#SPITZKE Group 06 January 2024

The Three Lives of Railway Sleepers

As a company in the railway infrastructure sector, our over 2,300 employees focus their daily work on shaping sustainable mobility and contributing to the achievement of climate goals. One crucial aspect – among many others – is the utilization of old railroad sleepers. Hence, a concrete railroad sleeper has more than one life.

What happens to old concrete railway sleepers?

Concrete sleepers that no longer meet the requirements of, for example, heavily frequented long-distance rail routes are far from being obsolete and can indeed be reused. If the evaluation by the Deutsche Bahn determines that they are still in good condition, they are refurbished and put back into service on less busy routes.

Railway sleepers get their second life outside the public rail infrastructure, in the private sector. This could be, for instance, on industrial railways, port railways, or even private company tracks, where the ties are subjected to much lower loads than in passenger and freight traffic on the public rail network.

How do we recycle old railway sleepers?

For their third life, retired concrete railroad ties make their way to our manufacturing subsidiary, SPITZKE FAHRWEGSYSTEME GmbH, in Möllenhagen, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Even the transportation is done with ecological considerations. The “Last-Last” method means that the old railroad sleepers arrive on specialized freight cars at our concrete plant in Möllenhagen, and the transport trains are loaded with new, high-quality sleepers for delivery to SPITZKE’s nationwide construction projects. This way, we link disposal with supply and avoid empty trips.

At our manufacturing site in Möllenhagen, one of the largest facilities in Europe for the production of prestressed concrete products, the railroad sleepers, which have already experienced one or two lives, are broken down into their material components and recycled.

The three components are:

  • Concrete
  • Steel
  • Plastic

The plastics, such as dowels or angled guide plates, are melted down and recycled. The steel from the fasteners and reinforcements is reused as metal scrap in steel production. The concrete fragments are processed at our facility in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern into road construction materials or aggregates for the concrete industry – no waste is left behind. All components of the railroad ties return to the economic cycle, serving as valuable building materials and contributing to the conservation of our natural resources.

Where are recycled railway sleepers reused?

The old concrete sleepers are crushed and fragmented, creating construction materials in various grain sizes. These can be reused in diverse ways. There is a high demand for coarser granules, for example, in road construction for base layers or similar applications. Another method of reuse is as concrete aggregate, which can be reintegrated as so-called recycled material into certain types of concrete.

Sustainable Developments of the Future

In the fiscal year 2022/​2023, our concrete plant in Möllenhagen received almost 50,000 tons of concrete railway sleepers for processing. The trend is increasing.  This is due to the acute shortage of raw materials, which is becoming increasingly apparent, and the future trend is clear: ongoing research is examining how to make best use of our existing resources. Recycling methods are developing rapidly, and this is also evident in the areas of railway sleepers and concrete products.