Why does the ballast of train track need good drainage?

I read something about preventing "fouling" of the ballast, but don't know what that means or why it would be structurally bad.

Could foundational support play a role, where soggy ground would give way under the track?

I'm also trying to understand why ballastless track apparently doesn't need good drainage. That continuous slab of concrete surely is not permeable to water.


3 Answers 3


There are a number of good reasons why the ballast layer needs to be free draining. The main objective of the ballast layer being free draining is somewhat tautologically to keep the water out of the track structure.

Why is this necessary? Well, there are are two main underlying reasons why you don't want water in your track structure:

  1. It tends to lead to deterioration in the track geometry through various mechanisms, which leads to lower speeds, increased derailment risk and more expensive track resurfacing.

  2. It tends to lead to deterioration of your ties (concrete, timber and steel alike), which means you have to replace them more often.

There are a few key mechanisms that cause the deterioration in track geometry:

  1. When the water stops moving through the ballast it stops washing out contamination of fines (through local sedimentation or from the breakdown of the ballast itself). The standing water then tends to bind with the fines to create a mud slurry which both erodes the ties and quickly rounds the ballast rocks.

    This is bad because ballast rocks rely on their irregular shape to provide a solid and stable layer; when new, the ballast rocks can interlock with one another and quickly reach a relatively stable lowest energy state with high strength characteristics. As the rocks become rounded and smaller they settle further and interlock less well, reducing the overall strength of the layer.

  2. The pumping action of trains passing over the ballast layer when it is wet tends to drive water into cracks in the subballast, which can drive the water down into the track foundation. Either way, both the subballast and the foundation will tend to be weaker when wet, and the action of the water infiltration will also erode these layers, which only makes the problem worse.

  3. In soils with a high expansiveness (in particular clay), they may vary volumetrically quite substantially when they are wet as opposed to being dry. So, when the formerly dry formation gets wet, it can heave, and then when it dries out, it shrinks again. These processes are not uniform and so lead to poor top geometry.

  4. Similarly, in areas where freezing temperatures are encountered the water in the soil can freeze; ice has a lower density than liquid water and so you get heave, and then shrinking again when it melts. Melt water is also a great eroder.

For all of these reasons we like to keep water from entering the formation (so far as is reasonably possible) and drain it out quickly when it does get in there.

I'm afraid I don't know very much about slab track but I suspect that as you speculate, it is relatively impermeable to water and also not especially susceptible to erosion, and so the formation stays dry even if the slab track above it is practically under water.

  • $\begingroup$ Soaked ballast may also affect track circuits causing them to show "occupied" when not. $\endgroup$
    – Transistor
    Nov 19, 2017 at 18:53
  • $\begingroup$ That's true; I actually look after a "dark" network that is largely not controlled by track circuits so I forget about our signalling cousins. $\endgroup$
    – Big Luke
    Mar 28, 2018 at 0:40

For both kinds of track, the answer is the same: to prevent the track from shifting as a result of freeze-thaw cycles. The idea with ballasted track is that water is not allowed to accumulate in the ballast if it has good drainage. The idea with unballasted track is that the concrete redirects the water so that the ground immediately below it stays dry, achieving the same result.

  • $\begingroup$ So in Brazil, good drainage doesn't matter despite the huge rainy season? That would be interesting and ironic. $\endgroup$
    – DrZ214
    Nov 13, 2016 at 0:30
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @DrZ214: How often does the ground freeze in Brazil? $\endgroup$
    – Dave Tweed
    Nov 13, 2016 at 3:59

It's also important to drain the ballast and slab track in particular to limit the propagation of stray currents and prevent corrosion of the slab rebars or the track material . This applies to all electrified tracks.


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