Everything You Could Want To Know About Sleepers – Monday Model Railway Factoid, #6

Little Telseigh - Model Railway SleepersSleepers are critical to railways and to vital for authentic model railways but what are their origins? How many are there? Here’s all you could want to know about these wooden, concrete and steel beams.

According to various dictionaries, the word sleeper originally comes from the word Sleip in Old Norwegian and is closely related to the word Slab with Dictionary.com defining it’s meaning as a “strong horizontal beam”. 

They were originally made of wood with the first use recorded in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1789 and came about as a means to maintain track gauge along the length of the railway despite changes in track geometry.

In 1877 a French gardner Joseph Monier suggested concrete reinforced with steel could be used with the first recorded use of this alternative make being on the London & North Western Railway in 1889. Now sleepers in Britain are concrete while railways around the rest of the world are moving to steel sleepers.

There are approximately 17.5million sleepers on railways in the UK

Prototypes References

For those wanting to accurately model their track on real railways, there are between 1320 to 1540 sleepers per mile of track in Britain depending on loading and track formation.

According to Guinness Book of Railway Facts and Feats, sleepers – when made of wood – measure 8feet 6inches x 10 inches by 5 inches.

At the time my copy of the Book of Railway Facts was published, 1993, the then British Rail was replacing approximately 2.5million sleepers a year, although not all of these are swapped to concrete at the time.

Previous Model Railway Factoids:

#1 The First Model Railway
#2 The world's longest indoor model railway track
#3 The Smallest Model Railway
#4 The World's largest model railway
#5 Whyte Notation
#6 Origins of Ballast
#7 Everything You Could Want To Know About Sleepers
#8 The Biggest Model Railway Mountain
#9 The Man Who Built 600 Model Trains
#10 Model Railway Eras - A Question Of Time

> A final, personal, note: I spend a huge amount of time testing, photographing, writing and researching techniques for these articles and pay for all the running costs of MRE out of my own pocket. If you found this article useful you can support me by making a donation on my fund-raising page. Thanks and happy modelling, Andy.

Picture, sleepers on Little Telseigh model railway at the 2015 Guildford Model Railway Exhibition.

Founder of ModelRailwayEngineer, Andy Leaning

Andy is a lifelong modeler, writer, and founder of modelrailwayengineer.com. He has been building model railways, dioramas, and miniatures for over 20 years. His passion for model making and railways began when he was a child, building his first layout at the age of seven.
Andy’s particular passion is making scenery and structures in 4mm scale, which he sells commercially. He is particularly interested in modelling the railways of South West England during the late Victorian/early Edwardian era, although he also enjoys making sci-fi and fantasy figures and dioramas. His website has won several awards, and he is a member of MERG (Model Railway Electronics Group) and the 009 Society.
When not making models, Andy lives in Surrey with his wife and teenage son. Other interests include history, science fiction, photography, and programming. Read more about Andy.

Afflliate disclosure:The links on this page may take you to carefully selected businesses, such as Hornby, Amazon, eBay and Scale Model Scenery, where you can purchase the product under affiliate programmes. This means I receive a small commission on any orders placed although the price you pay does not change. You can read my full affiliate policy here. I also sell my my own ready to use, pre-made and painted buildings and terrain features. browse the range.
  1. I am in the early stages of building a 2.5″ gauge model of the ‘Stirling Single’ and I hope to build a garden track to run the loco/train on. I don’t have a big garden just over 1/4 acre, most of which is governed by the management, (my wife), but I am sure that if I can finish the loco in time I will be allowed an appropriate area.

    • Maybe you could reach a trade-off with “the management”? A garden railway in return for something around the house? 🙂 A 2.5″ gauge Stirling Single would be wonderful! Would love to see pictures as it develops!

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