What are Tie Plates?

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  • Written By: B. Turner
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 03 October 2019
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A tie plate is a thick steel panel that sits between the rails and ties, or sleepers, on a standard railroad track. Railroad tie plates are generally tapered at either end to improve stability and reduce torsion and twisting along the rails. Rails installed with tie plates are better able to maintain their position, which helps to standardize the width, or gauge, of the track along its length. Engineers and builders use rail tie plates to extend the longevity of a new track installation, and to maximize safety for passengers and railway workers.

In traditional rail construction, workers lay a bed of gravel or loose stone. They top the stone with short wooden beams, or ties, which act as a support for the steel rails. A steel spike is driven through a flange along the base of the rail to fasten it to each tie.

Since the early 20th century, many railroad engineers have specified the use of tie plates on new lengths of track. Instead of fastening the rail directly to the tie, the spike passes through the tie plate first, then into the end of each tie. While these plates are still found on railroads that use wooden ties, the use of concrete or composite ties in modern construction has reduced the need for tie plates.


Each rail tie plate features either a single- or double-shoulder construction. On a double-shoulder unit, the tapered ends of the plate are raised to create a sunken bed in the middle, which must be sized to match the width of the rail. The rail fits snugly between the two shoulders, which increases support and stability on either side of the rail. Single-shoulder tie plates contain only one raised edge, which fits against one side of the rail. These versatile units allow workers to use the same plates on rails of any size.

Tie plates help to evenly distribute the weight of the train and cargo over a larger portion of each tie. This reduces friction between the rails and ties, and helps the wooden ties last longer than they otherwise would. It also helps the metal rails wear more evenly, and allows them to maintain a smoother, more uniform surface. Because each tie plate adds an extra step to the construction process, railroads with plates take longer to build, and often come with higher labor and material costs. Tracks constructed without wooden ties generally don't require tie plates.


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Post 3

@KoiwiGal - The thing I found funny while I was having a look at how they did that ceremony with the golden spike, was that there were actually several golden spikes made, and others made from other kinds of metal like silver.

Different groups wanted to commemorate the day, and even as late as 2005 special commemorative railroad spikes commishioned by wealthy people connected with the railroad were still being found and left to museums.

Oh, and incidentally, the reason the original golden spike is at Stanford is because the guy who came up with the idea for it, was the founder of Standford university.

I believe the special rail tie plate is there as well.

And legend has it that he missed when trying to hammer the spike into the tie plate!

Post 2

This makes me think of the "golden spike" that was used as a publicity stunt after they finished the transcontinental railway in the United States.

When you think about how extremely long that railway was, it's incredible that they managed to finish it. It took about six years and thousands of men to build the tracks and it opened up California to the East.

The last spike was driven through a special railroad tie plate made out of Californian laurel, and is now kept at Stanford University.

It's the kind of thing you might think sounds like a legend, but in this case it was just a publicity stunt to advertise the new railway line.

Post 1

The history of railways is actually quite fascinating, especially in the United States. In fact, huge areas of the United States owe their development to this kind of technology, like the development of tie plates and other rail fastening systems.

It's actually relatively complicated to build railway tracks, even though people take them for granted. You can't just put iron tracks on to the ground, you need to fix them to the "ties" which are the wooden (or concrete or steel) railings beneath. And beneath those, you need some kind of ballast, which is why railway tracks are often lined with gravel.

When you consider how much traffic is going over the tracks, how much weight, and how imperative it is that it remain stable, it's no wonder so much care goes into them.

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