Left ear, right ear: Amtrak in stereo

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, February 3, 2012

It’s fun to watch two moving trains meet, particularly when it happens right where you’re standing. Outside the Northeast Corridor and commuter train zones, that’s not easy to pull off. But every so often I do, and today was one such occasion. For that I give all credit to technology.

The scene is the 120-mile-long North End Subdivision of CSX, between Richmond, Va., and Rocky Mount, N.C. My technology consists of a radio receiver tuned to this subdivision, a laptop computer with a wireless modem, and software called ATCS Monitor, which can interpret railroad control commands and show you a dispatcher’s view of the railroad—that is, the location of trains, the position of power switches, and the indications of signals. (An example of an ATCS Monitor display is pictured on the top.) The bottom 85 miles of the North End Sub are monitored by radios that railfans have put in place to intercept the ATCS signals. And over the internet you can download the results.

It is late afternoon. The trains are Amtrak 79,  the southbound Carolinian to Charlotte, N.C., and Amtrak 90, the northbound Palmetto from Savannah, Ga. On my laptop, ATCS Monitor shows the two trains lined up to meet on a two-track section between Emporia and Trego, Va. U.S. Highway 301 loosely follows CSX in this vicinity. The trick is knowing where the roads are that will intersect the railroad a short distance away and knowing which one to turn onto.

I’m driving north on 301, trying to stay about a mile ahead of train 90. I glance at my laptop and it shows 90 going past the switch at Trego this very moment, meaning it is three miles from the end of two tracks at Emporia. Over the radio, train 79 calls the signal in downtown Emporia, so it is two miles north of the turnout. It’s pretty easy to deduce that if I can reach the road crossing half a mile south of the switch, I’ll be in the sweet spot.

Bingo! Trackside, I see two headlights, each half a mile a way, converging on me. Train 79 whistles in my left ear as it goes through the turnout at 45 mph and then accelerates. Train 90 whistles in my right ear as it brakes from 80 mph to a more sedate 40 or so, approaching the switch. They pass one another about 100 yards from where I stand. In a few seconds, it’s over. Pure dumb luck could have yielded the same result for me. But technology made it easy.

If you’re a user of ATCS Monitor, you’ve been nodding your head. This is cool stuff. If this is all new to you, go here to learn more about ATCS, and here to seek membership in the Yahoo Group that controls the software (remember, you need a Yahoo ID to go here). Just bear in mind that the learning curve is steep, and that it helps to have a friend who is already familiar with ATCS Monitor. — Fred W. Frailey

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