Ballast

Railway ballast
Railway ballast
© Plasser&Theurer

The wheel has the task of transferring vertical and horizontal forces to the track. In addition, longitudinal forces act on the continuously welded track due to temperature changes (summer and winter). 
These forces are transmitted from the rails to the sleepers and further to the ballast bed. The ballast bed then redirects the forces occurring into the individual layers. The effective thickness of the ballast is taken as the measure between the bottom edge of the sleeper and the formation protective layer of at least 30 cm. The ballast bed thickness must be so great that the pressure distribution lines of adjacent sleepers intersect over the subgrade otherwise the subsoil would be pressed up between the sleepers. A homogeneous layer of the ballast bed is essential for the quality of the track. Consolidation and stabilisation in layers lead to an increase in the stability of the track and a durability of the track geometry.

The basic requirements for the ballast bed are as follows:

  • the track must be brought into the intended end position (setpoint)
  • the normal ballast cross-section must be properly restored
  • the ballast must be well consolidated
  • the track must be stabilised

The tamping (consolidation or stabilisation) of the ballast bed is done with machines, while at the same time the ballast in front of the sleeper ends is consolidated.
Optimal resistance to lateral displacement is achieved when dynamic stabilisation of the track has taken place after the tamping and sleeper end consolidation. As loose ballast can best be consolidated by horizontal vibrations, this property is used with the dynamic track stabilizer (DGS dynamischer Gleisstabilisator).

Characteristic wear pattern after ballast break-up
Characteristic wear pattern after ballast break-up
© Fabian Hansmann

For the ballast bed to function well and be durable it is important that it is free from organic substances and is able to withstand the surface water (rain). An important part of the durability is, among other things, that the ballast should be cleaned.
The contamination of the ballast bed has the following effects. The friction between the ballast stones is lowered, the pressure distribution angle is reduced, the pressure on the subgrade rises. Fouling reduces the elasticity of the ballast bed and consequently the continuing durability of the track geometry.

The track is dependent on the quality of the individual substances which were used and thus also of the quality of the ballast material. The most suitable material for the bedding is ballast. Track ballast is broken and screened natural stone. The stones for the track ballast should have the following properties:

  • resistant to weathering,
  • high toughness,
  • high compressive strength (measured by pressure and impact tests)
  • no additions of loam, earth or other materials
  • the rock must break with sharp corners.

The most suitable ballast comes from hard rocks such as basalt, diabase or granite. Soft rocks such as limestone, dolomite, sedimentary rock, etc. are less useful. The ballast must be suitable for the intended purpose:

  • particle size and particle distribution by sieve curve or sieve line
  • grain shape (cubic, elongated)
  • a certain amount of undersized and oversized stones

General practice is to use crushed ballast in sizes from 21.4 to 63 mm for main lines.


You can find suitable specialist literature to the topic here:

The Basic Principles of Mechanised Track Maintenance

The Basic Principles of Mechanised Track Maintenance

This book is dedicated to the many people involved in the day to day planning and performance of track maintenance activities. Providing a practical approach to everyday challenges in mechanised track maintenance, it is not just intended as a theoretical approach to the track system. 
Railways aim at transporting people and freight safely, rapidly, regularly, comfortably and on time from one place to another. This book is directed to track infrastructure departments contributing to the above objective by ensuring the track infrastructure’s reliability, availability, maintainability and safety – denoted by the acronym RAMS. Regular, effective and affordable track maintenance enable RAMS to be achieved.