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The Comparative Merits of
Iron & Steel Rails*

"London Quarterly Review"

July, 1866

As of now (1868) steel rails are used, to a limited extent, on both the New York Central, and the New York and Erie Railroads, and on many other railroads in the United States ; and their use is every year becoming more general. They will, undoubtedly, in time, entirely supersede the iron rail. Where steel rails have been laid upon one side of a track, and iron rails upon the other, as an experiment, it has been found that the iron rails require to be renewed seventeen times before the steel rails begin to show any signs of wearing out.

Henry M. Flint

[In addition to the following article, see also the CPRR Museum's many illustrated exhibits of various 19th century iron and steel rails.]

* * *


The first wrought-iron rails laid down were only twenty-five pounds to the yard ; but they were soon found too light for the loads they had to carry.  When George Stephenson was examined by Mr. (afterwards Baron) Alderson, before the Committee on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway Bill, he was taken to task about the weakness of the Hetton Road, and the danger of traveling by railway, on the assumption of traveling trains being run at the dangerous, but then hypothetical, speed of twelve miles an hour.

The witness was asked:  "Do not wrought-iron rails bend?  Take Hetton Colliery for instance." – "They are wrought-iron, but they are weak rails." – "Do you not know that those bend?" – "Perhaps they may bend, not being made sufficiently strong." – "And if they are made sufficiently strong, that will involve an additional expense?" – "It will." – "Then if you were to make them of adamant, that would be very expensive?" – "It does not require a very great expense to make them strong enough for heavier work."

That there might be no deficiency of strength in the fish-bellied rails [as opposed to "pear" rail, "fish-bellied" rail is cast iron rail which is thinner at each end and thicker towards the middle giving a "fish-belly" appearance to the rail from the side] first laid down upon the Liverpool and Manchester line, they were made of the unusual weight of thirty-five-pounds to the yard.  But the extraordinary speed of the locomotive had not yet been discovered, and there is no doubt that the performances of the "Rocket" surpassed the expectations of even George Stephenson himself.  Although the engine weighed only four-and-a-half tons, it proved too heavy when running at high speeds for the malleable rails; and as the traffic grew, and heavier engines were introduced on the line, the weight of the rails was increased from time to time, but not in like proportion to the weight of the locomotives.  For while the malleable rails have been increased from twenty-eight pounds to seventy-five and even eighty-six pounds to the yard, the locomotive has been increased from four and a half tons, as in the "Rocket," to thirty and thirty-five tons, the weight of first-class express engines.

The disproportion between the weight and force of the engine and the resistance of the rail has been constantly increasing ; until the point has at length been reached at which no additional weight in the rails will enable them to resist the crushing load of the modern locomotive.  As in the case of the battle between guns and iron plates, the weight of both has been increased, until at length, unless a new material the "adamant" imagined by Mr. Alderson be employed, it is clear that as regards the locomotive and the iron road the latter will be vanquished in the contest.  The defect is in the material, to which a crushing power is applied which ordinary iron is positively incapable of resisting.  The points of contact of the wheels of a thirty ton locomotive with the rail are very minute, and upon these points, the whole weight of the engine presses.  The effect is to squeeze, and crush the iron and roll it off in laminae, as any one may observe who examines a rail laid down on a line of heavy traffic that has borne a fair amount of work under the heavier class of engine

The friction between the driving wheels and the rails, when the engine is thundering along at high speed, is also very great, and the iron is ground off in minute particles, and thrown into the air.  Dr. Angus Smith, when once traveling by railway, took the pains to collect some of the particles which floated about him in the carriage and seemed to shine with metallic lustre.  On examination they were found to be in reality minute rolled plates of iron, which seemed to have been heavily pressed and torn up from the surface of the rails.

On some of the metropolitan lines iron rails, especially if placed on sharp curves, will scarcely last a year.  Hence the railroad has become even less permanent now, with its rail of iron, than it was with its original rail of wood a hundred years ago.  It thus become absolutely necessary to introduce a new material, and that material is to be found in steel.

The greatly superior resistance which steel offers to crushing as compared with iron, may be learnt from the experiments made by Mr. William Fairbairn, with the object of ascertaining their respective strengths in ascertaining this respect.  A piece of cast-iron, both ends flat, was crushed by a pressure to which it was subjected of fifty-five tons to the square inch and a piece of malleable iron of the same shape was flattened by a pressure of seventy-three tons to the square inch; while a piece of steel of the same shape resisted a pressure of one hundred  and twenty tons per square inch without being either crushed or flattened. ["Treatise on Iron Shipbuilding" by Wm. Fairbairn, C.E. 1865]

The result of certain American experiments, quoted by Mr. Mallett, was to a like effect.  The mean resistance of cast steel to compression was found to be two hundred and ninety-five thousand pounds, of cast iron, one hundred and twenty-five thousand pounds, and of wrought iron eighty-three thousand five hundred pounds; while the tensile strength was forty tons for mild cast steel, twenty to twenty-five tons for wrought iron, and ten to twelve tons for cast iron.  Thus in cast steel we find a material not only capable of resisting a far greater compressive force than any known metal can do, but also one whose tensile strength is nearly double that of wrought and more than three times that of cast iron.

The comparatively perishable nature of wrought iron when subjected to the crushing load of the modern express locomotive, has necessarily led to a large increase in the annual cost for maintenance and renewal of railways.  Thus, while the percentage of locomotive expenses on gross receipts has somewhat decreased on the Great Northern line during the last fourteen years, the cost of maintenance of way has increased during the same period more than two hundred per cent.  In an excellent practical paper, "On the Maintenance and Renewal of Permanent Way," read by Mr. R. Price Williams, M.I.C.E., before the Institute of Civil Engineers on March 12, 1866, some striking facts were adduced in illustration of this rapid increase in the tear and wear of permanent way of late years.

It was shown that during a period of thirteen years, most of the Great Northern up-line between Potter's Bar and Hornsey, where there are heavy descending gradients has been renewed not less than three times, giving an average of only three and a half years as the "life of rail" under heavy coal and passenger traffic worked at high speeds.  That it is "the pace that kills" as well as the weight, is obvious from another fact stated by Mr. Williams with respect to the Lancashire and Yorkshire line, where an equal number of trains of about the same tonnage as in the case of the Great Northern line, were worked at low speeds over a portion of railway between Bury and Accrington, but there the rails lasted as long as seven and a quarter years.

The heavy cost of maintenance and renewals on the London and Northwestern Railway has for some time been a marked feature in the accounts of that Company.  As the renewal of the road is properly chargeable against revenue, any large increase of expense on this account necessarily tells upon dividend, and hence, to relieve revenue against exceptionally heavy charges for renewals, the expedient of a suspense fund has been adopted by some of the larger companies.  But, in 1857, the suspense renewal fund of the London and Northwestern Company was found to be so heavily in debt, that the only practical mode that could be devised for dealing with it was to write it off direct to capital to the amount of two hundred and fifty-six thousand five hundred and eighty-eight pounds ; and since that date fifty-six thousand pounds have been charged to capital for renewals in like manner.

The Great Eastern Company also cut the same knot by charging eighty-six thousand pounds to capital instead of revenue only two years ago ; while the Manchester, Sheffield, and Lincolnshire Company, between the years 1854 and 1861, judging by the accounts, charged renewals direct to capital, without even the pretense of a suspense account.  The charge in respect of renewals is always exceedingly variable.  During the first few years of working a railway, while materials are all new, the cost is comparatively light ; no provision is made for replacing them when worn out; but as years pass on, and the rails, sleepers, and chairs have to be renewed, the outlay rapidly increases.  Thus, in 1847, the charge for renewals on the London and Northwestern Railway was thirty-eight pounds per mile; in the next five years it was one hundred and one pounds per mile ; and in the ten years following, two hundred pounds per mile; the total expenditure of the Company on renewals of way alone, during nineteen years, having amounted to one million nine hundred and six thousand eight hundred and fifty-eight pounds.

"The average annual expenditure of the Company for renewals since 1847," says Mr. Williams, "has amounted to one hundred and three thousand and seventy-four pounds.  This represents something like seventy-three miles of single way of the main line broken up and entirely replaced annually during the period ; chiefly in situations where the traffic was heaviest, and where consequently (owing to the short intervals between trains) the facilities for doing the work are the least, and the danger of accident the greatest."

The consideration of these circumstances led the officials of the London and Northwestern Company to direct their attention to the employment of some more durable material than ordinary wrought iron for rails, with the object of providing a more "permanent" way than any that had yet been adopted.  Mr. Woodhouse, the Superintendent of the permanent way department, induced the Directors, in 1861, to order five hundred tons of Bessemer steel rails, which were laid down at such parts of the line as were subject to the most rapid destruction, not only by the passage of the regular traffic, but the starting, stopping, shunting, and making up of trains.

Some of these were laid down in the Crewe Station, and others at Camden Station.  Perhaps there is no spot on any railway in Europe where the traffic is so great as at the latter place.  At Chalk Farm Bridge there is a narrow throat in the line, at which the whole system of rails employed at the London termini of this great Company converges.  There all the passenger, goods, and coal trains have to pass, and the shunting of carriages is constantly going on day and night.  The iron rails laid down in this throat were rapidly ground to pieces by the enormous traffic.  The face of a rail was usually worn away in little more than two months; and the traffic being so unintermitting, its stoppage for the purpose of changing the rails or renewing them was found most inconvenient as well as dangerous.

"Lipping" wear on a modern steel rail on the original CPRR Sierra grade.

Certainly no better spot could have been fixed upon for determining the durability of the Bessemer material.  On the 2d of May, 1862, two steel rails were laid down precisely opposite two new iron rails of the best quality, so that no engine or carriage could pass over the iron rails without also passing over the steel.  When the iron rails were worn as far as the safety of the traffic would allow, they were turned, the lower side upwards, and the second face was worn off in like manner.  The old rail was then replaced by a new one, and this process went on until the 22d of August, 1865, when one of the steel rails was taken up.  It was computed by the engineer, that during the period that had elapsed since it was laid down (three years and about four months) not fewer than nine million five hundred and fifty thousand engines, carriages, and trucks, weighing ninety-five million five hundred and seventy-seven thousand two hundred and forty tons, had passed over one face of the steel rail, and worn it evenly down about a quarter of an inch, whilst it was still capable of enduring a good deal more of the same work.  During the same time eight iron rails had been entirely worn out on both faces, and the seventeenth face was in use when the steel rail was taken up. The extraordinary endurance of the new material compared with the old was further proved at Crewe Station, along both sides of which steel rails were laid down, and after three years' wear not one of them required turning; whilst iron rails similarly placed had been removed or turned every few months.

These results were deemed quite conclusive on the subject; and, after mature consideration, the Directors of the Company were so satisfied of the advantages in an economical point of view, as well as on the ground of increased safety to the public, of using the strongest and more durable material, that they wisely resolved on erecting extensive Bessemer steel works at Crewe, which are now in active and successful operation, turning out about four hundred tons per week. Mr. Ramsbottom, the Company's locomotive engineer at Crewe, had for some time before been gradually introducing steel in the construction of passenger-engines, wherever great strength and durability were required, as in the case of axles and wheel-tyres ; and the results were so satisfactory, that steel is now employed by him in all such cases instead of iron.  In designing the machinery and plant of the steel works at Crewe, Mr. Ramsbottom introduced many ingenious modifications and improvements, so that they may be regarded as models of their kind.  One of his most valuable contrivances for working up the steel required for engine purposes, is his duplex hammer, which strikes a blow on both sides of the ingot at once in a horizontal direction, thus rendering unnecessary the enormous foundations required for ordinary hammers.

The London and Northwestern Company have been very slowly, and at a great distance, followed by railway companies generally, who are for the most part content, so long as they can go forward on the old iron ways.  But it seems to us quite clear that the days of iron as the material for main express lines are numbered ; and that not only considerations of safety, but of economy, will, before long, lead to the general use of steel instead of iron.  The Americans, who are quick to discern the merits of any new invention, have already recognized the important uses of Bessemer steel to a much greater extent than English railway engineers have done.  They are already substituting steel for wrought iron in almost every department of railway construction ; and within the last few months orders have been received by a single Sheffield firm for about ten thousand tons of Bessemer steel rails for the Pennsylvania, Erie, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Ohio, and the Michigan Central Railroads.

Another circumstance remains to be mentioned in favor of the substitution of steel for iron, which is, the great deterioration in the quality of modern-made iron.  All the earlier experimenters on iron found greater strength in ordinary qualities than is now possessed by the very best. The rails made thirty years since possessed much more durability than those made now.  Whether this arises from the greater rapidity of the processes now adopted the use of squeezers, by which cinder and sand are pressed into the metal, instead of being beaten out by the tilt-hammer, as formerly the use of the hot-blast, by means of which inferior ores are capable of being reduced, or the spirit of competition which induces iron manufacturers to turn out the largest possible quantity of iron at the cheapest possible rate – certain, it is, that the manufacture of wrought iron in this country has undergone a serious deterioration during the last half century.

Dr. Percy raises an important point for discussion, with reference to a supposed deterioration in the quality of iron resulting from the effects of percussion, which applies equally to steel.  It has long been a moot point with engineers, whether, under repeated light blows, or rapid vibration of machinery in action, iron becomes disintegrated and consequently brittle.  This is undoubtedly the case with brass, which, when subjected to vibration, in a few weeks becomes as brittle as glass.  When the frightful accident occurred on the Versailles Railway [May 8, 1842], some years since, occasioned by the breaking of a crank axle, the best men of science and practice in France were called upon to give evidence on the point ; but they were by no means agreed.  The whole subject was again discussed before the Commissioners appointed by our own Parliament, in 1849, to inquire into the application of iron to railway structures.  Evidence was given to show that pieces of wrought iron exposed to vibration frequently break after long use, and exhibit a peculiar crystalline fracture [a bright and glittering fracture formed along the cleavage planes of the individual crystals of metal which is normally an indication that brittle fracture has occurred] and loss of tenacity ; whilst other witnesses maintained that this peculiar structure was the result of an original fault in the process of manufacture, and that the internal constitution of the metal remained unaffected by vibration however rapid or long continued.

In opposition to the popular view as to the brittleness of iron being occasioned by vibration, Mr. Robert Stephenson pointed to the engine-beam of a Cornish engine which received a shock equal to about fifty-five tons eight or ten times a minute, and yet went on working for twenty years without apparent change.  He also referred to the connecting-rod that communicates the power of the locomotive to the wheel and receives a violent jar eight times in a second at ordinary speed, and yet remains unaffected.  He pointed out that in a case of that sort, a rod that has borne two hundred millions of such jars will be found, on examination, to have retained its fibrinous structure [the pattern of preferred orientation of metal crystal after a given deformation process].

Where iron exhibits a crystalline appearance on breaking, Dr. Percy rightly points out that time plays a most important part in determining the character of the fracture.  When the metal is broken with extreme rapidity, the fracture will be crystalline; when broken slowly, it will be of a fibrous appearance.  In the case of the breakage of a crank-axle, we apprehend the cause to be torsion, not vibration.  It was stated in evidence by a locomotive engineer, at the inquiry into the causes of the Bow accident on the Great Eastern Line, that the very first turn of a crank-axle begins the process of breaking ; and that the final fracture – nearly always at the same place – is only a question of time.

That the brittleness of iron is increased by frost is also a prevalent notion amongst engineers, similar to the popular impression that bones are more brittle in winter than in summer.  But the railway accidents which occur in frosty weather are, more probably, attributable to the circumstance that at that time the road is hard and rigid, and the engines running over it at high speeds are much more strained, and consequently more liable to accident than they are in ordinary weather when the road is soft and yielding ; just as in frosty weather we are more liable to falls, and consequently to fractured limbs, arising from the slipperiness of the roads rather than to the increased brittleness of our bones at that season.  To put the matter to a practical test, however, Mr. Ramsbottom bad a piece of rail taken up while covered with sharp frost and placed under the large steam-hammer at Crewe, and the Pennsylvania Steel Works at Harrisburg, and other rolling mills, we understand, will soon be prepared to furnish steel rails, at, we suppose, so small an advance upon the price now paid for iron that there will be no doubt about the propriety of adopting them on our road.

* This article, originally published in the July, 1866, issue of the "London Quarterly Review" was republished in 1868 as Chapter XXXVIII of the book: "THE RAILROADS OF THE UNITED STATES; Their History and Statistics: comprising the progress and present condition of the various lines with their earnings and expenses, and showing their wonderful power in developing the resources of the country, to which are added a synopsis of the railroad laws of the United Sates, and an article on the comparative merits of iron and steel rails." by Henry M. Flint (Philadelphia: John E. Potter Co. 1868)

Transcribed and annotated by, and courtesy of the Bruce C. Cooper Collection.

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