What is a Dead Track?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A dead track is a length of railroad track which is no longer in use. Railroads commonly abandon tracks in place, for a variety of reasons. It is common to see dead tracks around former railroad hubs and in areas where trains have been running for an extended period of time, as tracks are sometimes abandoned as needs change and people begin to utilize an area differently. Such tracks are often impassable to trains and a dead track is sometimes deliberately made unnavigable for safety reasons.

Railroad tracks that are no longer used are known as dead tracks.
Railroad tracks that are no longer used are known as dead tracks.

One reason why tracks get left in place is because the railroad often owns the land and sees no need to take the tracks up, as this can be a costly endeavor. Railroads which enter bankruptcy also usually lack the resources to pull their tracks up. A track may also become dead by default, rather than intention, in which case the tracks are left in place because people believe that they may see use again at some point.

In roadways, a dead track can become a bit of a problem. If multiple sets of dead tracks cross a road, the authority in charge of the road may attempt to force the railroad to take them up so that the road can be repaved to make it safer for cars. In other cases, workers may pave right over the tracks, or a government agency may opt to remove clearly abandoned tracks if the railroad cannot or will not take responsibility for them.

Truly dead tracks are isolated from the circuits used for signaling. This is because there will be no need to maintain signals on a section of track which is not used, because there will be no trains to signal. There may also be cases in which parts of the dead track are taken up, with dead tracks commonly petering out into nowhere in particular. Dead tracks commonly provide clues into the historic use of an area, as they may end at sites where there used to be warehouses, railroad spurs, and other features.

The use of rail for transport of people and freight has waxed and waned in various regions of the world. One issue with a dead track is that as railroads fail to maintain their tracks or shrink their routes, it makes it harder to revive interest in rail, because additional investment is needed to create functional routes. Decisions to tear up rail in some regions of the world have later been regretted as needs change.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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