Crossties—A primer… Part 1

Brad Crawford, Quality Assurance Director, Stella-Jones Corporation

In the last two issues of this magazine, Curt Hassler did an excellent job of showing the economics of choosing to cut crossties over other products. His research and breakdown of market conditions demonstrated that crossties are always a clever idea in any market. But is there enough demand to ensure that hardwoods sawmills can saw ties and have a market to sell them to? In this article, I am going to share some basic information about the track infrastructure, who owns it, the economic impact, and demonstrate that wood is now and will remain king. This will be a four-part series with future topics being: Why Grade Ties and Crosstie Function in Track, Inspection of Crossties and How Bucking Impacts Tie Grade, and finally, Treating Crossties and End of Life.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) there are currently 140,000 route miles of tracks in the U.S. alone. When you add the over 30,000 miles in Canada and the nearly 9,000 miles in Mexico there are a total of over 179,000 route miles of railroad in North America. We know not all tracks are equal. There are actually nine classifications of track.

Based on the classification of track there is a minimum number of “Non-Defective Ties” in every 39′ segment, which is sufficient to: hold gauge, maintain surface, and maintain line. So, what does this mean to the hardwood industry? The six Class I Railroads, 22 Regional Railroads, and 584 Short Line Railroads need good ties to operate safely, efficiently, and effectively. According to the Railway Tie Association wood crossties currently make up 93%+ of the ties in track. This is a number that remains steady and even goes up slightly depending on the year. For reference, approximately 6.5% of ties are concrete and the remaining less than 0.5% are mostly steel with a very small percentage being composite or other materials. Ultimately, the wooden crosstie is the backbone of the American economy. Without freight railroads the infrastructure would completely fail.

In an open records request to the FRA/DOT published on 4/25/23, they say there is 23 million ties annually installed in track. Some of these ties are relays, or a tie that has been removed for a reason and then is reinserted. This number also includes concrete, steel, and other tie materials. The RTA shows that last year 19 million wooden ties were cut. This is slightly down from the high-water mark of 26 million ties cut in 2015. The majority of these ties are cut for routine maintenance. An estimated less than 10% are used annually to build new track. This is generally extending existing passing or sidetracks or building a new spur into an industrial site. This brings us to the next question that everyone asks, how long does a tie last? The simple answer is to take the 500 million ties and divide that number by the 19 million that are cut each year which gives you an average of 26 years; however, that is not the reality. The American Wood Preservation Association (AWPA) has a published decay zone map. Wooden ties are subjugated to a variety of environmental factors. The higher the deterioration zone number the more environmental impacts that tie has to overcome. In addition to this there are physical demands on the ties. How much weight, at what speed, and at what curvature and incline or decline there is in the track all play a role. Ties on slower tracks in lower deterioration zones on tangent tracks will last longer than ties along the gulf coast. The railroads can extend the life of their ties by maintaining clean ballast, ensuring water can be drained appropriately.

Woodend ties are the backbone of the railroad. Each railroad is made up of majority wooden ties. All other tie materials are trying to imitate wood. Concrete uses tie pads to help give them the flexibility that wood has naturally, steel has to have good clean ballast, which is completely filling the inside of the tie, or they split, wood can withstand poor ballast. At the end of the day the railroad needs to run fright to make money. This means they need good ties to run on, 19 million annually. Hardwoods are vital to the sustainability of the railroads, and thus the American economy. This was very clearly seen during the COVID pandemic, when the AAR, FRA, DOT, and other government organizations deemed that hardwood sawmills were essential businesses. They had to keep running to keep the railroads running.

It is my hope that you find this enlightening and encouraging. We need good wooden crossties to maintain track. We need a steady supply chain from hardwood loggers to the sawmills to treating companies for this to be accomplished. As in most industries, communication is essential. My goal is to share information and be encouraging at the same time. Wood is not going anywhere. The railroads are keenly aware of this fact. As Environmental Social Governance (ESG) continue to be more dominant topic for all companies, the story that wood provides can’t be beat. Wood is sustainable, carbon sequestering, and recyclable at the end of life. The full lifecycle from cradle to grave is sustainable. Concrete and steel can’t claim all of those things. The hardwood markets are changing. Demands for hardwood products are changing, but the silver lining is that our industry is resilient, our people are resilient, and we face challenges head on. Wooden structures are becoming more popular every day. The expansion of wood products being used for building warehouses, homes, and multi-level building will continue. While the tie market is the strongest right now, it will change. The information about the economics of cutting ties along with these articles should give everyone hope. As a forester, I will always choose wood, and share the story of how wood is superior to other materials to keep America running!