Date Available


Year of Publication


Degree Name

Master of Science in Civil Engineering (MSCE)

Document Type

Master's Thesis




Civil Engineering

First Advisor

Dr. Jerry G. Rose


The magnitudes and relative pressure distributions transmitted to the crosstie-ballast interface of railroad track significantly influences the subsequent behavior and performance of the overall track structure. If the track structure is not properly designed to distribute the heavy-axle loads of freight cars and locomotives, deficiencies and inherent failures of the crossties, ballast, or underlying support layers can occur, requiring substantial and frequent maintenance activities to achieve requisite track geometrical standards. Incorporating an understanding of the pressure distribution at the crosstie-ballast interface, appropriate designs can be applied to adequately provide a high performing and long-lasting railroad track. Although this can be considered a simple concept, the magnitudes and distributions of pressures at the crosstie-ballast interface have historically proven to be difficult to quantifiably measure and assess over the years.

This document describes the development and application of a method to measure average railroad track crosstie-ballast interfacial pressures using timber crossties and pressure cells specifically designed for granular materials. A procedure was specifically developed for recessing the cells in the bottoms of timber crossties. The validity of the test method was initially verified with a series of laboratory tests. These tests used controlled loads applied to sections of trackbed constructed in specifically designed resilient frames. The prototype trackbed section was intended to simulate typical in-track loading conditions and ballast response.

Cells were subsequently installed at a test site on an NS Railway well-maintained mainline just east of Knoxville, TN. Six successive crossties were fitted with pressure cells at the ballast interface below the rail seat. Pressure cells were also installed at the center of two crossties where the ballast is typically not tamped or consolidated. Trackbed pressures at the crosstie-ballast interface were periodically measured for numerous revenue freight trains during a period of twenty-one months. After raising and surfacing the track, the ballast was permitted to further consolidate under normal train traffic before again measuring pressures. Having the ballast tightly and uniformly compacted under crossties is important to ensuring representative and reproducible pressure measurements.

Measured maximum pressures under the rail at the crosstie-ballast interface ranged from 20 to 30 psi (140 to 210 kPa) for locomotives and loaded freight cars with smooth wheels producing negligible wheel/rail impacts. Crosstie-ballast interface pressures were typically 3 psi (20 kPa) maximum for empty freight cars with smooth wheels. Heavily loaded articulated intermodal car pressures for shared trucks tended to reach nearly 40 psi (280 kPa), actually higher than locomotive-produced pressures. The recorded pressures under the center of the ties were normally negligible, less than 1 psi (7 kPa) for locomotives and loaded freight cars.

Wheel-Rail force parameters measured by nearby wheel-impact load detectors (WILD) were compared to crosstie-ballast pressure data for the same trains traversing the test site. Increases in peak WILD forces, either due to heavier wheel loads or increased impacts, were determined to relate favorably to increases in recorded trackbed pressures with a power relationship. The ratios between the peak and nominal wheel forces and trackbed pressures also have strong relationships.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

Funding Information

National University Rail Center (NURail), a U.S. DOT OST Tier 1 University Transportation Center

Nichols Foundation & CSX Transportation Research Endowments

Norfolk Southern Corporation

Aubrey Donald May Scholarship