Written by Jeff Frost
Will the use of sand on aluminum rail lead to severe rail wear?
With aluminum being a soft metal, the fear is that when sand is used on aluminum rail it will cause severe/quick rail wear. It is a fact that aluminum rail will wear whether you use sand or not. The wheel flanges will wear away the rail head in curves and the height will wear down as equipment runs over it. Even the use of steel wheels on aluminum rail will quicken the rail wear. Wheel slip is another cause of rail wear.
Locomotive wheels will slip or spin due to a lack of adhesion. Slipping or spinning the wheels (the wheels are no longer stationary to the rail) is a type of rail wear that can be reduced with the light application of common sand. Sand is not to be used continuously or in long stretches. Small shots of sand can really help traction. The sand will be ground down and is abrasive, but I don’t see any quick, substantial damage like I do from slipping. In the front yard where the most amount of sand is used (where the drivers like to break free the most), the spin marks (image 1) are still visible even though I installed the sanders a year ago and have used them on this spot.
To know if the rail has worn severely due to the use of sand, the rail height needs to be measured to see how much height has been lost due to the use of sand. The rail I am using is around 0.831”-0.834” tall when new (image 2).
I measured a rail on my track that has had no sand use on it and has seen quite a bit of use since the loop was completed in April 2012. The rail height was 0.831” (image 3), which shows minimal, if any, wear of up to 0.003”.
I then measured the rail where the sand is used the most. This part of the track has a slightly steeper grade (around 3.5%) and this is the area where the engines will want to break loose. I dug down in the dirt to clean out a spot for the calipers and wiped the rail clean. The rail measured 0.832” tall (image 4), which shows minimal, if any, wear of up to 0.002”.
Over the past year I have run the trains for about 20 trips, consisting of 15-25 laps each, around the track. I don’t need to (and don’t) use the sanders every trip. Most of the time, I only need to use the sanders when the train weight is around 80% or above the locomotive’s rated capacity. Sometimes, like when having friends riding, I will need to use the sanders for 10+ trips when everyone is riding.
The use of sand has not increased the wear of the rail height over the past year. Due to the curves, the outside rail (where sand has not been used) have lost around 0.015”-0.020” on the rail head width due to flange wear. This wear has not been increased by the use of sand either.
I’ve had no problem using (not abusing) the sanders to help maintain traction and I avoid damage to the rails from spinning drivers and avoid damaging the engine by preventing the wheels from breaking loose and possibly having a violent spin. The rails are not any worse for wear by using sanders and I don’t have to worry about putting more spin marks on the rails.
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Jeff Frost is the author of the book “The Live Steam Hobby“.
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