Investment Grade

Posted by George Hamlin
on Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Evidence of longevity at Calverton, Virginia; photo by George W. Hamlin

Admittedly, I don’t spend a lot of my time trackside examining rails.  While they are a foundational part of railroading, typically something else causes me to appear trackside, camera in hand.  For that matter, their sides are typically not well-lit, and they are often in the shadows, both literally and figuratively.  They spend most of their time waiting for relatively brief (in most locations) interactions with other pieces of steel in a different shape: round wheels, as opposed to the longitudinal strands of rails.  

However, depending on the alignment of the track, and time of the year, sometimes the sun will bring to light what usually goes unnoticed, sitting there in otherwise plain view on the side of the rails.  Typically, there will be a description of the steel product, in terms of its weight (expressed in pounds per yard), and in some cases, a reference to its cross-section or other physical properties. 

But most interesting is that they generally bear the date of their birth, and also, in many cases, where this took place, or at least, the name of the manufacturer.  And thus, I was startled recently to discover that this particular piece of trackage included some very long-serving components.  

Here on track two of Norfolk Southern’s Washington district in Calverton, Virginia, are rails that date from 1954 and 1959, and yet, are still serving after all these years.  Not relegated to a slow-speed, light-duty branch line, either, where an elderly piece of rail might reasonably expect to spend its declining years.  

In a few minutes, Amtrak’s eastbound “Cardinal” will roll across the top of these rails; track speed is 79 miles per hour here for the passenger train, but the 1950’s products will be up to the task.  Putting this in perspective, when these two first went on duty, it would be decades before any of the equipment about to pass over them was built, and Amtrak itself was over a decade away. 

Also included in the rails’ descriptive data are “BSCO” and, appropriately, “Steelton”.  The former is an acronym referring to the Bethlehem Steel Company; the latter is a reference to that company’s plant in Steelton, Pennsylvania, just south of Harrisburg.  Steel rails are still being manufactured in Steelton, although the facility now belongs to ArcelorMittal.  According to the company’s website, Steelton is one of “only three producers of rails in the Americas”.  

The old cliché “you get what you pay for” comes to mind here, as does the tension between the need to balance investments and quarterly earnings often found in today’s financial world.  On balance, however, it would be hard to describe these two lengths of rail dating from the Eisenhower administration as anything other than investments, and sound ones, indeed.  And, in the right light, a worthy subject for contemplation and photography.

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