For a decade, processors have pursued the vision of a bonanza in HDPE composite railroad ties. They dream about the annual replacement volume for wooden ties: In the U.S. alone, that amounts to 15 million ties, worth roughly $500 million. Marine pilings and bridge cladding use similar high-strength composites and have a comparably bullish outlook. The Army, Navy, and Coast Guard each have annual multi-million-dollar budgets to replace creo sote-treated wood pilings, and private shoreline owners have shown a willingness to pay more for longer-lasting composite docks, too.Reinforced plastic RR ties and marine pilings are made by a handful of small companies with proprietary technologies. These firms have struggled for a decade to establish standards, qualify products, and get them into test applications.
Composite ties weigh 200 to 280 lb apiece, depending on formulation and length. Transit ties are 8.5 to 9 ft long, freight ties 7 to 9 ft long.
Laboratory measurements of stiffness and insertion/extraction forces for spikes are generally lower in composite ties than in wood. But in-track performance of the plastic ties is comparable, and they last much longer.
The railroads could use a lot more composite ties, especially for freight lines in hot, wet environments like the Southeast and for remote spur and feeder lines where installation costs are high. The U.S. leads the world in composite tie technology, so there is considerable interest from foreign railroads in tropical countries like India, Thailand, and the Philippines.
Composite ties also have a big advantage over concrete ties. They can be installed with the same equipment as wooden ties and can replace wooden ties on a piecemeal basis. Concrete tie installation requires different equipment, and the track bed has to be all concrete or none
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