National Train Day (generally celebrated the 1st or 2nd weekend of May, depending on organization) was begun in 2008 by Amtrak to celebrate not only their start of operations in May 1971 but what all railroads have contributed to the growth of the United States. Amtrak ended their official celebration practice eight years later in 2016, although the recognition continues unofficially.

As rail accidents had been on the increase throughout the 1960s, President Nixon signed into law the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970. This act extended the Department of Transportation’s role in fostering the safe operation of railroads by assigning a defined safety role for the Federal Railroad Administration more comparable to the safety roles performed by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Coast Guard.

As a result, items like those pictured below were defined with the workers using them often called “wheel monkeys.” What are/were the items below used for in the railroad industry?

Investigations revealed that many railroad incidents and accidents were the result of poorly maintained railroad wheels and track structure. As a result, stricter regulations were put in place in 1970 for all railroads to follow regarding the routine maintenance of railroad wheels and track structures including the contours of rails and wheels. The three gauges pictured above were developed to determine an acceptable vs failing condition for in-service wheel defects routinely observed. The FRA developed a set of minimum requirements any wheel in service had to meet and the gauges above, along with others, allowed quick determination if a wheel complied with minimally acceptable wear and use criteria or had to be removed from service as defective.

As a result of the Act, railroad incidents involving track and car wheels dropped considerably. Today, many of these measurements are done electronically using cameras, ultrasonic, and magnetic resonance testing techniques as cars pass through freight yards. While it may still be possible to hear a railroad car moving past with a wheel thumping like a hammer on a kettle drum (due to having had the wheel slid and a flat spot developing) when one is stopped at a railroad crossing, the car is either being relocated for wheel replacement or about to be flagged as no longer serviceable in need of wheel replacement when it reaches the next interchange yard.

The YouTube video below details how the gauges above are used to make a quick confirmation that a railroad wheel is defective and must be removed for maintenance. A wheel out of compliance may be placed on a wheel lathe at a railroad shop and recontoured to passing status several times before it becomes scrap and must be returned to a foundry for melting back into other steel products.