Wooden Sleepers

The wooden sleeper is the most ideal type of sleeper, and its utility has not decreased with the passage of time. The wooden sleeper has the following features.

Specifications The size of a wooden sleeper should be economical. It should provide the desired strength to the sleeper as a beam as well as adequate bearing area. The depth of a sleeper governs its stiffness as a beam and its length and width control the necessary bearing area. The bearing length under each rail seat is 92 cm (3 ft) for a BG wooden sleeper, thereby giving an area of 2325 cm2 under each rail seat. The sizes of sleepers used for BG, MG, and NG as well as the bearing area per sleeper are given in Table 7.4.

Table 7.4 Sizes of wooden sleepers and bearing areas


Size (cm)

Bearing area per sleeper (m2)


275 x 25 x 13



180 x 20 x 11.5



150 x 18 x 11.5


Wooden sleepers required for bridges, points, and crossings are of a thicker section—25 cm x 15 cm or 25 cm x 18 cm.

Composite sleeper index The composite sleeper index (CSI), which evolved from a combination of the properties of strength and hardness, is an index used to determine the suitability of a particular timber for use as a sleeper from the point of view of mechanical strength.

The CSI is given by the formula

where S is the figure for the general strength for both green and dry timber at 12% moisture content and H is the figure for the general hardness for both green and dry timber at 12% moisture content. The minimum CSI prescribed on Indian Railways are the following.

Type of sleeper

Minimum CSI

Track sleeper


Crossing sleeper


Bridge sleeper


Bearing plates are invariably used on sleepers with a CSI value of 82 or less. The CSI values for some of the timber species recommended by Indian Railways for making sleepers are as follows.









Wooden sleepers have the following main advantages and disadvantages. Advantages

(a) Cheap and easy to manufacture

(b) Absorbs shocks and bears a good capacity to dampen vibrations; therefore, retains the packing well

(c) Easy handling without damage

(d) Suitable for track-circuited sections

(e) Suitable for areas with yielding formations

(f) Alignment can be easily corrected

(g) More suitable for modern methods of maintenance

(h) Can be used with or without stone ballast

(i) Can be used on bridges and ashpits also

(j) Can be used for gauntleted track


(a) Lesser life due to wear, decay, and attack by vermin

(b) Liable to mechanical wear due to beater packing

(c) Difficult to maintain the gauge

(d) Susceptible to fire hazards

(e) Negligible scrap value

At present wooden sleepers are being procured from the State Forest Departments. A detailed inspection of sleepers is done at the time of procurement to ensure that the sleepers accepted are of good quality and free from defects. The main defects normally found in sleepers are

(a) Centre heart

(b) Presence of knots, warps, wanes, and shakes

(c) Split ends

(d) Twisted or cross grains

The normal service life of wooden sleepers in India is only about 15 years as against a much longer service life obtained on other advanced railways. The weather conditions, particularly the rains, humidity, etc., are responsible for the shorter life-span of these sleepers in India. A committee was appointed by the Railway Board in the year 1972 to examine the measures for increasing service life and improving the utilization of wooden sleepers. The main recommendations of this committee are as follows.

(a) Sleepers should be procured in nominated sleeper depots of the Railways. The inspection of sleepers should also be done by the Railways in addition to the Forest Department.

(b) The net retention of creosote and fuel oil (in the ratio of 1:1) for the sleeper should be a minimum of 8 lb/ft3.

(c) Bearing plates and elastic fastenings as well as modern methods of maintenance such as measured shovel packing (MSP) and mechanical tamping should be progressively used with wooden sleepers to avoid damage to the sleepers and ensure a longer life for them. Bearing plates should be compulsorily used when traffic density exceeds 20 GMT on BG routes and 5 GMT on MG routes as well as on joint sleepers and on curves of radius 1,500 metre and sharper curves.

(d) Spike-killed sleepers should be systematically reconditioned.

(e) Track depots should be organized in each railway to undertake the operations of end-binding, adzing, and pre-boring of sleepers.

7.4.1 Durable and Non-durable Types of Sleepers

Wooden sleepers may be classified into two categories, durable and non-durable.

Durable type

Durable sleepers do not require any treatment and can be laid directly on the track. The Indian Railway Board has classified particular categories of sleepers as the durable type. These are sleepers produced from timbers such as teak, sal, nahor, rosewood, anjan, kongu, crumbogam kong, vengai, padauk, lakooch, wonta, milla, and crul.

Non-durable type

Non-durable sleepers require treatment before being put on the track. Non-durable sleepers are made of wood of trees such as chir, deodar, kail, gunjan, and jamun.

If a non-durable type of sleeper is put onto the track directly without any preservative treatment, the sleeper will decay in a very short time. If, however, such sleepers are treated before use, they last longer and their life is comparable to that of durable sleepers. Fir sleepers, however, have not provided good service and their use has been restricted to only those trunk routes and main lines where traffic density is not more than 10 GMT [gross million tonne(s) per km/annum]. The primary service life of a wooden sleeper is approximately as follows:


Durable 19 years 31 years

Non-durable 12.5 years 15.5 years

7.4.2 Treated and Untreated Sleepers

Wooden sleepers are also sometimes classified as hard wood and soft wood sleepers depending upon the origin or species of the wood of which these are made. Broadly speaking, timber produced from trees with broad leaves is known as hard wood and that obtained from trees bearing long leaves is considered soft wood. Some of the hard wood varieties also require treatment before being used in the track. As per the recommendations of the committee, the use of the terms ‘durable’ and ‘non-durable’ as well as ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ should be done away with to avoid confusion. The committee recommended that for simplification and rationalization, wooden sleepers should be classified in two categories:

(a) ‘U’ or Untreated sleepers comprising of all the sleepers made of wood from naturally durable species.

(b) ‘T’ or Treated sleepers consisting of the rest of the sleepers.

Treatment of sleepers

Indian Railways has set up four sleeper treatment plants at the locations given

below for treating non-durable sleepers:

Dhilwan (Punjab) in Northern Railways 1923

Naharkatia (Assam) in North Frontier 1928

Clutterbuckganj (UP) in North East 1955

Olvakot (Kerala) in Southern Railways 1957

All these plants utilize the pressure treatment process and the preservative is forced into the wood under pressure using any one of the following three methods.

Full cell (Bethell) process In the Bethell process, a cylinder loaded with the charge for about 300-400 sleepers is first subjected to a vacuum of 55-60 cm of mercury for 20-30 minutes by means of a vacuum pump. Hot creosote oil is then forced into the cylinder at a pressure of 150-180 psi at a temperature of 180°F. This pressure is maintained for a period of 50-70 minutes till the desired amount of absorption is obtained. Thereafter, the pressure is reduced and the cylinder is drained off the creosote oil. A final vacuum of 55 cm of mercury is applied to free the timber of excess preservative. The whole process takes about 2-3 hours. This process is normally used when maximum retention of creosote oil is required for a particular type of sleeper such as that made of kail, deodar, fir, etc. At present this method is in use in Olvakot, Clutterbuckganj, and Dhilwan plants for various types of wood.

Empty cell (Rueping) process In the Rueping process, wooden sleepers loaded into the cylinder are first subjected to an initial air pressure of 3.5 to 5.25 kg/cm2 for about 20-30 minutes. Afterwards, without reducing the pressure, hot creosote oil is forced into the cylinder at a temperature of 180°C to 210°C. The pressure is then raised to a value of 10.5-19.6 kg/cm2 and maintained for a period of 20-30 minutes till the desired absorption is achieved. Finally, the pressure is released, the cylinder is drained off the creosote, and a final vacuum of 55 cm of mercury is created to drain off the excess preservative. The whole process of treatment takes about 2-3 hours per charge. This process is generally employed for treating porous timbers and is used in Dhilwan and Clutterbuckganj depots for chir sleepers. In this process, air in the cell is entrapped, thereby limiting the preservative to be absorbed by the sleeper to a certain extent.

Empty cell (Lowry) process In the Lowry process, the cylinder loaded with timber charge is filled and then subjected to a pressure of 180 lb, which is sufficient to ensure proper impregnation. The cylinder is then drained off and the timber subjected to a final vacuum of 55 cm of mercury for a period of 45 minutes or so. The air entrapped in the timber cells forces the excess preservative out. Preservative recovery is greater in this case than in the full cell process but is less than in the Rueping process. This process is used in the Naharkatia plant for very green species of timber.

Prophylactic treatment of sleepers Prophylactic treatment is given to the sleepers by using patent chemicals such as arsenic pentaoxide, copper sulphate, and potassium dichromate solution in water 1:3:4 wt (60%) to prevent infection at the forest head and in the treatment plant. This is necessary an as appreciable amount of time elapses in transferring the sleepers from the forest depots to the treatment plant.

Seasoning of sleepers

Wooden sleepers are seasoned to reduce the moisture content so that their treatment is effective. The Indian Standard code of practice for preservation of timber lays down that the moisture content in the case of sleepers to be treated by pressure treatment should not be more than 25%.

The seasoning of sleepers can be done by any one of the following processes.

Artificial seasoning in kiln This is a controlled method of seasoning the timber, normally used in the USA and other advanced countries, under conditions of temperature and relative humidity, which are in the range of natural air seasoning.

Boulton or boiling under vacuum process This is a process in which unseasoned wood is treated with hot preservative to remove the moisture content. This is adopted in the Naharkatia depot.

Air seasoning This is the method adopted extensively for the seasoning of wooden sleepers in India. The sleepers are stacked in the timber yard and a provision is made for enough space for the circulation of air in between the sleepers. The sleepers are stacked in any one of the following ways:

(a) One and nine method (Fig. 7.2)

(b) Close crib method

(c) Open crib method (Fig. 7.3)

Fig.7.2 One and nine method

Fig. 7.3 Open crib method

Normally, the one and nine method is adopted on Indian Railways for stacking the sleepers. About 6 months are required to air season the timber fully by this method.

7.4.3 Laying of Wooden Sleepers

Great care should be taken in laying wooden sleepers. Untreated wooden sleepers should be laid with the sapwood side upwards and the heartwood side downwards so as to ensure minimum decay due to fungus, etc., attacking from below. More moisture would also percolate into the sleepers if laid otherwise. In the case of treated sleepers, however, the heartwood side is kept upwards and the sapwood side downwards. This is done because the sapwood side contains more creosote and is liable to less damage from vermin and fungus.

7.4.4 Adzing of Wooden Sleepers

In order to enable the rails to be slightly tilted inwards at a cant of 1 in 20, wooden sleepers are required to be cut to this slope at the rail seat before laying. This process of cutting the wooden sleeper at a slope of 1 in 20 is known as ‘adzing of the wooden sleeper’.

It may be pointed out that adzing or cutting of a wooden sleeper at a slope of 1 in 20 is done with great care, otherwise the slope will vary from sleeper to sleeper resulting in a rough ride. The adzed surface of a wooden sleeper is treated with

coal tar or creosote to ensure proper protection of the surface. Normally, adzing of a wooden sleeper is done only when bearing plates are not provided.

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