Help me be fascinated by freight trains
March 20, 2018 10:10 PM   Subscribe

On my bike commute I have to cross 16 freight train tracks south of downtown Seattle. About 10% of the time, there are trains with coming through and I can't stand feeling like I'm wasting time. Today I was kicking myself for not having left 20 seconds sooner, so I could beat the slow-ass trains that always seem to stop and change directions just when you think they are going to clear the crossing.

So my new goal is to NOT be bothered by trains. I would like to feel *fascinated* to see them going by. What are some things I can learn from looking at freight trains? (with BNSF engines) For example, what can I learn about the markings on the sides of trains? Can I learn where they originate and what they're carrying? What about train art? Anything I should look for in particular? I'm not interested in getting deep into train research so what's some trivia that I can absorb that will make freight train watching fun?
posted by oxisos to Travel & Transportation around Seattle, WA (13 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
What are some things I can learn from looking at freight trains?

For your purposes, I think the best thing you can learn from looking at freight trains is their precise schedule. Get obsessive about recording the exact times that they occupy the 16 tracks you need to cross, and the exact times they clear those crossings.

One of two things will happen: either you will collect enough information work out a solid collection of departure times that consistently minimize your commuting time, or you will work out that no such departure times exist in which case you can just relax and stop kicking yourself for missing them.

And for what it's worth, I get very little pleasure from looking at trains, but quite a lot from listening to them. All kinds of beats and tones going on in there.
posted by flabdablet at 10:28 PM on March 20, 2018 [11 favorites]

I was trapped behind a train on a daily basis and I started noticing the graffiti on the cars.

Some of the messages were poignant and paying tribute to a lost friend.

There were a lot of personal tags and messages that I learned to distinguish by the handwriting and the words used. I spent a lot of time fantasizing about the lives of the people who did this and also about being free enough to hop trains and go anywhere.

But also I spent a lot of time thinking about doing a duck and roll between the wheels so I didn’t have to wait.
posted by bendy at 10:39 PM on March 20, 2018 [4 favorites]

I recommend bringing a copy of John McPhee's Uncommon Carriers to read while you wait. Covers not only freight trains but also long-distance trucks, towboats, and parcel sorting facilities. Made me into an infrastructure fetishist.
posted by Morpeth at 3:57 AM on March 21, 2018 [10 favorites]

When some friends of mine hopped trains across the country, they said that often people waiting at traffic stops for the train to pass would stare right through them, because people don't expect to see anyone hopping trains. Since I heard that, I've always made a point of watching for train-hoppers, and because I'm looking for them, I do see them when they're there. You could look up some info or videos on train-hopping (not because I recommend ever doing it, which I absolutely don't), but to help you spot train-hoppers or to be able to understand where on the train people would be able to ride.
posted by ITheCosmos at 5:20 AM on March 21, 2018 [6 favorites]

My grandfather worked for the railroad his whole career starting from before the Depression until he retired. He was an accountant, but still.
Whenever we would be in the car waiting for a train he would point out the various markings on the cars. He could tell where the car probably came from, where it was probably going, and what it was probably carrying.
If we caught the start of a train where he could see how large and how many engines there were, he could come within a few cars of guessing how long the train would be. Damned if he wasn't always right. Sometimes he even knew the guys waving from the caboose, back when trains had them.
I don't know where to find the information as to what those car markings mean these days. But I am sure it is out there. Seems like knowing some of the above info would make a wait more interesting.
posted by jtexman1 at 5:27 AM on March 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Uncommon Carriers (and McPhee in general) is wonderful.

Graffiti was also my entry point. I'm sure someone knows more about the history than I do, but all I know is that at some point early in the history of modern graffiti, someone realized that train boxcars made a good surface for graffiti, and a culture sprang up of tagging rolling stock. Aside from actual commissioned murals, trains are probably the best place to view truly artistic graffiti, where someone actually took time to execute an idea in detail. Some of it is really beautiful. So now, whenever I'm stuck at a railroad crossing, that's what I look for.

The classic trainspotting activity is to keep track of which engines you've seen in person. Each engine has a unique identifier (usually four digits), and you can keep a little journal in which you list the ones you've come across. The idea is to see as many as possible, although if you really want to go down a rabbit hole, some engines are more famous than others (e.g., CSX 8888, "Crazy Eights"), and you can keep an eye out for them. There are also trainspotters who keep track of the various types of rolling stock (i.e., car types) that they see.

For both of the above, photography is a fun and easy way to maintain interest.
posted by kevinbelt at 5:52 AM on March 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

There is much you can do with freight cars. It's a whole sub-species of railfans.

Try to guess what each holds. Figure out where it comes from, and where it is going.
A loaded car presses down on it's truck springs. An empty car bounces along.

Watch the track as the train passes. Is the ground wet and the ties flex in mud, or well drained and solidly holding?

Look for graffiti. Look for chalk marks by the crews that moved and switched the cars.

Look for signs the cars took abuse. Hit the side of a dock. Had a shifted load. Were run into by a forklift.

Look for repaints, where the car changed ownership.

You can look up the car by reporting mark and car number many places, including:
posted by nickggully at 6:05 AM on March 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

you could look up the various reporting marks.

also interesting is the various DOT hazardous material placards which give a reference number that will tell you the contents of the car. For example a Flammable placard with the number 1267 on it tells you the car is carrying crude oil. (lookup tool)
posted by ArgentCorvid at 6:35 AM on March 21, 2018 [4 favorites]

There are people at the forums who can help you.
posted by JanetLand at 7:13 AM on March 21, 2018

I live next to the train tracks. They are often a source of interest for me. Let me see what points of interest I have picked up over the last two decades.

My tracks are a two sets, with switches right there outside my fence. These are major East-West freight lines, with the occasional AMTrack. I live in the big city. I see lots of containers, tank cars, auto carriers, and flat beds with steel. There are dedicated trains full of rocks for the local concrete batch plants. Cement trains from Mexico, and grain trains from the heartland to the port. The empties run the other way.

How can you tell the empties? Look at the springs on the wheel trucks. Are they compressed flat, or is there space between the coils. Look inside the large coil and you will often see a smaller coil.

Sometimes something large goes by, like an electrical transformer. Rarely, there is a convoy of military vehicles. What are they for, and where are they going? The most interesting is the wind turbine blades in special holders across multiple cars. Following them are the turbine hubs. There are sometimes convoys of track repair and maintenance vehicles, with strange and obscure features.

Look at the tank cars, and try to figure out what is in them. Sometimes they are labeled. What is the difference between edible tallow and inedible tallow? Note the ones with bright bands around them. These are the nasty ones. Chlorine, hydrogen flouride, ammonia, etc. - how screwed would we be if they burst open?

Watch for cars with bright tags that indicate they are going home to be repaired. Note the smooth wheels of new cars, and the bumpy ones of older cars - you can hear the difference. There are sometimes cars with loud wheel hubs. How long until that catches fire, or will it be replaced in time?

What, is that the end of the train? Is there a pusher engine, with nobody in it? How well does the railroad protect the signals from the lead engine to this one, a full mile back? What if someone could hack the controls? Let's not think about that. Time to go.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 8:30 AM on March 21, 2018 [5 favorites]

Watch for hot boxes: axle bearings that run hot and dry and are smoking. They're much rarer that they used to be, and there are detectors at track level to locate hot spots, but they still happen now and again.
posted by scruss at 9:05 AM on March 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

You can trace train cars just like you can trace FedEx packages. BNSF's tracing system isn't public, but Union Pacific's is (and a few other east coast systems are too, like CSX, I think). This means you probably won't have much luck with the consist you're seeing, since it's all BNSF, but it might be worth calling the UP automated tracing system about individual cars or containers. Trainhoppers call this 'Aunt Tracy.' I used to call Aunt Tracy, as it were, to find out where a single car--say, the one I was about to climb on, back in my freight hopping days--was headed. If I was riding a well car with intermodal containers on it, I'd also track the top container, to make sure they were going the same place. (You don't want to end up in an intermodal freight yard, with the giant crane-things bearing down on your car!) I'd also trace the engine, to be sure my car wasn't going to be set out somewhere en route, while the rest of the train ended up in LA, or more likely Colton, which is a big Union Pacific interchange. Message me if you'd like the UP tracing number, or just hunt them up on the internet.

Lots of people have suggested trying to guess where trains are coming from, or going, and this is one method. A less precise but still totally workable method is to pair local knowledge (what kind of cars are passing? what do you think they're carrying based on the car and its markings?) with freight tonnage maps, like these good but very old ones put together by the inimitably-named Harry Ladd.

I'd like to do a whole post on train tags, but for now there are a bunch of great Instagram accounts to look through. Start by watching the Bill Daniels film Who Is Bozo Texino. I gotta go back to work, so I can't dig through to find a bunch of examples, but start with this account and look for other benchers' train tagging posts. This is totally separate (as far as I'm concerned, a non-tagger) from graffiti, and will often be done by trainhoppers or yardworkers, whereas graffiti is typically part of an entirely different culture.

If you want to learn a bit about freight hopping, you might read the (overly optimistic, if you ask me) book Hopping Freight Trains in North America by the former assistant DA of Alameda County (!), Duffy Littlejohn. Then move on to the outdated but fantastic Rolling Nowhere, by Ted Conover. Then Citizen Hobo: How A Century of Homelessness Shaped America.

I have to head back to work, but message me if this leads to any interesting rabbit holes!
posted by tapir-whorf at 3:21 PM on March 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

I asked Herr Vortex about this question; he's been a train nut since he was a little kid growing up near some tracks. Take it away!

I second the advice to look at the reporting marks on the cars (two to four letters, many ending in X). That will tell you who owns the cars, many of which are not owned by railroads but instead by end users- this can be an interesting way to determine what might be in the cars and where they might be going. For example, DODX is the Department of Defense.

Another interesting element of the reporting marks is using them as an entry point to history. North American railroads are now highly consolidated (only seven major Canadian & US roads), but the surviving companies keep all the reporting marks of the smaller companies that merged into them. So, you might follow a wikipedia hole about a reporting mark you saw and learn about an interesting regional railroad that leads you to learning more about the city it was in, what economic activity prompted its founding,etc.

You also might enjoy looking at some maps of the BNSF network & imagining where the trains you see might be going. I was always taken by the idea that in a day the train I'm seeing now might be in Glacier National Park or passing east of Chicago.

I've always enjoyed those multiple entry points of interest: Travel & romantic landscapes & cities; history; economics; systems; and of course big machines! Something for everyone.
posted by Elly Vortex at 7:14 PM on March 21, 2018

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