The usual lengths are 8, 8½, or 9 feet, with a cross section between 6 inches × 7 inches and 7 inches × 9 inches. Ties treated with preservative, as all are today, can last an average of 25 to 40 years, although they may have a much shorter life due to mechanical wear.
Interested in railroad ties? You might want to know about date nails.
American Railroad Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association.
Manual for Railway Engineering, vol. 1, chapter 30-Ties.
Lanham, Maryland. (revised annually).
These are the current standards. The AREMAA offers a pdf file of the table of contents for chapter 30 on the web at AREMA_MRE_2010_TOC_Vol1_Ch30.pdf
Federal Specification MM-T-371.
W. M. Camp on ties
Railroad ties of the 19th century described by an expert writing in 1903. He mainly concentrates on their most important property economically: their lifetime, and discusses such factors as the species of wood, the season in which it was cut, the age of the tree, whether the tie is sawn or hewn, the climate, the type of ballast, and so on. He estimates the lifetime of the average tie at 6½ years, in this period before preservation became standard. A pdf file.
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Last revised: 20 December 2010.