My Turn, Danny Patterson: Railroad trends can help explain recent noise

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 1, 2020

By Danny Patterson

Let me clarify one fact right off the bat: I am not a spokesperson for Norfolk Southern, but I did retire from there after nearly four decades of employment.

As a 9-year-old boy in the 1950s, I laid in bed at night one block from the Spencer rail yard listening to steam whistles, loud speakers, switch engines, brakes and squalling box cars being slammed together for couplings. We learned to live with it. It was mostly tolerated because so many Spencer/Salisbury residents were railroad employees and families.

In the middle to early 1970s, the railroads across the Southeast were upgrading and planning expansions for the rail system due to private business expansions. This included Southern Railway in Rowan County. After over $40 million spent, the railroad moved the Spencer operations to a perfect location just across the river in Davidson County. This location was out in the country and away from large residential areas. For over 40 years, the residents of Davidson County lived through the same squalling and screeching and banging of rail cars but actually to a greater degree.

Mainly due to the downturn in the economy from reduced car loadings, changes in rail traffic patterns caused by more aggressive and progressive railroading as well as pressures from stockholders demanding still-higher values in their stock investments, there were huge changes in railroad operations across the entire country.

As some of you may remember, several years ago the managers and directors of major southeast railroads as well as local, state and federal authorities held meetings to ponder changes in the transportation systems to help remove heavy vehicle traffic off our congested highways, especially the vehicle traffic along the I-95, I-85 and I-81 interstates. Millions were spent by the railroads to raise tunnel heights and to strengthen road beds and bridges. Just as a reminder, railroads pay for most of their upkeep and expansion from profits. The trucking industry has no rights of way to maintain out of profits; they pay fuel and road taxes and the common taxpayer pays the rest.

Rail car routing for the last 45 years has constantly changed to help speed freight car deliveries. With changing economic times, there have been literally hundreds of local businesses closed and/or sidings removed. Most of these changes were driven by the accountants and stockholders.

Now let’s get back to the noises at hand. The screeching and squalling simply comes from rail cars being pushed and pulled by locomotives with brakes applied. Due to lack of manpower on each train and the logistics of handling trains that may be upwards of two miles long, the cut of freight cars being classified have to be removed from a main line train and shoved down a sometimes long open track to couple with other cars standing still.

If these cars are shoved by the engines into this track and uncoupled, they will roll sometimes many hundreds of feet to make a hard coupling with the standing cars. This is where your huge noise comes from. This has been part of normal train yard operations for a hundred years.

The Linwood hump yard operation for some 40 years rolled loaded cars down a gentle slope and made couplings building trains for hundreds of locations across the U.S. The computer-controlled roll of these cars preferably made a coupling at 3-4mph.

Often when the rails were either wet, snow covered, oil covered or affected by windy conditions, weights or computer error varied these coupling speeds. Many couplings were in excess of 10-20 mph, causing millions of dollars of damage to lading in freight cars and damage to cars themselves.

The huge coupling noises we all hear from time to time comes from these hard couplings. The damage done to lading and to rail cars at Linwood prompted the railroad to employ dozens of shop employees to repair these cars and get them on the way to their destination. In order to stop the screeching, the railroad could change their switching operations to not allow brakes to be applied to rolled/classified cars until they make a reasonable coupling, which would require more employees on the train crew. In order to stop the banging and other huge explosive noises, the railroad could change their switching operations to not allow couplings of more than 1-3 mph of rolled/classified cars, which would require more employees on the train crew.

Let’s not forget the excessive blowing of train horns. The railroad and state of North Carolina have over the last decade has modified and closed dozens of road/rail crossings from Charlotte to Raleigh planning for the multi-million-dollar expansions of trackage. The reduction of crossings does several things: reduce risk of collisions with vehicles and pedestrians, reduce collision with walking trespassers and reduce equipment costs.

Miles of new track have been laid in the area. Crossings have been upgraded to protect motorist and pedestrians. A good example is the additions made from Kannapolis to Salisbury.

No one ever predicted the downturn in the amount of rail traffic and routes used to get cars to destination. Linwood has not been the only hump/classification yard modified or closed. Progressive railroading, stockholder pressure and COVID-19 has changed our world. Local towns all over the Norfolk Southern system where hump yards have closed are experiencing noises in the night.

Good luck with forcing the railroad to make any changes.

Danny Patterson lives in Spencer.