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What Is a Railroad Jack?

By Lori Kilchermann
Updated May 23, 2024
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A railroad jack is a very heavy-duty ratchet type of jack used to raise rail cars. The ratcheting action of the railroad jack allows the user to raise the car in small increments and lock the jack into position. With a solid footing cast into the jack housing and a grooved tongue to engage the railway car or locomotive, this type of jack is very stable while in use and provides a certain amount of confidence for the operator.

While railroads are generally considered durable, the problem is that any repair typically requires powerful repair equipment. The railroad jack made it possible to raise a loaded boxcar and repair a broken spring or wheel bearing on the road. Typically carried in the locomotive and the caboose, the jack was considered a valued item to the crew. The extreme lifting capacity and multitude of domestic uses also made the railroad jack a top pick for thieves.

The railroad jack became of particular fancy to persons in the house-moving and barn-repair businesses. The jacks were able to lift a house off of its foundation and hold it suspended while a trailer was backed underneath it. The jacks were also strong and powerful enough to raise sagging barns by lifting the main beams up and allowing concrete foundations to be poured underneath them. For extreme duty, there were special models of the jack that were hydraulically operated and could lift incredible amounts of weight.

The power of the jack makes it useful for derailments and accident scenes. The jack is able to raise objects that are very close to the ground by utilizing its toe. Often, the jack is laid on its side and rested against a strong object while a chain is looped around the toe of the jack. The jack is then pumped horizontally and used to pull bends out of steel beams and chassis off broken rail cars. When placed at an angle behind a railroad car and wedged against a rail tie, the jack could be used to move a car away from another or used to push two cars together for coupling them.

Modern jacks use the same basic design; however, many of the modern jacks are hydraulically-operated. Today, the jacks are not carried on the locomotives, and the caboose has slipped into obscurity. The jacks are now carried by track repair crews and by mobile railroad repair teams.

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Discussion Comments
By Esther11 — On Jul 05, 2011

After looking at some pictures of a modern electric railroad jack positioned to raise a railroad car, I thought that these machines are so useful. They are portable and not all that big. It's surprising that they could lift up a railroad car.

I wonder who thought to invent something so useful. The first ones seemed to work well, even though they were operated by hand. Railroad jacks are used for the same purposes today as when they first invented. They have been modernized by adding hydraulic or electric lifts. Derailments, accidents and repairs call for the need to lift up the railroad cars.

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