The Origins of Ballast – Monday Model Railway Factoid, #5

Thirdley (LMS) model railwayEven wondered what the origins of ballast are and why it’s even called ballast? Read on for the fascinating history of the small grey stones found between track rails.

The origins of the word ballast on railways come from Tyneside. In the definitive guide to railway history, the Guinness Railway Book by John Marshall, it’s revealed that ships returning to Newcastle after transporting coal arrived at the port laden with gravel and other materials to maintain stability and this was known as ‘in ballast’.

Once docked however this material needed to be disposed of and was dumped nearby. But it didn’t go to waste and this is where its use on railways began.

The local tramways, used to transport coal to the ships, needed material to hold the rails in place and the dumped ‘ballast’ provided the perfect material. Later, its use moved from tramways to railways and with it the name.

So there you have it. The term ballast as used on model and full-size railways, comes from shipping and moved to tramways and then railways.

In terms of the material itself, today railway ballast is made from crushed granite to a defined size; but originally other substances were used with ash, sand and other stones and have all been tried.

If you’re building a model railway set before the modern era, check the colours and material used for ballast at the time. An example of such non-grey ballasts on model railways can be seen in the Thirdley (LMS) model railway – pictured above.  And don’t forget to read my comprehensive guide on how to ballast model railway track starting.

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.

Founder of ModelRailwayEngineer, Andy Leaning

Andy is a lifelong modeler, writer, and founder of 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.

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