Rail Infrastructure and Equipment Repairs

Rail Infrastructure and Equipment Repairs

Railroads provide vital freight transportation services-carrying over two-fifths of domestic freight ton-miles each year [2]. Class I railroads1 maintained 169,069 miles of track in 2003, down 9 percent from 186,288 miles in 1993 [1]. Class I track mileage declined for many decades especially on lines with lower traffic, in part because ownership and maintenance is expensive.2 As such, rail companies have focused more on replacing worn rails and crossties than on laying new track.

Between 1993 and 2003, rail companies replaced an average of 705,400 tons of rail each year (figure 12-2). The yearly replacements, which can vary substantially because of the long life of rails, ranged from a high of 824,300 tons in 1993 to a low of 632,600 tons in 2003. Using the most common rail weight (130 to 139 lb per yard of rail), it would take approximately 240 tons (120 tons per rail) to cover one mile of track.

There was some growth in the amount of new rails added to the Class I system in the late 1990s as firms increased capacity to handle growing amounts of coal traffic and reconfigured their systems as a result of mergers. Over 200,000 tons of new rail were added both in 1998 and 1999, up from 19,000 in 1990. By 2003, additions were down to 139,400 tons. However, this was an increase of 11 percent over the tons of new rails added in 2002.

Railroads also replace crossties periodically to ensure the integrity of their tracks. Between 1993 and 2003, railroads replaced an average of 12.0 million crossties each year (figure 12-3). The yearly replacements ranged from a high of 13.4 million crossties in 1996 to a low of 10.4 million in 1998. There was some growth in the number of new crossties added to the Class I system in the late 1990s as firms increased capacity or reconfigured their systems. In 1998, 1.8 million new crossties were added; but by 2003, the number of new crossties added declined to the level seen a decade earlier.

Railroads also periodically replace or rebuild locomotives and freight cars. On average, new and rebuilt locomotives made up 4.4 percent of Class I railroad fleets between 1993 and 2003 (figure 12-4). However, the number of both locomotives and freight cars built and rebuilt reached a peak in 1998. There were, for instance, 49,921 fewer new and rebuilt cars in 2003 compared with 1998.


1. Association of American Railroads, Railroad Facts 2004 (Washington, DC: 2004), p. 48.

2. U.S. Department of Transportation, Research and Innovative Technology Administration, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, and U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Census Bureau, 2002 Economic Census, Transportation, 2002 Commodity Flow Survey (Washington, DC: December 2004), table 2a.

1 Class I railroads, as defined by the Surface Transportation Board are, rail companies with annual operating revenues of $277.7 million or more in 2003.

2 Some Class I railroad trackage was sold to smaller railroads rather than being totally abandoned.