Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Return of the Railfan

It’s been awhile since I’ve blogged about my hobby of railfanning – mainly because there has been so much else going on. But warmer weather is perfect for being outside and watching trains!

When I first got interested in trains, it was geared more towards the locomotives. I would watch for the locos, writing down their road numbers, and then seeing if I saw any of them again on a later date. Once the engines passed, I moved on, not really showing an interest in the rolling stock (the cars). Yesterday on my lunch break, I got to talking with another guy watching the trains and learned quite a bit about the cars, their numbering, their loads, etc. So now, instead of leaving after I’ve seen the locos, I watch all the cars, trying to identify their loads and then later doing some research as to what the cargo might be used for. It’s really quite fascinating to see how many different industries can be represented in one consist.

I will usually try to write down the time I see the train, the direction it’s heading, the loco type & road number, and any information on the rolling stock. Let me give an example. Today, at 12:25 p.m., an eastbound train past by, headed up by #’s 9317 & 9226 (both D940CW or Dash-9 for short). Among the cargo was a grain car, a tank car for latex, treated railroad ties (the wooden beams that go under the rails) and a tank of sulfuric acid. The treated RR ties were most likely coming from Koppler, Inc in Roanoke County. Yesterday I saw a load of untreated ones going in the opposite direction, most likely to the same Koppler plant to be treated.

There was also a tanker car of sulfuric acid. According to Wikipedia, “sulfuric acid is produced in greater amounts than any other chemical besides water.” Its uses include ore processing, fertilizer manufacturing, oil refining, wastewater processing, and chemical synthesis. Here’s where another interesting bit about railfanning comes in. Each and every car has its own identification number, or reporting mark, similar to the road numbers on locomotives and are assigned by the Association of American Railroads (AAR). These numbers indicate who owns the car. If the last letter in the series of letters is an “X,” this indicates a privately owned car. For example, the ID on this tanker car of sulfuric acid was GCTX 413208. A quick Google search helped me to find out that this car is owned by the General Chemical Corporation. So any car with the letters “GCTX” is owned by the General Chemical Corporation. Wikipedia has a list of all AAR reporting marks here: A Google search on GCC reveals that they are “among the largest North American suppliers of sulfuric acid” and that they have a terminal in Covington, Virginia, which is probably where the tank (most likely an empty one) was headed.

All that info from one day’s railfanning. Fascinating stuff.

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