Robot Railfans

Canadian National 8894 passing hotbox detector outside Winnipeg

Railfans have been around for a long time—perhaps as long as there have been trains. Even before early railfan photographers like Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg, no doubt there were people who observed train movements and took notes.

Today’s railfans are generally a sophisticated lot, tapping online forums and Facebook groups, listening to radio scanners and watching rail cams, exchanging emails and text messages and tracking every “special” locomotive and railcar.

However, they have nothing on the robot railfans, employed by the railways to keep a close eye on their trains. These tireless observers watch the trains, day and night, through sunshine and sleet, looking for trouble and reporting on it. With far fewer people trackside these days to give visual inspections, these devices are the last line of defence against defects and derailments.

With infrared eyes, UHF ears, and impact sensing nerves, the robot railfan counts, measures, and reports. They are the guardians of the rails, doing their best to find problems before they become derailments or disasters.

The four primary types of robot railfans are hotbox detectors, AEI readers, dragging equipment detectors and wheel impact load detectors.

Hotbox Detectors

Hotbox detector – One Mile Sign – Napadogan New Brunswick

Since the beginning of train travel, “hot boxes” have been a problem. The friction bearings of earlier rail wheels could easily run out of lubrication and catch fire, seizing the wheels up and causing a derailment. Initially crews would watch their trains intently, looking for smoke indicating a hotbox. Later the railways introduced hotbox detectors, trackside devices that looked for the heat from a hotbox.

Hotbox detector – Mile 20 – Canadian National Rivers Subdivision – April, 2017

Originally hotbox detectors had large display boards beside them that showed the axle count of the offending axle, starting from the rear of the train, along with lights indicating what side of the train the hotbox was on and whether more than one hotbox was detected. The tail-end crew would have to read the display and inform the engineer so they could stop and take care of the problem.

With the widespread adoption of radio by railways, detectors used radio to broadcast a message to train crews. In many cases these broadcasts are also recorded by central monitoring systems to ensure the warnings are acted upon.

Hotbox detector – Mile 221.3 – Canadian National Redditt Subdivision – April, 2017
Tank cars passing mile 20 hotbox detector – Canadian National Rivers Subdivision – Winnipeg – April, 2017
Hotbox detector – Welsford, New Brunswick – June, 2007
Hotbox detector – Mile 20 – Canadian National Rivers Subdivision – April, 2017

Roller bearings eliminated a lot of hotboxes, but these detectors can also be set off by stuck brakes, so they still have their uses. Unfortunately steam engines almost always set off hotbox detectors due to the heat from the locomotive!

These robot railfans broadcast a variety of phrases, but often they sound like, “CN Detector, mile one zero Rivers Sub, South Track. No Alarms. Speed. 38 miles per hour. Temperature. Minus 19 Celsius.”

AEI Scanners

AEI readers outside Winnipeg – April, 2017

It has always been important to know where each freight car is. Extensive systems were developed to track which car went on what train, but once they left the yard the car’s location was unknown. Railways wanted to automate tracking the locations of their cars.

In the late 1960s the KarTrak ACI (Automatic Car Identification) tags were applied to freight cars. They displayed 13 horizontal lines that contained the equipment owner and car number, along with a start and stop label and a check digit. The labels were not reliable, with up to 20% of cars not being identified correctly. Since it was a visual system, the labels had to be clean and were supposed to be inspected approximately every two years. The program was a failure and was abandoned by 1977.

Following trials by the Burlington Northern, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) adopted a Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) system developed by Amtech, and mandated that cars be equipped with an Automatic Equipment Identification (AEI)  tag on each side by 1994. This technology continues to be in use today.

AEI Reader – Mile 221.3 – Canadian National Redditt Subdivision – April, 2017

The technology is very similar to chip-enabled credit cards. The data tags are encased in a weather-resistant housing and fastened to both sides of a rail car, at a standard height. They are reprogrammable using a rail tag programmer.

The AEI data tags contain at least the following information:

    • Car number
    • Side indicator code (which side of the car the tag is on)
    • Length of car (in decimeters)
    • Number of axles
    • Bearing type code
KarTrak ACI label (top) and AEI data tag (bottom) on SOO 992404 Milwaukee Road – Chaplin, Saskatchewan – August, 2010

The tags have no battery and are powered by the beam from the AEI reader, just like the chip in your credit card. The reader transmits a two watt signal at approximately 915 MHz and the chip responds with a message.

The reader must be very fast as it could be reading two short freight cars per second. There is a reader on both sides of the track. There are additional circuits in the site to detect when a train is present and to count the number of wheels in the train.

Dragging Equipment Detectors

Dragging Equipment Detector – Welsford, New Brunswick – June, 2007

Another type of robot railfan is the dragging equipment detector. This device looks for anything hanging down from a railcar that might get caught in a switch or crossing, or damage any equipment between the rails.

Early dragging equipment detectors were essentially a wire strung between the rails that, if broken by dragging equipment, interrupted a circuit and transmitted a warning. More advanced dragging equipment detectors are on a rotating bar and can be reset after being struck.

Wheel Impact Load Detectors

Derailment Detector sign outside Winnipeg – April, 2017

Out-of-round wheels are a big problem on the railways. Flat wheels can be caused by dragging a car with handbrakes set, or with air brakes set. Spalled or shelled wheels can also occur. Defective wheels can cause damage to track or to the car, and in extreme cases can cause derailments.

Wheel impact load detectors, or W.I.L.D., seek to identify these defects by measuring the vertical force each wheel applies to the rails. These detectors will send an alarm if a force limit is exceeded.

Derailment Detector outside Winnipeg – April, 2017

The next time you are out trackside, keep an eye out for our robot railfan friends, watching out for all of us.

Crewman inspecting train – Portage la Prairie, Manitoba – February, 2015

Steve BoykoPhotographs and text Copyright 2017
See more of Steve’s work at Confessions of a Train Geek and Manitoba Grain Elevators, and on Facebook and Instagram


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Trackside with VIA

The Trackside Photographer is pleased to announce the publication of a new book by contributor Eric Gagnon. Trackside with VIA -  Research and Recollections is Eric's fourth book on VIA Rail.

Eric writes: "Let's face it - there are very few books on VIA Rail out there. I've listed the only ones in existence in my first book, and I've added two published since then in this book. Now there is one more! Trip accounts from throughout VIA's history, and consists from 1981 to 2016 comprise the 'personal' parts of the book. Not knowing my Dad had saved consists that I'd lost track of (no pun intended), I've included them, plus accounts of VIA trips made by my parents, as well as photos of VIA operations taken by my Dad and my brother in the 1980's. All in one convenient package!

"Not only is there research, data and photos of mine, but also of my contributor team: Tim Hayman, Don McQueen, Mark Perry and Mark Sampson brought their expertise in modelling, locomotives and VIA operations in Northern Manitoba and VIA's Canadian, respectively."

Trackside with Via
For more about the book and ordering information, visits Eric's New Via Rail Book blog.
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The Pinkerton Landing Bridge

Homestead, PA, December 3, 2016. An eastbound CSX intermodal train rumbles over the Monongahela River on the former Pittsburgh & Lake Erie bridge.

On July 6, 1892, the “Battle of Homestead” was fought at this site between the striking steelworkers of the Carnegie Company and the Pinkerton detectives.

The conflict had been brewing for several months. For union members belonging to the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers the working and living conditions were dismal. Twelve hour days, seven days a week with every other Sunday off was the norm. Efforts by the union to negotiate were ignored. Management in the form of Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick refused any form of negotiations. Frick developed a hard line, telling Carnegie that he, Frick, would take care of the strike. The workers were locked out; they, in turn, surrounded the plant, refusing entry to anyone.

After a day long battle the battered and exhausted Pinkertons surrendered. A shockwave ran through the area.”

Frick hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to break through the picket line and allow strike breakers to enter the plant. The plan was to send armed “detectives” aboard two barges that would land at the riverside pier; from there they would enter the plant. A tug brought the barges to the landing where angry workers denied entry, and a pitched battle broke out. Men were killed on both sides: two Pinkertons, six workers, and on both sides several were wounded.  After a day long battle the battered and exhausted Pinkertons surrendered. A shockwave ran through the area. Pennsylvania governor Robert Patterson dispatched 8,000 state militia to put down the disturbance. Frick’s hardline stance succeeded in breaking the union.  By November 20, 1892 the beaten strikers came back to work.

The broken union later became the part of the United Steel Workers, formed on May 22, 1942. The bridge in the photo is sometimes referred to as the Pinkerton Landing Bridge in honor of the workers killed in the conflict. A plaque commemorating the conflict is located next to the bridge.  The site is maintained by a local historical group Rivers of Steel.

An excellent book covering this period, Meet You in Hell by Les Standiford, covers this event and the conflict between Carnegie and Frick.

Keith ClousePhotograph and text Copyright 2017

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Editor’s Notebook

Progress, Preservation
and the End of an Era

Vicksburg, Mississippi – December, 2007

Hunter Harrison is in the news again, and this time CSX is in the cross-hairs. Whether you think Harrison’s style of railroading is progress or desecration, one fact remains: more change is coming.

Harrison is one agent of change, but there are many others. The infrastructure changes legislated by Positive Train Control (PTC) will dramatically alter the railroad landscape. Those changes are well underway. The April issue of Railfan & Railroad magazine reports that BNSF has completed PTC installation on more than half of its system. CSX will replace searchlight and color position light signals on much of its system in 2017 and 2018. Other railroads are following suit. Read more


The New River Gorge

Part Two

(Click here to read The New River Gorge – Part One)

Looking track east from the overlook at Hawk’s Nest. Here, main #2 continues along the south side of the river while main #1 crosses the bridge and continues along the north side. The two mains rejoin on the north side at the bridge crossing at Cunard, West Virginia.

In Part One we left off at Cotton Hill, West Virginia. As we move track east we soon come to Hawk’s Nest, only a couple of miles upriver from Cotton Hill. At Hawk’s Nest you step into the rich coal mining history of the Gorge. The 30 track miles from Hawk’s Nest to Quinnimont contain almost the entire history of New River coal. In the peak years early in the last century the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway (C&O) serviced 75 mines along this stretch of river including the various branch lines that crawled up the several side canyons.

Read more

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Preserving the Past

Like so many of us, my interest in railroading led to a parallel interest in photography.  Not only did I have the pleasure of planning the photo, but later the images evoked powerful memories of people, places, and events I had encountered as I learned more about this fascinating industry.

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