Recycling used rail ties and railroad rails began as a salvaging and recycling “given” long before going “green” with recycling revived in popularity in the most recent decades. One currently functional railroad rail recycling company started operations in 1959 when its 19-year-old founder, Kern Schumacher, heard about thousands of railroad ties about to be removed from the Oakland Bay Bridge. Kern obtained the help of a salvage specialist and the two of them were soon co-owners of the largest supply of used rail ties in the nation.
Businesses like Kern’s have likely been around since the beginning of railroads-or really soon after. Perhaps a railroad was built into a nice, thriving mining town that soon turned into a deserted ghost town. Then what? Then along comes an innovative person who can see the opportunity in the recycling. But to what purpose would these used railway rails and rail ties be put?
Used railway rails and used rail ties still in excellent shape have historically been-as they still are today-reused in the creation of brand new railway lines. Used rail ties have often been used to build houses and to build cribbing for boathouses and docks. Used wooden rail ties, in recent times, have become very popular as landscaping and gardening material-for retaining walls, decks, raised-bed gardens, staircases and steps, stepping “stones,” walkways, flower boxes, and borders-and for corrals, chutes, and fences. These used rail ties are also highly utilized in creating art and furniture.
There has been increased concern, in recent years, about health issues stemming from the presence of preservatives that still remain on the used rail ties-specifically salts of heavy metals, creosote, and coal tar. In some localities around the world, they’ve prohibited people from using chemically treated rail ties wherever there might be a lot of contact with human skin or with food. Therefore, companies that sell these used rail ties grade them as to their level of preservative retention. Typically, rail ties that are in good shape with high retention are earmarked for reuse in building railway lines, and ones that have low retention of preservatives are reserved for landscape uses and such.
Some railroad materials salvage enterprises travel the world over in their quest to buy and recover as much used railroad track as they possibly can. This effort increasingly garners appreciation from this increasingly recycling-conscious society. Railway companies also appreciate the ability to hire these specialists to relocate portions of their lines, thus saving money and recouping their investments. Some of these salvage entities possess specialized railway equipment that facilitates the dismantling and relocating of railroad ties and railroad rails from very challenging routes such as up grades, around curves, through tunnels, and over bridges. It’s comforting knowing that in our “throw-away” society there is at least one enduring industry that started out and has remained recycling minded.