Chainsaws and Train Tracks

Or Trains and Chains...


By Tim Ard

Forest Applications Training, Inc.


Worldwide transportation of freight, passengers and food all depend on rail systems connecting North America and connecting countries within other continents too.


Rails as you probably know have been operational for many decades but, what happens should storms play havoc along the rails? Could it be, as with many other disaster cleanup projects, yes the chain saw is a most valuable tool? Even around train rails the chain saw is one of the first tools acquired by workers when problems and debris block the tracks.


One tree can mean hours of delay and possibly threaten the life of trains and their passengers. An improperly cut and placed track tie can mean sure failure in the line…


What are some of the issues with chain saws and operators of major rail lines? How are they affected by chainsaw, misapplication of it, training, and or the lack of it? How many dollars are spent on down time in this very important industry?


I recently completed a training course with some Amtrak instructors and I learned some things I would like to pass along to help you. This team was awesome!


Tie-ing in Sharpening


How long does it take to dull a chain? How important is sharpening to a chain saw operator who has a task of cutting a railroad tie or removing wood debris after a storm?


Railroad ties when fairly new are not too rough on a saw chain but after they have lain around a few years under a train or near a track they collect all kinds of good stuff. Sand, rocks, spikes, end caps and rot all become added abrasion to the saw chain. Sometimes these foreign things are downright dulling!


We went through the parts of the saw tooth in class. Some comments were that it is not critical that sharpening be part of an operator’s knowledge in the field. The chains can be sharpened at a shop or replaced. I told them that I agree with that but if you don’t know when the chain is dull, what does it mean to the operator and eventually the piece of equipment. What does it mean to productivity and possibly safety? Then we went out to some outside saw work on some ties.


I had them look at their saw and the chain. It was a little damaged I noticed. I started my saw and made a cut in a tie. Then they tried their saw and it would hardly dent the tie. Just scratched the surface and smoked. They were amazed! They had a new chain for their saw and mounted it to complete the cut. It made a world of difference in the progress. I had told them I look for about an inch a second progress into the wood if the chain is sharp and doing its job, if not it’s time to stop and sharpen or replace it with a sharp one.


The tie breaker in this session was that the next cut made with their saw, one cut old new chain, was devastating. The operator made an undercut and there was a patch of sand or dirt in the exact place he wanted to make the cut. Soon as he started the cut the new chain stopped cutting - dulled it!  Everyone thought that chain is hard metal and should last through many, many cuts on the ties or a tree. Not always so, the chains will stay sharp a long time if not damaged. The majority of the time the sharp edge is not dulled it is damaged for some reason in the cutting process.


So to tie it all together, the operator doesn’t have to know how to sharpen but they must be aware of when it needs to be sharpened. There must also be a system in place to repair the chains in the field or a supply of new sharp ones so the tasks can be completed productively and safely. Pushing and pulling trying to cut with a dulled chain will mean operator inefficiency, equipment damage and possibly injury. The operator does have to know sharp!  


All kinds of sharpening systems are available. Once you know the tooth basics and the results you are expecting, practice!


How to Track Mixed Fuel


Who buys and stores the fuel supply? Is it fresh, stabilized or just plain old? Do your operators mix their own fuel? Does a supervisor or shop handle the fuel mix process? What happens in the field if there’s a hole in the system? How do you productively finish the field task if there is a flaw in your process? We agreed if there was a properly pre-mixed fuel can supply available, ready to go, the problem/issue would be solved. There is such a solution!


PPE on a Rail


Please be reminded to read your equipment operators manual and follow any added safety information from the manufacturer, your organization or company.


Personal Protective Equipment - Hardhats, eye and face protection, hands, legs, boots and visibility must be considered no matter if you a cutting a railroad tie or removing debris from a track or debris from your back yard.



Again, the chain saw is an amazing tool for many tasks and applications. There are a lot of things to consider. That’s why training is so important. Learn from those around you – seek information, be aware and plan what you do.  Good Sawing!




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