Across the world, ballasted railway tracks are utilised extensively due to their cost efficiency, ease of drainage, and capacity to withstand cyclic imposed loadings from heavy trains. In spite of these benefits, the ballast is often considered as a flexible medium; as such, its continuous deterioration is largely disregarded. Geotechnical challenges such as ballast contamination in the form of particle fragmentation, deposition of weathered materials, upward pumping of clay and fines from underlayers, and coal intrusion have led to differential settlements and reduced drainability of tracks, thereby exacerbating track maintenance costs. This study reviews existing works of literature to expound on the mechanisms for ballast contamination and to highlight the fundamental parameters that guide the characterisation and performance evaluation of railway ballasts. The study shows that ballast fragmentation accounts for about 76% of commonly recorded contaminations, while it is also observed as the most critical to track stability. As such, a variety of indices and specifications for ballast gradation have been established worldwide to guide practice in ballast characterisation and performance evaluation. However, the mechanisms of ballast fragmentation and deterioration require further research to guide the improvement of contemporary guidelines, and mitigate the risk of abrupt track failures, especially in developing countries.
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