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A rail inspection refers to a physical examination of the railroad tracks by experienced track maintenance crews. Over time, the spikes that are supposed to hold the rails in place can actually work free and allow the rail to move. Bolts that are used to hold sections of track together are often found missing during a rail inspection. While the rails themselves are very strong, they are occasionally found to have cracks, twists and bows that could potentially cause a derailment if the problem is not detected during a rail inspection. Other problem areas investigated during a rail inspection are broken railroad ties, tie plates and bad crossings and switches.
While appearing to be simple and nearly maintenance-free, the railroad track system is actually a very complex assembly requiring frequent rail inspection and upkeep. The railroad relies on reports from engineers as to the condition of the rails; however, many service crews are delegated to do nothing more than travel the rails searching for problem areas. Often using special pickup trucks that are designed to travel along the tracks on small steel wheels, the crews perform their rail inspection and keep note of any potential trouble spots by prioritizing the urgency of the repairs needed.
Once a rail inspection has identified a potential problem, work crews tasked to repair the problem are dispatched to the scene. All rail traffic in that particular stretch of rail is notified that repair crews are in the area, and special speed limits and warnings are issued to train crews. Often, train traffic in a particular area will have to be re-routed around a stretch of track while repairs are carried out. In the case of a tie replacement, crossing or switch repair, train traffic may be halted in an area for the duration of the repair.
In the event of a derailment, an examination of the most recent rail inspection in the specific area of track is typically used to identify any pre-existing problem with the track. Engineer reports of suspected troubles will also be used in the examination of the accident. Many times, the occurrence of repeated problems on any given stretch of track will prompt a special rail inspection to examine the trouble and attempt to arrive at a solution for the ongoing issues. In the case of bad crossing conditions, reports from local road commissions, police and even insurance companies are often used in the decision to commence with repair.