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View Full Version : Unhitching a train car while it's in motion



plunderpuss
04-03-2011, 02:21 PM
Okay, you know in silly Hollywood westerns (and Looney Tunes) how they have to unhitch the train car so they can escape the bad guys who are on the train or steal something that's in the caboose or whatever?

I need to know about that. :D

Google is failing me hard, and while I can walk literally five blocks and go look at how modern trains are hitched together, I don't know if it's the same mechanism as it was a hundred and fifty years ago, and I have no idea if it could have been accomplished while a train is in motion, or if it needed certain tools, etc.

I'm looking for 1850s - 1860s technology, I think, if that makes any difference.

(Also, if you ARE an expert/enthusiast about old steam locomotives, if you have any trivia you think is particularly interesting, I'd love to hear it. There's such an overabundance of train info out there that I find the same mostly-boring facts repeated on every site, with very few weird little concrete details that would really help to set a scene, especially from a passenger's perspective instead of the crew's.)

Thanks for any help you can offer!

alleycat
04-03-2011, 02:23 PM
There is a documentary on steam trains lines that are still running in the US that they keep showing on PBS. I might be able to find it online.

Bufty
04-03-2011, 04:12 PM
I'm guessing, but seems to me trying to remove that pin while a train was in motion might be well nigh impossible -surely the pull of the engine would make it a pretty tight fit.


In the 850's and 860's the coupling was a simple pin dropped into the knuckle without anything holding it in except gravity and friction.

You might find this page useful:
http://www.fremontrailroad.com/trains.htm

jclarkdawe
04-03-2011, 04:21 PM
You might want to contact grizzletoad1 (http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/member.php?u=46297) who actually runs trains.

The Westinghouse air brake was invented around 1870, and introduced modern braking to trains. Before that, the brakemen ran on the top of the train, turning the brake wheel to release and apply the brake, in response to whistle blasts from the engineer.

The Janney automatic coupler was also developed at the same time, and as PeterL says, prior to that American railroads used a link and pins. Basically a pin was dropped into a hole holding the whole thing together. A modern day example of link and pin coupling is the connection between a pickup truck and the trailer hitch. You slide the link into a receiver and put a pin in it to hold it in place.

If you could reach the pin, it can be pulled while the train is in motion. However, whether in motion or standing still, you have to place slack into the connection. Let's start with a train on a perfectly flat section of track. As the engine starts pulling the train, it pulls the slack out of the train, with each car start a split second after the one in front of it. When the train is completely rolling, all the slack is stretched out of the connections.

When the engineer starts slowing the engine, the slack starts running in, and each car starts pushing on the one in front of it. This is the state you need to have the train in to be able to pull the pins.

And to complicate this, railroad tracks are rarely flat and straight. You have hills and curves, both of which affect the action of the train. This is what makes running a train a lot more complicated than you'd think. If you have a train with half of it going uphill and half downhill, the slack is part of the train is stretched out (the part going uphill), while the downhill part of the train is bunched.

There are a lot of steam railroad museums scattered around the country. You might want to go visit one of them, explaining what you're doing.

Best of luck,

Jim Clark-Dawe

plunderpuss
04-05-2011, 01:15 PM
You people are fantastic. You've given me so much to go on, and I even remembered there's a train museum a ten minute walk from my house (different place from the trains, which is part of why I forgot). I also keep forgetting it exists because it's tiny and has weird hours, but I'm definitely going tomorrow.

Jim, I can alter the terrain in the story to be whatever I want, because luckily my map is a .PSD file and I can just, you know, handwave. haha! Thanks for pointing out the physics about slack.

PeterL, your search terms are very useful, and I can't thank you enough for actually thinking about it while you weren't right in front of my post at the computer. How dedicated! ;)

And alleycat, if you come up with the name of the documentary I'd love it, but it's all right if not. I'll take lots of notes at the museum.

Thanks again, everyone. I love this site because people like you make it so friendly and useful. Hopefully I can help other people with my expertitude or Googlefu to pay it forward :) Only problem is, I mostly know about lubricant and dildos since selling them is my day job, and most of the erotica writers don't realize how much they need my help ;D hahaha!

Drachen Jager
04-05-2011, 08:51 PM
In some of the westerns I've seen they wait until the train needs to slow for a bend, or get the engine to slow down some other way so the tension on the pin goes from pulling to pushing, in that brief moment between you can pull it without a sledgehammer.

nicolane
04-05-2011, 08:55 PM
Look for a Dick Francis novel called "The Edge" Most of the action takes place on a train and one of the action points is that a train car is unhitched whilst the train is in motion, whilst the story takes place in the 1990's (I think) the train that is used is "older".

The story will probably be quite useful to you.

Hope that helps

grizzletoad1
04-05-2011, 11:16 PM
Plunderpuss,

Got your message. I looked at this thread and the anwers you have pretty much cover what you need. If your story is set in the 1850's-1860's, then the good old link and pin coupler was the industry standard. And those cars didn't have air brakes either. Just like Jim Clark said, a brakeman had to run along the running board on top of the cars to set and release the brakes as commanded by the engineer with a whistle signal. (Yes, we don't just blow that whistle for the fun of it. Every sequence means something, and at one time, there were many more whistle sequences that were used.) I actually have a pin that I found while doing signal work along the NYSW railroad about a lifetime ago! At first, I didn't know what it was. I thought I just hit a root or something with my shovel. But as soon as I pulled it out from teh wall of the pit I was digging, I knew just what I had. I still have it. One of these days I'll mount it on something. Love to find a link to go with it. As for uncoupling on the fly, you have to make sure your train has slowed for some reason, thus forcing the slack "in". Unless you have this slack, you wouldn't be able to pull the pin out. One last thing. In those days, brakemen didn't last very long. If I'm not mistaken, the average life expectency for a railroad brakeman was about two weeks! They slipped and fell off the trains, or were crushed when they just didn't move fast enough when the train was being coupled together. It was said that you could tell if a brakeman had been on the job for a while. His seniority was shown by the number if fingers he was missing! Trains are very unforgiving beasts ans when they bite you, you usually lose something. One last request. Please don't say you are "unhitching" the train. The correct term is uncouple, even though when we are coupling the trains together, the guys usually say, "make the hitch!" If I can help you further, just ask.

John

plunderpuss
04-06-2011, 12:41 AM
If your story is set in the 1850's-1860's, then the good old link and pin coupler was the industry standard. And those cars didn't have air brakes either. Just like Jim Clark said, a brakeman had to run along the running board on top of the cars to set and release the brakes as commanded by the engineer with a whistle signal.

Excellent, thank you! I can actually use this to help make the situation more scary.


One last request. Please don't say you are "unhitching" the train. The correct term is uncouple, even though when we are coupling the trains together, the guys usually say, "make the hitch!"

Hahaha! I am so glad you told me that. It would quite embarrass me if this ever got published and that made it through copy-editing. Thanks so much for all your help!

grizzletoad1
04-06-2011, 06:34 AM
No problem. Here's a couple of more terms.

"Pull the pin" = uncoupling. Comes from just the kind of couplers you are writing about.

"Make the hitch" = to couple up.

"Break 'em apart" = another way to say uncouple.

"Wrap 'em on" = apply the brakes. Also comes from the days brakement actually "wrapped" them on with the brake wheel.

"Knock 'em off" = release the brakes.

"Dump it" or "Put her in the hole," or "Put it in Emergency" = putting the train's brakes in emergency. This is for trains with air brakes. Those old ones you have wouldn't use this term.

"Hogger" or "Hog Head" = engineer (I don't know why they called us that!)

"Captain"= conductor (He is really the guy in charge of the train.

"Brakie" = brake man.

Oh yes, the picture in my avatar is what we call a "Fuck up." There's no more eloquent term for something like that!