When I was a first-grader, I got to spend much of the Christmas vacation with my maternal grandparents in Rye, NY. About mid-way through the stay, it was determined I would also go visit my paternal grandfather, a forensic accountant who lived in an apartment in Manhattan. I was put on a train, told to get off when it came to the end of the line, and sent off to the big city.
This worked fine. I hopped off in Grand Central Station, Gramp Henke met me at the top of the stairs and I had a wonderful time riding the wooden escalators in Macy’s, being given a handful of quarters and allowed to pick out my own lunch items at the “Automat,” and sleeping on a wonderful bed that folded down out of the wall in the middle of what looked like a row of bookcases.
When it was time to return to Rye, I was put back on a train, told to count 11 stops and get off at number 12. This also worked perfectly, Gramp Yarter was waiting on the platform in Rye, and put up with my interminable questions about what exactly went on in the caboose and why I could not ride there next time.
This adventure repeated every year for the next few and left me with a great interest in trains. Once, when I had really enraged the powers by arresting someone with great political influence, I was “punished” by sending me to a two-week school on how to investigate railroad grad-crossing accidents—clearly, a skill every game warden should possess.
Unfortunately for them, I loved it. I got to drive a train, made all sorts of interesting contacts, and was chosen to participate in a “Cop-On-The-Train” detail. Basically, I got to ride in the engine on trains going from Plattsburgh to Penn Station. I was the witness when people ran the crossings, around the flashing barricades. I photographed them, called in a road patrol car in the area, and ultimately got to go into all sorts of local courts to testify in the trials. But I still never got to ride in a caboose.
Nowadays, I always go the back way to work which takes me by the grade crossing in Fort Edward. Unlike everyone else, I am hoping to hear the bells ringing and see the gates close just as I get there. Watching the railcars roll by, knowing they are held to the wheels only by gravity, is fascinating. However, of late I have been hugely disappointed. Just today, I sat through a 109 car freight train only to find it had absolutely no caboose. In fact, I have not seen a caboose in several years.
The last time was when I was investigating a train-related problem in northern Washington County—something that legitimately should have piqued a Conservation Officer’s interest.
The case I was working on involved a person trying to sell eagle feathers. We caught him at that, but if I could prove he had shot the eagle himself, it would become a federal case and I dearly loved going to Boston to testify in District Court. His story was that he found the carcass along the railroad track so we were walking the stretch he identified. I was on one side, another officer on the other, when a very long freight train came along.
Unable to talk to each other, we just kept walking for the inordinately long time it took for the train to pass. At least I did. When the train finally was by, I turned and watched the caboose out of sight. Then I turned around to discover the other officer found the eagle carcass about 20 feet past the point the train came but I had continued walking a good quarter mile further and had to hike all the way back.
A side effect of the eagle quest was to make me pay attention to more than cabooses whenever I had occasion to travel along a railroad track. I would not have predicted trains to be a great killer of wildlife for, in spite of their fairly high speed on some stretches, their path is narrow and unwavering plus they are large, metallic, and noisy. I figured any relatively mobile animal would hear the train and get out of Dodge.
I figured wrong.
In my accident investigation course, I learned the configuration of a train makes them very noisy but the noise is projected mostly to the side. The train is nearly upon you before any appreciable sound is heard. When it becomes audible, the predominant location seems to be from either side, with a quiet spot in the middle, leading many a hapless beast to flee either straight away or straight into the train as opposed of moving off to the side.
Some estimates run as high as 10 struck animals per mile per year, not counting reptiles and amphibians. This seems unbelievable but early locomotives had a structure on the front to fling carcasses aside and avoid them tangling in the exposed machinery. It was dubbed a “cow catcher,” but a deer basket would have been as appropriate. In Montana, surveys have indicated that in an average year as many as 800 deer and antelope are struck by trains, in spite of the fact that the latter, North America’s fastest mammal, can run faster than most of the large freights are traveling.
It turns out raptors are particularly prone to train strikes. Most often, they are feeding on carrion left from a previous train’s passing. When they become aware of the danger, they typically fly straight down the tracks. Necropsies have determined that a majority of the initial trauma comes from behind.
Some of the other statistics are quite interesting. In ordinary vehicle collisions, juvenile birds and animals often make up the largest proportion. With train/raptor strikes, it is just the opposite. The majority of dead raptors, like our Putnam eagle, are robust adults. Few juveniles and few older individuals seem to be hit. No one has explained that as of yet. With other animals, the statistics seem similar to highway numbers with a few interesting quirks. On the highway, female rabbits are hit most often but trains hit both genders about equally. It is not typical for species like hummingbirds to be struck by cars at all but, in some areas, quite a few are found along the tracks.
The rail industry is sensitive to the issue of bird and animal strikes but to date, no solution has been found effective. In Japan, where high-speed trains have been derailed by running over deer, they are trying a new method. Facing out to the front, into the “cone of silence” like a train whistle, speakers are blaring grunts, bleats, roars, and barking in an effort to get the deer to flee the tracks before the lateral noise confuses them. No word yet on how effective this has been but it might make it as interesting to listen to the engines coming as it is to look for the caboose going…