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Discussion Starter #1
I was thinking about this the other day and realized I hadn't really seen anything on the subject. Now of course I'm going to see more obvious rusting on a spur that gets little use, but what about comparing a mainline (where trains are moving at speed) to a staging yard (where things move much slower but still see regular use)?

And for my own purposes, this question would focus on the late 1800's with coal- and wood-burning locos, so the only lubrication would be the slop from the wheel bearings, and the tracks themselves would likely see a lot less maintenance than today's standards.
 

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a line where the traffic moves at a higher speed would -appear- to have less rust ... it's actually the same [based on equal traffic] but the higher speed one would throw the rust further, and appear to be less .. it would just spread it out more so ..
 

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The best guide to rusted rails is to go see for
yourself. Check the mainline rails, then
the yard rails, and also the seldom used spurs.
There is a difference that you'll see right off.
They are all there for you in almost every
town in North America.

Don
 

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There would also be a difference depending on the equipment using the rails. In the steam era, flinging lubes from axle boxes, lateral motion devices, truck bearings, side rods and valve gear, and such, would appear near the rails, or on them, mostly on the outside nearest the plates, spike heads, and toward the ends of the ties. This would make the rails more 'mottled' or interesting due to variation from foot-to-foot along their lengths. Yard rails back then would be dark with cinder powder and ash and grease and oils...at least what was exposed above the muck and gravel would be.

In modern times, the rails out on the main are a great deal more rusty and cleaner. If there's to be any spilled lubes, it will be mostly from the axles around the traction motors. So, between the rails.

This photo is my own, taken beside the Thompson River in southern British Columbia, just east of Ashcroft. The rails look pretty rusty, but also free from smudges and smears of a kind:

 

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I agree. Go look! You will find that various theories that this happens or that affects it so, while not, wrong, often do not add up just as you expect. Just suspend trying to explain and look and note what and how it actually looks.

That is what I did with weathered buildings. Learned a lot taking pictures traveling around looking.
 

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But never forget that the primary contact between the wheels and rails will be the tops of the rails and the inside edge. On the prototype, rusty railheads isn't a problem. On your model railroad, the tops of the rails must be sparkling clean to ensure good electrical contact.

The amount of rust on the web and bottom of the rail is more a function of how long it's been there, not how much traffic it gets.
 

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I live one mile from the Union Pacific mainline. Even though that track is only 4 years old since it was replace with heavier high speed solid rail, (no joints) there is rust. That track sees several high speed passenger trains a day. There are also long container and mixed freights as well. Since it is a single track line, there are several 2 mile long passing sidings. Both tracks look to have the same amount and color of rust. Not flaky though. Just surface rust. As a matter of fact, when the track trains brought the new rails to be laid, they were already rusted.
On the other hand most of the spurs that were already in place were not replaced even though they were of a different rust color with some having more flaky rust than others. It does seem to make a difference as to what the spurs are used for. If the spur is a little less maintained and a little weedy, there is more rust because that spur might only receive a couple of cars a week. On the other hand spurs getting daily car deliveries and pick ups, while still rusty, have a darker rust color but still not flaky. There is no way any car or locomotive moving as slow as they do switching out cars could sling lubricant on the rail sides. It is possible once dropped off after traveling down the main line in the train and all bearings and wheels have heat built up, you will see spots of dripping oil here and there under the car journal boxes on the rail flanges once they are sitting after being delivered.
My best advise is to just go and inspect various track types; types of spur use, main lines and main line passing sidings and take pictures and notes. The other thing about this approach is, you will get to see some trains! Other than the reasons that I have stated, there is no clear cut reasons as to why. Things are what they are in regards to track coloring from rust.
 

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Discussion Starter #8
Thanks everyone for the replies! Unfortunately there is almost no track locally except for one line through town with a single spur, so not much for me to look at directly. I've looked at pictures online, but again my question was more concerning the kind of differences created by steam locos and I'm having trouble finding color pictures from the 1800's... ;)

The mottled look sounds like it would be interesting to model, and it certainly makes sense since track coverage would come down to the randomness of bearing grease being slung around. Of course that means spending a lot of time with a brush dabbing at spots instead of just painting a continuous line down the sides of the rails, but I like working on details.

Regarding the instant-rust... I've seen that very thing on pictures of brand new wheels that have only sat out for a day or two, they are immediately covered completely in a bright orange rust. It seems there is a common progression, from the bright orange of brand new material down to a dark brown as oil and rust mix together over the years.

As for the roadbed, that in itself provides a distinction between mainlines and yards. I had planned on using that to my advantage to help separate the types of track visually. The mainline will of course sit a bit higher, and I'll build it with brighter rocks. I've read that leftover ash from the locomotives was commonly used around the rails in yards since it was freely available, so a darker or black bed in my yards will give a good visual indicator in the areas where there's a lot of each track packed into a small space.

Anyway thanks again for all the great replies, it gives me more to think about now.
 

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I'm not sure how much effect this might have, but remember that rails up until at least the 1870's were rolled iron, not steel. Both types rust, but it might be a bit different color. Other items may factor in as well - use of tallow or other organic lubricants; wood-fired locos instead of coal/oil. Maybe the type of ballast used, and the dust created by same. I agree that at least today main line rails seem to be more brown than red. Maybe the heavier traffic just vibrates the "fresh" rust off, leaving the older, dirtier stuff on the rail.
 

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I have found that Tamiya 'red brown' is a pretty good substitute for the real thing on rails.

This is a model shot outdoors, real mountain background, HO scale with N/S rails. I used Tamiya 'Red Brown'.



The comment earlier about sidings being rustier and more pristine is generally true. More overgrown, but still cleaner ballast and cleaner rails. Again...……………..generally. Lots of exceptions if you look.

Here's how I handled it on my second layout:

 

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I have thought about this question on and off since my first post here, and have this further suggestion.

While details are what count in a really great model railroad layout, the difference between rust on a mainline is probably minimal, and varies enough to make any definitive rule impossible. I think what has been covered here is more than sufficient . . .

But there are differences that do matter and are there in the real world, the chief one I have seen by observation being that there is no vegetation in the active parts of a railyard - not a snip of grass has survived all the pedestrian and vehicle traffic between tracks, etc., whereas along a mainline you occasionally see grass and bushes that have encroached, and near a spur that is seldom used, you see grass - maybe tall grass even obscuring the rails.

Further, by observation back when I rode trains a lot, there is a lot of junk along the side of many mainlines - not muchwhen you are out in the country far from cities (i.e., halfway between Denver and Wichita), but particularly as you near cities there is the occasional broken tie just discarded near the track, a tire or two laying near the track, and litter and various crud like that scattered about, whereas in an active railyard, things are "workplace tidy" - kept cleaned up enough to work.
 

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What role does track grinding play? Don't railroads maintain mainline track surfaces by grinding them to remove the rust on the surface (see various youtube videos) which they don't do to track in railyards, sidings and spurs?
 

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Discussion Starter #13
@Tallaman -- My own take on that is the wear from the trains will generally keep the top of the rails bright and shiny, so you wouldn't see much difference after a grinder passes through. This would be similar to the wear pattern you see on the wheels. Some places the rail has more slope towards the inside of the track and leaves a narrower bright spot on the wheels, while other places the top of the rails has worn fairly flat so the wear in the wheels is nearly as wide as the rail. Rust doesn't really play a role in the prototypes and the friction of the wheels keeps the surface rust-free anyway.

On the other hand, I've only seen one grinder in operation and it simply worked across the top of the rails and didn't touch the sides at all. I'm not sure there would ever be a reason to grind the sides of the rails, other than maybe the head to catch spots where the rails have sagged towards each other and affected the gauge?
 

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RR wheels are slightly tapered, so the rail head will tend to wear more towards the inside. If left alone, the railhead would eventually wear down with an uneven slope.

The grinding re-profiles the *top* surface of the rail to even it out.

Grinding isn't to remove rust - the passage of a train's wheels does that rather nicely.
 

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I agree with cv_acr. I they were worried about rust they would be spraying anti rust solution all over the place. the rails are made to oxidize. That said, the wheels sort of just contact the inner top edge of the rail, so why is most of the top clean? Must be enough bad wheels (lost their taper) to keep the top clean!
 
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