Railway track (new) showing traditional features of ballast, part of sleeper and fixing mechanisms
Section through railway track and foundation showing the ballast and formation layers. The layers are slightly sloped to help drainage.
Sometimes there is a layer of rubber matting (not shown) to improve drainage, and to dampen sound and vibration.
Notwithstanding modern technical developments, the overwhelmingly dominant track form worldwide consists of flat-bottom steel rails supported on timber or pre-stressed concrete sleepers, which are themselves laid on crushed stone ballast.
Most railroads with heavy traffic use continuously welded rails supported by sleepers attached via base plates that spread the load. A plastic or rubber pad is usually placed between the rail and the tie plate where concrete sleepers are used. The rail is usually held down to the sleeper with resilient fastenings, although cut spikes are widely used in North American practice. For much of the 20th century, rail track used softwood timber sleepers and jointed rails, and a considerable extent of this track type remains on secondary and tertiary routes. The rails were typically of flat bottom section fastened to the sleepers with dog spikes through a flat tie plate in North America and Australia, and typically of bullhead section carried in cast iron chairs in British and Irish practice. The London, Midland and Scottish Railway pioneered the conversion to flat-bottomed rail and the supposed advantage of bullhead rail - that the rail could be turned over and re-used when the top surface had become worn - turned out to be unworkable in practice because the underside was usually ruined by fretting from the chairs.