Track Maintenance & Repair
Writers in the late 1850's made much of the significantly lower construction costs for Southern railroads compared to Northern ones. These costs were held down by several factors (level ground, slave labor available on the routes, abundance of good building timber near the routes, and the purchase of labor with stock shares), including laying track on the bare ground whenever possible. Laying track on the bare ground removed the cost of ballasting from the construction cost and put it in the maintenance cost of subsequent years.

But whether placed on the bare ground or on ballast, track required 2-4 years of use for the bed to completely settle. During that time, the "ditching" crew was constantly busy filling in spots where the track was sinking. The sinking track caused heavy wear on both track and wheels.

The result of the bare ground placement and the settling time was a road that was not really ready for normal train traffic and speeds until the road was several years old. This was a problem for the  South since so many of its railroad miles had been completed in the last few years before the war, and they required a lot of labor to maintain them from their construction problems -- regardless of the problems caused by the war and heavy traffic.

Some of the roads that completed significant construction from 1858 through 1861 were as follows:

Charleston & Savannah
Mobile & Ohio
Savannah, Albany & Gulf
Western North Carolina
Alabama & Florida, of Alabama
Alabama & Florida, of Florida
Mobile & Great Northern
Mississippi & Tennessee
Virginia Central

Roads that were not properly ballasted saw their ties rot at rates that required many 10's of thousands of ties to be replaced every year.

Other maintenance work included the widening and re-sloping of cuts through hills to prevent slides and the cleaning out of the drainage ditches alongside of the track. Trestles that were quickly constructed over swamps and bottom land were usually filled with dirt and ballast as soon as possible to reduce the cost and labor of maintaining the trestles and of repairing them after "freshets" (flash floods).  

Wartime repairs were of three types -- normal floods and slides, repair of destruction by the enemy, and repair of worn track. Normal repairs were covered in the discussion of maintenance. Repair of destruction by the enemy was usually limited to restoring what was required to run the road -- restoration of track and water towers. Bridges were replaced with trestles and depots were usually not rebuilt. Burned and bent rails were easily repaired, unless they had been twisted.

Repair of worn track was a different problem. Rails were made of low quality iron and manufacturing frequently left weak places that, in conjunction with the pressure of heavy train loads and track settling, often became "laminated." Lamination was the flaking off of lenses of iron in the direction of travel. After several lenses had flaked away, the rest of the iron could not bear the weight of the locomotives and gave way, creating a kind of pot hole in the rail. When the small wheels of the cars fell into the laminated spot, the wheel might easily be flattened in the spot that took the blow. The flattened wheel then caused a rough ride for that car, the vibration working loose the various boards and attachments on the car. Eventually, the flattened wheels had to be replaced.

Finding replacement car wheels and rails was almost impossible. While Tredegar did cast wheels for the railroads, the numbers were far below what the railroads needed. The rails had to be replaced by better rails (frequently from sidings and branch lines) or repaired.

Rails were repaired by re-rolling the entire rail at a rolling mill (there were fewer than 10 in the Confederacy). Re-rolling was almost impossible to get done because of the higher priority of government projects (armor for ironclads, equipment for new defense shops, etc.).

Without re-rolling, the railroads had three repair options. First was to remove the rail and replace it with a spare, then cut out the laminated section and weld the remaining good pieces together. This required a lot of transportation of rails and caused the available length of rails to continually shrink. Second, and most frequently used, the damaged rail was replaced with a spare and the damaged rail returned to the company shops. There, the rail's damaged section was heated and repaired by blacksmiths. The third repair method was the same as the second, except that a car with the required blacksmith equipment on it was taken to the site of the damaged rail and the work was done on site.

Readily realizing that there would be few rails for repair, the railroads reduced the speed of their trains early in the war -- a slow-moving train caused less deterioration of the rail and less damage to car wheels when lamination was encountered. Even with slower speeds and lamination repair methods, by late 1863 most roads had hundreds of unrepaired laminated spots.

Mobile & Ohio Rail Wear

Savannah, Albany & Gulf Road & Bridge Repairs