Kevin’s Komments 07/07/2023


Sorry about the four week interlude since the last set of pics – this was a tough research project

The club has been moving forward with our new project:  Building some experimental modules for the “next” Cincinnati Northern model railroad layout.  As we approach a date where track will be laid on a few of the early test modules, Monty posed a question to me:  In the past we’ve followed a general rule in ballasting passing sidings slightly darker than the limestone ballasted mainline.  Monty said he had been looking and found no discernable difference in ballast between mainline and passing sidings in the pics and personal experiences he observed.  So his question is, “Was it a prototypical practice in the ‘50s to ballast passing sidings differently than the mainline?”

The modern rule of thumb for ballasting track is that it requires a certain range of stone size and general consistency.  But after meeting these basic requirements, you purchase the cheapest stone available in lots needed for the track work.  Part of the cost issue usually points towards local sources since transportation can add significantly to cost.  So being in a “limestone” area, we would look towards the light gray limestone typically found in local quarries.  Another significant point is that the color of stone will change both with the vein color and the specific location of the quarry.  So while the ballast used a few years back may be a very light gray color, the available “cheap” stone today, may be a slightly darker gray.  Or, maybe it has a tinge orange or brown in it.  The bottom line is that the track ballast color may change abruptly where the ballasting a few years back meets the recently re-ballasted track.

Furthermore, I saw a great quote (from which I’m unable now to locate the source) that the difference between mainline and passing siding tracks is often only the use of or the weathering of the track.  Mainlines are generally well kept, while passing sidings may be less maintained.  Mainlines must support the bulk of the traffic usually at train travel speeds, while the passing sidings typically see low speed trains only as they pull off the main for a meet.

Here’s a perfect example of modern ballasting:  Northbound L&N at Worthville, KY on May 19th, 1979.  Photo by John F. Bjorklund, Center for Railroad Photography and Art.  The right track seems to be better maintained.  Yet in the foreground, the right track has a splash of brown colored ballast outside the right rail.  There’s also an area around the near turnout where it looks like ballast has been dumped, or pushed into piles by a spreader.  The track to the left looks just a little more unkept.  Though the ballast type does not look different, there’s some streaks and a slight spottiness to the spreading.

We see similar ballast on this pic of a Southbound Seaboard freight in Louisville, KY, in 1985. Again, photo by John F. Bjorklund, Center for Railroad Photography and Art. The middle track is clean with evenly spread ballast. The tracks to either side have the same ballast, but appear just slightly less even. The two tracks to the right have some dark ballast between the rails in the immediate foreground. Possibly coal trains run on these two tracks and occasionally dump a few coal lumps. So while the center track is the best appearing, I’m not sure which tracks are mainline tracks and whether any of these are passing sidings.

I found this great summary of model layout ballasting taken from “Ask MR:  What kind of ballast should I use?”

“The primary factors behind prototype railroads’ ballast choices were – after suitability for the purpose, of course – convenience and cost. What ballast can the railroad get most easily and inexpensively? How convenient is the quarry to the rail line and can it produce enough for the railroad’s needs? How far would the ballast have to be hauled to get to where it’s needed? For these reasons, the ballast you use should at least somewhat resemble the stone seen in rock outcroppings on your layout: granite in the Northeast, limestone or quartzite in the Appalachians and Midwest, limestone or dolomite in the West.”

“Another consideration, though a lesser one, is how heavily the line will be used. A main line will be more heavily ballasted and more often maintained, which means its ballast should be lighter in color (less weathered) than a branch line, passing track, or industrial spur. A yard or lightly used secondary line would have thinner ballast, a lower profile, and more weathering. Some yard or service tracks might be ballasted with cinders or even just dirt.”

“Whatever color of ballast you choose, don’t feel you have to stick with that color throughout your whole layout; track constructed or rebuilt at different times could have received ballast from different sources, so short patches or even long stretches of different color ballast are prototypical.”

This photo shows BNSF #6605 leading a train of covered hoppers down a two track mainline with a passing track or siding on the left.  The ballast is darker – possibly because of easy access to granite quarries.  Track maintenance appears to be occurring as ties litter the outside of the two track main.  There’s three gondolas set out on the siding.  There’s marks on the track ties that appear to show which ties require replacements.  The siding track has identical ballast to the mainline, but there is slight weathering differences.  When you blow up the pic, there’s a bit more rust leached into the ballast around the rails on the siding

Caption reads, “Construction has been completed on a new passing siding and bridge on the North Carolina Railroad Company (NCRR) corridor near the Lenoir-Wayne County line. (2015)” I’m not sure which is the passing siding, but I’m guessing the left track is the siding. The slight cut on the left is much smoother and appears fresher, and the track and roadbed on the left is very precise. Notice the rust leaching into the ballast on both tracks. The slightly darker ballast is on what appears to be the mainline.

Photo caption, “On single-track lines, trains use passing sidings to pass one another. One Canadian Pacific Railway train waits on a siding while a second train passes.”  For most of these pics, it’s difficult to identify a mainline with a passing siding from a two track mainline.  In this photo, we’re told one is a mainline, and one is a passing siding.  So which is which?  From a ballast standpoint, Monty hit the mark.  It looks like the left track may be a few inches higher than the right track.  That would leave us to believe the left track is the main.  But, from reading about the surveying of track, the engineers would typically make parallel tracks level regardless of usage (unless the contours of the landscape forced one to be higher).  So why do we often see mainlines a few inches higher?  After heavy use, ballast begins to grind down.  The net result is fine powder that builds up in the roadbed.  As the ground stone builds up, the roadbed begins to loose some of it’s drainage qualities.

Here’s a modern ballast cleaner. This machine sucks up the “dirty” ballast, sifts the powder from the usable ballast stone, and then replaces the ballast. You can see the chute in the front discarding the powder and fine stone off to one side.

There’s been different forms of ballast cleaners since the early 20th century.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find photos of earlier versions.  But cleaning the ballast is only one way of solving the drainage problem that the ground ballast causes.  A common piece of MOW equipment is an under cutter.  By first undercutting the ties, and then lifting the track slightly, new ballast can be applied to the roadbed alleviating any drainage issues.  So when we see a mainline that’s slightly higher than the passing siding, it’s likely because the heavy use of the mainline has worn out the ballast.  As the ballast is replaced via undercutting, the mainline is gradually raised a few inches above the passing siding.

So far, we’ve seen nothing that presents an argument that the passing siding ballast would differ from mainline ballast. But, these pics above represent modern ballasting. Was there a difference in the types of ballast used during the transitional years and earlier?

This pic of diesel road switcher NYC #7392, an EMD GP9, shows an interesting contrast in ballast (photographer: Jeff Hands, NYCSHS Archival Collection). The mainline running towards us has a light colored limestone ballast. The crossing track has a darker ballast. The crossing itself seems to be maintained by the first line, while the interchange track has ballast that appears to match the crossing line. The photo description points out the unique tri-color crossing signal. I wish I had a year and location of this photo.

This crossing is In Griffith, Indiana.  I don’t have a year on the photo, but I’m told that it no longer looks like this.  Let’s start with the double track coming at us from right to left – There’s not a major difference between the two tracks, but the right track appears just a shade darker (probably because of weathering or a slight variance in the quarry veins).  It appears that the triple crossing received some touch-up ballast that’s slightly lighter than each of the crossing lines.  Quite a bit od color shifting occurs based on weathering.

Here we have a pic from the NYC Historical Society. The loco is NYC #1260, a 2-8-2, at Wayne Jct, MI. Because the pic is in black & white, there’s nothing definitive about the ballast color, but there’s certainly a difference between the lines to the left, and the track on the right. The mainlines are definitely high than the track to the right. Interestingly, the train is a work train – they’re ballasting the mainline.

So again, which is the mainline? Or is this two track main? There doesn’t appear to be a major difference.

Still another photo from the NYCSHS. There are several tracks to the left feeding into the coaling station (#3134). These appear slightly darker than the mainline tracks on the right. The mainline was likely ballasted with limestone. During the steam age, there was readily available access to an extremely cheap ballast material – cinders. Cinder meets all the qualities of good ballast except for one – it’s soft. So yards, sidings and engine facilities during the steam age were often ballasted with cinders – locations where traffic was slow, and maintenance was less needed. But the cinders would never hold up on a well-traveled mainline with large travel speed trains. Hence, the mainlines were ballasted with limestone, granite, or similar hard stone.

Here’s a NYCSHS pic of an interlocking tower, late steam era.  With the pic being color, you can pick out the light colored limestone areas of the ballast.  The track nearest the tower appears to be solely limestone.  The other tracks appear to be either cinders or a mix of cinders and limestone.

NYCSHS pic of E7 #4030 at Ypsilanti, MI – There is a significant difference between the two tracks to the left, and the two on the right. The two on the right are definitely ballasted with cinders. But we don’t have anything that tells us the usage of the tracks.

The B&W NYCSHS photo shows #1715 pulling a train of tank cars, while #1709 sits on a siding at Mt Carmel, IL. Both these locos are H-6a Mikados. I found this extremely interesting because they are the same class of 2-8-2s that many of the CNor Mikados were, made by Baldwin. Tracks to the left appear to be limestone ballasted, while the siding tracks appear to be cinder ballasted.

NYC Muli-track mainline in Buffalo, NY – The left shoulder of the left track is completely different than the other tracks.  The left track also takes an odd twist down a ways, then appears to end.

NYCSHS photo shows E8 #4081 sitting next to a passenger train at the South Station in Boston.  The passenger train is sitting on a limestone ballasted track.  The tracks to the right gradually get grayer and less kept.

NYCSHS pic caption reads, “The 137-mile main line of the New York Central between Bellefontaine and Indianapolis is known officially as the Indianapolis District of the Ohio Division. From East 38th Street, which crosses it on an overpass about a mile from Eastwood, its western limit, the freshly-ballasted right-of-way of this district shows to good advantage. (It will be recalled that the tangent above was mentioned in the introduction.) Along this line, terminal yard limits extend 5.1 miles from Eastwood out to Post. The latter point is so named because of the location nearby of the Army camp and finance center, Fort Benjamin Harrison. The extended yard limit territory here is now used mainly to enable terminal crews to switch the fort, and occasionally to pull stored cars from one of the two sidings at Post into Brightwood Yard. During World War II, however, solid oil trains were handled at Post to reduce the congestion at Brightwood. Terminal crews were then used to change cabooses and switch out bad-order cars on these high-priority through-runners. The train above, drawn by J-1 no. 5247, is no. 473, the mail and express from Cleveland to St. Louis. Its thirteen cars will be well-shuffled at Indianapolis Union Station, which is about 73 miles and fifteen minutes’ running time from this spot, a mile and a half east of Eastwood.”

The ballast is clearly fresh limestone – though a little rough in the spreading for steam era ballast. These were feeders to the yard, and it sounds like they were heavily traveled, hence the limestone.

NYCSHS photo of the interlocking tower #8400, #3009 at Bellefontaine, OH. Left tracks appear to have limestone, center track has gray ballast – possibly cinders, and right track is barely ballasted, likely cinders.

NYCSHS photo caption: “Middletown, 18 miles out of Sharon, is the southernmost of the many Miami Valley points along the Ohio Division which generate substantial amounts of traffic. The chief industry here is the Armco steel mill, but there are others, particularly the Inland Container Corp., whose business goes to the NYC more regularly and in proportionately greater shares. In this scene, the 5283 blasts away from the depot at Middletown with the 12 cars of no. 426, framed by the smokestacks which sprout regularly along the right of way in the next thirty-odd miles. The tracks on the left are the eastward passing siding and four tracks which make up what is known as the “Murphy Yard”. Across the mains are six through tracks and a stub which are called “East yard”. Four more short tracks down near the depot constitute “West yard”. When business is brisk, the Middletown yard engine puts in a 24-hour day between the yards, industries, and freight house in this vicinity and the Pennsylvania interchange and mill area a mile or so south.”

NYCSHS photo caption: “In just a few seconds, Extra 2921 east will have divided the town of Clarks Hill in half and, further, will have sealed off the halves most effectively with a line of swaying highcars. Moreover, less than half of its 69-car train (at any one time ) will be guilty of this temporary restriction on social activity. High Street, as may be recalled, is down by the depot, which is visible between the elevator and the boxcar; White Street is quaking under the pounding of the 2921 in the foreground; and Pearl Street, third and last and presently the target of a screaming whistle-blast, is a few car lengths behind the camera. The ‘business section’ of town is on the north side of the tracks (on the right, below), and the ‘residential area’ is on the south side (on the left). The grain elevator and adjacent coal yard form a perfect backdrop for this embodiment of railroad operations in the rural heart of the midwest — between them, they are the ‘ham and eggs’ of trackside commercial enterprise throughout this vast area.”

NYCSHS photo caption: “Train no. 137 passing under Lehigh Valley and PRR truss bridges,” Blasdell, Buffalo, NY. The second track from the right appears to have a mix of ballast. All others are darker.

So…I don’t think a found any definitive answers to Monty’s question.  The only conclusion I could come up with was that transitional era and earlier, cinders were used a lot for ballast of low speed and lighter trafficked tracks.  Spurs and yards got a lot of cinder ballast.  But I can’t tell yet if there is a difference between passing sidings and mainlines.  It seems obvious that any highly traveled track received the higher grade ballast like limestone.  And thanks much to the NYC System Historic society.  It was difficult to find photos representing the era, but the NYCSHS collection has numerous photos appropriate to us.



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