Conrail's Lucknow Yard in the 1980's

Conrail 1982 - When Conrail began its upgrading of the Burt-Columbus main line in Ohio during the summer of 1982, the old rail wasn’t sent on a one way trip to the scrap dealer. Instead, 1,500-foot strings of the bolted rail removed by track gangs 311 and 301 were loaded onto a specially equipped train and taken to Conrail’s Lucknow rail plant located in Harrisburg, PA. Within a month it was recycled into 1,500-foot ribbons of continuous welded rail and sent back to the upgrading site, where track gangs put it in place.

Recycled rail at Conrail was not a new idea at Conrail or at other railroads. In 1976, Conrail’s first year of operations, about one-third of its track rehabilitation program involved the use of this “fit” rail – or rail that met Conrail’s standards for re-use. Using recycled fit rail instead of new saved Conrail close to $150,000 per mile of installed rail. In 1982, close to 90 percent of rail laid under Conrail’s track program was fitted rail because more of it was available from track abandonment projects. The Lucknow rail plant – with its efficient dismantling, cropping and welding operations – played an important role in recycling this rail and to help Conrail save money.

Above – Point man Larry Furman guides a ribbon of newly-minted fit rail into a rail train. Lucknow yard was small in comparison to Conrail’s major freight yards; it measured 4,500 feet long and only 500 feet wide. Located next to Conrail’s Harrisburg yard and intermodal facility, Lucknow churned out the 1500-foot ribbons of welded rail in an assembly line fashion. “We can weld 10 to 12 strings a day”, explained R.G. Keppler, supervisor at the welding plant in the ‘80’s, adding that it usually takes about five days for the plant to produce a trainload of rail.

Alongside the production line is a storage area capable of holding 680 track miles of “stick” rail in 39-foot segments… some new, some fit. Two overhead cranes can lift up to seven tons of rail or handle heavy-duty magnets to gather bolts, angle bars and other small components.

The rail from upgrading and abandonment projects comes in on 1500-foot “rail trains” equipped with racks for holding 48 strings of rail totaling seven track miles – or 14 miles total. A conveyor system pulls the rail from the trains and moves it to the dismantling plant where bolts and angle bars joining the 39-foot segments are removed; and to the cropping plant, where the rail was straightened and the worn ends sawed off. Overhead cranes moved the rail from the cropping plant to the storage area nearby, or to the welding plant, where the segments were welded together and smoothed. Finally, conveyors moved the rail to another rail train that would carry it to its destination.

At several points along the production line, the rail was inspected to ensure that it met Conrail’s criteria for “fit” rail. “Rail that is worn to a certain degree might be unsuitable for mainline upgrading projects but acceptable for a branch line or yard,” explained Keppler. “We grade each segment of rail according to its weight and how it can be used.”

At Lucknow, nothing was thrown away, “Rail is very expensive, and we need to keep track of every inch,” said Sam Kuhn, General Foreman of the cropping plant. Seemingly useless leftovers from the old style bolted rail – such as angle bars, cropped rail ends, nuts and bolts were sold for scrap if they could not be reused.

Above â€“ Rail trains can shuttle seven track miles at a time to and from the Lucknow plant.

Here is a step by step look at the recycling process at Lucknow…


Rail trains loaded with approximately 1,600 tons of bolted rail from track improvement and abandonment sites entered the yard and were taken to the entrance of the dismantling plant were special power assemblies and conveyors began moving the rail one at a time into the plant. Scrapers on the power assemblies removed dirt and grease from the surface of the rail. Inside the dismantling plant, hydraulic wrenches remove the nuts attached to bolts between the rail segments. At the next station a few feet away, bolt punchers knocked out the bolts from the ends of the rail, separating the first segment of rail from the rest of the string. Nuts, bolts and angle bars clatter to a conveyor below, which shuttled them to a holding area outside of the plant.


After the rail was inspected, it moved by conveyor into the cropping plant. The first step was the hydraulic rail straightener, which unkinked the bends in the rail by exerting up to 200 tons of downward pressure and up to 30 tons of pressure sideways. A sharp-eyed operator judged the rail for its straightness before it moved to the cropping area.

Cropping of the worn rail ends was accomplished in 18 seconds by a 56” circular steel saw, which severed the rail totally by friction causing a shower of sparks and resulting in a smooth cut. The cropping area was cooled by water and enclosed in a glass booth to protect employees from ear-drum shattering noise.

From the cropping saw, the rail moved into an inspection area where it was measured, sorted and painted with color-coded stripes to designate its future use; for a main, branch or yard track. Then, an overhead crane moved the rail either directly to the welding plant or to the storage area where they were then stacked in crisscrossed rows with other rail of the same weight and class.


In the welding plant the cropped rail segments were reunited into a continuous string. At the first station, the ends of the rail were polished to a bright finish- which according to Keppler was necessary to ensure a satisfactory weld. The actual welding was accomplished in 75 seconds through a process called electric flash pressure butt welding. The ends of the two segments of cropped rail were held with hydraulic clamps and pre-heated with an electric current to 2100 degrees… “a plastic state” said Keppler. Finally the hot ends of the rail were brought together with 60 tons of pressure, and the new weld glowed red like a hot coal. After the weld was smoothed by a stripping machine and hand grinders, the finished rail underwent a Magnaflux inspection. Conrail Inspector Johnny Lucas checked the smoothness of the weld with a straight edge, then sprinkled a magnetic powder over the weld to test it under a magnetic field. “If there are any cracks or faults in the weld, the powder will line up with them,” he said.

Above – Hydraulic wrenches loosen nuts and bolts in the dismantling plant.


The last job in the rail recycling process at Lucknow belonged to point man Larry Furman, who guided the ribbon of welded rail from the plant onto the rail train. “The rail has to be guided into the racks by hand,” he explained. “A ribbon rail can be as flexible as a piece of spaghetti – if it hits a divider on one of the racks, it can easily guide itself off the train.” Furman kept a sharp eye on each ribbon to make sure it was loaded properly. When the rail train was filled to capacity with 48 strings of 1500-foot welded rail, it would be dispatched from the Lucknow rail plant to road and yard projects all over the Conrail system. Photo

Above – An overhead view of the outside storage area where new and fit rail is stockpiled according to weight and class.

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