"No More Than Four"

Posted by George Hamlin
on Friday, August 4, 2023

If you’re interested in railroad safety, or have looked at an employee timetable or two, you’re probably familiar with this phrase.  It refers to the speed, in miles per hour, that should not be exceeded when coupling equipment together.  I suspect that occupied passenger trains would benefit from something even lower, but as a general rule, if four miles per hour isn’t exceeded when coupling, the maneuver can be accomplished safely, without damage to the equipment.

I can recall being in the engine facility at CSX’s engine facility at Osborn Yard in Louisville, Kentucky in the late 1980s (back then, getting permission to do such a thing was not unheard of, and it probably didn’t hurt to show up in a coat and tie, since I was on a (non-railroad related) business trip) when the official approving my presence offered to show me the cracked frame on an ex-L&N SDP35.  We walked over to the unit, where he pointed out the visible evidence; I responded by repeating the title phrase of this post, which elicited hearty laughter on my host’s part.

I never thought that I’d have occasion to associate this with road freight trains, but a chase of Norfolk Southern train M1Z heading south in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley on August 3, 2023 ended up providing the opportunity to revisit the aphorism.  Ostensibly an extra section of manifest train 11Z, M1Z was a unit train of double-stack trash containers (or, as the commodity is referred to in polite circles, “Municipal Waste”) re-purposed from older marine shipping equipment.

While the NS’s “H-line” from Hagerstown, Maryland to Roanoke, Virginia is busy north of Riverton Junction, in Front Royal, Virginia, south of that point there are only two pairs of scheduled through trains on this scenic piece of railroad currently.  Thus, it seemed to make good sense to chase this movement south through the Shenandoah Valley.  FYI, although it may appear to be “down” the Valley if you look at a map, in reality it’s “up”, as the elevation increases heading towards Roanoke.

Unfortunately, although it had been forecast to do so, the weather went south along with me; first clouds, and then light rain.  I did focus on the fact that the remaining N&W CPL (color position light) signals on this line are in the process of being replaced, and and aimed at those at Summit and Vaughn, the north and south ends of a passing track between Rileyville and Luray.

Appropriately, the one at Summit is just past the top of the grade starting at Rileyville.  At 1.8 percent overall, this is the ruling grade for southbound trains between Hagerstown and the town of Shenandoah, Virginia, and for that matter, for southbounds all the way to Roanoke. And unlike many other grades that ease slightly near the top, this one actually increases, briefly, to 2 percent near the top.

Train M1Z was not making speedy progress south of Front Royal, and had been out of my scanner’s range for some time, but I was unprepared for just how slowly it came out of the woods near the Vaughn Summit road grade crossing, with full power continuing to be applied even after the locomotives had crested the hill.  No more than four?  My estimate is that its forward progress was more like two; half of the safe coupling speed.

I’d planned several shots, including a ‘going away’ with the locomotives heading towards the signal.  There’s always a concern when you try for multiple shots that if the train is going faster than expected, since you’ve got to be careful that this doesn’t cause you to not get the primary shot that you’re seeking, but that certainly wasn’t a problem here; more opportunities than planned resulted from the train’s plodding progress past me.

As the train’s marker eventually rolled by, as seen above, speed (it was now slightly downgrade to Vaughn, about six thousand feet away on the railroad) had increased modestly.  How much longer will this view look the same, in terms of signal type?  Probably not much longer, so I’m glad to have the photo.

To view more photos of this train's passage at Summit, see:

Photo above by George W. Hamlin

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