What did I experience on this train ride?

Yesterday I went up from Olympia to Seattle via the Amtrak Cascades to see a stand up comedy show. Since there’s no late night public transit and taking an Uber back to town would have been more expensive than a hotel room, I stayed the night and took the train back the next day.

When we were just a few miles away from my stop, the train started braking. I assumed we were about to reach the stop, but it slowed to a snail’s pace far too early. The attendant, who knew this was my stop, said it’d be about 10-15 minutes because the conductors had to step off the train and “protect the crossing”. The train eventually came to a full stop at a crossing and stayed there for about two minutes. From out the window I could see that the crossing lights were flashing and the barrier arms were lowered with a few drivers waiting to get past. Eventually the train started moving again and accelerated back to normal speed before braking again at the station, ultimately arriving about 20 minutes behind schedule because of the delay.

What the heck was that? I’ve taken this route several times and never experienced it before, and it certainly didn’t occur on my trip up yesterday. I obviously couldn’t see what was happening in front of the train, but I can’t imagine what the conductors had to do to protect the crossing - I have this mental image of the conductor standing in the middle of the road in front of the engine, frantically blowing a whistle and shouting “HEY, YOUSE GUYS! WE GOT A FREAKIN’ TRAIN OVAH HEAH!”

Any seasoned rail aficionados out there who have an inkling of what could have been going on?

WAG is that the crossing signals had been malfunctioning earlier in the day, and the train was under orders to proceed with extreme caution, in case the signals malfunctioned again.

That’s a variation on my guess: I think the crossing switch was malfunctioning, so the train staff had to manually trigger it.

The thing is, the crossing was already operating when the train stopped. I could see it had already been lowered when it came into view, so if the conductor operated it, he’d have had to get out while the train was still moving, which seems dangerous even at low speed.

Well, I can tell you from experience, sometimes a tool will malfunction intermittently. Perhaps it worked THAT time you were there, but failed on the last train.

Some crossing signals are activated by a simple switch a ways down the track, but others are more sophisticated and can gauge the speed of the train to activate the crossing sooner for faster approaching trains and later for slower moving ones. Others will even detect if a train stops before the crossing and deactivate, such as might happen at a station just before a crossing or at a switching yard. In cases like that the engineer has a radio keypad in the cab which they can use to reactivate the crossing when they’re ready to proceed.

There could be any number of malfunctions, so perhaps they had to get close enough to activate the crossing signals with the keypad device or a conductor really did get off while the train was still moving very slowly to manually trigger it from the control box. At unsignalized crossings, like you might see at an industrial spur, if the train is backing up then a crewman has to walk out into the street holding a red flag to stop traffic. It’s possible in a malfunction situation something similar may have been necessary here, it’s hard to say though.

Well, here’s your problem - you thought you were on a train in Washington but you were actually on a train between New York and Boston.

A variation on what has already been speculated - perhaps the crossing equipment was known to have been damaged from a prior incident, or been vandalized, and yet to be repaired/certified, so as stated, the train operator was not going to trust that everything was in working order as it approached.

It’s an activation failure if the train had to stop and protect the crossing. There is alot involved here. For something like this we are issued orders over radio that we must copy to a paper form and keep as a record for a certain amount of time. There are rules written in books that we must follow or be fired.

That involves first stopping the train the prescribed distance short of the crossing. The the conductor will walk up with a red flag and some red flares. He will use the red flag to stop any vehicle traffic, then light the red flares and place them in the road in both directions of traffic.

He will then give the engineer the signal to proceed. Some railroads require the lead locomotive to occupy the crossing before the conductor can get back on the train.

This all takes some time, but you can see how a failure can be very unsafe and why extreme caution is taken by railroads in these cases.

The gates may have appeared to have been working but it could have been a maintainer was on scene doing tests when your train went by. He may not have told the dispatcher that the crossing was OK yet. We have our orders and we follow them.

As a side note, there is no switch involved here in the sense that is being discussed. It’s all electrical, controlled by relays or SSD’s depending on the line.

I really have nothing to add (except a 20-minute delay on Amtrak doesn’t sound that unusual), but THANK YOU @split_p_j for posting this. Factual first-hand experiences is one of the reasons I love SDMB.

Sounds like it’s probably something like that that happened. I didn’t see any flares in the roadway and I could see both sides of the crossing, though. It was about 3:30 in the afternoon and broad daylight with no rain or fog, though - do they use the flares all the time or only when visibility is impaired?

I knew I shouldn’t have caught that transfer in Albuquerque!

You should have taken the train that took the left branch at Albuquerque.

I heard that train stops with a jerk. :wink:

I think what OP experienced was just a Lorentz-Fitzgerald Contraction, but with perhaps a more abrupt than usual Space-Time Coordinate transformation. (When he got back home, did he find that all the people he knew were suddenly 10 years older?)

That sounds like a BNSF line and I’m not sure if they require the flares, which we call fusees, during the day. My railroad does and requires the lead locomotive to have at least 6 for situations like this.

Railroads are governed at the top by the Federal Railroad Administration, FRA. Some railroads may go beyond what FRA rules dictate.

For example all locomotives that will be going over public grade crossings must have auxiliary lights, which we call ditch lights, forming a triangle pattern per FRA. My railroad goes beyond this and has the ditch lights flash when the horn is sounded for increased visibility.

I have been involved in grade crossing accidents, some times the safe course will take more time but it’s worth it in the end.

Great, now I’m picturing the train stopping because a big furry beast is lying down on the tracks.

Grammar is important, but the meaning of what I was saying is clear.

Oh, definitely clear, and it was a very informative post. The alot has just taken up permanent residence in my brain, is all, and the mental image was just too funny.

Plenty of railway related work going on around Seattle.
It might have been that there was work scheduled, so they protected the crossing with people, rather than trusting the crossing to have lights, gates.

The malfunction could be in re-opening once the train has past.