Rail Awareness in Nevada

Rail Awareness Blog

Coffee Tracks - Mustang Exit off I80

Our “Pack of Rats” gathered Saturday morning by the Chevron station at the Mustang exit off of Interstate 80. This area was chosen so that we could take a look at how things have changed in this area since the railroad was put in circa 1868. In a wonderful book, The Central Pacific Railroad Across Nevada – 1868 & 1997, we got a glance at the past geography and compared it to what currently exists.

After this, we headed down the dirt road to the East (old interstate 80) and ended up at milepost 255. While at this location, we discussed the following:


  • How to read the milepost markers – 2553 means mile 255.3 as measured from San Francisco, CA.
  • Checking the white light on the Control Shed – if it is steady white, all is good. If it is flashing or out, call the RMCC and ask for the Signal Department and explain what milepost you are at and the condition of the light.
  • The 9.2 yellow marker along the side of the tracks indicates the mileage of the gas pipeline from the Sparks Yard.
  • If we see homeless camps on railroad property, go to the Union Pacific Railroad Response Management Communication Center website: UP: Response Management Communication Center (RMCC) At this point, scroll down and choose the correct option for your issue.
    • We have often wondered whether or not Union Pacific actually does anything with what we report. I have good news! They do respond.
      • I submitted a problem with a blue ENS sign missing from the crossing at Fourth Street in Reno. I went today to check the status of this – it has been replaced.
      • I reported that a Union Pacific gate at the end of Spokane Street was locked in the open position. When I checked this today, the lock was gone. Yeah! But the gate is wide open. I will submit another request to have a Union Pacific lock put on the gate in the locked position.
      • I reported approximately 10 homeless encampments between Sutro Avenue and “the trench”. Good news is that the camps I mentioned and photographed are gone. The bad news, there are new encampments emerging in that area. I will once again send in a request with photographic documentation.
      • The gaping holes reported to Union Pacific have yet to be repaired. Once again I will submit photographic documentation to Union Pacific.

What can we take away from this? Keep reporting what you observe in the appropriate way, with photographic documentation if possible. We may not always see the results of these reports, so do not get discouraged. Keep up the reporting!


Coffee Tracks - Mogul, NV

If you arrived early to Coffee Tracks, you got a great view of an East bound Union Pacific manifest train! One of our early RATS even caught a man down the hill beside track 2 changing his clothes. Sorry, no picture of this trespasser! You truly never know what you will come across by the tracks.

After signing in and getting our fresh coffee, we began educating new RAT members. We also discussed the email alerting us to a local railfan that has been playing with the track switches near the dog food plant off of Waltham Road, ringing the bells of locomotives in the Sparks Yard and just general trespassing on railroad property to get a photo or video. As a reminder, if you see someone on the tracks, near the locomotives / railcars or trespassing on any other part of Union Pacific property, call RMCC (Response Management Communication Center) at 888-877-7267.

Because of upcoming community events around railroad tracks, we discussed general rail awareness for the public and the availability of several RAT members for local rail safety presentations. If you are part of a Neighborhood Watch Group, the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, a church, a School District or any other organization, no matter the size, we will be happy to do a FREE rail safety presentation for you. Please contact us at Contact | Rail Auxiliary Team ( and we will set up a presentation for you.

One of the responsibilities of RAT members, is to check out rail crossings in our area. If you know that you are going to a specific crossing, it can be helpful to have the US DOT Crossing Inventory Form. If you know the DOT Crossing Number, you may download a copy of the Inventory Form at Crossing Inventory Lookup | FRA ( If you do not know the DOT Crossing number, you may find the crossing and it's number at the FRA Crossing Viewer website:

Here is a "checklist" of things to look at while observing a crossing:

  1. Control Point Bungalow (If there is one. Only at crossings that have lights/crossing gates.)
    • Are the doors to the bungalow locked? Doors not locked or open - this is reportable to RMCC.
    • Is the strobe light steady on? Sometimes it is hard to see due to the direction of the sun. If it is off or blinking - this is reportable to RMCC.
  2. Crossing Mast
    • Is the Blue ENS sign present, visible and legible? If not - this is reportable as a non-emergency to RMCC.
    • Does the DOT Crossing Number on the Control Point Bungalow (if present) match the Crossing Number on the ENS sign? If not, this is reportable on the Union Pacific website UP: Response Management Communication Center (RMCC). Choose the category ROUGH CROSSINGS and fill out the form.
    • Do the crossing gates and lights appear to be functional? No obvious defects or problems? If there appears to be a problem - this is reportable to RMCC.
  3. Advanced Warning Signs (AWS)
    • Are the signs present on each side of the crossing? These signs are approximately 200 yards from the crossing. If they are not present, report this on our site using Contact | Rail Auxiliary Team ( We will then contact the appropriate road maintenance department. FYI - Railroads are responsible for the  actual crossing and the devices at the crossing, while the local road departments are responsible for AWS signs and the like.

As always, use caution around crossings and railroad tracks - never trespassing onto rail company property. Thanks to those that joined us in person and online this morning for our monthly Coffee Tracks.

Remember ....

Crossing Gates Are There For A Reason

On Monday, May 2, 2022 a 27 year old male lost his life due to a rash decision at a rail crossing in Pompano Beach, Florida. This young father on his way to work drove around the gates and lights that signaled a train was coming. The conductor of the train said that he believes the driver was trying to beat the train. BSO: Driver killed in Brightline train crash tried to get around crossing arms (

On Tuesday, May 3, 2022 a 52 year old male also lost his life in a situation that could have been avoided in Hollywood, Florida. Police stated that the arms and lights at the crossing were functioning properly. Witnesses said that he was chasing the train, saw that the arms were down and he tried to zig-zag around them.  Jeep driver is second man in two days to die in crash with Brightline train (

Railroads place gates at crossings, along with bells and flashing lights for a reason. The reason is for your safety - to keep you alive!

The question we ask is, "Why would someone intentionally decide to drive around down gates with flashing lights and a bell ringing - indicating an imminent train?"

Let's look at one of the excuses that people give.

I don't want to wait for a train, I'll be late and I can beat the train thru the crossing. Unfortunately, the two men mentioned above will not be late for anything again. The Brightline trains involved in the above mentioned driver negligence have operating speeds up to 125 MPH. Most people do not realize that judging the speed of an oncoming train is very difficult. As you are sitting waiting for the train, it is very difficult to judge the speed of the train due to the angle of the train approaching you and the size of the locomotive. These two things combined make it seem that the train is further away and traveling slower than it actually is. What will you do when you come to a rail crossing with the arms down, lights flashing and bells ringing?

When we get in a hurry or worry about being late, we can make irrational and hasty decisions. What should our response be when we encounter down rail arms, flashing lights and bells? We stop and wait. Whatever time we think we might save by going around the gates is not worth the risk. Ask the families of these two men and the many others that have attempted to beat a train by going around the down gates and not survived.  Each of us needs to decide before we get in the car every time, that we will abide by the warning devices at rail crossings. If we intentionally decide beforehand, the decision has already been made to stop and wait, thus reducing the chances of making a hasty and irreversible decision. What will you do?

You do not need to be a statistic! Stop and wait!




Coffee Tracks - West End of the UP Sparks Yard

Little did we know of the excitement that would occur during our Coffee Tracks time at the Union Pacific Sparks Yard! As the "pack" of RATS began to gather, the scanner alerted us to an event taking place in the yard by one of the tracks. A  railroad worker discovered a residential propane tank with, "Do No Touch" written on it, sitting next to one of the tracks. In the RAT (Rail Auxiliary Team) world, this is a big red flag for potential problems. We listened to the scanner as a group, hoping to hear what had happened. Read to the end to find out the result 😀.

Our first visual observation was a white male wearing a red jacket and carrying some sort of bag walking east along main track one. We discussed our decision to report or not report to RMCC  (Remote Management Communications Center) and decided not to report, as there were rail employees around the yard that would see him and he was not directly on the tracks, just on railroad property. Once again, read to the end to find out what happened 😀.

Tank Cars

There were several tank cars sitting on the tracks at our meeting spot, so our discussion/educational time turned to tank cars.

We started at the bottom of the railcar and worked our way to the top, learning about each of the tank car specific characteristics: bottom outlet valves, tank jackets, head shields, reflective stripes, crash box, protective hatch cover over the valves, the pressure relief valve along with how to identify the owner of the car and the type of hazardous material if necessary.

The video does a great job of explaining what we learned, plus more: Railroad Tank Cars: Capacity, Dimensions, History (

Another excellent video stressing the safety of tank cars can be found at this link: Rail Tank Car 101 - YouTube.

Meeting the Supervisor

When you get a "pack"of RATS in orange vests hanging around the tracks, they get noticed! As we were discussing how a yard functions and all of the tracks available for switching, a truck approaches and out get two Union Pacific employees. After stating, "When you see a large group of people in orange vests hanging out in the yard, we figured we needed to find out what was going on.", they kindly asked what we were doing. Our faithful leader Rich Gent gave them a brief synopsis of the purpose of the Rail Auxiliary Team. It was nice to actually meet the Supervisor of the Sparks Yard. Interesting discussions about several topics took place and then one brave RAT asked the Supervisor what the outcome was of the residential propane tank with, "Do No Touch" written on it, sitting next to one of the tracks. He shared with us that he approached the tank, and since he had previous Army experience, he looked for wires attached to the tank, saw none, so proceeded to pick up the tank and put it in the bed of his truck. RAT members, or anyone for that matter, if you come across something like this - DO NOT TOUCH, back away and call 911 immediately. 

The Trespasser

As we were ending our meeting, another alert came over the scanner. A railroad worker put out the call that there was a man with a machete by main tracks one and two. We didn't see anyone from our vantage point. A few moments later, a Sparks PD vehicle pulls up next to us and the officer exits his vehicle. The conversation turns to the trespasser with a machete. Someone asked for the description and sure enough it was the trespasser we had seen at the beginning of our meeting. One of our RATs had taken a zoomed in photo of the trespasser and was able to share that with the officer. Was the trespasser caught? No idea.

What one person thought would be a boring meeting turned out to be an exciting learning time. Make sure to join us for our next RAT Coffee Tracks time on May 18th at a to be determined location. You don't want to miss the excitement!


Unusual Cargo Transported By Train

Have you ever been out by the tracks and thought to yourself, "Wow, I never knew they transported that by train?"

Below are a few examples of unusual cargo that has been shipped by train.

Airline Parts

The Boeing company regularly ships parts of planes by rail between the manufacturing plants and their customers. In fact, they even own dedicated and specialized railcars with the railroad reporting marks of TBCX (The Boeing Company).  Along with TBCX, the numbers on the railcar represent what type of plane the parts are for. In the photo with the fuselage, you are able to tell that this is a 737 - TCBX 737038 (Part for a 737 - on railcar number 038).

Boeing Company also uses boxcars to ship other plane parts to their customers. These containers are labeled the same as the specialty fuselage railcars.

Rocket Boosters

If you have ever seen a rocket booster up close, you will agree that it is ginormous! So how does one transport a ginormous piece of equipment from its manufacturer in Utah to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida? By train - of course!

Read the article by Union Pacific to learn about this process: Rockets by Rail: A Stellar Achievement.

Wind Turbine Blades

With renewable energy becoming more popular and the need to transport large pieces of equipment from the manufacturer to the installation location being a reality, railroads have once again come up with an efficient, cost effective and safe way to transport things such a wind turbine blades.

Read Union Pacific's article on how they transport wind turbine blades: Can You Ship Wind Turbines by Train?

Poop (Yes, I said, "Poop!")

Check out the following article to see what New York City did with their "poop". Glad I don't live close to that poor Alabama town! Reeking ‘Poop Train’ Of NYC Human Waste Wreaks Havoc On Alabama Town - TPM – Talking Points Memo

Alaska Railroad

The following web page has photos of many unusual things that the Alaska Railroad has transported over the years. A concrete mixing truck on a railcar with its barrel turning away? Yep! Strange Freight on Alaska Railroad

Railroads do carry very unusual cargo at times, so while you are out railfanning, keep your eyes open for the unique shipments that may be on the train. And as always, "THINK SAFETY"! And if you do get a pic of something unusual, drop us a line and let us know about it.

Defect Detectors

 In an article by Robert S. McGonigal, defect detectors along the tracks are explained in detail.
(The article may be found at Defect detectors | Trains Magazine)

An Amtrak train en route from Milwaukee to Chicago on Canadian Pacific’s double-track main line hurtles by a metal cabin and some trackside apparatus. Over the radio, a stilted voice intones “CP detector, milepost five seven point six. Main track: two. Total axles: one six. No defects. Temperature: five three degrees. Detector out.” A moment later, the engineer’s perfunctory acknowledgement: “Amtrak 332, no defects, 57.6.”

Train 332 has just passed a wayside defect detector, one of thousands employed by the railroads to monitor trains and the fixed plant. Most such devices scan passing trains for defects like hot bearings, hot wheels, dragging equipment, and high, wide, or shifted loads. After inspecting a train, modern wayside detectors will automatically report their findings by radio. Other installations keep tabs on the right of way, watching for environmental conditions that pose hazards to trains.

Hot bearing detectors

Overheated wheel bearings (journals) were once the scourge of railroading. Journal boxes contained lubricating material that needed frequent repacking; overheating was common, resulting in “hotboxes.”

Undetected, a hotbox could turn into a burned-off bearing – and a derailment. Rear-end crews were always alert for the telltale smoke and smell of hotboxes in the train ahead of their caboose.

Today, plain-bearing cars are all but gone, but the successor roller bearing is still prone to occasional overheating. Likewise, hot wheels, often caused by sticking brakes, have long been a hazard.

The mid-1950’s saw the introduction of infra-red wayside hotbox detectors, which monitor the heat profile (compensated for air temperature) of each of the train’s bearings, even if it passes at high speed.

A typical installation consists of two units, one outside each rail, aimed upward. Such devices may also detect hot wheels, but single units aimed across the track (diagonally, to catch both sides), at mid-wheel level, are also in use. On-board monitoring systems are being developed.

Dragging equipment detector

Dragging equipment can damage the track and grade crossings, is often a sign of damage to the train, and can cause a derailment. In fact, dragging equipment can be a derailment; one or two wheelsets can be off the track but still travel for many miles before piling up the train in a wreck.

Early dragging equipment detectors (or “draggers”) were of the “brittle bar” type. Fixed elements between and beside the rails would break when struck by foreign objects. Their breakage would interrupt an electric circuit that formed part of the reporting system, and the train would be stopped and inspected.

The introduction of “self-restoring” draggers in the 1960’s, which are hinged and sprung so they return to position after impact, reduced maintenance requirements.

Modern detector installations

Hot bearing/hot wheel detectors and dragging equipment detectors are often part of the same installation.

Detector spacing depends on each railroad’s preference and local conditions, but 20-30 miles is a typical interval on main lines. Employee timetables list the locations of hot bearing and dragging equipment detectors (abbreviated HBD and DED, respectively), along with their data-reporting methods.

Early detectors were linked to the wayside signal system, so as to show a red signal to a train with a defect. Others reported their findings to the dispatcher, who could have the train stopped if a defect were found. Later types used a scoreboard-style sign to report the train’s condition to the caboose crew. On some others, the display of a simple illuminated light indicated a train had no defects.

Modern detectors are of the “talking” type, which use a prerecorded voice to report a train’s status over the radio, although some visual reporting methods are also in use.

Detector radio protocol varies. Communication can be limited to the detector’s identification of itself and the statement “no defects.” Others will first announce that they are working, then give a report after the train has passed. Some, like CP’s at milepost 57.6, give the ambient temperature as a check; others report the train’s length in feet. Some railroads require an acknowledgement from the crew of passing trains; others do not.

If a detector finds something, it will announce “you have a defect” or “stop your train,” then the location of the problem. The crew makes an inspection from the ground, paying special attention to the cars at and behind the cited location, as most detectors are set up to report only the first defect they find. Relative to actual defects, false alarms are rather common.

High car detectors and slide fences

Devices to detect cars or loads of excessive height or width, or shifted loads, are often placed in advance of bridges, tunnels, or other situations of reduced clearance. The growth in double-stack container and tri-level autorack operations has led to greater use of high-wide detectors.

Some safety detectors monitor the track, not passing trains. The most common of these, rock slide detectors (“slide fences”) are designed to break when hit by falling debris. When they do, an electrical circuit is broken, causing signals to go red on either side of the obstruction. High water indicators, earthquake sensors, and high wind detectors work similarly.

While the use of talking detectors has contributed to the demise of a cherished element of railroading – the caboose – they’ve been a boon to train-watchers with radio scanners. From detector reports, one can learn of approaching trains before they’re in sight, and acknowledgements can tell the listener what kind of train to expect.

Steam engines on excursions routinely set off detectors. Waivers are issued allowing them to proceed, providing the reported “defects” are near the cylinders or firebox.

Big Boy 4014 Returns - Sparks, Roseville, Portland & Boise

World's Largest Steam Locomotive 'Big Boy No. 4014' Returns to the Tracks to Celebrate 160 years of Union Pacific

OMAHA, NEB., APRIL 11, 2022

Union Pacific's famed Big Boy No. 4014 is set to return to the tracks this summer for its “West Coast Steam Tour.” Kicking off June 26 from Cheyenne, Wyoming, this year’s tour will celebrate Union Pacific’s 160th anniversary, railroad heritage and the communities the railroad serves, visiting the Pacific Northwest for the first time since its return to service.

The Big Boy will be on display in four cities:

  • July 6, 2022: Sparks, Nevada

  • July 8-9, 2022: Roseville, California

  • July 15-16, 2022: Portland, Oregon

  • July 21-22, 2022: Boise, Idaho

Display days include locomotive viewing, access to the “Experience the Union Pacific Rail Car,” a multi-media walk-through exhibition that provides a glimpse at the past while telling the story of modern-day railroading, and live Q&A with the Steam Crew.

Twenty-five Big Boy locomotives were built for Union Pacific to haul heavy freight during World War II and out of the eight still preserved, No. 4014 is the world’s only functioning Big Boy. Weighing in at 1.1 million pounds, this is the second tour since the locomotive was restored for 2019's "Great Race" tours which celebrated the 150th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad’s completion, following a retirement that spanned six decades.

"The Big Boy was delivered to Union Pacific in December 1941 and helped carry the nation through World War II,” said Scott Moore, senior vice president – Corporate Relations and chief administrative officer. “It now serves as a reminder of our history and how rail is the backbone of America. The tour last year brought out about 1.1 million people from the communities we serve, and we cannot wait to share Big Boy again this summer.”

Big Boy No. 4014 will leave the Steam Shop in Cheyenne, Wyoming, June 26, making brief whistle-stops in dozens of communities in California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming. Further details will be released in May.

A steam tracking map showing No. 4014's location and route will be available at

About Union Pacific

Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP) delivers the goods families and businesses use every day with safe, reliable and efficient service. Operating in 23 western states, the company connects its customers and communities to the global economy. Trains are the most environmentally responsible way to move freight, helping Union Pacific protect future generations. More information about Union Pacific is available at

The statements and information contained in the news releases provided by Union Pacific speak only as of the date issued. Such information by its nature may become outdated, and investors should not assume that the statements and information contained in Union Pacific's news releases remain current after the date issued. Union Pacific makes no commitment, and disclaims any duty, to update any of this information.

Union Pacific "Big Boy" No. 4014

2022 West Coast Steam Tour Route

Media Contact

Mike Jaixen
[email protected]


Freight Car Placement in a Train

This article taken from Gateway NMRA by John Carty

We have all seen this before. You visit a beautiful miniature layout overflowing with detailed scenery and eye-catching vignettes. The track work functions impeccably. Then comes the train around the bend: a perfectly detailed Mikado followed by a tank car full of gasoline, a boxcar loaded with nitroglycerin, and a gondola toting telephone poles in front of the caboose.

Due to some oversight, this pretty little local ends up on a siding smacking the hind end of the string of boxcars, which occupied said siding. What a mess.

In the real world this accident creates one impressive crater as the sudden deceleration launches the telephone poles through the back end of the boxcar ahead. The nitroglycerin then performs an impressive pyrotechnic display abetted by the gasoline. The resulting excitement leaves two questions: “Where is the train?” followed by “What siding?”

Although this kind of accident commonly occurred in the infancy of railroading, the railroads have adopted practices over the years to ensure the safety of equipment, cargo, personnel, and the public by minimizing the risk of such accidents occurring. Both the American Association of Railroads (AAR) and the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) each developed a set of standards to avoid such spectacular pyrotechnic displays. These standards balance safety in transit with costs and safety in switching and handling requirements.

The AAR classifies a “no-problem train” as one with less than 4,000 tons total train weight operating on less than 2% grades and 8 degree curves. In the modeling world we attain the first, but the second and third are usually compromised beyond any chance of recognition due to space constraints.

In this article, I will outline the considerations of forces, car types, motion, and loads, governing the prototype and then examine applications to the miniature version.


Each car and locomotive exerts two forces on the track. First, the vertical force (V) consisting primarily of the units weight presses down on the top of the rails. Second, the wheels exert a lateral force (L) outward from the center of the track via the flanges and tires of the wheels. (Fig. 1) As a side note, The cross-section of wheel for a railroad car or locomotive bears the shape of a cone. Each car or locomotive exerts both of these forces on the track and as a simplification, when the lateral force exceeds the vertical force the cars tend to leave the track. On the other hand, many forces act on each car and  locomotive as it moves along the track. First the train and track resist motion in a manner related the property of inertia. This train resistance arises from several sources. First the grade allows gravity to pull the train downhill. This force could hold the train back or pull it forward depending on whether the grade in question slopes with or against the direction of travel. These forces take the form of slack action, which will be examined further below.

The curvature of the rails also adds to the resistance of the train. As the train travels along the curve, the wheels rub against the rails increasing the frictional force. Acceleration (or deceleration) creates drag when starting or going up hill and pushing when stopping or heading downhill. Additionally, the turning of the wheels in their journals creates another frictional force, which when combined with the rolling of the wheels on the track, creates rolling resistance. Tractive effort measures the force exerted on the coupler by the locomotive at the coupler to overcome train resistance.

To stop a train requires braking forces. Controlling downhill speed also requires braking. First dynamic braking occurs when the traction motors of the locomotive cease to turn the wheels, allowing the wheels instead to turn the motors transforming them into generators. This creates excess current, which the locomotive dissipates through resister grids, generating considerable heat. Since dynamic braking occurs at the front of the train, braking forces  concentrate immediately behind the locomotive.

Booster engines positioned mid-train add additional concentrations at the back of each set of locomotives. A pusher on the other hand creates drag at the tail of the train. The automatic brakes control the brake shoes applied to the wheels of each car and locomotive in the train. Although this appears  instantaneous on a short train, the air moves at merely the speed of sound, creating a delay from the source (locomotive) to the brakes on each car. This creates a cumulative application of braking forces instead of a steady application, as the front cars begin braking before each car following. The independent braking affects only the brakes on the locomotive. This affects the train in a  similar manner to the dynamic brakes.

The above forces directly affect the slack in the train. Slack represents the range of travel of a coupler in the draft gear with relation to the car on which it is mounted. A standard coupler moves within a range of approximately six inches. Various appliances may extend or limit this range, however. The slack in the coupler allows the locomotive to start the train a single car at a time, thereby easing the tractive effort required to overcome the inertia and friction in the wheels of the standing cars, which exceeds that of cars in motion. In other words the locomotive literally starts the train moving one car at a time.

Effects of Excessive Train Forces

Forces exceeding the capacities of appliances create a variety of problems. Two types of excessive forces exist: steady state and transient. Steady-state forces apply to the train and track over a relatively long period of time. Pulling a train up a heavy grade presents one example. High steady-state forces result in four problems: train separation, string-lining, buckling, and jackknifing.

Train separation occurs when the draft forces exceed the physical strength of the materials comprising the draft gear, causing the train to split apart. Usually the knuckle breaks, resulting in the intended protection of the draft gear and end sills.

Draft forces below that necessary to produce train separation tend to stretch the train into a straight line. This applies considerable forces to the inside of a curve. Under normal circumstances the design of the track allows it to withstand such loads. Combinations of cars possessing a high center of gravity or carrying light loads may produce a lateral load exceeding the capacity of the track or car resulting in string-lining (Fig 2). This may cause the inside rail to lie over, or the entire track structure may be yanked from the ballast toward the center of the arc of the curve. Additionally, wheels on the high side of super-elevated track may lift and derail, or the cars simply tip over the lower rail. Another possibility provides for cars in the train to be lifted up and plopped on the inside of the curve, leaving little if any evidence on the rails at the point of derailment.

Buckling (Fig. 3) results from forces similar to string-lining but acting in the opposite direction. This causes the cars to skew off the rails. Cars under draft forces varying between loads and empties exacerbates both string-lining and buckling.

Like buckling, jackknifing (Fig. 4) results from forces within the train acting toward each other beyond the capacity of the vehicle and track. Under such conditions cars attempt to fold like a jackknife. Lateral forces produced by this condition act in a similar manner to those involved in string-lining, but in the opposite direction. A typical situation of jackknifing sees a wheel climbing over the rail or the rail itself turning over, eliminating the ability of the system to support the train. Combinations of long and short cars coupled together aggravate the situation.

In addition to steady-state forces, transient forces may also reach excessive levels. By definition transient forces apply for relatively short periods of time, due to changes in grade or acceleration. Three terrain features tend to generate transient forces: crests, sags, and undulating terrain. First, crests mark the change from uphill to downhill, transforming free play from slack-out to slack-in. When forces become excessive, cars may jackknife.

The opposite of crests, sags, adjust slack from running-in to running-out. An excess of such forces may break a coupler or derail a train by string-lining. Larger differences in gradient, higher train speeds, faster rate of braking at the crest, and the rear of the train containing most of the tonnage magnify the transient forces at both the crest and sag.

The last area, undulating terrain combines the worst of both worlds. In such an area crests and sags alternate. A long train may find parts of itself in both conditions at the same time.

Switch crews must assemble the train for this train with great care to achieve optimal make-up. Additionally, crews require great skill in acceleration and braking. Extremes of both pulling (draft) and pushing (buff) forces may occur when cars in the train are either all empty or all loaded. Unit trains, including coal, grain, and juice (Tropicana); provide ample examples of these phenomenon. Given that virtually no railroad operates on a tabletop, significant  concentrations of force may occur anywhere in the train. Additionally, cushioning devices may magnify the above effects by virtue of increased travel in the draft gear.

Car Types

The basic 40-60 foot car on two trucks presents few additional problems beyond the obvious load or empty condition. Multiple platform cars, such as articulated well cars, require some consideration. The cars themselves represent an improvement in the geometry of railcars. Due to low tare weight, however, required special consideration when empty as the L/V ratio increases. Single axle cars also posses relatively low tare weights, requiring care to be taken to avoid placing ahead of heavy loads when making up the train. Combinations of long and short cars create a critical situation at crossovers when the track between the lead curves fall short of the length of the longest car. This situation deteriorates with sharper turnouts. Sharp curves also exhibit this dilemma. Cars protected with end of car cushioning may require limits in the size of blocks of such cars or be blocked behind loads with conventional couplers.

Harmonic Motion

Consideration of three kinds of harmonic motion influences the makeup of a train: truck hunting, pitch and bounce, and harmonic roll. Speed influences all three types of harmonic motion, while trailing tonnage and train length rarely do.

First, truck hunting describes an instability, which usually occurs in lightly loaded or empty cars traveling over forty-five miles per hour. Worn trucks may cause this motion to occur at speeds as low as thirty-five miles an hour. Truck hunting creates yawing and twisting about the center of the car. Ironically straight, welded rail often exacerbates this effect. Poor alignment and surface, however, increase the likelihood of a “hunting” car actually derailing.

Secondly, pitch and bounce refers to extreme vertical displacement of the ends of cars. Like truck hunting, pitch and bounce tends to occur at speeds over forty-five miles per hour. Adding to the fun, motion may occur in or out of phase. In other words adjacent ends may move in the same direction or in opposite directions. Cars containing loads lacking sufficient dampening exhibit this problem most often. Ore jennies and short tank cars, also known as “beer cans”, also suffer pitch and bounce more often.

Lastly, low speeds ranging from ten to twenty-five miles per hour may create harmonic roll, which also bears the name “rock and roll.” Unlike the other two forms of harmonic motion, heavily loaded cars with a high center of gravity suffer this effect more often. Additionally, less than prime track contributes to this ailment. Half-joint staggered rail causes this problem more often, preying on cars whose truck centers nearly match the length of each piece of rail. A fifty-foot highsided covered hopper containing grain or other dry-flowing material most typically falls victim.

Car Placement

All of the above forces contribute to derailments, something the railroads and ICC obviously seek to avoid. Bearing this in mind, how should cars be placed in the train?

First, heavier cars should travel near the front of the train. As a corollary, light and empty cars should populate the rear of the train. This places loads near the locomotive easing coupler strain and also prevents string-lining. It also prevents buckling and jackknifing during shoves, when the engine pushes light cars into loaded cars at the end. Also individual very light cars should not be located between heavily loaded cars to avoid lifting during moves. Additionally, mixing of light and loaded cars exacerbates problems created by terrain.

Secondly, railroads block cars according to destination. This saves switching along the route and at the destination. It also helps avoid hazardous combinations or potential contamination of valuable lading. For example one would not place a car loaded with vegetables in ventilator service adjacent to a car full of green (uncured) hides or a load of toluene beside a load of nitric acid.

Third, railroads block cars together of similar length. This helps to prevent problems at crossovers and “S” curves.

Hazardous Materials

The last area of consideration concerns loads of hazardous materials. The previous three considerations function in deference to the requirements of shipping hazardous materials. The Interstate Commerce Commission divides hazardous materials into four groups. The first group consists of class A explosives. Next, group two contains explosives from classes B and C, compressed gases other than poisonous gases, flammable liquids and solids, oxidizing agents, poisonous liquids, and corrosive materials.

Poisonous gases and liquids comprise group three. Finally, group four covers radioactive materials. A car carrying hazardous materials requires at least five cars between it and a locomotive or occupied caboose. If the length of the train does not permit such separation, cars carrying hazardous material must be located near the center of the train.

Additionally, explosives must always travel at the center of the train, as well as not adjacent to the flammable lading (placarded “INFLAMMABLE”).

A car conveying material from one group may not be located next to a car containing material from another group, thus requiring buffer cars. Open cars such as gondolas containing a load extending beyond the ends or that might protrude beyond the ends if shifted as well as loaded flat cars other than TOFC, auto carriers, and those equipped with tie down devices for vehicles may not be placed next to cars carrying explosives or tank cars carrying hazardous materials.

Additionally, cars containing hazardous materials may not be adjacent to cars utilizing mechanical temperature controls or operating an internal combustion engine. Placement of cars however should avoid extra switching. The table summarizes the restrictions, which apply to each type of material.

Table: Freight Car Restrictions

Derailment remains one of the greatest concerns for railroads. The derailment of a car carrying hazardous materials poses not only the problem of recovering the car and its lading, by also the threat to the public as well as railroad employees. To this end such cars should be placed in the part of the train with the least potential for derailment. Studies commissioned by both the AAR and ICC found the last quarter of the train to be safest followed by the first then third, with the second quarter of the train having the greatest potential for derailment. With this in mind, the last quarter presents the greatest danger in an accident involving another train overtaking and colliding with the rear of a train carrying hazardous materials. Additionally, placing cars loaded with hazardous materials after empty cars increases the potential for buckling and jackknifing. As a note, hazardous materials may only be carried by passenger trains in baggage cars with both placard and attendant.

Finally, although all of the above guidelines provide best-case solutions, switching should be minimized. Each switch movement represents an opportunity for mishap. Since safety is always a priority, the making up of a train represents a compromise between perfect placement and minimum handling. This compromise, however, must still protect the crew of the train in both the locomotives and caboose.

Rail Safety Tips and Facts

With warmer weather and longer days, many people are beginning to spend more time outdoors fishing, hiking and biking, along with many other activities. Being outdoors brings the chance of encountering railroad crossings, train tracks and trains. Take a few minutes and refresh your thinking with the following rail safety tips. Explanations of each safety tip will help you to understand the reasoning behind the tip. And remember, there is always the possibility of a train. Choose SAFETY!

The following is used with written permission from the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission.

Any time is train time!

Many drivers pay little or no attention at highway-rail crossings they drive across day after day because they never see a train there. They don't realize that freight trains do not run on set schedules and can be anywhere at any time going in any direction! At all crossings, and especially those you are most familiar with - ALWAYS EXPECT A TRAIN!

Trains can't swerve!

When locomotive engineers see a vehicle or person on the tracks in the path of their train, they can't swerve out of the way -- there's no steering wheel! The train simply follows the tracks. Engineers can only sound the warning horn and apply the emergency brakes. A train in emergency braking will stop, but not it time to avoid the collision. (See the following safety fact to find out why.)

Trains can't stop quickly!

Did you know that the average freight train consisting of 100 cars and weighing anywhere from 12 million to 20 million pounds takes over a mile to stop in emergency braking? That's right! That's the length of at least 18 football fields travelled before coming to a complete stop! Why such a long distance? There are brakes on every wheel, but it takes that long for all of those brakes to overcome the momentum of the tremendous weight pushing the train. Always yield the right of way to the train because the engineer cannot yield to you.

Don't ignore the warnings!

Some crossings are equipped with automatic warning devices such as flashing lights and bells and gates that activate when a train is approaching. These are active warning devices. Many other crossings only have passive warning signs to alert you of a possible hazard ahead. These include the "advance warning sign" (circular, yellow in color, with a black "X" and black letters "R R") and the "pavement marking" (large "X" and R R painted on the surface of the road). Amazingly, over half of all collisions occur at crossings equipped with automatic signals. Why? It's because some drivers choose to drive around gates or through the flashing red lights because they thought they could beat the train. (See the following safety fact to find out why many people misjudge the train.)

Beware of the optical illusion!

Because of the huge size of a locomotive (17 feet high and 10 feet wide), it appears to be traveling much slower than we think when viewed from a slight angle at the crossing. The combination of the size and the angle create this illusion. The railroad tracks also add to the illusion. The parallel lines of the rails converge toward the horizon and fool our minds into thinking the train is farther away than it actually is. It is virtually impossible to accurately judge the speed of a train when these combinations of illusions are present. The train will be at the crossing before we expect it.

Don't drive into trains!

Did you know that in 25% of the crashes occurring at highway-rail crossings - people actually run into the side of the train? It's true! Often, it's because the driver is going too fast for conditions, such as darkness, rainy weather or fog. Many drivers "overdrive their headlights". This means driving too fast to be able to stop in the distance illuminated by your headlights. By the time you see the train at the crossing, it's too late to avoid the crash. In other instances, there may be high levels of noise int he vehicle (loud radios, conversations, etc.), causing the driver to be inattentive and not hear the train's warning devices. Always remember to look and listen when you see the warning signs indicating  a highway-rail crossing ahead!

Don't pass, stop or shift!

Drivers who pass vehicles when approaching a highway-rail crossing run the risk of a collision at the crossing. The vehicle being passed may obstruct a clear view of the tracks, or vehicle speed while passing may be too great to stop in time! Before starting across the tracks, be sure there's room to get completely across. Many drivers get trapped on the crossing, between other vehicles, and end up gettin hit by a train or abandoning their car just in time to see it destroyed! Many crossings are on a raised surface higher than the roadway. Shifting gears with a manual transmission while going across this raised surface may cause the vehicle to stall on the tracks. Be sure to shift well ahead of or after the crossing to avoid getting stuck on the tracks!

Stalled on the tracks?

If your vehicle is ever stalled or trapped on the tracks and a train is approaching, get yourself and all the other passengers out - fast! Don't try to take any other items with you. It may be a fatal mistake! Remember one very important thing when running away from the vehicle - - run away from the tracks at an angle in the direction of the approaching train. When the train strikes the vehicle, it will send flying metal and glass ahead of and outward from the locomotive. Many people have been seriously injured and even killed because they ran the wrong direction! If a train is not approaching, be sure to get yourself and all other passengers out of the vehicle and to a safe location. Call the railroad 24-hour emergency number posted on the blue Emergency Notification System sign at the crossing. The railroad will do everything possible to stop any trains before they get to the crossing.

Watch for the second train!

When you are at a crossing with more than one track, don't try to cross immediately after the end of the train passes by. There may be another train approaching on the other track. Trains can hide other trains. many crossing fatalities have resulted because of impatience or unawareness at multiple-track crossings. You will always know how many tracks are at the crossing by observing the familiar "crossbuck" (white X-shaped sign with black letters that spell "railroad crossing"). Directly below the crossbuck is a sign that indicates the number of tracks present if there are multiple tracks at the crossing. The crossbuck is also a regulatory sign that means "yield the right-of-way" to the train.

Dead wrong!

Many people think railroad tracks are public property. They use the tracks to gain access to recreation areas or they may even use the tracks as a recreation area. Others believe they have a right to use railroad property. The fact is, railroad tracks are private property and only persons authorized by the railroads can be on that property. Many thousand of people have died thinking they would be safe around railroad tracks. (The following paragraphs explain how poor choices often result in tragedies.)

Use caution on bridges and tunnels!

Railroad bridges often  times look like a convenient way to access a favorite fishing or hunting place. They don't look dangerous just standing there when no train is present. Besides being illegal, when you're up there and find yourself confronted with an approaching train, you suddenly have only two choices - jump! or get hit by the train! You can't run fast because there's no sidewalk or walkway - just empty spaces between the ties to trap your legs. Even if there is a maintenance walkway, it's not far enough from the rails to keep you  from being struck by the  train. Railroad tunnels pose similar hazards to railroad bridges. There's no sidewalk and you can't move fast. When a train is in the tunnel there is an average of 14 inches clearance from the side of the train to the walls of the tunnel - - not enough to safely fit a person.

Use caution as a pedestrian!

Railroad tracks are often used by joggers, hikers, people walking their pets, or as a pathway to ride motorcycles or other all-terrain vehicles plus a wide variety of other activities. What's the danger? These people are all concentrating on their own activities - - not a train! Many joggers, for example, run with headphones and never hear the engineer's warning. Motorized vehicles also drown out the locomotive horn. Many people that do hear the warning fail to escape the danger. A lot of them mistakenly think the train will stop for them. Some think the train coming up behind them is on the other track (like automobiles driving on the right hand side of the road). They don't know that trains run on any track in any direction at any time!

Coffee Tracks - Waltham Way, Storey County, NV


The Starbucks coffee had arrived, our orange safety warning signs had been setup and we were ready to go checkout the crossing at Waltham Way - only to have to wait for an East bound train to travel thru the crossing. (No disappointment for any of us!) As we have been trained to do, we got the number of the leading locomotive, UP 2762.

As the train was passing, our leader, Rich Gent, was pointing out things to look for as we watch trains. For instance, transients - those who illegally ride the train, usually hangout towards the rear of the train on the leeward side - the side with the least amount of wind.

We pulled out our U.S. DOT Crossing Inventory Form for crossing 913207E and began matching the data on the form with what we were observing.

  • ENS Sign – both blue signs are present
  • AWS-10 (Advanced Warning Sign) –two out of the three are present – AWS is missing as you head south on Waltham Way – Storey County is responsible for this sign
  • Pavement Markings – the markings are there, but very faint - Storey County is responsible for painting the RR markings on the road

Next up was the silver bungalow next to the tracks.

  • The DOT crossing number 913207E matched what is on the blue ENS signs.
  • The white light on the bungalow was on – this indicates that all is good in the bungalow at the crossing. If the light is out or flashing, this needs to be reported to 1-800-848-8715, the phone number on the bungalow sign.

One of the members of the RAT PACK noticed wires coming off the tracks just to the East of the crossing and asked about the purpose of those wires. Just beyond the wires is an industrial spur track that merges with the main line. In order to allow for the switching of railcars on and off the main line to and from this industrial spur, the wires shunt the track. This allows the lead locomotive to approach the crossing up to these wires without activating the signal lights and bell. Normally a train triggers the lights and bells about 20 seconds before reaching the crossing.

After checking things out at the Waltham Way crossing, we headed just down the road to the McCarran Ranch Road Crossing and once again matched what we saw with the Crossing Inventory Form. Everything seemed to be correct. As we were looking around, two things were brought to our attention that some RAT PACK members had not seen.

First off was an old box up on a telephone that the railroad used a long long time ago for communicating with the dispatcher. The other interesting discovery was the rock slide protection fence. This consists of telephone pole like structures with wires running from top to bottom and from pole to pole. When a large rock falls and breaks one of the wires, the signal lights turn red before and after the debris on the track so that trains do not go running into the boulders.

We ended our Coffee Tracks time in an appropriate way - one more East bound train traveling thru the crossing!

Hope to see you online or in person for our next Coffee Tracks in April 2022.

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