Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Railroad Crossing, Railroad Cars....

Most of us grumble a bit when we have to wait at a Railroad Crossing.  Yesterday, as I waited, I watched folks in my mirror as they would turn around their vehicles and head for some other crossing that might not be occupied.  This particular track is a local rail which serves the grain elevators and other commercial businesses in the old industrial part of our town.  These cars had likely been recently unloaded and were being accumulated on a siding near the depot until they were taken elsewhere for re-loading.

Railroads are important to many industries and they are particularly important to agriculture.  In 2018 there were 1.49 Million carloads of grain hauled on U.S. tracks.  That was approximately 5% of the total carloads of all rail freight.  It accounted for $5.8 Billion of gross revenue to U.S. railroads which was 7.7% of their total.  Of that grain, 69.7 Million Tons were of corn and 34.6 Million Tons of wheat.  As of the end of 2018 the U.S. Railroad grain car fleet consisted of 281,000 cars.  For an in-depth look, this Report is useful.

Many of the large Railroads have sold off various local service tracks and generally only have retained the trans-continental and other major lines.  Other lines have been shut down, the tracks ripped up and the rights-of-way turned into trails for hikers.  The controversial Rails-to-Trails program has both pluses and minuses.  Many landowners are concerned with unknown numbers of people crossing their land, yet hiking enthusiasts relish the opportunity.  Part of the controversy also lies in the concept of reversion.  Since the rights-of-way are no longer used for their original purpose, there are many who believe they should revert to the ownership of other rights.

When the first rail tracks were being laid in this country, transportation was primarily by wagon.  Freight pulled by teams had to navigate what were often muddy and virtually impassable roads during the rainy season.  If the creeks and rivers were swollen with rains, the wagons might have to wait for days for the water to subside enough for a safe passage.  The rails offered a seamless, all-weather means of moving freight and people from one point to another.  They were expensive, however, and inflexible in their routes.

The great expense of constructing them led to Congressional support for subsidies in the form of land, which at the time was abundantly available, to be given to the railroads as a means of raising capital to extend their lines westward across the continent in order to connect the coasts.  Settlement patterns had been uneven due to climate, discovery of gold and because western settlement had already expanded along the coast due to natural harbors.  The long trip by ship around the tip of South America was expensive and time-consuming, so connecting the coasts by rail was economically attractive to those wishing to move freight or, to travel between the two.

During the Civil War, the rail lines -- particularly in Virginia -- were important in the strategic picture viewed by both sides.  They were critical supply lines -- especially, again, in times of inclement weather when wagon roads became impassable.  Armies generally can move only as quickly as their supplies can be moved in support.  Soldiers can't function long on empty stomachs or, without ammunition.

Railroads and trains are just one more thing that fascinates me.  Think about the weight that is born by a train that may be up to a mile in length.  The engines must be extremely heavy in order to gain enough traction to overcome the inertia and start the train moving.  Once moving, stopping them becomes an even greater challenge.  The physical properties of the tracks are also critical because they must withstand that great amount of weight, even when heated by the friction of the passing cars.  Poor-grade steel would warp and become distorted under the pressure, causing trains to derail.  The beds on which the rails lay also must be carefully constructed to bear the weight.  There can be no weakness in the underlying structure or, the roads would collapse.

It's strange what passes through my mind as I wait for the train.  Rather than turn around, I just watched.  It didn't take all that long and I chuckled as the gates lifted very shortly after the vehicle behind me became impatient and pulled out of line.  It was still in my mirror as I crossed the tracks.

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