But how can he see what’s ahead?

I was surprised to see this video clip of a train in New Brunswick, Canada.  Notice how the snow is thrown up, and builds up on and around the cab of the locomotive.  How on earth can the driver see whether there’s a vehicle (or any other obstruction) on the tracks ahead?

That seems very unsafe to me.  I would have thought it was dangerous for the train to continue under those conditions, but it didn’t seem to stop that one.  Can rail aficionados shed any light on the subject?



  1. Peter, the Alaska Railroad uses different devices, depending on the amount of snow which typically falls on the rails. In this area, they have either a snowplow blade which tilts sharply forward, to throw snow to either side, or a snowblower with rotating blades and a chute to blow all the snow off to one side.

    In the mountain passes, they have a snow-eater with a blade-and-chute device large enough to devour small cars.

  2. The loco does have windshield wipers, or the conductor can leave the cab to clear the windows, but being on rails, it's not all that unsafe for the short time the engineer's vision is obscured. The unsafe part is that it is a rolling pipeline train for crude oil. One of these warren buffett / obama glory holes derailed in Lac Megantic, just over the border with Maine, a few years ago and burned the city to the ground. These are the "earth friendly" alternative to the Keystone XL and Dakota pipelines, despite their habit of derailing in the wilderness and smother "ancient native sacred sites" with crude oil. Funny how the government run media ignores these stories that cast the a-hole of Omaha in a bad light.

  3. From the timing on the video, I think the answer is, "a train can't stop that fast even when it's vision is obscured." The video only shows it obscured momentarily (no idea what happens after the engine goes out of frame, of course) and you just can't stop that much mass that quickly. It's likely that the train has SOMETHING like the previous commenters have mentioned to clear the vision again, and it just hadn't kicked in yet.

  4. I somewhat suspect that, for a significant part of the year in that locale, adhering to the principle of "You have to be able to see further than your stopping distance" has the practical effect of trains not moving.

    Snow kills visibility in a hurry.

    Trains at speed have stopping distances measured in significant fractions of miles, even before you consider wet or icy rails.

    I suspect that the hazardous condition we see here was strictly local to that crossing, and the overall conditions were more like what was seen at the very beginning, where the snow wasn't blowing over the cab. Unfortunately, by the time the train came out of the forest and hit the deeper snow, it was far too late to do anything other than blow the horn and ride through.

  5. There are three fundamental rules when dealing with trains:
    1.) Trains do not stop for you
    2.) Never bypass a rail crossing warning
    3.) Stay off the f-ing tracks

  6. I have a second or third cousin that worked as a Railroad engineer. I asked him one time why they don't seem to be looking out the front windows of the train very often and aren't they worried about hitting something? His reply, in a very condescending tone was, "That's so cute. You think we're actually looking out the front to see if we're going to hit anything. You know we drive these things at night, right? How far do you think we can see with even the brightest headlights? All we're looking for is switching signals. Dust, rain, fog, smoke, snow, and darkness, we can only see signals in time to do anything about it."


  7. Indeed, the last I checked, the lights on the front of a train aren't for the train to see anything. They're for everyone else to see it.

    It might also be reasonable to apply the ever-versatile law of gross tonnage.

  8. Hi Peter!

    Hope I can help here. The flanges on the wheels make steering unnecessary. The mass makes it impossible to stop before hitting something you just noticed fouling the track. The crew on a train knows that the track ahead is clear of other trains because 1) they had a clear [green] block signal, or 2) they have exclusive right to move conferred by time table, train order or track warrant. The crew does not and usually cannot know if someone has got drunk and high centered their car in an attempt to drive over the track outside a road crossing. They don't know if cars are stopped on the track at a road crossing. They don't know about the tires and shopping carts left on the track by vandals. They don't know about concrete block walls erected across the tracks. And if you think this is spooky, you should be on the locomotive of a passenger train proceeding at 90 mph through a dense San Joaquin Valley tule fog where the visibility is about four feet. Safe, provided that last block signal was 'Proceed'. Pass a yellow signal and then you come right down to about 5 mph.

    Interesting, isn't it, that whenever we have a bit of weather the news is full of items about highway snarls, and airport chaos. Nobody ever runs a story about how our railroads just keep running.

  9. And if you think this is spooky, you should be on the locomotive of a passenger train proceeding at 90 mph through a dense San Joaquin Valley tule fog where the visibility is about four feet.

    Those fogs are really something. When I was in college, the campus Fire Department was part professional, part student. I applied, didn't make it. There was a physical agility/fitness test, part of which involved going up a tiller truck's fully extended ladder. IIRC we brought an identifiable clip of some kind up, had to clip it to the top rung and bring down the one that was there. That was because was tule fog that day. I couldn't see the ground for most of the climb, and there was no way whether the firefighters on the ground could see if we went all the way to the top. Being at the top of the ladder was very strange. When you're in a vehicle you also don't realize the extent to which the fogs deaden sound, too.

    And driving a care in tule fog before Botts' dots were installed on the roads in the Valley was really nerve-racking.

  10. Such touching concern, Peter.

    For those living in geographic areas where "trains" exist there is a training program which provides educational information and experience regarding "trains." That training program is known colloquially as "successfully reaching old age" and covers not only the topic of "trains" but also "fire," "deep (and moving) water," as well as a host of other disciplines. Unfortunately for some, the training program is adminstered poorly, resulting in premature cessation of pulse and respiration, sometimes involving "trains." Given the wide variance of intelligence and perception among occupants off this planet, such is to be expected, and provides support to a variety of interesting and potentially lucrative career choices such as "EMT," "coroner," and "funeral director."

    I'm betting everyone – at least, everyone who has more than a single-digit IQ – in the nearby communities is aware of things called "trains" and "winter" and how "trains" are operated during winter conditions. For those who prefer to maintain a condition of personal unawareness, please refer to "Darwin, Charles Robert" for futher information.

  11. Being a able to see ahead of the train would accomplish nothing. A train needs hundreds of yards to stop.

    The only thing they need to be able to see is the track signal that tells them if the block they are entering is clear of other trains.

    So stay off the bloody tracks.

  12. Judging by the way the snow is flying, I think that train has the kind of snow blade on the front that comes to a point in the middle. You are right, when the snow gets picked up and tossed, the engineer is blind. This also applies to snow plow trucks on the highway. This is why it is a good idea to give plow trucks as wide a berth as possible.

    Winter is dangerous. This is one of the reasons I don't, as a Minnesotan, get too worried about global warming. Winter can be beautiful, but I don't think it represents the optimum conditions for life. I suspect that the optimum temperature for the earth as a whole might be a bit warmer than what we currently have.

  13. The main danger is to the dumbasses who play chicken with the train. Even if the loco driver could see what he might hit, he could not stop in time to avoid it. Trains have the right of way. Might makes right.

  14. Ten years with C&NW Railroad before I got smart and went back for a BSE.
    David has the right of it. The engineer runs the train based on track signals and condition reports, not on what he can see in front of him.
    One small correction on a comment, a fully loaded freight train's stopping distance is measured in multiple miles not fractions of a mile even in good conditions. In snow and rain it gets much worse.
    Will also mention that when I was with C&NW we had a multi use standard form. One side was to document shop injuries, the other was to record grade crossing accidents. Those were the two most common unplanned events that required written records.

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