Category Archives: Trains

“Railroad Workers to Union Leaders: This Deal Is Unacceptable,” by Alpha Unit

Back in 2008, there was a head-on collision between a Metrolink commuter train and a Union Pacific freight train near Chatsworth, California. Twenty-five people were killed, including an engineer, who was evidently texting at the time and may have missed a stop signal.

After this collision Congress mandated Positive Train Control. This system monitors trains by computer and satellite GPS. It will stop the train if the crew doesn’t brake or slow down correctly. Had it been in place in 2008, the commuter train would have stopped before crossing into the path of the freight train.

With this new collision-avoidance system, rail carriers have found yet another way to cut labor costs. They now want one-man crews on freight trains. Currently in the United States, trains operate with at least two crew members, one engineer and one conductor. Some trains are over 10,000 feet long and more than 15,000 tons. Engineers drive and take care of the engines but conductors do everything else.

Engineers and conductors are licensed by the Federal Railroad Administration and undergo continual re-training and testing. But many of them – and their families – oppose the idea of one-man crews. They consider it an unacceptable safety hazard, and one of the main factors in their opposition is the grueling fatigue that train crews have to deal with.

Train crews are usually on duty around the clock and may get only two or three hours’ notice to report for work, any time of day or night. They can be called to work again after only 10 hours off. Their shifts can be for up to 12 hours. Some of the duties of a conductor:

  • hopping off the train to throw the switch that moves the train to another track
  • adding or removing cars
  • updating the list of cars that carry hazardous materials – crucial for first responders in case of a wreck
  • problem solving if a mechanical problem stops the train
  • conferring with the engineer about hazards, speed reductions, or crossings coming up

Opponents of one-man crews cite the case of a disaster that occurred in July of 2013. An unattended crude oil train broke loose and rolled down a hill, derailing in the middle of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, igniting fires and explosions that killed 47 people. A sole engineer had been in charge of the train.

Last month, thousands of railroad workers found out that their union officers had negotiated with one of the biggest freight carriers in the country to allow one-man crews. The union is SMART, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (formerly the United Transportation Union), which represents conductors. The rail carrier is Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway (BNSF).

Currently a SMART agreement requires a minimum of one conductor and one engineer in the cab on Class I railroads. But that agreement will soon expire. Conductors could lose jobs if railroads implement engineer-only operation.The deal struck by the General Committee of SMART would have a designated master conductor working either from a fixed or mobile location other than the train. It would be the first time that a conductor is in charge of train operation.

The deal would boost the pay of conductors and other ground service workers, such as brakemen, switchmen, helpers, and yardmen. All these workers are eligible for promotion to conductor.

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, which represents engineers, has clashed with SMART over the years. Many engineers’ jobs were eliminated several years ago when railroads introduced Remote Control Operation technology for railyards. As J.P. Wright and Ed Michael explain, inbound train cars can come to the yard to be received, separated, and regrouped into tracks so that outbound trains are built with cars all going to the same destination. A yard crew used to consist of engineer, brakeman, and conductor.

Now yard crews have been reduced to a lone conductor with a remote control device strapped to his or her body. He operates the engine’s throttle and brakes to move cars, uncouples cars, and throws switches, talking by radio to the yardmaster and incoming engineers.

At first BLET and UTU (representing conductors at the time) stood united against remote control, but an attempt to merge the two unions failed. The UTU broke ranks and agreed to remote control, eliminating engineers’ jobs.

SMART is now trying to hold on to conductors’ jobs since this new industry move toward engineer-only crews.

Rank and file members of SMART have to approve of the new deal, and a campaign is underway to get them to vote no on one-man crews. Both SMART and BLET are officially against one-man crews, but each union is willing to cut whichever deal benefits its members.

Railroad Workers United was organized to bring all workers in the industry together to oppose one-man crews, regardless of their craft or union affiliation.

As for the federal government, the National Transportation Safety Board has no objection to eliminating conductors on PTC-run trains. Amtrak, commuter railroads, and some smaller freight carriers already operate with lone engineers in the cab and haven’t found any reduction in train safety.

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Filed under Alpha Unit, Government, Guest Posts, Labor, Trains, Travel

Trains That Go 5,000 Miles An Hour!

The amazing Vactrain.

This has been merely a theoretical model, first proposed 100 years ago. A major proposal was unveiled by a man named Salter in the 1970’s;  however, his project was shelved due to huge costs – estimated at $1 trillion. Once it was built out, one could travel from New York to Beijing in 2 hours! Trains would go under the ocean, on the ocean floor or underground. People would be subjected to forces 1.4X gravity, so modifications would have to be made in the model to deal with that.

All of these are theoretical at the moment, but China has unveiled plans to build a Vactrain going 620 mph. It is due to be completed in 2020. Exciting news!

I do not understand engineering well, so if some of you do, you might be interested in the specifics.

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Filed under Asia, China, Regional, Trains, Travel

Strange Goings On on Chinese Trains

A Chinese man taking a crap right on the floor of a Chinese train, surrounded by other people.

A Chinese man taking a crap right on the floor of a Chinese train, surrounded by other people.

Amazing photo. Does this go on very often? One wonders. I saw other photos of Chinese trains and they were absolutely filthy, simply unbelievable trash and filth on the floor. Now here is this guy bending down and taking a crap right on the floor of the train and no one seems to care. There is something wrong with Mainlanders.

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Filed under Asia, China, Regional, Trains, Weirdness

“No Longer in Service,” by Alpha Unit

When I was a kid I loved it when we were riding in the car and had to stop to let freight trains pass. We would lean across the front seat to watch the rail cars go by, chattering about them or just watching and getting that weird sensation that our car was moving…instead of the train. (I kind of liked that.)

I still remember some of the names painted on the sides of the rail cars. COTTON BELT – the St. Louis Southwestern Railway, that is. SOUTHERN. That was the Southern Railway (“Serves the South”). FRISCO. Also known as the St. Louis – San Francisco Railway. But we were also waiting to see the caboose – that gave us something to look forward to, even though I was kind of sad to see it. That meant the show was over!

The caboose is a thing of the past. Cabooses were once used on nearly all freight trains, by law. But advances in technology made the caboose unnecessary and undesirable, according to the railroads.

The caboose was originally just a makeshift shack built over an empty flat car, assigned to the conductor for his exclusive use – a kind of home away from home. Over time it became the quarters for the train crew and took on a utilitarian role. Railroads found that the caboose offered a good vantage point to keep an eye on trains as they got longer; to improve the view they added a cupola, a lookout post on top of the car.

For most of the 19th century and early 20th century, most cabooses carried a conductor, brakeman and a flagman. A second brakeman accompanied the engineer. (The conductor oversaw the safe operation of the train; the engineer oversaw operation of the locomotive.)

Before the era of automatic air brakes, the engineer signaled by whistle when he needed to slow down or stop. This was when the rear-end and head-end brakemen went to work. Each car had its own brake wheel, and the two brakemen, having climbed on top of this moving train, would move from car to car, from opposite ends, applying hand brakes until the train stopped.

Once the train stopped, the flagman would get off the train and walk back a prescribed distance to signal approaching trains that a stopped train was ahead. Once underway again, the caboose crew would sit in the cupola and watch for smoke from overheated axle bearings (this situation was called a hot box and was a serious fire and derailment hazard), smoke from stuck brakes, or other signs of trouble.

In the 1880s the automatic air brake system invented by George Westinghouse eliminated the need for brakemen to set brakes manually. Eventually electric track circuits were implemented to activate signals, eliminating the need for flagmen. Friction bearings were replaced by roller bearings, reducing the likelihood of a hot box.

Today the ends of freight trains are monitored by remote radio devices called End of Train devices, or EOTs. The EOT fits over the rear coupler and is also coupled into the air brake line. The EOT radios information to the engineer regarding the brake pressure at the rear of the train, whether or not the last car is moving and whether or not the flashing red light on the car is working.

The EOT also allows the engineer to set the air brakes from the rear of the train in the event the train breaks in two. In such an emergency the engineer could set the brakes on both halves of the train. With the introduction of these devices, the conductor moved to the front of the train with the engineer.

A lot of the cabooses were sold for their scrap value. But you can still see them in use in and around railyards sometimes. They are brought out for special events, too, such as historical tours. You’ll also find them in railroad museums across the country and in private use by individual owners.

The United Transportation Union is the largest railroad operating union in North America, representing workers on every Class I railroad and many of the workers on regional and shortline railroads. The union initially protested the phasing out of cabooses. It pushed for legislation to require that trains have cabooses if they exceeded a certain length or if they were carrying hazardous materials.

Several states did pass such laws, but as the railroads argued, the federal government no longer requires cabooses on trains. The caboose was obsolete as far as they were concerned.

In 1982 the union signed an agreement with the rail carriers that permitted the elimination of the caboose. A freight train just isn’t what a freight train used to be.

References

Phillips, J. A. October 1998. A Caboose of Our Own. White River Journal.

TrainWeb. The History of the Caboose.

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Filed under Alpha Unit, Guest Posts, History, Labor, Modern, Trains, US

I Guess That’s What They Are There For

The inspectors, that is.

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Filed under Dangerous Idiots, Humor, Idiots, Trains

Wolverine Sighted in Shasta County, California

Separate posts on this blog deal extensively with wolverines in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah, Nevada, New Mexico and the Upper Midwest. There are also four posts on the wolverine in California.

There was an unconfirmed sighting of a wolverine in Shasta County, California a year ago, on Friday, September 26, 2008. The sighting occurred at 1 PM on a sunny day. The wolverine was crossing Highway 89 from north to south. It was walking fast more than running.

It was described as paler than most photos the observer had seen – more of a dark tan. This color is actually common for wolverines, and if this was an actual California wolverine, this subspecies was known to have a much lighter coloration. He observed it crossing the road at about 50 feet away until it vanished into the forest.

The observer assumed it was a pretty common animal until he went on the Net and did some research and found out how rare it was. He reported the sighting to this blog, and I believe him. Anyone who wants to talk to the observer about this sighting can try to contact him via me at my email

This area of California has actually had a number of wolverine sightings in recent years, including some by wildlife biologists. In addition, loggers, utility workers and Forest Service workers have been reporting sightings in the Lassen/Almanor area for years now. Bizarrely, even sightings by wildlife biologists are said to be “unconfirmed”.

The sighting was around Dead Horse Summit, about 20-30 miles west of McCloud, between the small towns of Bartle and Pondosa. This area is near MacArthur-Burney Falls State Park. That’s a really beautiful area. This part of California is very White, deeply conservative and very sparsely settled. I have been near this part of California, but it was so long ago, I don’t even remember it.

Dead Horse Summit. This is where the far southern end of the Cascades Range of Washington, Oregon and northern California meets the far northern end of the Sierra Nevada. This is an area where the California spotted owl probably intergrades with the Northern spotted owl. Wolverines are already known to exist at decent populations in southern Oregon. These are definitely California wolverines. If the California wolverine subspecies is to repopulate California and the Sierra Nevada, it will be through this corridor linking the two ranges.There is a fascinating old railroad track that runs through this area. You can take these little several man-railroad cars that cruise along the tracks and check out this train track. It’s really popular with model railroad fans for some weird reason. I’m not even sure if this track is even used by real trains anymore. As far as I can tell, it’s a tourist trap for model railroad dudes. Funny.

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Filed under Americas, Animals, California, Carnivores, Endangered Species, Environmentalism, Mammals, Mustelids, Regional, Trains, USA, West, Wild, Wildlife, Wolverines

The Most Evil Train I’ve Ever Seen

Repost from the old site.

Click to enlarge.

That’s actually just a photo of a broken-down clown train somewhere in the US (looks like the Midwest), but it’s creepy as Hell! It reminds me of a Ray Bradbury story or a horror movie.

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Filed under Humor, Trains