All About Work Trains

A Penn Central wire train with ex-PRR equipment. Locomotive 7838 heads up a tool & riding car, followed by a tower car (normally there are two), and a cable reel gondola. The train was waiting to inspect and make catenary repairs at a wreck site in Middletown, Pennsylvania, on July 28, 1973. Author's collection.
As it was in the old days: a work train comprising a couple of old flat cars to serve as carry-alls. Climax locomotive 3 powers a work train on the Elk River Coal & Lumber Company railroad in West Virginia. Data is unfortunately lacking for this shot, but the date is probably during the early 1950s. Photo by J. Krause.
A slightly more sophisticated work train on the Meadow River Lumber Company's railroad near Rainelle, West Virginia. An old log loader, possibly a Marion, is equipped with a clamshell bucket and runs on a short flat car, while a C&O flat car serves as an idler car, and an old wooden gondola carries the "spoil". The engine is Heisler 3. Again, there is no accurate data for this scene. Photo by B. J. Kern.
A ballast train on the Bangor & Aroostook, comprising a long string of flat cars with side-mounted brake wheels, and a Lidgerwood Ballast Unloader, seen just ahead of the engine. After the retirement of steam, the Lidgerwoods (there were two on the BAR) were also retired, and the ballast was unloaded with a four-wheeled tractor pushing a snowplow along the cars. The same train was used to dump snow cleared from yards into the rivers during the long Maine winters. Taken at Millinocket, Maine, on May 30, 1949. Photo by A. A. Sharp.
Another Lidgerwood-equipped ballast train, seen on the Canadian Pacific somewhere in Manitoba in July, 1960. In this train, Hart Convertible Gondolas carried the ballast, which was forced out through the side doors by the plow. The train has just been unloaded, and the plow can be seen at the front end of the car nearest the unloader. Next the train will run up past the unloaded ballast, and the Jordan spreader seen on the right will gather it in between the rails and spread it evenly. Photo by John C. La Rue, Jr..
A good close look at Western Pacific Railroad Lidgerwood 17 (here misspelled "Ledgerwood"). It was basically a steam donkey engine, receiving steam via a flexible steam hose connected to a valve on the locomotive boiler. As it is not in service, no ballast plow is visible. Most Lidgerwoods were smaller and lower; in fact the bull gear often extended through a hole in the car floor. Again there is no data for this photograph, except that the car was last repacked in 1949. Photo by J. Hammond.
A Hart Convertible Gondola on the Detroit, Toledo & Ironton Railroad. This one is a little higher then usual. Side doors, hinged at the top, are clearly visible, and there were doors in the floor as well. The car appears to contain bridge timbers and may be attached to the road's pile driver outfit. Taken at Bainbridge, Ohio, in July, 1955. Photo by P. Dunn.
Union Pacific ballast car 901099 was virtually new, having been built by Pacific Car & Foundry in June, 1976. The discharge chutes are visible just inside the trucks at either end. Car photographed at Council Bluffs, Iowa, on October 16, 1976. Photo by G. R. Cockle.
A small Conrail tie train with the type of car that became common in the 1960s. Freshly creosoted wooden ties are nasty things to handle, as they can ignite spontaneously if not well ventilated, the creosote itself can cause burns on the skin, and it is a known carcinogen as well. A front end loader, working from the ground, with a pair of chains hanging from the bucket, was used to unload this train. At Riverside, New Jersey, on March 23, 1978. Photo by John C. La Rue, Jr..
The Delaware & Hudson Railroad pioneered the use of continuous welded rail and laid its first experimental sections in 1946. Here is their CWR train, consisting of gondolas with the ends removed and supporting racks installed in the middle. No machinery to draw out the rails can be seen, and either the car carrying it is absent, or the method is to secure the near end of a rail on the ground, perhaps with a bulldozer, and unload the rail by pulling the train away. Taken at Carbondale, Pennsylvania, on August 14, 1976. Photo by John C. La Rue, Jr..
An early Illinois Central ditcher, X8001, is posed with its operating crew about 1912, copied by C. W. Witbeck from an old photograph. The bucket is positioned and dragged by the wooden beams. The near one, with the "ship's wheel" capstan, adjusts the angle of attack of the bucket, and also empties it.
A Chesapeake & Ohio ditching train. From left to right: Locomotive 6095, dump car AD35, flat car X2080 with crane D33, dump car AD36, caboose 3519, and Jordan spreader BS3. This consist is typical of trains used for drainage ditch maintenance, and also for building embankments and fills. This scene is at Marion, Indiana, on August 25, 1970. Photo by L. L. Davis.
A close view of an American Steam Ditcher in virtually as-built, if slightly battered, condition. Gulf Mobile & Ohio 66376 was found in this state at Meridian, Mississippi, on February 21, 1965. Note that the shovel chassis is chained to the flat car to prevent it from shifting in transit. Such a machine could be used as a crane by removing the dipper arm, and in fact nearly all the last surviving ditchers were so operated. Photo by John C. La Rue, Jr..
A typical crawler crane on a flatcar, which replaced the old American Ditchers. Reading crane R830 rests on its carrier car, 96610, at the Lehigh Street yards in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on December 28, 1974. Photo by John C. La Rue, Jr..
A good view of Fort Worth & Denver Railway's Jordan spreader A21, 48 years old when this picture was taken, and virtually unchanged except for the addition of an air compressor on the front deck. Jordans took the compressed air to operate them from the train brake air line, storing it in the large cylindrical tank on the rear deck. It was found that time was lost while recharging the tank from this source, so most Jordans eventually acquired air compressors. Taken at Childress, Texas, on April 29, 1969. Photo by John C. La Rue, Jr..
A Jordan spreader in action, in this case, Penn Central #60038. It is cutting what appears to be an access road alongside the track west of Niles, Michigan, on June 25, 1974; Photo by J. Stromback.
A Penn Central work train waiting to move in and work on the track at a wreck site in Pennsauken, New Jersey, on December 2, 1969. All the equipment in this train is still lettered for the predecessor railroads. From left to right: PRR locomotive 7964, PRR carrier car 491100 with crane, P&LE hopper 3548, two PRR gondolas (the second one loaded with track panels), two PRR ballast hoppers, and PRR caboose 477367. Photo by John C. La Rue, Jr..
At first glance a wire train, this train on the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad is actually used to paint the catenary wires. Behind 2-6-0 number 364 is a tool car, followed by an old coach used as a riding car for the painters, followed by scaffold cars. As the end of the train is "off the picture", it is not known if it has a caboose. Taken in Stamford, Connecticut, in April, 1936, photographer unknown.
An early Pennsylvania Railroad ballast cleaning train, photographed somewhere on the New York division in 1933. These trains had to move slowly, but precisely, and could not be spotted by a locomotive, so the locomotive and tender ran up ahead of the parked train, paying out a cable attached to the reel on the near end of the first car. The locomotive then stopped, acting as an anchor, while the train was gradually drawn forward by the electrically-powered reel. Photo by W.R. Osborne.
A modern rail grinder train operated by Loram. The train is self-propelled by on-board generators. The grinding operation produces prodigious showers of sparks, so the last three cars on the train are two water tank cars and a fire-fighting car equipped with hoses and a turret nozzle. Photographer unknown.
A pile driver work train on the narrow gauge lines of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad. Pile driver "OB" is an old-fashioned type with a drop hammer and no boiler of its own, receiving steam from the locomotive via a flexible hose. "OB" still exists and is preserved on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. Taken near Amargo, New Mexico, on November 18, 1949, probably by R. W. Richardson.
A wreck train on the Lehigh & New England Railroad during the line's last months of operation. Left to right: Two Alco FA diesels, a caboose, crew car 758, tie car 719, truck car 728, tool car 661, idler car 730, and wrecker 700, a 150-ton Industrial Works product. Taken near Portland, Pennsylvania, in the Spring of 1961 by J. Krause.
A Conrail extra movement bringing a tie replacement gang's cars into Burlington, New Jersey, on August 23, 1985. When it was planned to rebuild the former PRSL line to Atlantic City via the Delair Bridge for the "Gambler's Express" trains, Conrail began to upgrade the onetime Camden & Amboy line between Camden and Trenton. The upgrade allowed the track to handle more then the single local train it had seen in recent years, and much tie replacement, surfacing, and rail replacement by CWR was done. Today, this same line is being rebuilt again for passenger service. Photo by John C. La Rue, Jr..

Article by John C. La Rue, Jr./Photos by the author, except where noted.
Originally published September 2002

Work trains are probably one of the least noticed and understood kinds of trains, especially by model railroaders. They are to some extent misled by manufacturers, who tend to base their philosophies on individual car kits, without a clear understanding of just how and why the cars they manufacture are used.

What cars are used in work trains? First, of course, you need a locomotive, perhaps more then one if the train is long and heavy. But the consist is determined by the nature of the work the train will do. It is difficult to be too specific, because the exact consist will be dictated by many different factors. The work required,the equipment available to do the work, the manpower available, union rules, company practice, and even the ingenuity of the foreman, are some of the factors that determine what follows the locomotive (or, in many cases, is pushed ahead of it!).

Early Equipment
Back in the middle 1800s, a work train usually consisted of an old locomotive, a string of flat cars (called “platform cars” then), and a large gang of men. Everything was carried on the flatcars: ties, rails, hardware, or ballast as needed, plus the men and the tools. This type of train was still seen until recently on short lines and logging railroads, and may not have completely disappeared yet.

Probably the first change was the addition of a tool car, which provided shelter and a place to store the tools. Some early tool cars had a cupola and thus resembled large cabooses. In the 1870s and 1880s other types of work equipment appeared, such as pile drivers, derricks, snowplows, flangers, spreaders, ditchers, and dump cars. With the advent of all this specialized equipment, work trains were now taking on a different personality and purpose.

Often a work train of the 1880s consisted of just the machine and the locomotive, as cabooses were still too scarce to warrant using one on what many managers saw as unnecessary service. As the years went by, it became common practice to attach a caboose, and/or a tool car, to the train. An extra water car was frequently attached to pile driver trains to reduce the number of times the train had to be backed to the nearest water tank.

Ballast Cars
In the early days, ballast was distributed by shoveling the ballast onto flat cars, then shoveling it off again at the work site. This was speeded up by the invention of the Lidgerwood Ballast Unloader, which pulled a cast iron plow along the car tops to unload the ballast quickly. Around 1900, cars designed especially to distribute ballast appeared. The most common make, the Rodger Hart Convertible gondola, had doors in the floor of the car as well as in the sides, allowing the load to be dumped either outside the rails or between the rails. An important selling point was that the cars could be used in general freight service as well as maintenance of way.

Ordinary hopper cars made unsatisfactory ballast cars because it was difficult to control the unloading process. Eventually special ballast doors, which could be retrofitted to hopper cars, were invented to control the rate and location of the flow. Some ballast cars were built new with such doors, but most of the ballast cars in service today are converted from old hopper or covered hopper cars by the application of these special doors.

Having unloaded the ballast, the next task was to spread it evenly, prior to tamping. In the early years, this was done by men with shovels. Then a special ballast spreading car was offered by Rodger. This was simply a flat car with one or two manually adjustable, v-shaped blades that slid along the rail tops. A slightly better way was to use a flanger, provided that it had a full-width blade, because it spread the ballast low enough to prevent it from possibly derailing a train. Then came the Jordan spreader. The earliest models had only wings on each side, but one of the first improvements was an air-operated flanger blade at the front end. Later Jordans had ballast pockets which could be attached to the wings to keep the ballast close to the track, where it was wanted. Today, one still occasionally sees the Jordan, though it is more common to see the ballast train followed by one or more self-propelled ballast regulators, which do the same work at less cost.

Ditch Diggers and Excavators
Another common type of work train was intended to dig and maintain trackside drainage ditches. The earliest ditching trains used a car with a swinging framework, adjusted by hand, which positioned a toothed, open-ended bucket alongside the track to excavate the ditch as the car was pushed along. This method had many obvious faults. One solution was the steam ditcher, a small steam shovel mounted on flanged rollers running on doubled rails on a flat car. The earliest examples seem to have been made by the Erie Shovel Company, but most of them were built by American Hoist & Derrick, and they were familiarly know as “American Ditchers”.

In this type of work train, one or more ditchers on their cars were each coupled between a pair of dump cars, which were loaded with the excavated material. The same consist was used to build fills. A fill usually began as a wooden trestle over a ravine or other low spot, which was gradually filled in by digging earth out of a nearby cut, then dumping it off the trestle to fill up the gap until the trestle became superfluous. A water car was often added to the consist and the water poured onto the dumped dirt to expedite the settling process.

The ditcher’s hayday was brief, because after WWI the makers of power excavators for construction work began to mount them on caterpillar tracks, and they quickly became accepted for use in work trains. They were far more flexible then the old steam ditchers because they could be quickly changed to serve as either excavators or cranes, nor were they confined to specially reinforced and dedicated cars, but could move along a train of flat cars (or gondolas, or even dump cars with drop ends), loading or unloading as they went. Because of this flexibility, they reduced the number of times the work train had to be stopped. And if necessary, they could be unloaded from their cars and moved away from the tracks to work on projects outside the reach of a car-mounted machine.

While such excavators continued to dig drainage ditches with clamshell buckets, the Jordan spreader could also dig drainage ditches, using a retractable extension built into the spreader wing. In practice, the spreader was frequently used to accurately shape the ditch profile after the rough work had been done by the excavator.

Rail Cranes
Most of the excavators saw far more service as cranes then they did as excavators. A very common type of work train was used to support track renewal, and its center was the crawler crane on its flat car. The other cars were either flat cars or drop-end gondolas, and at the work site the crawler crane moved along from car to car, unloading new rails and their associated hardware (if the rails were being replaced) or bundles of ties (if the ties were being renewed). After the work was completed, the same train was used to pick up the used material, either for reuse or scrap.

Locomotive cranes were not often used in work trains, since their self-propelling capabilities were wasted, and as the cranes could not move independently of the train, the train had to be frequently moved as the work progressed. When a locomotive crane was used in a work train, it was usually either because nothing else was available, or because the loads to be handled were unusually heavy, and as a crane on a flatcar tended to be unstable, greater safety was obtained with a locomotive crane.

Moving Rails and Ties
Standard mainline rail used to come in 39-foot lengths that were bolted together. The 39-foot length allowed the rail to be easily transported within a 40-foot gondola or flatcar. Quarter-mile sections of continuous welded rail (CWR) are the norm these days. The rails are handled on trains of special flat cars with special supports for the rails, and an unloader car at one end. The unloader draws the rails out with powered rollers and deposits them along the right of way.

Ties are now often carried in specially designed tie cars, sometimes with a matching crane that moves along the tops of the cars to unload the new ties, individually or in small bunches, where they are to replace old ties. These cranes have retractable booms with clamps to grasp the tie, thus enabling the crane to accurately place it anywhere with the boom radius.

Specialized Equipment and Contractors's Trains
So far I have discussed work trains that are railroad owned and operated, but there are other types that were, and occasionally still are, seen along our nation’s railroads. One is the ballast cleaning train, which was pioneered by the Pennsylvania Railroad in association with Industrial Brownhoist. This was a train equipped with machinery to pick up ballast from just outside the ties, screen it to remove dirt, sand, and other impurities, and redeposit it between the rails. Then, it would be tamped, forcing the fouled ballast inside the rails out toward the ends of the ties, where it could be cleaned on subsequent passes. The same sort of work is accomplished today more efficiently by ballast undercutters.

Only the largest railroads could afford to run such expensive and complicated equipment, which is why private contractors have taken over many sectors of rail maintenance. The railroad provides the locomotive and the engineer; the contractor supplies the rest. Many smaller ballast cleaners are self-propelled and do not need a locomotive.

Another contractor train is the rail grinder, which again is often either self-propelled or has its own locomotive. These trains lengthen the life of rails by restoring the tops to the correct profile for the easiest movement of rolling stock over them…a far cheaper method then replacing the rail, especially CWR.

Then there are the weed spray trains. In these trains the weed spray car always leads, followed by tank cars full of weed killer and water, which can be mixed to the proper proportions and distributed along the tracks. This was one of the first types of train to be built and operated by contractors, though some large railroads still have their own trains. Growing concerns over the widespread distribution of poisonous chemicals in the environment are causing them to be replaced by weed burners and rotary track mowers.

Another common type of work extra, already touched on above, is used to move a machine to the work site and operate it there, be it a pile driver, Jordan spreader, snowplow, flanger, derrick, or whatever. The simplest consist is simply a locomotive pushing the machine. Often a caboose will be included, and perhaps a tool car if the crew is large or supplies and tools are needed at the work site. The actual consist may be augmented by other cars as needed. As previously noted, a pile driver train often included an extra water car.

Snow Fighting Equipment
A snowplow, especially a rotary, might be out for days clearing the tracks after a severe blizzard, and thus a camp car or two was often included in the consist to give relief crews a place to sleep and eat. Occasionally the camp cars were specifically assigned to the plow train. Plow trains often included a flanger in the consist to clear the flangeways inside the railheads, especially if the snowplow was neither a Rotary nor a Russell, both of which had their own flanger blades.

Fire Fighting Eqiupment
One type of emergency train that was seen mostly in the far west was the Fire Train. The best-known ones were operated by the Southern Pacific to protect the wooden snowsheds on its line over the Sierras, but other railroads in the Pacific northwest also maintained fire cars and sometimes whole trains to protect railroad property during forest fires. Fire cars were also occasionally found in large passenger or freight yards where municipal fire engines could not easily go. A typical fire train would include several water cars, each equipped with a pump and hose on a reel.

Wire Trains
Another type of work extra was seen only on heavy electric railroads: the wire train, used for maintenance and repair of the catenary. The most common cars in the consist were a car fitted with racks to hold the heavy reels of wire that were used to form the catenary; one or two “tower cars” with adjustable-height platforms to lift the men up close to the work; and a tool and/or riding car. The day-to-day consist of a wire train seldom varied.

Wreck Trains
Another type of work extra whose consist seldom varied is the much-modeled wreck train. This is a work train specifically designed and equipped to clear wrecks. Unlike other work trains, it runs at the behest of the Operating Department, and is crewed by men from the Motive Power and Equipment department. In the earlier days, it was common to see wrecking derricks used in the placement of plate girders on bridges, since they were the only cranes available with the necessary capacity, and occasionally the train might be called out for some other heavy lift. The operating department was never happy at the thought of the wreck train being thus tied up when a major derailment occurred, however, and on larger railroads special cranes were used to build bridges.

In the early days, jacks, wooden beams, ropes, tools, supplies and men were probably piled aboard whatever cars were available and trundled out to the wreck site. As wrecks became more common, it become obvious that time could be saved by collecting all the necessary tools and storing them in one car. That way, everything was ready to go when the word arrived.

The advent of the wrecking derrick greatly increased the speed with which the line could be cleared, but it meant that an additional car had to be included to accommodate the boom overhang. These so-called "crane tenders" provided a good place to store extra trucks (to be placed under derailed cars whose own trucks had been destroyed), and other tools and materials. As wrecks became bigger and took longer to clear, it became common to include "camp cars" to provide food and a sleeping place for the men. As wrecking derricks became larger, so many tools and materials were required that a second tool car (sometimes called a “cable car” or “block car”) was added to the train. When small gasoline-powered generators came into use, one was often installed in a tool car, along with portable electric lights, to illuminate the wreck site at night.

Then it was found that it was quicker to rebuild destroyed track if the materials were handy, so rails and ties, often carried on their own car, were included in the list of materials. In the 1960s, rail & tie cars were supplemented or replaced by “track panel cars”, flatcars or gondolas loaded with pre-assembled track sections, like those used in model railroading.

Because fires often broke out in derailed trains, a water car and perhaps an additional car with pumps and chemicals were added to the growing consist. An old locomotive tender was often on hand to supply additional coal and water for the wrecker, and this frequently doubled as the fire car.

The simplest wreck train consist was just the wrecker and an idler car, which is what is most often seen on a model railroad. Such a consist was prototypical on terminal or switching railroads, or alongside a full-sized wreck train in a major yard, where it was called out to cope with minor yard derailments in place of the big train. Some “yard wreckers” consisted of only a tool car.

With a few exceptions, wreck trains have been replaced by wrecking contractors using rubber-tired hi-capacity cranes and riggers. Railroad-owned hi-rail cranes are still seen at large yards to deal with minor derailments.

Camp Cars
Camp cars were not often seen in work trains except when they were being moved to a new site. One reason was that the constant starting and stopping of work trains was apt to upset and break things, such as dishes, in the camp cars. Before camp cars were moved, water tanks in them had to be drained, and fragile objects carefully packed and secured. Camp cars were usually coupled at the rear ends of freight trains, because the cars were often old and could not withstand the drawbar stresses if coupled further forward, but slack action often resulted in rough handling. In recent years, the practice has been to order a special train to move camp cars by themselves.

Inspection Trains
One type of work extra was seen only occasionally: the inspection train. At least once annually, railroad officials toured the line to inspect the condition of the property, especially the right of way. In the early days some railroads employed a special type of enclosed locomotive called an Inspection Locomotive. It looked like a steam engine with a small coach built around (which is essentially what it was). Later on, Inspection Cars were used instead, and a few are still in service.

Today, inspection trains usually include some sort of observation or "theatre" car for executives and their guests to observe the right of way. These are usually homebuilt cars that have a large rear plate glass window, and tiered seating rising up like a theatre. Also included in the consist may be some track inspection cars that use and electromagnetic field to test for hidden defects in the rails. Depending on the length of the trip, there might also be dining cars, pullman cars, and a support/tool car equipped with a generators to provide lights and heat to the rest of the train. The locomotive pulling the train may be a shiny E or F unit preserved from days past, or a regular GP40 pulled from the ready track.

A type of inspection train seen on mountain railroads was the tunnel train. This used a tunnel inspection car, usually a flat car with a lightly built elevated platform on it, similar to a wire train tower car, to bring inspectors close to the tunnel roof, where they could check for signs of impending collapse. There were usually several empty cars placed between the scaffold car and the locomotive to reduce the concentration of smoke or exhaust gases around the former.

This concludes the brief discussion of work trains. See the pictures for some examples. The reader will note that I have left out mention of self-propelled work equipment, since these are not, in the strict meaning of the term, “trains”.