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Old iron rules: Identifying the markings on railroad tracks

By Robert W Scott | October 12, 2022

Railroads leave us clues about their past

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side of a rail with markings

Markings on railroad tracks

side of a rail with markings
Markings on railroad tracks: Sunset on the Montana Rail Link at the top of Mullan Pass finds a siding of 100-pound rail manufactured in 1925 by Bethlehem Steel, Lackawanna Mill.

From signs that denote locations from terminals to speed limits signs, railroads leave us clues about them and how they operate.

These clues can be hard to see because they are often covered with rust, mud, or dirt. For instance, the side of a railroad rail has identification markers that reveal how old the rail is and, in some cases, can tell you the month of manufacture. However, you will need to be able to decode these identifying marks.

Decoding the clues

The rail identification marks are readily visible on the web side of the rails and denote the size of it, the manufacturer, and the date of manufacture. Some rail manufacturers may have other markings or symbols to further classify their product. The most likely place to find old rail still in use is in yards, secondary or short lines, and on old industrial spurs.

If you look, you may just find a location where rail was manufactured over a century ago and is still in use with modern heavy locomotives and cars. As rail gets upgraded and replaced, some older rail may be reused on another portion of the railroad. So, a date on a rail could have been in service elsewhere on the railroad or on another railroad if it was sold.

As you delve more into the history of railroads, there are numerous clues around allowing even a casual observer a closer look into the history and infrastructure of railroading.

Click here for more articles about railroads.

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