Riding the rails

When I travel into Toronto, I frequently use the commuter train for the trip.  Granted the commuter train is a far cry from the golden age of rail travel but I still enjoy it.  Although the main Toronto – Montreal line is mostly welded rail, there are enough switches that the familiar “click clack” is there (and usually brings to mind Arlo Guthrie’s “City of New Orleans”.

I spent many years working in transportation, including a couple of years with a rail forwarder.  I talked with the railwaymen and as a result have a (very) minor knowledge of some of the signage used both along the right of way and on the freight cars.

When you’re sitting at a level crossing, watching that mile long freight slowly pass, you may have noticed, usually on or near the lower left corner of the car – from either side – a box that contains mysterious letters and numbers.  Those are the physical characteristics of the car, things shippers who use the car need to know, such as interior dimensions and load limits.

The signs along the right of way are also very interesting.  Two in particular always catch my eye. If you’ve travelled by train, you may have noticed the circular signs, usually with  two sets of numbers, such as “80″, and under that “65″.  Those are speed limit signs and even in metric Canada, those figures are in miles per hour, not kilometres.  The “80″ would be the speed limit for passenger trains and the other number would be for freight trains.  The other sign that I usually notice is also a white circle.  This one has a capital “W” on it and is usually placed before level crossings.  These tell the engineers to blow the horn – the standard one long; one short, two long warning signal that there is a train coming.  Over the past few years though I’ve noticed that many of these whistle signs have a red circle and bar through them.  You know, the common “no” sign.

These are frequently found in urban areas and from that standpoint, I can understand it because people don’t want to be disturbed by the sound of train horns, especially if they live along the main line.  Now, most level crossings, at least in urban areas, are also protected by gates.  The horn is intended as an audible warning – a loud one – since many of the bells usually installed with the gates can be very hard to hear.  How many times have we seen people drive around the gates because they don’t see the train?  How many times have we seen lives lost by such stupidity?  The whistle signal is usually about a half-mile before the crossing.  Trains weigh hundreds, if not thousands, of tons and there is no way it could stop within that half-mile distance.  Which brings up the question: are the railroads better off to accede to the desire of nearby residents for quiet; should there be an exemption in noise bylaws for trains, or should the railways instead take into account the possibilities of killing someone at a level crossing and use that horn?

Cat.