Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Train Story

So I promised you all a story about how my long federal holiday weekend was nearly derailed before it could properly start. (Derailed! Pun intended!)

Last Thursday I took the same train that I always take, which is one of the earlier westbound-commuter services but which was nonetheless fairly crowded with government employees who had all been dismissed early in advance of the holiday. I did manage to get one of the last seats on one of the last cars, though – verily luckily, indeed.

Thursday around here was a little rainy and a little windy, I should mention before I get too much farther, and one of the few downsides of the VRE rails is that they are entirely aboveground and thus susceptible to disruption due to the elements. (On snowy days, for instance, they only run about half as many trains total throughout the day. A day where everyone takes the train in to work in the morning and then it snows in the early afternoon turns into a real nightmare as a result. But I digress.) I’ve experienced slow rides home on days when it rains heavily, because there are several waterways that either run alongside or under the train tracks, and there is a risk of flash floods in spots, but as I say, Thursday was only a little bit rainy. So when the train decelerated to a mind-boggling .5 miles per hour, I was a little confused as to why.

Apparently I need to do a little more research into the VRE’s communication initiatives, because either everyone else on my car had a smartphone, or some of them have signed up for some kind of service updating text messaging program. The point being, while I sat on a train progressing at a geriatric snail’s pace, people around me started talking about what was going on and why we were moving only in terms relative to the earth’s rotation at best,. And the story as I began to piece it together was this: the day’s weather had combined just enough rain with just enough wind to knock off almost all the leaves on the trees lining the less built-up sections of the rail route. And those leaves were at just the right stage of autumnal turning, not green and healthy enough to hang onto their respective branches, but not desiccated and brown enough to essentially turn to dust upon impact after falling. Instead, all that eye-pleasing foliage had fallen from the trees and stuck to the rails like pre-chewed Fruit Roll-Ups. And then the afternoon trains had rolled over those leaves and pulped them, coating the steel wheels of the cars and the rails themselves with leaf oil. LEAF OIL. I did not know that was a thing, but apparently it totally is.

And also apparently, when a train has its wheels lubed up with leaf oil and tries to turn those wheels against similarly greased rails, the likelihood of the wheels simply spinning in place is progressively higher (a) the faster the train is going and (b) the steeper the incline the train is trying to climb. With regards to (b) this becomes a factor at any incline whatsoever above “dead flat” and there are a couple of sections on my route home that climb something like a 1 or 2 percent grade.

So, physics! The answer to everything, and the reason why it took 3 and a half hours for me to get home on Thursday. It was kind of a drag, but at least I had left early enough that three and a half hours of travel time put me through the garage door of my house by 7:30. At which point I could crash and relax and enjoy the long weekend. Well, except for the predominantly sleepless night that followed due to neither of the children being able, for various reasons, to stay happily and quietly abed for more than a couple hours at a stretch, but that is yet another post for yet another day!

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