Walter L. Bell Ph.D.
While listening to the news of a passenger train derailment, I remembered a conversation with an engineer for one of the major railroads in which we discussed why passenger trains had difficulty on tracks built for freight trains. This conversation occurred about fifteen years ago, but what surprised me were the changes that had been made in the length of sections of the rails. He told me that the length of the rails much longer than they had been in the years when both kinds of trains were common until after World War II, and when the railroads owned both passenger and freight trains. The freight trains traveled as did passenger trains on short sections of rails in order to accommodate the higher speeds of the passenger trains.
Once passenger trains were phased out in the 1960’s, the railroads slowly lengthened the sections of rail because the freight trains carried much greater loads at much slower speeds. Also, as the temperature changed from cold to warm from winter to summer, the longer sections of rails expanded greatly because there were less spaces in the longer sections of rails for expansion. This did not affect the freight trains because of their slower speeds and greater weight. The passenger trains tended to derail due to this expansion because they were lighter and traveled at much higher speeds. The passenger trains tended to derail during the warmer months when the expansion of the rails were the greatest.
We were parked by each other in our RV’s so we had time to discuss this problem in detail, plus there had been some passenger trains that had derailed along one of the railroads in a Southern State. I wondered at the time if Amtrak was aware of the problem, because the only passenger trains were operated by Amtrak. Also, the engineer told me that with the longer rails there were no longer the click and clack sound of the train rails while traveling over the shorter rails. Since I last rode on a passenger train once in 1958 and on an Amtrak train in 1987, I liked the sound over the short rails especially at night because the sound tended to lull me to sleep. I doubt that very many passengers on the trains east of the Mississippi know about the changes in the rails that affect the safety of its passengers. Since Amtrak discontinued its rail service from Portland to Salt Lake years ago, the length of the rails is no longer a concern for this rail system. At present, one has to travel to San Francisco and then take the train east over the mountain pass through Nevada to reach Salt Lake, so the Amtrak system in the Western States is greatly compromised thanks to our Congress which will spend money on anything except infrastructure.
I would like to have two dedicated high speed rail systems built from the Mississippi River to the West Coast. One rail system would end in Portland, Oregon and the other in San Francisco or Los Angeles. We could then build the third dedicated high speed rail system from Los Angeles to Vancouver, B.C. This would provide the vast Western States with an alternative means of transportation. The definition of a dedicated rail system means that the railroad is enclosed with an Australian fence which will keep out large animals and people, since these trains travel at very high speeds.