Freight Train Speeds & Train Length?

Discussion in 'The Real Thing- North America' started by RobertInOntario, Jun 11, 2007.

  1. RobertInOntario

    RobertInOntario Active Member

    I have a kind of bizarre question ... I've been doing a bit of railfanning lately and I've noticed that the freight trains don't seem to travel very fast.

    I seem to recall, when I was a kid in the '60s and a teen in the '70s, that freight trains used to travel at very high speeds -- I'm guessing 50 mph or more. At least that's how I remember them!

    Nowadays, they seem to crawl along. I think freight trains have become increasingly longer & therefore they'd have to go slower. So, is it true that today's freights travel at slower speeds than in the past (and are longer), or is this just a figment of my childhood imagination?

    Just curious! Thanks,
  2. railwaybob

    railwaybob Member

    It all depends where you are when you see the freights. Here in Eastern Ontario, they're hitting 45 - 60 mph (60 - 100 kmh) on the mainlines. And that's a steady 45 - 60 mph with very little slowdowns, except for signals and sidings.

    If you look alongside the mainlines of the railways, you will see little triangular signs with numbers on them. These are maximum speed limit signs (in mph) that the engineer can travel at.

    On the lines that VIA Rail travels, you will see two sets of speed limits - one for the freights and one for the VIA trains. Again, those speeds are in mph. On the Smiths Falls sub between Ottawa and Smiths Falls, you will see a "90" on top of a "60" (90 over 60). The 90 mph is the speed limit for the LRC trains. The 60 is for the frieghts (there aren't any).

    If the trains are going slower, then take a look at the signals and the "signal aspects" (the colour of the signals).

    The signal with the single signal head is a block signal. If the signal head is out, it means there are no trains around. If the signal head is green, the block ahead is clear and the block after that is clear - proceed at the speed limit. If the signal head is yellow, the block ahead is clear but the block after that is occupied - slow down and be prepared to stop at the next signal. If the signal head is red, the block ahead is occupied and you'd better stop before you reach this signal.

    You will usually see two signal lights on a mast. If the signal heads are out, there are no trains around. If the signal heads are green over red, proceed but be prepared to slow down at the next signal. If the signal heads are yellow over red, proceed at medium speed and be prepared to stop at the next signal. If the signal heads are red over read, stop before you reach the signal. It may also be a sign to pull into the passing siding as there is an oncoming train or the train behind you is going to pass you.

    Generally speaking, that is. Some of you guys out there know more about this than me, so jump in.

    Unlike traffic signals which tell motorists when to stop and when to go, signal aspects on railways govern the speed of the locomotive - ie tells the engineer to slow down as he might have to come to a stop at the next signal.

    I'm not an expert in signal aspects so take a look in your Canadian Trackside Guide for an explanation of the meaning of the different aspects.

    Bob M.
  3. RobertInOntario

    RobertInOntario Active Member

    Thanks, Bob -- that's very helpful info! I'll look for railway speed limit signs and pay more attention to the signals as well.

    When I used to watch trains as a kid in the 60s/70s, it was generally around the Ingersoll/Tillsonburg/Simcoe area in SW Ontario. And now, I'm usually watching them around Toronto or Hamilton. So it's possible that SW Ontario is similar to Eastern Ontario in terms of speed limits.

    Thanks again for your feedback.


    COMBAT Member

    I was driving back just this morning from a business trip and I had a UP along side of me. I paced the train and he was going 70 mph.... Not bad I would say. There were no crossings that I could see and he was travelling with four engines attached. :) Oh and a mess of freight....
  5. Triplex

    Triplex Active Member

    I don't know about average speeds from place to place, and I'm not old enough to have experienced that era. But I do know the fastest freights aren't as fast anymore. In the 60s, 70s and 80s, there were some piggyback trains faster than the usual. The fastest of all was Santa Fe's Super C, which maintained an average speed of over 60 mph (not running speed, but terminal-to-terminal travel time). The Rio Grande's Railblazer and the BN Expediters were nearly as fast. These trains were hugely overpowered compared to what I think of as normal. The Super C usually used 6-axle 3600-hp engines - typical for Santa Fe's fast trains at the time. On that one train, they typically assigned about one such engine to every 4 cars. The BN Expediters had only one engine, but they were tiny trains, often as short as two cars.
  6. RobertInOntario

    RobertInOntario Active Member

    Thanks -- that must have been a neat sight! Rob

    COMBAT Member

    Yes it was. If I wasnt driving I would have taken pictures.... :(
  8. galt904

    galt904 Member

    All the lines in that immediate area are now shortlines, at slower speeds, lower traffic levels. (Well, non-existent in Simcoe any more).

    In the Woodstock area where I am now, the CP main line trains run at about 50 mph, and on the CN they are about 60 mph depending on whether they are adequately powered or not (lately they're not) and the VIA runs up to about 80 mph.

    On the CP branchline to Ingersoll, they had been running at 35 mph until a couple weeks ago, then there was a 5 mph slow order through Beachville. (haven't seen these trains in a few weeks since we're living with my parents until we get our new house)
  9. RobertInOntario

    RobertInOntario Active Member

    Thanks, galt904. Is one of those shortlines the OSR (Ontario Southland Railway)? I'm also curious if there are others as well.

    I'm wondering if most of the places where I watch trains have lower speed limits posted -- I'll try to have a look for some of these signs. I often watch trains on a CN line in Markham (right next to where I work) and on a CN line in the Rouge Valley. In both places, they seem to travel fairly slowly.

    Take care, Rob
  10. YmeBP

    YmeBP Member

    Why not!? You don't need your hands to drive do you ?

    :mrgreen: Funny story, i got yelled at by a cop for taking pictures out of my window while creeping by the scene of a trailer that had melted the roadway and was semi-submerged in asphalt. I was doing ~5mph driving w/ my knees/thighs.

    The cop wasn't happy and i don't do it anymore don't want my kids to follow my bad example (cops words actually). I pull over and ask now hehe most times they are very accomodating sometimes they don't want people stopping.

    On thread part:

    Most of the ones i see here move slow except the passenger trains that go zipping buy so fast it shakes my car.
  11. galt904

    galt904 Member

    Rob, the OSR runs the ex-CPR line between Ingersoll & Tillsonburg. St Thomas & Eastern runs the ex-CN line between St Thomas & Delhi. Canada Southern Line was ripped out completely a few years ago.

    A little farther east, Southern Ontario Rail (not to be confused with OSR) runs ex-CN from Brantford to Nanticoke via Caledonia.
  12. RobertInOntario

    RobertInOntario Active Member

    Thanks, Chad. I'm going to be on the lookout for the OSR, SOR and St. Thomas & Delhi the next time I'm in those areas. Thanks again, Rob
  13. 60103

    60103 Pooh Bah

    Rob: a lot of freight trains around Toronto are running slowly because they are always approaching junctions and yards, or coming to grade crossings.
    Trains west of Brampton seem to get a good speed, as do the ones between Toronto and Montreal (after they get past Oshawa).
  14. RobertInOntario

    RobertInOntario Active Member

    Thanks, David. This makes sense and is the conclusion I was coming to. That is, that freight trains in SW Ont. and Eastern Ont. travel much faster (as I remember watching them as a kid around Ingersoll/Tillsonburg, etc.).

    (FYI, my family and I are off to Bayview Junction again today!)

    Cheers, Rob
  15. RobertInOntario

    RobertInOntario Active Member

    Well, I now know (or, more correctly, have seen) the answer to my question.

    I've been doing a fair bit of railfanning in and around Toronto, and I'd guess the freight train speeds were around 30 to 45 mph.

    Yesterday, my family and I were visiting relatives in Ingersoll. We were near one freight line when a train suddenly came barreling through -- I couldn't believe it's speed! :eek: My uncle said that trains routinely come through Ingersoll at 90 mph !

    This sure brought back memories from my childhood when I remember seeing trains going through at incredible speeds -- my memory wasn't playing tricks !:mrgreen: I probably noticed this difference because I've become so used the slower trains in the Greater Toronto Area.

  16. railwaybob

    railwaybob Member

    On CN's and CP's mainlines, the speed is controlled by speed limit signs. On CP, these are yellow triangular signs (about the size of a yield sign) with the speed limit listed in mph. This speed limit is also controlled by the signals on the line. Green-over-green means the train can go the speed limit. Yellow-over-green means reduce the speed to medium. Yellow-over-red means reduce the speed to slow and be prepared to stop at the next signal. Red-over-red means stop. You will probably note that most signals on the mainline are alongside passing sidings. The red-over-red can be flashing which means the train will take to the siding. The dwarf signal controls the train movement in the siding. Red means stop and green means the train can exit the siding.

    In Ontario, a lot of the railway lines are operated by short-line railroads. Traffic on these lines are operated by what is referred to as OCS - On Company Service. This means that the train is the only train allowed on that line. The speed limit is usually controlled by the condition of the track - usually around 25 mph.

    And to confuse matters even more, sections of track, whether mainline or branchline, can be subject to "bad orders". The train crew picks up their "train orders" before departure. Amongst other things, the train orders specify those sections of track (the mileage) where the train is to go at slower speeds.

    Mileage markers are posted alongside the track and on the signal masts. Mile 0.0 starts (and ends) at a Division point. For example, Smiths Falls is Mile 0.0 on the Belleville sub (Smiths Falls to Toronto yard) but Mile 999.99 (I don't know the mileage) on the Winchester sub (Dorval to Smiths Falls).

    When railfanning, a handy aid is the Canadian Trackside Guide published annually by Bytown Railway Society. It includes the mileage points for each subdivision. Using the Trackside Guide and looking for the mileage markers alongside the tracks, on the track signals, and on the crossing signals, you can get a whole lot of information about the track that you are looking at. The Trackside Guide also includes the length of each passing siding.

    While, on the same section of track, you might see slower trains, it doesn't mean that those trains will be slow the next day. It all depends on a number of conditions.

    Another speed limiting condition is the speed capacity of the switch. Some switches along CN's Belleville sub are capable of taking trains going at 50 - 60 mph. Others have a slower speed capacity. In other cases, for the trains to do the maximum speed limit, the sidings are "locked" into place and have to be manually "unbolted". For example, on VIA Rail's Smiths Falls sub, the switches on the passing sidings are locked - ie they can't be used. This allows the VIA trains to go at maximum speed. However, when VIA brings in track maintenance equipment, the switches are unlocked so that the ballast tampers and regulators can be stored on the siding. When this occurs, "slow orders" are issued and it take the VIA trains an extra 10 minutes to go from Ottawa to Smiths Falls.

    Bob M.
  17. RobertInOntario

    RobertInOntario Active Member

    Thanks, Bob. My usual rail fanning locations aren't that close to signal lights, but I'll try to find places where I can see them. I'll also keep my eyes open for the speed signs as well.

    Thanks also for your description about the subs or subdivisions. If you don't mind, I was wondering if you could please explain or define exactly what a "sub" really is. I've seen this term a lot and your posting pretty much explains it, yet I'm curious to find out exactly what it is. For example, would CN have a sub on another road's line?

    My "excuse" is that I'm into British railways quite a bit and I haven't come across that term with respect British trains.

    Thanks so much!

  18. Triplex

    Triplex Active Member

    A subdivision is just a region of the railroad. It certainly couldn't be on another railroad.
  19. RobertInOntario

    RobertInOntario Active Member

    Thanks, Triplex. This something I should know but only had a sketchy idea!

    So, when someone speaks of (say) CN's Winnipeg sub, they basically mean a section of track, on a certain line, near Winnipeg? And this section of track would have its own mile-markers as well?


  20. 60103

    60103 Pooh Bah

    Robert: basically, yes.
    Some of the subdivisions are smaller than they used to be because of track abandonments.
    Lets take CN in the Toronto area:
    The area is in the Great Lakes division, which is bounded by Armstrong in the northwest and Brockville, Windsor/Sarnia and FortErie/Niagara Falls.
    The Kingston sub runs from Toronto Union to Brockville. (subs are often named for a point in the middle).
    The Oakville sub runs to Hamilton. Bala sub runs to capreol and the Ruel and Caramat subs follow on the line to Armstrong.
    Inside Toronto, the York sub runs from Pickering to Macmillan Yard and the Halton sub runs from Mac Yard through Georgetown to Burlington.
    The Weston sub runs from Union to Bramalea, the Newmarket sub runs to Bradford and then from Washago to North Bay. (Track through Barrie was removed.)
    The Grimsby sub runs Hamilton to Niagara while the Stamford sub branches off to Fort Erie.
    The Dundas sub runs from Bayview Junction (Oakville sub) to London; Strathroy sub to Sarnia and Chatham sub to Windsor, and some others through St Thomas.
    And the GO sub out by Pickering.
    CP has an similar collection of subs in the "Southern Ontario Service Area", but all the names are different.

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