Why Are There Crushed Stones Alongside Railroad Tracks?

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Why are there crushed stones alongside rail tracks?

David S. Rose:

This is a good question with an interesting answer. The crushed stones are what is known as ballast. Their purpose is to hold the wooden cross ties in place, which in turn hold the rails in place.

Think about the engineering challenge faced by running miles of narrow ribbons of steel track on top of the ground: they are subject to heat expansion and contraction, ground movement and vibration, precipitation buildup from rough weather, and weed and plant growth from underneath. Now keep in mind that while 99 percent of the time they are just sitting there unburdened, the remaining one percent of the time they are subject to moving loads as heavy as one million pounds (the weight of a Union Pacific Big Boy locomotive and its tender).

Put all this together, and you have yourself a really, really interesting problem that was first solved nearly 200 years ago, and hasn't been significantly improved since.

The answer is to start with the bare ground, and then build up a foundation to raise the track high enough so it won't get flooded. On top of the foundation, you deposit a load of crushed stone (the ballast). On top of the stone, you lay down (perpendicular to the direction of the track) a line of wooden beams on 19.5 inch centers, 8.5 feet long, 9 inches wide and 7 inches thick, weighing about 200 pounds ... 3249 of them per mile. You then continue to dump crushed stone all around the beams. The sharp edges of the stone make it difficult for them to slide over each other (in the way that smooth, round pebbles would), thus effectively locking them in place.

The beams are made of hardwood (usually oak or hickory), and impregnated with creosote for weather protection. In the U.S. we call them "cross ties" (or, colloquially, just "railroad ties"); in the UK they are known as "sleepers"; European Portuguese, "travessas"; Brazilian Portuguese, "dormentes"; Russian, шпала (read "shpala"); French "traverses." While 93 percent of ties in the U.S. are still made of wood, heavily trafficked modern rail lines are increasingly trying alternatives, including composite plastic, steel, and concrete.

Next, you bring in hot-rolled steel rails, historically 39' long in the U.S. (because they were carried to the site in 40' gondola cars), but increasingly now 78', and lay them on top of the ties, end to end. They used to be joined by bolting on an extra piece of steel (called a "fishplate") across the side of the joint, but today are usually continuously welded end-to-end.

It would seem that you could just nail them or bolt them down to the ties, but that won't work. The non-trivial movement caused by heat expansion and contraction along the length of the rail would cause it to break or buckle if any of it were fixed in place. So instead, the rails are attached to the sleepers by clips or anchors, which hold them down but allow them to move longitudinally as they expand or contract.

So there you have it: a centuries-old process that is extremely effective at facilitating the movement of people and material over thousands of miles ... even though nothing is permanently attached to the ground with a fixed connection!

The ballast distributes the load of the ties (which, in turn, bear the load of the train on the track, held by clips) across the foundation, allows for ground movement, thermal expansion and weight variance, allows rain and snow to drain through the track, and inhibit the growth of weeds and vegetation that would quickly take over the track.

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What Happens If I Don't Pay My Taxes on Time?

Marco Verch Professional Photo, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Marco Verch Professional Photo, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

While death and taxes may be the only true certainties in life, somehow Tax Day always seems to sneak up on us. So what happens if tax season slips your mind, and you just don't file anything?

It depends. If you already know you're not going to get your taxes done by Tax Day, you can file for an extension. You can get an extra six months to file federal taxes by filling out a form and estimating (and paying) how much you'll owe for that year.

While you may be granted a filing extension, you are still required to pay your taxes by the regular due date: If you don't hand the IRS at least an estimated amount by April 15, you'll be charged a fee equal to .5 percent of the tax you owed in the first place per month it was left unpaid (up to 25 percent). If you ignore repeated notices from the IRS, that .5 percent increases to 1 percent per month. And you'll have to pay interest on the money you haven't given over (3 percent plus the federal short-term rate, which changes every three months, compounded each day).

If you don't file any federal income tax return at all by mid-April, you'll be slapped with a fine—5 percent of the amount you already owe for each month you're overdue, up to 25 percent. If you file your return more than two months late without a good excuse, you'll pay a minimum of $135 in penalty fees, or the balance of the tax you owe, if that total is less than $135. (According to the IRS's website, "The total penalty for failure to file and pay can be 47.5 percent [22.5 percent late filing and 25 percent late payment] of the tax owed.")

If you do a little math, you'll see that it usually pays to go ahead and file your return or get an extension, even if you can't pay your taxes immediately. Here's how Turbotax explains it:

Example: Let's say you didn't file your return or an extension by April 15, and you still owe the IRS an additional $1000.

Scenario 1: You file an extension on or before April 15 and pay your $1000 bill on April 25 (10 days late). Your penalty would be $5 (the 0.5 percent late-payment penalty applied to $1000), plus another dollar or so for the interest.

Scenario 2: You didn't file an extension, and you file your return on April 25 (10 days late) along with your $1000 payment. Your penalty would be $50 (the 5 percent late-filing penalty applied to $1000), plus another dollar or so for the interest.

Scenario 3: You file your return five years late, along with your $1000 payment. Your penalty would be around $534 (the maximum late-filing penalty of 25 percent applied to $1000, plus 5 percent interest compounded daily assuming the interest rate doesn't change).

If you don't owe any taxes because your employer withheld more than necessary and you are due to get a tax refund, you have three years to file your taxes before the IRS will keep that money. So as long as you get around to it by April 2022, you'll still get that money back. After those three years, the IRS will keep your whole refund, and it won't count toward next year's tax bill, either.

Say you just don't want to pay your taxes (a crime, just to be clear). How long before the IRS will come after you?

If your penalties and back-taxes add up to more than $25,000, someone from the IRS is going to come knocking at your door. In 2016, the IRS investigated 206 people for regularly failing to file their taxes, and put 159 people in jail for an average of three years. (Remember, it was the IRS that took down Al Capone.)

If you are a chronic non-filer and don't file your taxes even after warnings from the IRS, the government will go ahead and estimate what you owe, calculating what's called a "substitute for return." This total doesn't include deductions that you might have been eligible for, meaning that if you let the government do your taxes for you, you'll probably end up with a heftier bill.

And that's just at the federal level. While states vary on how they treat people who don't file their taxes, they slap penalties and interest on late returns and payments, too. Some states will even take your federal tax refund to pay your state back taxes. However, in many states, being approved for a federal tax extension also gets you an automatic extra six months on your state income taxes.

The lesson: If there's any chance you'll be late filing your return this year, ask for an extension ASAP.

A version of this story was first published in 2016.

Why Does the Queen Have Two Birthdays?

Toby Melville, WPA Pool/Getty Images
Toby Melville, WPA Pool/Getty Images

On April 21, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will turn 93 years old. To mark the occasion, there are usually a series of gun salutes around London: a 41 gun salute in Hyde Park, a 21 gun salute in Windsor Great Park, and a 62 gun salute at the Tower of London. For the most part, the monarch celebrates her big day privately. But on June 8, 2019, Her Majesty will parade through London as part of an opulent birthday celebration known as Trooping the Colour.

Queen Elizabeth, like many British monarchs before her, has two birthdays: the actual anniversary of the day she was born, and a separate day that is labeled her "official" birthday (usually the second Saturday in June). Why? Because April 21 is usually too cold for a proper parade.

The tradition started in 1748, with King George II, who had the misfortune of being born in chilly November. Rather than have his subjects risk catching colds, he combined his birthday celebration with the Trooping the Colour.

The parade itself had been part of British culture for almost a century by that time. At first it was strictly a military event, at which regiments displayed their flags—or colours—so that soldiers could familiarize themselves. But George was known as a formidable general after having led troops at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743, so the military celebration seemed a fitting occasion onto which to graft his warm-weather birthday. Edward VII, who also had a November birthday, was the first to standardize the June Trooping the Colour and launched a tradition of a monarchical review of the troops that drew crowds of onlookers.

Even now, the date of the "official" birthday varies year to year. For the first seven years of her reign, Elizabeth II held her official birthday on a Thursday but has since switched over to Saturdays. And while the date is tied to the Trooping the Colour in the UK, Commonwealth nations around the world have their own criteria, which generally involve recognizing it as a public holiday.

Australia started recognizing an official birthday back in 1788, and all the provinces (save one) observe the Queen's Birthday on the second Monday in June, with Western Australia holding its celebrations on the last Monday of September or the first Monday of October.

In Canada, the official birthday has been set to align with the actual birth date of Queen Victoria—May 24, 1819—since 1845, and as such they celebrate so-called Victoria Day on May 24 or the Monday before.

In New Zealand, it's the first Monday in June, and in the Falkland Islands the actual day of the Queen's birth is celebrated publicly.

All in all, just another reason it's great to be Queen.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This story has been updated for 2019.

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