Category Archives: Railfan

High Bridge, KY



Over the weekend, my wife and I made a quick trip down to High Bridge, KY (near Wilmore) to see the famous High Bridge over the Kentucky River.  This bridge was built in 1876 for the Cincinnati Southern Railway, rebuilt in 1911, and expanded to two tracks in 1929.  It is, as you can see, still in use by Norfolk Southern today.

At the time it was built, it was the tallest bridge over a navigable waterway, and the tallest railroad bridge in the world until the early 20th century.

There’s a small park near the north end of the bridge with a dance pavilion, playground, restored caboose, and a scenic overlook, where you can also see the confluence of the Kentucky and Dix rivers just upstream of the bridge.

I hope to return later in the summer when the foliage is on and the river less muddy for some better photos.

ETA: Here’s a few more shots from this weekend’s visit…






trestle by BGTwinDad
trestle, a photo by BGTwinDad on Flickr.

I got a new camera for my 40th birthday a few months ago. Since then, I’ve been working on taking better pictures. This shot is from a CSX trestle at Paris, KY.

The tracks have been removed, but the structure still stands (trains run on the other trestle visible at the right edge of the photo).

Since taking pictures and researching “the real thing” is an important part (I think) of the modeling hobby, and, well, since this is my blog, you can probably expect a few more posts like this one.

ETA: On second thought, i’m not sure I like the way this photo turned out in post-processing (I’m still learning how to do this).  I may tray again…

I hope you enjoy!

Northbound Mixed Freight

So I haven’t had much to post lately.  Real-world life has been keeping me busy.  But I have a couple of model projects in the works that I’m waiting till nearer completion to post on.  I think you will be pleased.  There’s actual scenery cropping up on the Glover’s Bend layout!

In the meantime, here’s a video of a Norfolk Southern mixed freight headed Northbound out of Lexington that I caught.  There are a few interesting cars, including a SOO LINE covered hopper up on a flatcar and a former CB&Q covered hopper where the old logo is still (barely) visible.  Some pretty interesting graffiti, too, if you’re in to that sort of thing.  A BNSF SD70MAC and two NS Dash 9-40CWs up front, and it is flying.

I always seem to be on the wrong side of the sun for these things, and while the iPhone video capture is better than nothing, it’s less than ideal for this sort of thing.  Still, enjoy!


Locomotion, Part 1: Wheels on Rail

A recent online discussion spurred me to study in some depth just how a locomotive does its job… moving extremely heavy trains at speed.  I thought it would be useful to share an explanation of the science involved, and so here we begin a new series.

For this first installation, we will essentially ignore the difference between steam, electric, Diesel-electric, and even model vs. prototype engines and focus on what is happening between the wheel and the rail.

There are three basic forces at play:  inertia, friction, and the torque applied to the wheels by the motor.  Whoa! you say.  Big words in paragraph three!  Hold on, we’ll get there.

Inertia, you may recall from high school physics, is the tendency of a body at rest to stay at rest, or of a body in motion to stay in motion – in the same direction and at the same speed.  The locomotive must overcome the inertia of the train any time it wants to start, stop, or change the speed of the train.  For simplicity, we are lumping all of the drag forces on the train (wind resistance, bearing friction, etc. etc.) together under “inertia”, even though strictly speaking they are different things.  They all add up to “stuff trying to stop the train (or at least keep it from accelerating)” anyway.  We’ll dice out all those details in a later post.

Friction is the “gripping” force generated between two surfaces in contact with each other.  It is always directly opposed to a force trying to make the surfaces slide.  In our case, the friction is between the wheel and rail, and it is what allows the train to move.  The friction between the wheel and rail is called static friction because even though the wheel is rolling, the “contact patch” between the wheel and rail is not moving.  Once the force reaches the “traction” point – the limiting stating friction – the two surfaces will slip against each other.

Torque is the force applied to the wheel by the locomotive’s engine that tries to make the wheel turn and thus pull the train along.

The locomotive must apply enough torque to overcome the inertia of the train in order to move it, but if it applies too much torque, it will exceed the static friction limit, and the wheels will slip.  If the train’s inertia is higher than the static friction limit, the train is going nowhere, no matter how much torque is applied.  This can happen, for example, on wet or icy rails, or rails that are covered with leaves.  The rails are too slick, and the wheels cannot grip.

In short, one of three things is going to happen:

  • Not enough torque to overcome inertia:  train stalls
  • Enough torque to overcome inertia, but not so much we overcome the wheel/rail friction:  train moves!!
  • Too much torque: wheels slip.

In order to fix the first point – stall – we have little choice but to add more torque – either increase the throttle, or add more locomotives.  To fix the third, we must either reduce the throttle until the wheels stop slipping or do something – like dropping sand on the rails – to increase the friction so the wheels can grip.  Adding more engines can help, only to the extent that they increase the number of wheels (and locomotive weight) on the rail, and therefore increase the total traction (friction) available.

In the YouTube video posted above, you can see the effects of plenty of torque + too much drag + not enough wheel/rail friction.  It takes an hour of work to slowly get this coal train moving on the icy rails with no sand.

A practical example:  Yard goats with slugs.

Something puzzled me for a while… why in a yard, where engines are frequently starting and stopping and moving long cuts of cars around at very low speed, would you have a small, low horspower locmotive connected to a “slug”.  What’s a slug, you ask? A slug is a modified locomotive that has had its “prime mover” engine replaced with a hundred tons or so of concrete.  It usually is also missing a cab, and must be driven by a “real” locomotive.  It is merely an extra set of traction motors and a lot of extra weight.  Why on earth would we tax the poor Diesel under the hood of the main locomotive like this?

The above analysis gives the answer.  The engine and generator in even a small yard switcher can generate considerably more power (torque) than can actually be applied to the rails without causing wheel slip.  This extra power capacity is, essentially, wasted in a low-speed starting-and-stopping scenario.  By adding a slug, we provide eight extra contact points with the rails (assuming a 4-axle slug!), four more traction motors for converting the generator’s power to motion, and a pile of weight to create more friction on those eight extra contact points.

The slug allows us to direct the excess power capacity of the switcher’s engine/generator to the rails without creating too much torque at any given wheel.

Let’s put some (fictional and easy-math) numbers to this.  Let’s say the generator of a 4-axle yard switcher can create 8000 lb-ft total of torque.  Let’s also say that each wheel can apply only 500 lb-ft of torque without slipping on dry rail.  By itself, the switcher can only use 1/2 of its torque capability (500 * 8 = 4000 lb-ft) to the rails without slipping.  If we add a 4-axle slug, we add 8 more wheels (and 4 more traction motors) to the equation, allowing us to devote the full power of the generator (500 * 16 = 8000 lb-ft) to the job of starting the train.

We can see now how adding more weight and more wheels is a big asset when one is frequently starting and stopping trains.   But if the friction force is directly proportional to locomotive weight, why not simply make the engine heavier instead of adding the slug?  Good question.

In addition to the drag and friction and torque, we need to be mindful of the sheer weight on the rails – the loading gauge.  The rails (and the wheels!) can only support a certain maximum amount of weight at each wheel contact point without damaging them.  So there is an upper limit to the friction force at each wheel that is set by the strength of the rails (and the wheels too!).  To add more weight, we must spread that weight over more wheels.  Adding more wheels has the positive side effect of increasing the total contact patch area, which also increases the friction.

Note also that all of this applies to model trains as much as real ones, though it’s highly unlikely we will ever exceed the loading gauge of even N scale steel rails…

Right place, right time, too slow with the camera.

Life has been keeping me from doing much “interesting” railroading or modeling lately, but that’s how the ebb and flow of the world goes.  I did see one interesting thing yesterday, though I was too slow with the iPhone and my camera batteries were warming in my pocket.  While walking through the parking lot at the mall, a southbound Norfolk Southern stack train rolled by.  Five units on the head.  The first three were standard NS black “catfish”, but the fourth unit was an SD60.  Specifically, CEFX#6003, which still carries its former SOO line paint scheme:

Photo of SD60 CEFX #6003
CEFX #6003, photo by Matt Petersen

This particular photo was taken in Minneapolis, MN in 2006 by Matt Peterson.

This is a fairly rare paint scheme, especially in these parts, so it would have been nice to “catch” it on the fly.  Maybe next time.

Oh, and the fifth engine… honestly I was too busy looking at #6003 to catch it, but it was light blue.  Quite possibly a (former) Conrail unit, though there are some leased units in a similar shade of blue.


New and Old (well, old and older)…



Originally uploaded by BGTwinDad

Caught this picture while wandering around South Charleston, WV taking pictures … of trains, of course…

The foreground locomotive, #1172, is an EMD MP15AC. On the track to its right is the slightly newer MP15T #1233 (basically a turbocharged MP15AC). Both of these “yard goat” switchers live at the CSX South Charleston, WV Yard, sorting cars and serving the nearby chemical plants.

Tucked in behind #1172 is a relic of the past… C&O bay window Caboose #904124. These days, it is used as a “shoving platform” – basically a safety spacer car between the switcher and the cars that it is moving. This is particularly important when moving potentially dangerous chemical tank cars. FRA regulations require a safety car.

CSXT 1172 lived a former life for Seaboard Coast Lines as SCL 4202, as you can see in this picture from, and it was built in February 1978 as EMD serial # 777032-3.  Its partner #1233 – former Seaboard #1233 (also courtesy – is EMD serial # 857074-11, built a little later in 1985.

Here is a better photo of the caboose…

C&O Caboose #904124

And so we see here a relic of the past – a caboose – still serving a vital function alongside the much “newer” technology of the MP15 class Diesel switcher locomotive – a “new” technology that is nearly as old as the author.


Unstoppable movie photo
Photo (C) 2010 TC Fox. All Rights Reserved.

My wife treated me to a matinee show of the new movie “Unstoppable” at the theater today.  If you haven’t seen the previews, it’s about a large freight train (# 777) with hazardous cargo that gets loose from a yard in Southern Pennsylvania and threatens a medium-sized city.  Frank, a veteran engineer (Denzel Washington), and Will, a rookie conductor (Chris Pine), have to chase the train down and save the day.

(View the Trailer on YouTube…)

My short review:  GO SEE THIS MOVIE.  It is a great action flick, full of nail biting moments and good dialogue, a riveting story line and some decent character development.  It’s not Oscar material, but it’s a good popcorn film.  Even my wife and kids enjoyed it!

The movie is PG-13, and there is a fair amount of “cussing” – more than I really would have preferred my 10 year olds hear, but not so much that it wasn’t tolerable.  We simply discussed that bit briefly after the movie.  There is no sexual content, except for some restaurant views of Frank’s daughters and their co-workers – at Hooters,  and all of the violence is of the “ooh! he almost fell off the train!” variety.

As for the storyline, it is somewhat formulaic, but not too badly so.  You have the grizzled veteran, the rookie, the bumbling fool, the tough-as-nails woman, the cold, money-focused corporate VP, the redneck in a pickup, and so on… You have to think of it as the action flick version of the “romantic comedy”.  You know generally what’s going to happen, but it ends up being an entertaining story anyway.

My railfan friends will be wondering about how accurate the railroad stuff is.  I left more than satisfied.  The rail footage alone is worth the movie, and while they certainly got some things wrong, they did not stretch credulity to the breaking point.  The most obvious technical errors mostly had to do with speed.  If you look close you’ll note that some of the “high speed” footage was obviously filmed at a slow, safe speed (and not sped up), especially where major characters are concerned. Watch the shots where Will  is guiding Frank to couple on the back of the runaway train for an example.

In another scene, they try to slow the runaway by coupling two locomotives to the front of the train.  In the scene where the “chase” locos pull in front of the runaway, the relative closing rates of the trains don’t match the storyline.  The runaway is barrelling down on the lead trains at (supposedly) nearly 70 MPH, and the chase engines are entering the mainline at what appears to be 5-10 MPH.  The runaway should have closed the apparent separation distance in seconds and smashed into the slowly accelerating chasers.  Somehow the chase engine accelerated to a matching speed almost instantly…

I’m sure there are plenty of other “goofs” that railfans will catch that are beyond me, but as a relative “layman” I would deem them minor.  One thing that did bother me was that nobody seemed to realize that locomotives can be boarded from the back.  Some might wonder if it’s even possible for a train to get loose like that in the first place.  This is, perhaps, the most “real” part of the whole story – it’s based on a very real train that got free from a yard in Ohio in much the same way #777 gets loose.

In all, I think they did a pretty good job.  It’s an entertaining film with believable characters, gripping action, a good story and some great railroad action.

Certainly worth a matinee, at least, and probably a second look at the dollar theater.

A visit to Cass Scenic Railroad

Cass Scenic Railroad Shay #11 at Whittaker Station, Cass, WV
Cass Scenic Railroad Shay #11 at Whittaker Station, Cass, WV

Over Labor Day weekend, my family visited the Cass Scenic Railroad at Cass, WV.  Cass is a living museum of the logging industry that thrived in the area during the first half of the 20th century.  In particular, they are home to a large stable of Shay type geared steam locomotives, and provide 2 and 4 hour excursion rides up the old logging railroad on Back Allegheny Mountain.

We took the 2-hour round trip to Whittaker Station, about half way up the hill.  This ride features some spectacular views as the train crawls up the steep grades (averaging 4.5% and rising to 8.7% in places) and sharp curves (up to 29 degrees!) on the mountain.

Shay locomotives (and their competitors the Climaxes and Heislers) were specially designed to handle these difficult trips, with tilted boilers, vertical pistons and geared trucks that helped provide smooth, continuous power to the rails.  Our host for the trip was Shay #11, weighing in at 105,000 lbs.

The smooth power delivery of the Shay becomes evident as it begins pulling the grade.  Shays do not produce the sterotypical “Chugga-Chugga” of standard steam locomotives, but more of a smooth rumble that almost – but not quite – resembles a Diesel engine.  There’s no mistaking that black plume of smoke and the ash blowing off the roof of the cars, though.  This is coal-fired steam power at its best!

If you decide to go, you should also check out the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Green Bank, WV, only a few miles away.  I don’t have any photos, since digital photography isn’t allowed (it messes with the radio telescopes), but it, too, is well worth the visit, and is a wonderful mix of astonishingly beautiful scenery and science at its best.

Vacation Railfanning


Originally uploaded by BGTwinDad

I just got back from a week at the beach in North Carolina. While traveling to and fro, I couldn’t help checking out what trains I might see. Unfortunately, I was only prepared with camera to quickly snap this beauty. This is Aberdeen, Carolina & Western #9538, an EMD GP40-2LW, formerly of the CN, where it had the same road number.

This guy had a cut of about 3 cars near Candor, NC, and just after I took the picture, they scooted away. On the return trip, the same line had a very long train of covered hoppers, but I could not see what was pulling it.

I also spotted a couple of long coal drags hauling black gold out of the West Virginia hills and a fast manifest freight rolling westbound through southern North Carolina.

The vacation itself was a week full of sun and sand and surf, but I also relaxed while reading “Railroad Signaling” by Brian Solomon – an excellent book if you want to understand the whys and wherefores of signaling. And I managed to get some further detailing done on my HO GP20 project, too… But that’s grist for another post…

More Museum Fun!


Yesterday I went for the second day of training at the Bluegrass Railroad Museum.  After a morning of procedures, videos, and tests, we spent the afternoon on the train.

After “kicking the tires” (literally – you have to kick the brake shoes to make sure they’re tight when applied and loose when released), we climbed aboard and went over procedures.  I was first as “Conductor”, so I got to give the order “675, Highball Westbound!” that got us rolling out of the station.

We traveled west, with the locomotive in the lead till we reached Milner, about halfway down the line.  There, I stopped the train and we began practicing reverse operations.  These are tricky.  The last car on the train, CNJ #1314, is what is known as an “MU Car”, which means it has train controls built into the tail end.  Some of them are now inoperable, but the Conductor can still man the controls, and has the emergency brake, whistle, bell, and a radio.

On reverse moves (Eastbound), the Conductor must watch for trouble, and at crossings must ring the bell, sound the whistle, watch for cross traffic, and inform the Engineer of what is going on.  It’s quite a handful of work, but manageable once you get “the hang of it”.

We’re having a followup session again next weekend.  I hope to learn even more!