Many motorists find it annoying to be stopped at one of the many railroad crossings in Hall or Habersham County. But by the time you hear that familiar quadruple long – long – short – long horn blast, trying to beat the train to the crossing would be extremely dangerous because it is already very close. In Alto, several streets cross the tracks. You can see the white “W” whistle-point signs, where the engineers pull the horn lever, and realize just how close they are to the crossings. From there on, expect a mile or more of train cars passing by. It takes a while to watch several locomotives plus a hundred cars, each 65 feet long, pass the crossing. But it also helps to consider that each of those covered hoppers, as the grain cars are called, carries 200,000 pounds of food product. A train carrying 150 containers with “Maersk,” “Hamburg Süd” and other familiar names is saving us from sharing the road with 150 tractor-trailers.
Standard freight trains in our area, roughly 6,000 feet long with locomotives only in front, provide a level of efficiency that’s hard to match by other means of cargo transport. The rarity of accidents shows how far safety technology has evolved. Decades ago, I rode along and watched engineer W. A. Kiefer (my brother) hitting a switch every 15 seconds, telling the locomotive that he was alive and alert. Today’s safety systems are more sophisticated. Norfolk Southern’s PTC (Positive Train Control) system, already operational on thousands of miles, uses satellite communications. Global Positioning Systems monitor each train’s location and stop it automatically if an engineer becomes incapacitated or runs a red light. The computer knows about speed limits and helps protect track workers in construction areas.
Stopping a mile-long train from 50 mph is difficult. In previous centuries, brakemen in cabooses activated brakes manually. Today, air pressure lines do that job. But stopping the train at the proper distance from a red signal still requires knowledge of the weight and distribution of its load. There again, PTC is a highly useful modern tool because the computer can quickly evaluate speed, weight, slope, traffic and other factors. Something PTC cannot do is prevent collisions with cars at railroad crossings. That’s why in places like Bradford Street in Gainesville, or Athens Street in Lula, patience is still a virtue.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.