Why are they poking the cars?
March 29, 2011 9:48 AM   Subscribe

What on earth are these guys doing?

every morning, I cycle past this grain elevator on my way to work. There have been many times in the last few weeks when I have seen men on top of the train cars that are near this elevator, walking from car to car and poking through hatches at the top of the cars with big metal rods. Why are they doing this?

Are they leveling the load? Checking for hoboes? Any ideas?
posted by pdb to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total)
Checking for mold/spoilage?
posted by T.D. Strange at 9:51 AM on March 29, 2011

Looks like that facility is used to offload grain from the train cars, to be stored in the silos before being loaded onto ships. Do these cars have hoppers at the bottom? Are they connected to some sort of intake hoses while these guys are doing their poking? I'm thinking that the grain might need a little persuading to flow out smoothly.
posted by jon1270 at 9:54 AM on March 29, 2011

So I found this page:

Which doesn't exactly answer your question, but apparently after loading the train the last thing they do is test for grain quality. Maybe this is part of this test.
posted by bitdamaged at 9:58 AM on March 29, 2011

Per bitdamaged, have you managed to stick around and watch what they do with the rods after they poke them into the cars?

Perhaps they are taking samples.
posted by Naberius at 10:04 AM on March 29, 2011

My guess is that they are testing the moisture content of the grain before it is unloaded.
posted by ChrisHartley at 10:11 AM on March 29, 2011

Here is an example grain moisture spear, 6' long and designed to be stuck in to the container of grain as a spot check at the intake point.
posted by ChrisHartley at 10:18 AM on March 29, 2011

Response by poster: Jon1270 -

I haven't really noticed whether the cars have hoppers, but they do not appear to be attached to any hose-type apparatus - but I can only see the street side of the car, not the grain elevator side, so something might be attached there.

Naberius -

I haven't stopped yet, as I'm usually on my way to work and that stretch of road is really narrow and there's no good place to stop. I'll have to go by on a non-work day and see what i can find out.

ChrisHartley -

This is a good theory, I'll have to see if I can spot whether there's a doohickey on these sticks as there is in your photo example.
posted by pdb at 10:29 AM on March 29, 2011

Do the cars look like this? The hoppers aren't very conspicuous.
posted by jon1270 at 10:32 AM on March 29, 2011

There is a chance they are also just harvesting samples to be tested elsewhere, in that case the spear would just be a spear with no electronic doohickey. They would have to transfer the sample to some sort of container which you probably would have mentioned if they were doing.

Grain cars are unloaded by opening the hopper and dumping the grain through a grate in to an unloading pit. Flour is unloaded with hoses from the bottom of the car but I believe they thump the sides with a hammer rather than opening the top and poking something in. It might be done differently in different places though.
posted by ChrisHartley at 10:56 AM on March 29, 2011

They might be starting the flow. When I was designing unloading valves and other bottom outlets, they had reinforced pads on the sides of cars for the attachment of vibrators. I often (idly) wondered if disturbing the top surface of the lading wouldn't start the flow, instead. However, I never tested this theory.
posted by notsnot at 11:21 AM on March 29, 2011

If the metal rods are brass colored with slots visible (google "grain probes" or see examples at: BestHarvest)

they are likely taking samples at various places in the cars to take for a moisture test.
The rods are two thin cylinders with matching slots. The cylinders are rotated so the slots are closed. The rod is then inserted into the grain. The cylinders are rotated so the slots open and fill with the grain sampled along the whole length of the rod. The cylinders are rotated again to capture the grain. The rod is removed and the grain placed into a container.
This process is repeated to get a sampling from the entire load.

Harvested grain can vary widely in moisture content - this affects both its weight and how it can be stored. If it is too "wet" it will readily grow mold and/or ferment. It can be dried down with hot air so it can be stored safely.
posted by tronec at 12:24 PM on March 29, 2011

Response by poster: jon1270 -

I have seen both that type of car and the more standard boxcar be poked.

tronec -

I'm about 50 ft away from where they are poking the cars, on a bicycle going 20ish mph - I can't really tell if it has slots or not. The best I can do is see that it doesn't have the doohickey attached as in Chris' example - it just appears to be a long dark metal rod. Maybe tomorrow I'll slow down and see if I can make out detail because this all sounds plausible enough.
posted by pdb at 12:53 PM on March 29, 2011

Best answer: I called the Irving elevator and Robert explained that they are taking samples to test the grain for a number of different factors, including moisture.
posted by ChrisHartley at 1:05 PM on March 29, 2011 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: ChrisHartley -

Thanks for clearing that up - mystery solved!
posted by pdb at 1:10 PM on March 29, 2011

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