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Types of Common Rail Systems
August 16, 2013

Rail transportation has been around since the early nineteenth century. It replaced America's network of canals, inland water steam navigation and other early forms of transportation. However, it has yet to be replaced as a key facet in America's transportation portfolio. Given rail transport's tremendous efficiency and cost effectiveness, there are many different forms of rail in use today. Ranging from small to large, they all serve a basic purpose: to move people and freight. Here is a basic overview of the railroad industry's main components.

Class I Freight Carrier: Generally focused on moving freight, a Class I railroad is defined by the Surface Transportation board as having in excess of $250 million dollars in annual revenue. Class I railroad companies own and maintain a huge network of routes connecting different locations and mainline tracks spanning several states. They possess a large fleet of locomotives and railcars suited to shipping many different kinds of materials. The Class I carriers are Canadian Pacific Railway, Norfolk Southern Railway and CSX, Union Pacific, BNSF, Canadian National and Kansas City Southern. Collectively, these companies make up a large majority ownership of all operable tracks in the United States.

Class II or “Regional” Freight Carriers: These railroads are smaller than their Class I brethren in both track-miles and revenue. A regional railroad is classified as earning less than $250 million but more than $20.5 million in annual revenue. Regional railroads often own mainline track routes to move goods long distances but often have a network of slower speed secondary tracks that branch out and connect with factories and mills that may not generate or receive as many shipments as industries on a Class I system might. Regional railroads play an important role by providing small companies with access to the major rail infrastructures across America and generating traffic for Class I railroads. Some examples of Regional carriers in America are the Reading & Northern Railroad, Wheeling & Lake Erie and the Maine, Montreal & Atlantic System.

Class III or “Shortline” Freight Carriers: Short-line railroads are often the smallest of the point-to-point rail systems in America. Their trackage territory can range from only a few miles and upward. Their official classification is contingent upon annual revenues being less than $20 million dollars annually. A large percentage of American short-line railroads are slower speed “branch line” tracks that were sold off by larger railroads. Short-lines often only have a few locomotives but can provide greater levels of attention to customers on its lines than a larger railroad carrier with many customers and lines. Some examples of short-line railroads in America are Lehigh Railway (56 track miles), Towanda Monroeton Shippers Lifeline (6 track miles), and Delaware-Lackawanna (85 track miles).

Class I National Passenger Carrier: After most railroads were permitted to abandon passenger service in the mid twentieth century, Amtrak was formed by the US Government to preserve passenger service with federal funding given its unprofitable nature. Today, Amtrak officially qualifies as a Class I carrier due to the level of revenue it receives. It utilizes a network of its own tracks and over track usage rights on other railroads to provide service in most regions across the country.

Regional Commuter Carrier: Also known as Commuter Rail, Virginia Railway Express finds itself in this category. These carriers can either operate on a network of privately held right-of-way or can operate over host railroad territory. Regional Commuter carriers are generally found around dense urban areas. Regional carriers generally own or lease their own fleet of specially built passenger equipment capable of speeds of up to 79 mph and most often operate under partnerships with a transportation authority or government agency. Some other examples of Regional Commuter carriers would be the Trinity Railway Express, based in Texas, SEPTA Regional Rail Division, based outside of Philadelphia, and New Jersey Transit Regional Rail, based in Northern New Jersey.

Closed System Rapid Transit: This system will most often operate on its own network of trackage within a city or connecting two major population centers. The defining difference between this system and other previously listed systems is train frequency. Within a rapid transit network, there are generally a large amount of connection options and routine train arrivals and departures without interference from other types of trains (closed system). The equipment is generally electrically propelled, versus conventional diesel-electric locomotive use. An example of this type of system, locally, is Metro. Nationally, another example is New York's MTA.

Rail Jargon 101
August 16, 2013

Ballast – Selected rock material placed on the roadbed for the purpose of holding the track in line.

Cab – The space in the locomotive unit containing the operating controls and seats for the engine crew. Cab can also be located in select passenger cars, known as cab cars.

Conductor – Railroad employee in charge of the train.

Continuous rail – Rails of standard length which are welded together at the ends to form a single rail of a considerable length.

Coupler – A device located at both ends of all cars in a standard location to provide a means for connecting one rail car to another.

Deadhead – Train going from one location to another without taking on passengers.

Dispatcher – Employee responsible for directing and controlling the movement of trains.

Engineer – Operator of a locomotive.

Extra board – A list of unassigned employees available to work, normally in the place of the regularly assigned crew.

Flagman – An extra crewman used to flag rail traffic around construction sites.

Frog – A device made of rail sections that permits the wheels on one track to cross another rail of an intersecting track. Resembles an “X” or a frog with legs extended.

Gauge – The distance between the heads of the rails, measures at a point 5/8" below the top of the rails. Standard gauge in the United States and Canada measures 4 feet and 8.5 inches.

Grade Crossing – A crossing at the same level, either between track of different railways or between railway tracks and public crossings (highways and roads).

Hot Box – An overheated axle bearing caused by excessive friction between bearing and axle due to lack of lubricant or the presence of foreign matter.

Hot Box Detector – A wayside infrared sensing instrument used to identify overheated axle bearings, usually placed about every 20 miles.

Hours of Service Law – The Federal statute which provides that all train and engineer crews must be relieved of duty after 12 hours of continuous service.

Maintenance of Way Equipment – Equipment designed for working on tracks and railroad right-of-ways.

Rail – A length of track, usually 39 feet long.

Right of Way – In the strictest sense, land or water rights necessary for the roadbed and its accessories. However, it is now loosely used to describe property owned and/or operated over by a railroad.

Single Track – A main track upon which trains are operated in both directions.

Switch (Turnout) – A device consisting of two movable rails, necessary connections, and operating parts designed to turn a train from the track on which it is running to another track.

Train Order – A written mandatory directive governing the operation of trains that is issued by the train dispatcher.

The Juice Train
August 9, 2013

tropicanaIf you served up a tall glass of Tropicana O.J. this morning for breakfast, you're not alone millions of gallons of Tropicana's most famous juice travels from Florida up the East Coast five days a week, and the company doesn't call upon trucks to do it. Rather, trains have been the preferred mode of transportation ever since 1970, with the so-called “Juice Trains” becoming the object of huge affection, with fan clubs, photography collections and even online discussion groups created to celebrate the big orange and white cars that help deliver one of America's favorite drinks.

But before 1970, getting Tropicana juice into the hands of its thirsty customers was no easy feat. When the company was first founded in 1947, it depended on hand-delivery to nearby Floridian homes, but as demand grew—particularly in the Northeast—a ship named the S.S. Tropicana was called into service in the 1950s, taking 1.5 million gallons of juice to New York each week. (One of Tropicana's first Manhattan customers, the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, had a standing order for 1,000 gallons of juice and fruit jars each week.)

By 1970, Tropicana realized it needed even faster and more frequent service. So in 1961, the S.S. Tropicana made its final voyage, and the concept of using a “juice train” to carry Tropicana's product was born. Originally a single, insulated boxcar that carried orange juice in bulk once a week from Florida to Kearney, N.J., the Juice Train expanded quickly. By the following year, the company was operating two 60-car unit trains a week, each carrying about one million gallons of juice. On June 7, 1971, the “Great White Juice Train” (the first unit train in the food industry, consisting of 150 100-ton insulated boxcars fabricated in the Alexandria, Va. Shops of Fruit Growers Express) commenced service over the 1,250-mile route. An additional 100 cars were soon incorporated into the fleet, and small mechanical refrigeration units were installed to keep temperatures constant on hot days. As a result of its focus on rail, Tropicana saved $40 million in fuel costs alone during the Juice Train's first 10 years in operation.

Today, the Juice Train, cooled to 34 degrees, departs five days a week, carrying juice from more than 400 Florida groves to your glass with as much speed as possible. (Incidentally, the first “Great White Juice Train” is still in operation today.) The look of Tropicana's rolling stock has also changed over the years, including orange, white, and blue cars, all designed to better advertise its famous cargo.

A reliable and economically viable transportation mode, the Juice Trains now also run 10 trips each week to Jersey City, N.J., and Cincinnati, Ohio, while additional shipments with specially equipped refrigerated cars now travel 3,000 miles by rail to California, as well.

Not surprisingly, the Tropicana-CSX Juice Trains have been the focus of countless efficiency studies and have received numerous awards, primarily because the Juice Trains are a great example of how modern rail transportation can compete successfully with trucking and other modes to carry perishable products.

Safety Concerns
July 31, 2013

As we've said before, at VRE, our top priority is your safety. Here are some examples of things that you the rider can do to keep yourself safe.

Crossing the Tracks/Trespassing

Remember that you should only cross the railroad tracks at designated railroad crossing locations. Do NOT walk on the railroad at any time. It's an extremely dangerous situation, and it's illegal, too—in the Commonwealth of Virginia it is illegal to cross a railroad track outside of a marked crosswalk. Doing so is considered trespassing and puts you at risk of citation and fine up to $250.

Railroad tracks are not only inherently dangerous because of passenger and freight trains traveling as fast as 60 to 80 miles per hour, but also because the ballast and the oil residue from diesel locomotives make it a prime environment for slips and falls.

Some choose to cross at sharp curves in the track with zero sight warnings of an approaching train, and because there's no road crossing there either, there's no whistle warning.

Unfortunately, examples of tragic accidents are not hard to find and pedestrians have been struck and killed while crossing the tracks at marked crosswalks by what is commonly referred to as the “second train,” i.e., a train on a second track that can be moving in either direction at substantial speed.

The ‘second train’ is a real issue now at our Quantico, Fredericksburg, Alexandria and Woodbridge stations. Track improvements there have allowed track speeds to increase, so approaching trains are coming at a much faster pace. People tend to walk around the end of a stopped train, not realizing a second train is approaching or, they'll see one train pass and start to cross, oblivious to a second approaching train because they're so focused on the one they see right in front of them. It all leads to tragedy

People walk with their heads down, they have their iPod headphones jamming in their ear, or they're focused on a cell phone conversation. The result is a loss of situational awareness which can lead, quite honestly, to death. We simply cannot state the facts more clearly: Never ignore or go around flashing red lights and a horizontal gate. Never cross a railroad track anywhere but a crosswalk. And always look and listen if you want to live.

Attempting to Board a Moving Train

Have you ever thrown a basketball from mid-court towards the hoop in hopes that you will make it? What are the chances that you'll miss? Now imagine that you are the ball, and the hoop is a door on several tons of steel moving above a set of steel wheels. Would you still be willing to risk missing that shot, considering that to miss could mean the loss of your life or limb?

In the past, we've had some of our less "thoughtful" passengers foolishly attempt to run and jump into or out of the train when the doors were closing. Obviously, this is dangerous and those trying to board have fallen and injured themselves in the attempt. Luckily no one has died.

When the doors close, this means a train is ready to start moving. When those train doors begin to shut and the warning sound begins to beep it is already too late…you are now catching the next train.

Never attempt to board (or exit) a moving train. To do so will result in your immediate expulsion from that train.

Be safe. Arrive to the platform on time. Never run. In this case, a mindless decision could be your last. It's just not worth it.

Stay Behind the Yellow Line

Always be aware of one's surroundings. For example, if you are standing near the yellow line on a very crowded station platform with people jostling to maneuver through the crowd, it is possible to be accidentally bumped off the platform. Also, trains passing the stations are not required to slow down if they are not scheduled to stop.

The wind generated by these passing trains can snatch a newspaper or hat very quickly, catching you off guard. Even worse, if a railcar happens to have a loose cable or a shifted load that inspections or detectors have failed to detect, they can cause harm to those who are crowding the edge of the platform. For your own safety, please stay back from the edge of the platform and remember that the yellow tactile strip is not intended to protect you from anything, it's only a minimal line of protection to prevent slip and fall accidents near the edges while boarding.

Passenger Emergency Intercom (PEI)

All of VRE's new train cars are equipped with passenger emergency intercoms (PEIs) in the event that a passenger needs to reach a train crew member immediately. The PEIs can be found on each end of every train car, in the aisle adjacent to the stairwell. To alert and speak with a train crew, push the red button. In order to identify the exact train car in which you are riding so that the train crew will know where you're located, look above the red button for an identifying number, i.e., “V863, A-End.”

Operation Lifesaver

Operation Lifesaver is an organization designed around rail safety. Below are some of Operation Lifesaver's common sense precautions and important tips to ALWAYS keep in mind when traveling by car or by foot anywhere near a railroad station or track:

  • Freight trains do not travel on a predictable schedule; schedules for passenger trains change. Always expect a train at every highway-rail intersection.
  • Train tracks are private property, no matter which railroad owns them. Trains have the right of way 100 percent of the time — over ambulances, fire engines, cars, the police and pedestrians.
  • If there are rails on the railroad ties, assume that the track is in use, even if there are weeds or the track looks “rusty.”
  • A typical locomotive weighs approximately 400,000 pounds, or 200 tons. When 100 railcars are added to the locomotive, the train can weigh approximately 6,000 tons. The weight ratio of an automobile to a train is proportional to a soda can and an automobile.
  • A train may extend three feet or more outside the steel rail, which makes the safety zone for pedestrians well beyond the rails themselves.
  • Trains cannot stop quickly. It is a simple law of physics: the huge weight and size of the train and the speed of the train dictate how quickly it can stop under ideal conditions. A 100-car freight train traveling at 55 miles per hour will need more than a mile to stop — that's approximately 18 football fields — once the train is set into emergency braking.
  • Stop, look, and listen. Modern trains are quieter than ever, with no tell tale “clackety-clack” sound. Also, an approaching train will always be closer and moving faster than you think.
  • Trains can move in either direction at any time. Trains are sometimes pushed by locomotives instead of being pulled. This is especially true in commuter and light rail passenger service.
  • Cross tracks ONLY at designated pedestrian or roadway crossings. Observe and obey all warning signs and signals.
  • Never walk down a train track; it's illegal and it's dangerous. By the time a locomotive engineer can see a trespasser or a vehicle on the tracks, it is too late. The train cannot stop quickly enough to avoid a collision.

For more information about Operation Lifesaver's mission and educational resources, please visit www.oli.org.

The Quiet Car
July 17, 2013

quietcar2Ever since the debut of VRE's Quiet Cars, we've intended for them to be restful, peaceful and quiet, but not necessarily tombs of complete silence. We urge everyone who plans to ride in a Quiet Car to please review the guidelines and respect your fellow quiet-seeking passengers.

Please do:

  1. Set your cell phone to vibrate, or turn it off. (And, kindly move to another car if you must make or take an incoming call.)
  2. Whisper—briefly—to your neighbor.
  3. Send text messages from your PDA or cell phone.
  4. Listen to music using headphones (but quietly enough that your seatmate doesn't have to hear it).
  5. Type on your computer quietly.

Please don't:

  1. Converse with your neighbor.
  2. Talk on your cell phone, even at low volume.
  3. Set the volume so high that others can hear what you're listening to through your headphones.
  4. Use electronic games or other devices that cannot be silenced.

The Quiet Car is the car located closest to the locomotive, normally, the southernmost car on the train. It can be easily identified by Quiet Car signs.

Seating in this car is provided on a first-come, first-served basis.

Should a passenger have an issue with another rider's noise making, please see a conductor to have the issue resolved.

Below are some answers to a few of the most frequently asked questions about Quiet Cars:

Why the Car Behind the Engine?
We needed to choose an easily identifiable car. With this in mind, we decided that it either had to be the cab car or the car behind the engine. It was decided that the cab car is generally louder, so the car behind the locomotive was chosen. Because the bathroom is generally found in the cab car, the flow of passengers to and from this car in generally greater.

How is Quiet Enforced?
Those seated in the Quiet Car are expected to be polite at all times. Should there be a problem, please see a conductor.

What If I Need to Make or Receive a Call on My Cellphone?
Please don't use cellphones while in the Quiet Car. If you must leave your cellphone on, switch it to the vibrate function so that its ring won't disturb others. Kindly move to another car if you must make or take an incoming call.

What If My Seatmate's Music is Too Loud?
Quiet does not mean implicit silence. A certain amount of tolerance of noise is necessary. If needed, politely remind your seatmate that they are riding in a Quiet Car and ask that they monitor the volume of their music. We have experienced instances when passengers are more aggressive in confronting their fellow riders. Certainly, we do not condone this behavior.

Can I Chat with Fellow Riders If I Whisper?
If you must communicate with a seatmate, please whisper quietly. If you find yourself needing to whisper the entire ride, it might make more sense to ride in the non-quiet cars.

There is a bathroom on the Quiet Car, doesn't this defeat the purpose of quiet?
We place bathrooms on board the train so that riders never have to walk more than 2 or 3 cars. Unfortunately, we cannot always guarantee where the exact placement of a car with a restroom will be since cars often get switched out for maintenance. This will only be a temporary change and the Quiet Car will eventually go back to being bathroom free, but only after these periodic maintenance checks are completed.

Can the Conductor Turn Off His Radio When in the Quiet Car?
We want to preserve a quiet atmosphere for the comfort of our riders. However, we cannot request that our conductors silence their radios while in this car. Instead, we ask our crews to temporarily lower the volume of their radios as they walk through this car and to station themselves in another car. This helps to reduce the disruption of quiet for our passengers.

What Should I do If a Fellow Rider Continues to Cough or Sneeze? Obviously your seatmate is not intending to be discourteous. So, if those around you have to cough or sneeze, there's no need to glare or complain. Offer them a throat lozenge or cough drop.

Again the Quiet Car is meant to be relaxing but not necessarily completely silent. If the occasional ruffle of a paper is still too much noise for you then you may wish to invest in noise cancelling head phones. Otherwise, we hope you enjoy the Quiet Car.

Free Ride Certificates (aka: FRCs)
July 11, 2013

Virginia Railway Express is one of only a few transit agencies that GUARANTEES its on-time performance. If a VRE train enters a station 30 minutes or more behind schedule, passengers detraining from that point forward are entitled to receive one "Free Ride Certificate" good for a FREE one-way trip on VRE.

"Free Ride Certificates" are only distributed on the affected train the same service day of the delay. Like a Single-Ride or Ten-Ride ticket, FRCs MUST be validated in the platform ticket vending machines prior to boarding. Once validated, FRCs should then be displayed on the train for inspection by a conductor.

I'm a Monthly ticket holder, what good are FRCs to me?

Many monthly riders have told us that they save their FRCs for when they want to take vacations and then use the FRCs along with a Ten-Trip ticket so they do not have to pay for the cost of a full Monthly ticket. Hopefully, this strategy works for some riders.

Can expired FRCs be exchanged for new ones?

No. Be sure to check out your FRCs expiration date. If you don't use them up by this date, they will no longer be valid.

My train was late but I didn't get an FRC, what do I do?

If a train is late and FRCs are not distributed on the train for any reason (often the train is too crowded for crews to get through the cars and distribute FRCs) you are still entitled to a Free Ride. You can request your FRC from our office using an FRC Request Form.

My train was cancelled, am I still entitled to a Free Ride Certificate?

Yes. Please send us an FRC Request Form along with a copy of your valid ticket.

As much as we want to run a perfect service, we know that sometimes delays are going to happen and this is our token of apology. FRCs are just another measure that VRE takes to try to provide our riders with the most pleasant, consistent and reliable service possible.

(P.S. if you know of another transit agency out there that guarantees its on time performance, please let us know...we're curious).

Train Delays
July 9, 2013

Now that the warm weather is here, you have probably noticed that it is accompanied by speed restrictions most often related to heat and flooding. These restrictions are necessary for safety, but inevitably, cause delays. There are many reasons for delays and below, we try to highlight some of the major ones:

Heat related speed restrictions:

What exactly is a heat restriction? In short, heat restrictions are orders given to railroad engineers to reduce their speed over a given section of track between the hours of 1:00 pm and 7:00 pm when the ambient temperature is predicted to be 90 degrees. Passenger trains must operate 20 mph slower than their maximum operating speed.

For all practical purposes, that usually means VRE's trains can run at 50 mph during a heat order. But why impose these heat restrictions?

Trains ride upon two ribbons of steel. This steel has been metallurgically engineered to be incredibly strong and stable, yet incredibly flexible. This flexibility, which serves well in the creation of curved track and during periods of exceptional cold (when rail remains strong) can be a double edged sword. When many miles of rail are subjected to intense heat, the rail becomes incredibly hot. The stone track-bed and the consistent lack of shade do nothing to help this problem either. Since the rail is firmly anchored into the wooden railroad ties, it has little room to move, which helps to keep trains moving at great speeds stable. As we all learned in elementary school, heat causes expansion and the superheated rail can increase in length measuring in several inches over a great distance. Since there cannot be any gaps in a rail to allow for this expansion, pressure builds up in the rail as it tries to expand lengthwise but can't. With no room to expand, the rail can bow outward like a plastic ruler squeezed at each end between your fingers. It pulls the wooden ties right out of the stone track-bed with it and creates a sharp curve. When this occurs, the track has what is known as a “sun kink” or “heat kink”.

metrosunkink These occur without warning and if unchecked, can create a very unstable operating situation for a train.

When railroad maintenance officials see that conditions may be right for such a situation, they issue heat warnings and our trains end up travelling slower, because higher speeds add to the friction which adds to the heat. When trains slow down, there is less friction and therefore less heat which reduces the bending of the rail.

In the grand scheme of things, heat restrictions do not really count for that great of delay (8 to 10 minutes at the most which can often be made up). However, when it is hot enough for heat restrictions to be needed, it is also hot enough for the temperatures to affect mechanical equipment and signals and switches along the tracks. The combination of these two factors, mechanical breakdowns and slow speeds can, unfortunately, result in delays.

While no one likes to be delayed, even if it is only 8 to 10 minutes, the use of speed restrictions is definitely a case of being “better safe than sorry”.

Flood related speed restrictions:

The most common delay during stormy weather is caused by wind and heavy rain, with both CSX and Norfolk Southern having policies in place that deal with severe weather. If the National Weather Service puts out a flash flood warning, for example, CSX's policy states that trains can go no faster than 40 mph; NS's policy states that no train can go faster than 20 mph.Tropical Storm Lee Train Ride Home 1

Both policies follow the same theory most of us do when driving in heavy rain: slowing down enables the engineers to more safely navigate through areas with limited visibility. Most importantly, should deep water cover the tracks, or if a section of track is washed out, a slower rate of speed will allow the engineer to slow or stop the train before it is too late.

Train Track WashoutSpeed restrictions during flash flood warnings, like heat restrictions, are put into effect for safety reasons. This rule is put into effect because heavy rains can wash away parts of the ballast (the rocks that support the tracks). The Manassas line is especially prone to this since the conditions that cause flooding are more prevalent in this area.

Once imposed, flood related speed restrictions will remain in place until the tracks can be properly inspected. So even though it may be sunny outside, if the tracks haven't been fully inspected yet after a storm the speed restrictions will remain.

Other delays associated with rain storms can be the delays caused by fallen trees. Tracks covered by fallen trees require railroad crews to come via hi-rail vehicles (vehicles that can run on both road and rail) in order to cut and clear the tracks as quickly as possible.

Ultimately, VRE's bottom line is safety, a focus shared by both CSX and NS. If severe weather is in the forecast, please keep in mind that your commute may be delayed, but rest assured, those commuting by car are likely sitting in far worse backups!

Track work related speed restrictions:

Like delays on the interstate due to yearly road construction and maintenance, railroads also experience delays due to yearly maintenance, track upgrades and tie replacements to keep the railroad in safe working order.

CSX and Norfolk Southern, the host railroads who own and maintain the tracks we operate on, frequently run geometry cars to test the rails to make sure that everything is safe and stabilized. When they find a problem, they fix the tracks and rail-bed. After the work is complete, speed restrictions are placed along the repaired track until proper train tonnage passes over to make sure the ties, rail and/or rail-bed has settled properly.

History of the Railroader's Timepiece
July 2, 2013

watchEver since the first train departed, the question has been asked “what time did it leave?” or “what time will it arrive?”

Keeping time on the railroad began as an imperfect science. Timepieces of the very early 1800's were notorious for losing as much as ten minutes a day. As more and more trains began to operate on the same track, risks of confusion arose with many different trains operating on a non-standardized time schedule. As automatic signaling had not yet been developed, railroad operations were coordinated around timing.

This lack of precision finally resulted in the fatal collision of two trains outside of Cleveland, Ohio. Following this incident, railroad investigations revealed that the accident was due solely to the fact that the engineer was using a timepiece that was defective and had not been displaying the correct time.

But what was the correct time? Each railroad had its own opinion and each station along the way did too. The railroads operating in America sat down following the findings of the investigations and agreed to establish standard times and to create a standard clock.

Railroads would also establish requirements for what an acceptable time piece was. Among several highly technical internal specifications, the early requirements for a railroad approved timepiece was that it must be open faced (pocket watches without a closing cover), engineered to keep accurate set time within 30 seconds per week, as well as have a plain white dial with black Arabic numerals.

Railroads installed clock stations at central points where train crews were assigned and rules went into effect stating that all crewmembers were to set their watches to the standard time as displayed by the central clock and coordinate time with each other prior to their tour of duty.

This advancement proved to be very beneficial and exponentially improved the railroad's operating efficiency and drastically reduced the number of near-miss incidents or actual rail collisions resulting from poor timekeeping.

Secondary benefits from these changes in how time was viewed created a renewed interest in timekeeping and accuracy. Companies like Ball, Waltham and Hamilton in America and the newly formed Hans Wilsdorf Watchmakers (later designated as Rolex) and the Louis Brant watch company (later renamed as today's Omega S.A.) of Europe began manufacturing pocket-watches that were capable of withstanding extreme temperatures, moisture, as well as being bumped and dropped, perfect for the demanding environment incumbent on the railroad.

Although much has changed since those days, time is a very crucial element to railroad operations. All railroads operating in North America, including Norfolk Southern and CSXT (our host railroads) continue to have watch construction and time keeping specifications. As watch making is vastly superior to the early days of timekeeping, the technical requirements for a watch's movement are less technical or in some cases, absent.

However, the requirement of no greater loss of 30 seconds is acceptable and all numbers must be displayed as Arabic numerals. United States Naval Observatory time is statistically one of the most precise clocks on earth and is established as the “standard clock” given today's relative absence of large centralized train crewing locations. VRE crews coordinate their personal timepieces with the timing on the USNO clock daily to ensure you arrive to and from your destination on time.

Bell Versus Horn
July 2, 2013

Two very symbolic and perhaps widely known components of the locomotive are the bell and the horn. Both are vital safety features, however, the bell's use predates the locomotive to the days of horse-drawn street cars and carriages. Quite simply, it alerts those nearby to the fact that the vehicle in which it is affixed is moving.

As the horn is very loud and used for widespread alert, the bell, being quieter is more practical for a constant reminder when the locomotive is nearby.

Originally, locomotives in America were very primitive. As they were steam powered, the horn was generally a brass whistle activated by steam releasing from the boiler and the bell was mounted on the top of the locomotive and connected to a long rope that allowed locomotive engineer or fireman to pull on it to ring it manually.

These days, the technology has advanced significantly. The bells are sounded by activating a pneumatic valve fed by the locomotive's compressed air reservoir.

Another significant development in the locomotive bell completely eliminates the bell altogether. New generation locomotives such as the ones at VRE use electronic recordings of a ringing bell that projects from a high volume sound projector affixed to the locomotive.

History of Railroad Signaling
July 2, 2013

signalblogSince its birth, the railroad has employed a variety of signaling methods to communicate with locomotive crews as to what course of action they must take, mile by mile, in order to safeguard themselves from possible collision.

In the early years, when railroading was in its infancy, one train might be the only one running on a specific track for a day or more. During this time, rail signaling reflected the form being used in England and parts of Western Europe. These countries were using steam power, a copper ball and a flagpole. The copper ball was raised when a train was fueled up, passengers and freight were loaded, and the track was properly switched. This “highball” was the “ready to go” signal.

As rail traffic increased, however, multiple trains began to use the same track. As a result, there became a sudden need for more stringent traffic control, and the concept of a “block” was developed.

The blocking system broke a line of track into smaller segments able to be controlled with signals. This meant, that at a certain interval along a given track, these early chain and ball signals would be placed to secure a section of track along with an operator to maintain the signal. While one train cleared a section of track, another train waited at the signal for it to clear. Then when everything was cleared, the ball signal was raised and the train proceeded.

The dawning of reliable electricity led to the invention of a coded track circuit which used common principles of conductivity. A box of circuits and electromagnets called a “relay” was placed at each end of a section of track. Each rail was then electrified by a supplied current. At the ends of each section of track, or “block”, a strip of insulation was placed between the rails so that the next block could have its own circuit and not interfere with the circuits of surrounding blocks.

When a train passed into an electrified block, the circuit from one rail would travel over the steel axles of the train to the other rail and create a connection. The relays would then detect this loss of electricity and a series of electromagnets would become demagnetized. This created a new circuit that then directed power to the railroad signal which rotated a pivot and illuminated a lens from green to the red. Thus creating electrified block territories that are still used today.

Some track territory featured more than one track, with some tracks going in all different directions, such as yards, crossings with other railroads, or high traffic regions. This was where manned signal operators remained necessary. Manned interlocking towers were used on the railroad to control these points. Each tower was given two letters to identify itself on the telegraph wire. The letters usually involved some relation to the name of the town but were ordered so they weren't confused with other letter codes used on the telegraph. For example, the tower at Alexandria positioned to control movement to Fredericksburg was identified as “AF”, or Alexandria-Fredericksburg (currently the dividing point between Manassas and Fredericksburg lines). Each tower operator was responsible for switching the appropriate tracks by hand and telegraphing the dispatcher when a certain train had passed.

In the mid 20th-century, Centralized Traffic Control system (or CTC) was developed. This was a large console with a series of lines depicting tracks, switches and other miscellaneous track structures. At each track switch depicted on the console, there was a small light bulb and a small lever. When the light bulb was lit, that meant a train was occupying that “block” and if the train's destination required transfer to another track, the operator, miles away could simply turn the lever or push a button and instantly a signal created an impulse in a relay box that then in turn operated a motor and switched the track. With this amazing new technology, manned signal towers were no longer needed, and the railroad companies began to demolish some of these towers and installed traffic control consoles in centralized locations.

With some technological advances in the signal systems themselves, this is largely how our trains are dispatched today.