Steel Sleepers in the Rail Industry – they are still made, and have quite a history

Most of us are familiar with wooden, and in more recent times, concrete railway sleepers (or railroad ties as they are called in the US). We see them when shivering on the platform edge in morning peak. Steel sleepers seem more of a rarity, but they have been around for a long time. They are still being laid, and BSI has produced standards for them since 1933.

A number of companies in the UK manufacture them, and some specialise in them. They tend to appear on secondary routes – the small branches between the main lines.

Why are they used?

Steel sleepers are formed from pressed steel and are trough-shaped in section. When replacing wooden sleepers, they can easily be installed into the existing ballast – the layer of crushed stone which forms the track bed – unlike concrete sleepers, which require a new layer of ballast. They require much less ballast than concrete and wood, so are quite economical, as well as being environmentally beneficial.

They tend to be used on railway lines that do not have block signalling and level crossings, as unless properly insulated, the conductive metal of the sleeper would provide a pathway to short out the track circuits.

Trough section sleepers are used in narrow gauge railways, such as for mines and leisure railways, corrugated section sleepers are used in miniature railways in leisure parks, and steel curved radius sleepers are suitable for use in the tunnelling industry.

History – Arabian Peninsula, Australia and the UK

Steel sleepers have been used in most sectors of the worldwide railroad systems including heavy-haul, mining, electrified passenger lines and all types of industry.

They were used in specialty situations, such as the Hejaz Railway in the Arabian Peninsula. This was a narrow gauge railway that was a part of the Ottoman railway network, and ran from Damascus to Medina, through the Hejaz region of Saudi Arabia. They were preferred as the high temperatures caused wooden sleepers to shrink and split, and were also prone to termites!

In the gold rush days of the 1890’s in Australia, specially patented steel sleepers were used for the very isolated Normanton - Croydon Railway across western Queensland to the Gulf of Carpentaria. They lowered construction costs, and also defeated the huge numbers of termites in the Gulf. They were considered a cheap method of construction suitable for light traffic frontier lines.

In Britain, the Great Western Railway started using steel sleepers in the 1930s, but they were not available during the Second World War.  Although British Rail later took on concrete as standard, steel was used for some lengths of secondary routes. British Rail Research and British Steel embarked on a joint development programme in the belief that substantial economies could be achieved by using steel sleepers rather than continuing with concrete, as pressure mounted on British Rail to cut costs through the 1980s.

Recent UK projects

Sales to British Rail, and then Railtrack, increased dramatically in the 1990s and 2000s. Over a million steel sleepers have been manufactured and supplied to Network Rail since contracts for them were issued in 2003. 

42,000 steel sleepers were used in the recent Boston to Skegness railway revamp in Lincolnshire.  The track between Boston to Skegness was originally opened in 1873 and had suffered from years of underinvestment.

They were provided for the reopening of the Ebbw Valley railway in Wales in 2008, 46 years after it closed.

They were also used extensively for Scotland’s Sterling Alloa Kincardine Rail Link, which re-opened in 2008, relieving congestion on the Forth Fridge.

British Standards

In August 1933, BS 500, “Steel Rail Sleepers for Flat Bottom Rails” was published, having been developed by the Public Works Industry Committee. It specified methods for tensile, bending and mechanical tests, their preparation for inspection, and branding.

BS 500 was revised in 1956, prompted by a change in practice in ordering steel railway sleepers.

54 years later, the current BS 500:2000 was published. It differs radically from the previous editions. It is performance based and intended to provide suppliers with maximum flexibility in design and manufacture compatible with achieving a consistent and satisfactory service performance.

BS 500:2000 was confirmed in December 2012.

What’s available in the Knowledge Centre?

BSI’s Knowledge Centre can provide access to the withdrawn editions of BS 500 back to 1933. Members can view withdrawn publications without charge in Chiswick, and they are available for purchase in hard copy and PDF.  BSI members receive a 50% discount, free postage and can buy on account.

To find out more please contact the Knowledge Centre at: or on +44 (0)20 8996 7004

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