of life's little mysteries

Just how many old railroad ties are there?

Yesterday the S.O. and I happened to be heading home just as the CN freight train decided to start backing up from a railroad crossing. You can't see it in the photo, but the exposed rail stops before it actually gets to the crossing -- the train had gotten that far in heading down the hill to L'Anse before the engineer decided for some reason to throw it into reverse. Did he suddenly remember he'd forgotten to pick up his mandatory four empty cars at Nestoria and decided to back up to get them? Maybe he noticed brake pressure wasn't what it should be and decided to back up to Summit Siding to drop off a few loaded cars?

But why he decided to start back up isn't what intrigues me in looking at the photo. It's all those gondolas. He's heading downhill so that means every one of those cars is loaded with old railroad ties. He's hauling them to the J. H. Warden Generating Station in L'Anse. The powerplant converted to burning biomass a few years ago. Ever since then, it's been receiving gondolas full of old railroad ties that get shredded and burnt. The Warden plant also burns a lot of raw wood chips, which is what I think most people assumed would be its primary fuel source when the plant went through the conversion process. You know, when someone says "biomass" you don't anticipate getting to live with the smell of burning creosote.

Anyway, when a friend who lives in town was complaining about the plant's odor problems a year or two ago, I made comforting noises and said, "Don't worry. Sooner or later they'll run out of old railroad ties." Now I'm beginning to wonder. We see these long, long trains heading down the hill full of old railroad ties on an almost daily basis. The woodyard for the Warden plant has mountains of them. And they keep coming. Just how endless is the supply? It's a mystery.

As for the mandatory four empty cars, they're to supply more braking power. It's a continuous grade from Summit down to L'Anse, including the section in the photo -- it looks flat, but it's not. It's sloping. And not much farther along, it slopes a lot more, up to 3.5 percent, which is pretty steep for a railroad grade. The train is actually sitting right about at the point where 50-some years ago another freight, one that was going uphill, ran out of power, couldn't get the brakes to hold, and started rolling backwards. End result?


  1. I suppose RR ties are made with coal-tar creosote (as opposed to wood-tar). It seems insane to burn them.

  2. There will be no shortage of cross-ties for 30 years even if they are replacing them with concrete. I am surprised they are allowed to burn them without scrubbers to take the creosote out of them. That stuff is dangerous.


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