I'm looking for a book or movie that will teach me how railroads work
October 14, 2014 7:03 AM   Subscribe

If one reads The Hunt For Red October one comes out of it knowing a lot about how submarines work. Watch Apollo 13 and you learn about mission control and spacecraft. What's the equivalent for the railroads?

I want to learn about the railroads. Moving boxcars around, switching tracks, hauling freight. How does a car go from point A to point B? Trailing point, facing point, all that crap. What are all those tracks for at the switch yard?

I'd prefer a work of fiction or a very readable non-fiction book or film that gives me a sense of how this all works. Something that will entertain as well as teach. I don't need to learn every little detail, I just want a general overview.

What I'm not looking for:

I'm not looking for the history of railroads. I've read Stephen Ambrose's Nothing Like It In The World.

I'm not looking for technical books about how locomotives work. I'm more interested in the network of rails.

I'm not looking for narratives about being a passenger on a train or the experience of being a hobo riding in a box car.

One can buy DVDs of train rides or overviews of various railroads. We had a billion of those when my son was young. I want more than that.

I've seen enough Thomas the Tank Engine for one lifetime, thanks.

There are plenty of books for model railroaders that get into these subjects but those books are primarily about model railroads. I want to learn about real railroads.

I'm more interested in freight hauling than passenger trains.

I've seen The Station Agent. First person to suggest The Station Agent gets The Stinkeye.

I'd prefer diesel era to steam.

A book/film that merely takes place on a train or track won't do. Stand By Me isn't enough. That episode of Archer where he fights on the train, as awesome as it is, won't do. I did learn that ocelots are crepuscular from that episode, which was nice.

Exceptions will be made for any of those things if they cover the subjects I'm looking for.

Bonus points if the book/film is based in New England and the time period is 1950 - present day.
posted by bondcliff to Technology (16 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
John McPhee's "Uncommon Carriers" contains a section on coal trains (New Yorker abstracts: 1, 2).
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:42 AM on October 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

Here's a starting point (via RailServe.com).
posted by fairmettle at 7:44 AM on October 14, 2014

I hate that I am saying this because I know it comes with so, so much baggage, but Atlas Shrugged.
posted by Mchelly at 8:04 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm interested in others' answer to this question, but will toss in one recommendation: Marc Levinson's The Box is a history of containerized shipping and is the best popular-press description that I've read (so far) of the modern intermodal (esp. land bridge) logistics system.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:07 AM on October 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

Try this book: The Railroad: What It Is, What It Does

It is available from Amazon.
posted by leaper at 8:22 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

posted by Yorrick at 8:25 AM on October 14, 2014

This book will get you squared away on the signal towers and managing traffic on the very busy mainline from New York to New Haven. (full disclosure: I know most of the museum folk described within and who operate the museum that is selling the book. It is available on Amazon as well).
posted by janell at 8:34 AM on October 14, 2014

those books are primarily about model railroads. I want to learn about real railroads.

Actually, if as you've said, your main interest is in facing points/trailing points, and how trains switch tracks to get from point A to point B (I do this for a living), then a detailed book on model railroading should give you very accurate info. A facing point is a facing point, whether on O scale or in real life.

As to the question of why there are so many tracks in rail yards: it is to facilitate re-configuring of train consists. For example: drop off 6 specified cars from the original train onto track 17, pick up 4 other cars from track 23. If the cars ordered to be removed are in the middle of the train, then several moves need to be made to drop the end cars temporarily on one track, drop the cars scheduled for removal onto another track, pick up the desired replacement cars on a third track, then return to the first track to pick up the end cars. The more intricate the reconfiguring orders, the more planning and moves have to be made. It's rather like choreographing a ballet.

Sorry I don't have any specific book recommendations, however I myself am interested in some of the books linked to above!
posted by RRgal at 8:41 AM on October 14, 2014

You might like "End of the Line," a film in which Wilford Brimley and Levon Helm (yes, the drummer from The Band) steal a train. Pretty cheesy IIRC, but lots of train stuff.
posted by jbickers at 8:49 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't know if this website is too close to train ride videos for you, but it's written by an engineer and and has some insights into the day-to-day job that he does.

It's also miraculous that it's as old as it is and still works.
posted by Gev at 8:49 AM on October 14, 2014

This is a borderline response and takes place earlier than your requested time period, but I seem to recall that Emperor of the North Pole, while not about the logistical/operational aspects of the rail system, does have scenes that touch on them.
posted by usonian at 8:58 AM on October 14, 2014

Janell's link above does not seem to work, however it might be referring to this. Looks like it might be what you're interested in.
posted by RRgal at 9:07 AM on October 14, 2014

Extreme Trains from the History channel. The host is occasionally over the top, but overall an interesting show.
posted by aeighty at 9:34 AM on October 14, 2014

The History of Freight Trains opens with some operational information about Union Pacific's Bailey Yard (skip 7-21:00).

If you want to branch out to passenger trains, the BBC has a six-episode series The Railway: Keeping Britain on Track. The documentary focuses on operations in stations, maintaining rails throughout the UK, and all sorts of logistical problems.
posted by JackBurden at 10:19 AM on October 14, 2014

There's a series of mystery/thrillers set on the Victorian railways, which starts with 'The Necropolis Railway' and feature a jobbing railwayman as the hero. IIRC they have a fair amount of practical detail. A good read.
posted by biffa at 10:33 AM on October 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

There is a set of BBC documentaries about the contemporary railway system of India, Monsoon Railway. I'm not sure if there are more than 2 episodes (it seemed to go on for weeks) but here is one on youtube.

Related documentaries.
posted by glasseyes at 10:31 AM on October 15, 2014

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