Need Information About Diesel Trains

I am currently writing the second volume of a Zombie Apocalypse trilogy.
In it my (human) characters will come across a small group of survivors that have commandeered a diesel train.
I’m woefully ignorant about the engines and the various cars. I done a google search using all type of tags and just can’t seem to find what I’m looking for. Basically this…

  1. Train traveling at 50 mph needs X amount of distance to come to a complete stop. 1 mile? 1/2 mile? 2 miles? (not an emergency stop).
  2. If the couplers for passenger trains are the same as freight and if they can be joined together creating a mixed type of train.
  3. What is the least amount of obstruction on the track (besides warped or missing rails) that could derail a train, i.e. log or a deer’s body or even a human/zombie body.
  4. minimum number of crew to operate the train, including engine and cars.
  5. Is there a fuel car that could feed the main engine enroute? Or does the engine need to stop to refuel at designated stops?
  6. Distance a train can travel on full fuel tanks without stopping?
  7. Proper name for the truck that drives on the rails with those special wheels in front and back (this will be used by the train survivors to “drive ahead of the main engine” looking for obstructions or damaged track" and warn the engine (via 2 way radio) to stop.

If there’s a website that google has over-looked or whatever that could answer these questions a link would be very appreciated … if the answers can be found here… even more appreciated.
I look for realism with my novels and have consulted retired and active duty military for suggestions and corrections on various things related.

Link to the first volume of the novel is in my profile and here Enjoy
Again much thanks in advance.

Since you’re from my ancestral homeland of Chattanooga I’ll try to answer what I can without snark. And I can’t answer much, but don’t worry, someone will come along to give you detailed answers.

  1. This was done a lot in the past. I don’t know what modern trains are doing much, but it would seem kind of silly to have different coupling systems. I think most train cars in a region use compatible couplers. Also, there’s not that much difference between a boxcar and a passenger car. Surely your survivors could work out a way to put some seats and a bucket in a train car.

  2. Don’t know, it might be another train of equal weight coming the other way. Trains tend to plow through obstructions. If I recall correctly, derailments are usually caused by track damage or excessive speed. A boulder falling down a hill and damaging a track is good cause of derailment. For an intentional derailment you loosen or remove a section of track.

  3. Probably one. But that doesn’t mean it’s practical.

  4. A handcar.

  1. is going to depend quite a bit on what the load is.
    Are we talking an engine alone? An engine with a couple passenger cars? A loaded freight train?
  1. This depends on how many cars and how heavily they’re loaded. For an eight-car passenger train at 50 mph, about a third of a mile on dry level track.

  2. I believe everyone in North America still uses standard AAR couplers, though passenger trains have additional connections that are made for steam heating, power (for lights and outlets), and communication.

  3. It depends on things like speed, momentum, and exact position of the object. Normally even an auto won’t derail a train, but if the engine block is in exactly the wrong position atop one rail, it can. That’s what happened in the Chatsworth crash a few years ago.

  4. One engineer can operate the entire train. He can’t, of course, go back and microwave burgers for the passengers at the same time. And the union will be really really mad.

  5. Fuel tenders for diesels are rare, but were tried back in the 1990s by UP and BN for long coal trains. They might be more common in Australia or Africa.

  6. Range of course depends on how long and heavy the train is, but 2000 miles is certainly no stretch for a passenger train. Amtrak’s Zephyr refuels in Denver en route from Chicago to San Francisco. A common freight locomotive (Dash 9) has a fuel capacity of 5000 gallons and uses 60 gallons per hour at maximum load.

  7. That’s called a High-Railer® truck.

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A handcar is one of those silly old-timey track inspection vehicles seen in cartoons and silent movies. I assume he means a more or less normal road vehicle that has the extra steel wheels for running on track, like this:

I’ve always just called them rail trucks, but apparently hi-rail is a common term.

As for most of the rest of your questions, it really depends on what kind of train you’re talking about and what kind of terrain. A fully loaded freight train might need over a mile to stop from 50, but a lone locomotive with a few cars behind could probably stop in less than a 1/4 mile. Similarly, a locomotive pulling a few cars will run at idle most of the time on flat ground, so you might be looking at better than 1 MPG and a pretty darn long range with a several thousand gallon fuel tank. With mountainous terrain or a longer train, fuel consumption is going to be well in the gallons per mile range, although how much depends on both terrain and consist. Of course, if you’ve got two locomotives, you’ve also got a second set of fuel tanks. With some relatively minor tinkering, you could no doubt adapt one or more 25,000+ gallon tank cars to function as a fuel reserve too. You could probably tweak your story to make fuel an absolutely critical issue or, if your characters have luck and foresight, not an issue at all.

Under normal operation of just driving the train, you only absolutely need a crew of one. When assembling cars and such, you can probably get by with two, with one in the cab and one coupling and uncoupling cars and throwing switches, but more is better. An interesting consideration, though, is whether the central switch control is still functioning-- the vast majority of mainline and yard switches are going to be electronically controlled from a central location. Either there is another band of survivors running things there, or the band in the train is going to have to stop and override the electronically-controlled switches if they’re not pointing the right way, which may not be easy.

Thanks to all who replied.
Essentially what I planned to do was to have a single engine be pulling a auto carrier, 2 freight cars, 1 passenger and a caboose (knowing now-a-days those things are somewhat obsolete but still can be in service. The “engineer” is a survivor who used his train to escape then went back to the now deserted yard where he used to run out of and with the help of a couple of others re-arrange and couple the various cars on his train, then has that rail truck (not the $400 hand-cart that nearly got lost in quicksand), running out front of the train for a couple of miles with a couple of guys (or one) driving ahead to warn for obstructions or other hazards (i.e. washed out bridges, fallen trees/boulders, et al.). Communications used by long range walkies-talkies.

No, I don’t think I’m giving away too much of the plot since it’s merely a side plot to the main one.

Again thanks all for aiding my research.

Thanks, and MrDowntown too. I thought the handcar was what the OP was asking. That was kind of :smack:. I frequently see a High Rail type truck on a local train line and should have thought about that. That train will be moving awful slow if it’s following a handcar.

Pretty unlikely that there would be a caboose in the yard for him to get. Why is it even needed if there’s a passenger car at the tail end?

I have no idea what the auto rack is for, but remember that those aren’t self-loading and don’t come with their own ramps like auto transport trucks do.

The hi-railer trucks are pretty common these days, but I still see a lot of motor-cars as well. My dad was a signal maintainer and used one a lot. From what I remember him telling me (he’s been gone close to 20 yrs now) the motor-cars were a bit of a bother to move off the track if you needed to, especially if not at a road crossing, but you could still do it. There were long handles that slid forward and aft, so you could maneuver the thing sort of like a wheelbarrow. The trucks pretty much need a road crossing, but are far less grunt work if you have one available, and you don’t have to have a separate vehicle to get to the track.

Motor cars are the evolution of the hand-car, but with a small to largish gasoline engine for power, seats, a bed for tools ‘n’ stuff. I have seen them with small lawnmower like engines, and one for a work crew that had a 4 cylinder car engine in it. According to Dad, a motor car would typically top out at around 50 mph.

Anecdote that might be useful in your plot: There were a few areas that the train went through that had virtually no other means of access, so the wildlife didn’t have much experience with humans. Dad was allowed to carry his rifle during deer season, and never failed to fill his tag.

Other stuff you might want to know: The little huts that house all the signal electronics (relays mostly in dad’s day) are called “bungalows”. Pretty much one key will open all the bungalows on a given railroad. There are coffin sized and shaped housing that contain “switch machines” to move the points. They can be manually operated, but it is a pain.

There are special names for the features that allow two trains to pass on a single track line:

A “siding” connects to the main line at both ends, this is preferred, as the non-priority train can simply pull forward onto the main track after the priority train passes, much like a lay-by on a narrow road. A “spur” connects to the main line at only one end, so the non-priority train has to either back on, or off of it after the priority train passes. As well as a passing means, spurs often serve businesses that require direct rail access. Sometimes even a longish traffic handling branch off a main line will be called a spur. A “wye” is a spur with two switches, one each way onto the main line, allowing a train to turn around, like you would use a driveway to turn a car around.

There is a black powder charge in a foil pouch that fastens to the track to warn trains of a work zone ahead. These are called “torpedoes” and might be used in case two way radios fail. A motor car or hi-railer truck would probably have some when it was “borrowed”.

Thanks again for the info. :slight_smile:
To answer the question of why have a passenger car attached to a freight is that in my mind the engineer having survived the zombie apocalypse and it’s been a few months afterwards so all the main terror/horror has (pardon the pun) died down. Since it’s dangerous to stay in one place and the highways are equally as dangerous this guy had the bright idea of using his train to get around in. He knew there’d be other survivors as well, so he attached a passenger car or dining car (haven’t decided which because I want the type with the dome on top… defenses would be mounted on it), for other survivors that they would pick up along the way… including my small group of main characters. He would also attach a auto carrier so that survivors that have vehicles won’t have to leave them all behind.
If cabooses are that rare now-a-days then okay don’t have to write that in. I’m not there yet as far as writing goes. Only on chapter 3 and they just survived being run-over by a tornado.

Yeah they’re not going to have it easy. :smiley:

Mixed trains of passenger and freight are non-existant for a variety of reasons. OK, maybe more than zero, but pretty much non-existant.

Locos can and are refilled at non-official points by tanker truck, if need be. Normally they want to hit the fuel racks, but not always possible.

A tree stump on the tracks recently derailed a freight.

Cabeese are pretty much extinct also. Some are in service as “shoving platforms” or another euphamism that describes a place for a crewman to ride, but those are not typically mainline operations.

Oops see below

I think your knowledge might be out-of-date. I’ve never seen a caboose in service in the last 20 years, other than historical or novelty trains. What’s the explanation of how they got a caboose? Raided the local historical railroad? Stole a novelty diner’s front facade? Heh.

I’m not sure of the point of the auto carrier. It’ll be impossible to unload the autos without a proper siding/railyard with the right equipment, and if there really is a zombie attack there should be tons of cars just sitting around. Seems to me it’d be a lot easier to raid the local Dollar Rent-A-Car than unload the train.

I still see cabooses from time to time, although never at the end of a regular train. You see them a lot in switching yards where they have the electronics packed in them to run remote control locomotives. I also occasionally see them on track service trains, acting much as they historically did as a place for the crew to get out of the weather.

Something like this?

And yes, that is Buster Keaton.

In Northern Virginia, some of the old train stations have cabooses outside, mostly as a tourist thing. The Manassas (yes, the same Manassas as in the Battles of Manassas) train station from 1914 is still in use by Amtrak and VRE and has a caboose outside iirc, but I don’t know if the caboose is still railworthy or whether it would fall apart if put back in use.

Also worth noting is that locomotives have a “driver safety device”, a dead man’s switch, so normally the driver wouldn’t be able to leave the controls to go shoot at zombies or even use the restroom while the train is in motion. My understanding is it’s common or at least possible just to jam the pedal down though.

  1. Railroad folks call the small cars that service and inspect the track putt putts. My uncle worked for BN for many years and spent many hours surveying tracks from his putt putt. They also have many other names.

**1. Train traveling at 50 mph needs X amount of distance to come to a complete stop. ****1 mile? 1/2 mile? 2 miles? (not an emergency stop). **

This is going to vary widely from place to place, train to train. A load of empties will require more distance than the same amount of loads to come to a full stop. Likewise, wet rail will impact stopping distance, as will grade. Length of the train affects not only the train’s mass, but adds distance to the brake pipe (the pneumatic brake release initiates from the head end and takes time to propagate to the last car.) Passenger trains can go from 79 to an emergency stop pretty fast. The train you’re talking about would probably only take a few hundred feet to stop.
2. If the couplers for passenger trains are the same as freight and if they can be joined together creating a mixed type of train.
Yes, they can be joined together. Amtrak’s Auto Train runs with both passenger cars and auto carriers at the end (they could be reversed if Amtrak wanted to spend the money to install electrical cables on the auto racks, but that’s an expensive solution to a non-problem, really.)

Passenger cars nowadays have “lock tight” shelf couplers that are designed to not break apart in an accident or on rough track (mainly, this means there’s a shelf preventing the knuckles from sliding vertically and disconnecting.) There are different “grades” of couplers, but they’re compatible with each other.

**3. What is the least amount of obstruction on the track (besides warped or missing rails) that could derail a train, i.e. log or a deer’s body or even a human/zombie body. **

Bodies wouldn’t do it. 99% of the time, in a grade crossing accident with a car, the automobile is destroyed while the train stays on the rails, usually without a dent. Warped rail in warmer areas (due to “sun kinks”) is likely to cause a derailment, as is a washout of ballast under the track, a number of rotted ties or missing spikes, etc. One could probably fashion a portable derailer out of a hunk of metal, but all things considered it’s pretty tough to derail a train.
4. minimum number of crew to operate the train, including engine and cars.

One. Engineer’s all that is needed. On Amtrak runs shorter than 6-8 hours, there’s only one man in the cab. Your average freight train operates with a crew of 2–engineer on the throttle and conductor filling out paperwork.

5. Is there a fuel car that could feed the main engine enroute? Or does the engine need to stop to refuel at designated stops? **

You can fuel the locomotive from a semi truck tanker, a designated stop, or possibly a railroad tank car full of diesel, if you had the hoses. Locomotives have a fuel cap just like cars…it’s not a very complex process. Bear in mind, though, that with several thousand gallons of diesel in the tanks, a locomotive can travel cross-country without refueling.

6. Distance a train can travel on full fuel tanks without stopping? **

Coast to coast.

**7. Proper name for the truck that drives on the rails with those special wheels in front and back (this will be used by the train survivors to “drive ahead of the main engine” looking for obstructions or damaged track" and warn the engine (via 2 way radio) to stop. **

Vis-a-vis the caboose: you’d probably find a few in any division rail yard. They’re not used for their original purpose (the conductor has been moved to the locomotive because of the Flashing Rear End Device) but will often be tacked to the end of local trains that must do a lot of movement in reverse. The railroads just use old cabooses for that purpose, though they dub them “shoving platforms.” The idea is that a crew member will ride the caboose and radio the engineer about the track ahead.

Couplers have been the same in the U.S. for a very long time, (otherwise, a railroad would need special engines in switch yards to handle freight and passenger trains. Tha Janney coupler than came to be used across North America was invented in 1873. The European link-and-buffer design has been around about as long.

To operate? One. To operate safely? I am not sure.

One could probably rig up a fuel car to give really extended distance, but the tanks on current diesel electrics generally hold enough fuel (2,000 - 3,500 gallons) for pretty long distances, already. Unfortunately, I do not know the typical range of an engine, (although it will clearly depend on how many cars it is hauling.)

Hi-rail truck.

Also, technically, no one runs diesel locomotives on railoads in the U.S., they run diesel-electric engines. Other options are available, but they are pretty much non-existent in North America.