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How far is a "rail" ?

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In a number of BM entries from the NGS database, I see references to distance stated as rails. An example would be "9 1/2 rails east from the easternmost rail", or "3 rails west of the junction of the ABC railroad and the XYZ railroad", etc. They are almost always in reference to distances from railroad tracks or structures.


Is there a standard length of a "rail"? I see old pix of guys building a railroad, with a bunch of them carrying a rail to the track bed. Looks to be about 10-20 feet long. Probably a reference to the length of a railroad rail?

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Start with 39 feet and see if you get to where you want to be. If not, look further at the references.


Variations exist but I thinbk most railroads that are still in place and have not moved to welded rails, will come it at 39 feet. Obviously, very old railroads, looging railroads, narrow guage railroads , etc. will differ, but I would guess there are few or none of those left out there


Google: "rail length" railroad


will give you plenty of references. More than you want :laughing:.

Edited by Papa-Bear-NYC
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Papa-Bear is correct. 39 is the "most standard" I have read about, but there are others. 33 was common at one time. The reason for these odd lengths, I have heard, is so they will fit in standard gondola cars. In the early part of the century those cars were 34 feet long, so rails were 33. After 40 foot gondolas came into being the rail lengths became 39. Longer gondolas never became common so the lengths remained at 39 feet. That is your most likely length on lines that belonged to major railroads.

Since the advent of welded rail the term "rail length", at least after the rail is laid, is obsolete, but it is interesting to note that rails are still made in 39 foot lengths, shipped to the welding facility, and then welded back together into much longer lengths, which are put on special flatcars combined to make a train long enough for the welded rail length, then taken to the area where they will be installed, and pushed off the cars to the side. These long lengths are then welded together in the field. Why don't steel mills just run off huge lengths of rail instead of cutting it and having the railroads weld it? To be honest I am not sure. Take a look at this article from Trains Magazine (the major railfan magazine)-Rail for their take on rails and welded rail.


When measuring rail lengths I generally pace off the distance rather than measuring it, since I doubt that the initial measurement was precise. If they say 8 rail lengths from the center of the road crossing, did they meet 312 feet precisely? Were they measuring rail lengths (as in 39 foot increments), or did they just count the joints, meaning if there was 3/4 of a rail from the center of the road to the next joint, that was still a full rail? When I see "rails" in a description I hope that there will be something more concrete to help me look! If the other landmarks are gone I have to rely mostly on luck to find the mark. KW0469 has stymied me after four visits because of the vague measurements and missing landmarks--fractional mileposts are long gone, there are references to rails and poles. Things I count on when hunting marks by railroads--if it says 5 poles past {some landmark} it generally means EXACTLY 5 poles--the mark will be between the pole and the rail. (5 1/2 poles in KW0469 means exactly half way between the poles), rails are 39 feet (13 long paces if I can get a stride going). and fractional mileposts are long gone, but often a nearby signal or outbuilding will have a number on it that corresponds to the old mileage. If a signal is numbered 361 it means it is at 36.1 miles from the point of measurement for that trackage.

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