Ask a train engineer

That is bizarre.

We can hear the train yard and a crossing at night.
I found a table of horn signals, and most combinations mean Get The Hell Out of My Way!

Near me, there is a track where trains go slow, stop, reverse, and go again. I assume they are just moving cars around on lines I can’t see from the railroad crossing.

With trains moving back and forth at varying speeds, how are the crossing signals activated and deactivated?

Crossing signals (and the signal lights that govern train movement) are generally automatic. A very low current runs through the rails, which are insulated from each other. When that current is shunted by a metal wheel/axle, the system knows a train is present and activates the lights.

Crossings have computers that also determine a train’s speed. Basically, you want about 30 seconds of notice to cars that a train is coming. For a fast passenger train, that 30 seconds might begin when the train is a half a mile away, but you don’t want the gates to come down when there is a slow freight a half a mile away doing 5 or 10 MPH. So the computer figures out the speed and activates the lights at the right time. As kids, we used to unfold metal clothes hangers and shunt the rails to activate the crossing lights near our house. Stupid, but it works. If a train stops short of the crossing, the computer senses that and will raise the gates, allowing traffic through. You do get some really surprised looks if you’re stopped right by the road and you give 2 short horn blasts (meaning “I’m about to go”) when a car is in the middle of the crossing…

Whistle signals really go back to pre-radio days when communication was done with the brakeman’s lantern and the engineer’s whistle. I’ve actually worked that way, on the tourist railroad, and it’s useful to know the signals. Even when I was on the big iron, I still used them by habit.

Do you work for a specific company or are you more like an independent contractor? If you switch companies do you lose your seniority and have to go back to the bottom of the list? Who’s responsible for training engineers; the engineers themselves or their employer?

You work for a specific company on a specific subdivision. If you leave your subdivision, you generally lose your seniority (there are a couple of exceptions, but national seniority is still rare.) While, as a licensed engineer, you have the ability to be behind the controls of a locomotive anywhere on your system, if you are outside of your qualified territory (where you have ridden with a training engineer several times, then run the route yourself several times with him) you’ll need a pilot. The steam guys from Nebraska drive their train all over the territory, but they must stop at each crew change point to pick up a pilot engineer, who will let them know where the grades are, where the signals are (and if there are special rules for them,) what the speed limits are…all of the things you have to memorize on your own territory.

If you switch companies, you again lose your seniority. And it’s kept track of to the day–my class was one day ahead of another class, and I could outbid all of those guys.

The company trains you at their expense.

There are a couple of junior colleges that offer a conductor certification and A.S. degree, though I didn’t personally know anyone who came out of that pipeline.

It sounds like advancement is tied in heavily with seniority rather than a rat race where you try to one-up the other engineers and grab a coveted promotion. How are engineers evaluated for performance? Do you pretty much have a job for life unless you mess up royally and you promote in lockstep? Does “exceeding expectations” in a Dilbert context mean anything, or is it a black and white “good” or “bad” where “bad” means something objective like “More than one at-fault accident within a 5 year period”.

When the train is going, what is the engineer doing most of the time? Do they need to constantly keep their eyes peeled on the track ahead or can they sit back and wait for an alarm or signal?

How do switches/points work from your perspective? Does the engineer need to request that a switch be changed to the other track via radio or something or can you push a button and get it switched automatically? Is it all programmed in advance into a travel computer? Do you have to get out and throw the switch yourself?

I always thought the flange on the one end of the train wheels, was to keep the train on the track while going into a curve. But then I saw a video, where a design engineer said it was the taper on the bottom of the wheels (where they contact the rail) that keep it upright - otherwise they fall off the track.

Which is it?

Another school of thought is: the taper keeps the rail off of the the flange, so it doesn’t wear down.

do you think that areas that have passive crossings are stupid to want quiet zones?

can anybody’s momma be so ugly to derail you?

There isn’t a system of performance evaluations like you’d see in a white collar job; you’re always going to have to requalify on rules tests and whatnot, but other than that, if you show up to work and follow the rules, you’ve got a job for life (unless traffic slows and you get furloughed–again by seniority.)

Any Rule G violation (drugs/alcohol) is a termination. Passing an absolute signal displaying a red indication is a termination. Laying off sick too much is grounds for termination. The joke on the railroad is that they spend thousands of dollars to train you, then spend the rest of your career trying to fire you. Management WILL hide in the bushes somewhere in BFE with a radar gun to make sure you obey the speed limits. They WILL trip a red signal on you to see if you stop in time. Etc.

Well, under general conditions there’s not a lot of lever pulling once the train is going. We have 8 power notches in the throttle, so you essentially set power and leave it. Some units have a cruise control feature so you can set a speed and not have to worry about the throttle. You do want to watch ahead, though. At any given time, you want to know exactly where you are (mileposts, down to 1/4 increments) so you know what’s coming–a crossing, a grade, a speed restriction, rednecks on 4-wheelers…

The locomotives have an alerter system, so that if the computer senses no input from the engineer on the throttle, brakes, or horn, after about a minute an alarm will sound. You have to depress and release the “Alerter” button (or move one of the aforementioned controls) to deactivate the alarm, or the train will, after a 30 second countdown, go into emergency braking. Any time you go into emergency, that’s more paperwork.

You’re also always watching signals. Both crew members in the cab are supposed to call, out loud, and confirm the signal indications.

The dispatchers are all under one roof in Omaha or Ft. Worth for the big RR’s in the west (Shreveport for KCS). They grant your initial authority, and tell you to proceed to such-and-such a point on signal indication (or they issue track warrants that do the same.) On their computers, they will set up your route and monitor your progress. Most of the time, you don’t talk to them much, unless they forget to route you past a certain point or into a siding you’re expecting. Then you call them and, on the mainline at controlled interlockings, they just point and click and the switches and signals move in front of us. Uncontrolled interlockings require the conductor or brakeman to get out and unlock the stand and throw the switch–these are usually on less-traveled lines, for local trains.

My understanding is that the taper is to avoid the flange slamming the inside of the outside rail in a curve, and to sort of “equalize” the wheel speeds, since the axles are rigid (the inside wheel wants to travel faster than the outside wheel on a curve–the taper helps accomplish this.)

I guess I can understand the quiet zone thing, having lived next to a crossing where the horn is used. From our perspective it doesn’t matter much–we can still use the horn if we deem it necessary.

No, but I have seen a few people who made my freight train take a dirt road.

They look like this:
Reverser handle

Without that guy, the train don’t move.

Is there anywhere in North America that uses in-cab signalling rather than the lineside signal lights?

Are locomotive controls standardized? Do they all have the same speed control, brake control, etc?

Have you ever driven an electric train? (I know the classic diesels are diesel-electric…) How about a diesel multiple unit, like a Budd Rail Diesel Car? (I’m not sure whether those are diesel-electric or pure diesel.)

Did you work on freight trains only? Is there a difference between driving a passenger train and a freight train? Is there a lot of operator crossover between freight and passenger trains?

Have you ever driven a train through the snow and flung it up on either side? DO they still use those enormous rail snowplows?

We’ve lived about three blocks away from this BNSF trainyard/repair depot for the last 10 years, and it’s been really interesting (there’s a train going by right now, shaking our building!). Our 5-year-old son has really loved watching the trains go by. :slight_smile:

While the noise doesn’t usually bother us, there have been times, usually in the middle of the night, when there’s what we call a “train car alarm” - very, VERY loud train horns, blowing in one- or two-second blasts, over and over for upwards of three minutes. It’s so loud we can feel it in our bodies, and it wakes us up from a sound sleep. It used to happen more frequently than it has in the last 4-5 years. It’s SO different from the usual, occasional train horns we hear, and really alarming: it makes us wonder if there’s some emergency, and if we should call 911. Do you know what that sound means, or what situations would cause the engineer to sound the horn like that?

I’m pretty sure Amtrak does in the Northeast Corridor. Possibly in Michigan, too–basically anywhere the speed limit is above 79MPH, I think you have to have in-cab signals/positive train control or the like.

Pretty much. There are only 2 builders now, EMD and GE, and the difference in operating them is nil. Some engineers prefer one over the other for various reasons.
GE controls.
EMD controls.

Only in simulators. The main difference is that the throttle isn’t notched and the brakes aren’t the same (though operating the brake handle in the cab is essentially the same experience.)

The Budd RDCs, I believe, have transmissions and gears and whatnot, so aren’t really much like a diesel-electric mainline locomotive.

I’ve done both. There’s a difference, yes. Passenger trains accelerate much more quickly and have what’s called “graduated release” air brakes. That means the engineer can set the brakes, then release them PART of the way. On freight trains we use direct release, which is all or nothing. Once you make a brake application, you cannot partially release it–you must release it all the way.

Freight trains are actually easier to control because of their length–half the train going up a hill and half going down basically equalizes the forces. On a passenger train, since it is so short it’s usually all up or all down. Plus you have to take into account passenger comfort and the lack of slack action on the couplers.

I have not (I’m from the south.) But yes, up north and out west, they use those huge plows, as well as rotary snowplows from a hundred years ago.

Very strange. I can’t think of a single reason why you’d hear a loud horn sounding like that, except in the case of emergency–the aforementioned rednecks on 4-wheelers–but even then, for 3/4 minutes at a time? I guess if it’s a repair depot, they could be dealing with issues with the horn button–everything nowadays is electric, so maybe there’s a short in the horn button on some units?

The only other thing I can think of is that some newer engines have auto start/shut-down for colder weather, where the computer will kill the prime mover (diesel engine) to save fuel, but then start it back when the lube oil and whatnot begins to get cold. When they start, there’s a smaller horn that sounds, but not the way you describe…odd.

Trespassers maybe? Playing with the buttons? Dunno. I wouldn’t call the police over it, except to possibly report it as a noise complaint.

Cool! Thanks for your replies!

In those cab pictures, which handle is the brake and which handle is the throttle? :slight_smile:

How do you start a locomotive? I presume you do some sort of walk-around inspection, like my brother-in-law the trucker does. Then you get in and… push a starter button? Turn a key?

In Toronto, they plug the locomotives for the GO commuter trains into external power when the trains are resting. I think this is to keep the trains’ heating and cooling running during the night, so that they’re ready to go quickly in the morning; is that true?

Would you have advanced standing if you wanted to become a streetcar driver or subway driver, or would you have to start from scratch with every other candidate? Is a large portion of rail knowledge transferable? Have you ever had someone from Europe or Asia come over and get a job alongside you?

I assume you’ve seen “Unstoppable,” the Denzel Washington runaway train movie? Can you comment on what from there was realistic and what was not?

In general, what are some of the more realistic train movies, and which are just fanciful? Could the Silver Streak really ram its way halfway through a station with no one in the cab?

Do they still have those hand carts propelled by two guys and a big lever, like in silent movies? Have you ever driven one of them?

The handle to the left is the throttle. Pull it back to go, push it forward for dynamic brakes. The T-top handle is the automatic brake, which applies on the locomotives and the train behind you. There is another brake handle to the right, the independent, which only applies the brakes on the engines.

There’s a procedure to follow in the engine bay. Prime it, push a button, let it crank. Normally when you come to work the engine is running–it was pretty rare to actually shut one down or start one up.

Probably so. The locomotives are equipped with Head-End Power, but it eats fuel when engaged, so going to a landline would be more efficient, and allow the prime mover to be shut off.

Already having a license might help, but I imagine I’d have to train from scratch with the rest of the new hires. I’d say that yes, a large portion of it is transferable, although each railroad will have its own signals and whatnot. Amtrak engineers around Chicago have to memorize like 7 different rulebooks–I don’t envy them.

Never had anyone from Europe/Asia work with me, though the basics are pretty much the same worldwide.

[quote=“Tom_Tildrum, post:36, topic:657131”]

I assume you’ve seen “Unstoppable,” the Denzel Washington runaway train movie? Can you comment on what from there was realistic and what was not?

Sure…the only Blu-Ray I own.

I could nitpick some parts (the hostler at the beginning gets out of the cab for a “damn trailing point switch” that was actually set correctly for his train…) Also, once he’s out of the cab, you see the independent brake handle disengage and the throttle jump to run-8. That. Can’t. Happen. It takes some force to get through the throttle notches.

Anyway, the movie was based on the CSX “Crazy 8’s” runaway–locomotive 8888. You can read about it to see what parts of the film were plausible and matched with reality, including a crew tagging onto the rear of the train to slow it down.

I guess my main quibble would be with the two guys slamming the independent brake over and over. Setting it and releasing it wouldn’t do much good, at least all the way to 100% like that.

Also, the hostler at the beginning didn’t need to run back to the front of the locomotive…he could have boarded at the rear of that engine, or the front of the second, or the rear of the second, and used the walkways to easily get to the lead cab. Movie drama. Hell, just hop on one of the cars and go roof-to-roof while the train was going slow. Or, ya know, hit the fuel shutdown button as the fuel tank passed you…

Heh…wrote my Master’s thesis about that movie. Yes, it could have. The older units had a dead man’s pedal, which in the film is held down with a toolbox. However, when Wilder and Pryor disconnected the train, BOTH halves would have gone into emergency braking–not just the rear of the train they were on. ETA: I’d say that most are pretty fanciful, though “Unstoppable” at least tried to use the correct terminology and it was obvious the actors at least knew which levers to pull.

Tourist lines do, though I’ve never driven one. Believe it or not, we had a golf cart with railroad wheels.

Tom Tildrum stole a march on me for my first question about Unstoppable so I’ll go straight to the second. How would that have even been possible with the alerter system you mentioned in an earlier post? Did it just not have one?

Third. There is a paper mill adjacent to a track in the next town and a pulp truck once managed to get it’s trailer T-boned by a train. How much of a fuster-cluck is something like that if there is ultimately no damage to the tracks? Or when the tracks are damaged. ETA: Level straight grade, no siding.

Fourth… Damn. Had too much to drink tonight and I’ve forgotten. I’ll get back to you.

They were modern GE locomotives, but the alerter disengages when the independent is set. I believe that’s how it happened on 8888, too, though I could be wrong.

If the train isn’t damaged and there’s no track damage, it’s an hour or two of paperwork. Generally the railroad will offer a relief crew, especially if there are fatalities, but many crews still elect to finish their run.

If there is track damage, it can take a few hours to get it fixed, but track crews are like ants. You’d be surprised how fast a stretch of track can be put back in service, even when there’s something like a bridge collapse.