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Conjuring Ghost Trains Could Make Train Tracks Safer

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Something stuck on the train tracks — a car full of teenagers, a damsel in distress, Marty McFly in a DeLorean — is a classic trope of cinema. But unlike many movie clichés, this one's actually common in real life. Trains strike thousands of vehicles every year, injuring and killing hundreds of people in the process. Fixing this problem is a challenge for a number of reasons, but a simple device devised by a Fermilab employee could be an easy step toward progress.

Wrong Side Of The Tracks

The big problem is that railroad tracks are often elevated above ground level to help their drainage systems remove water. Crossing an elevated track means going over a hump, and that hump can make larger vehicles like semis, tour buses, and ambulances bottom out and get stuck. You could try a different drainage method to keep the tracks level with the ground, but that means revamping the more than 200,000 railroad crossings in the United States. And don't get us started on the challenge involved in redesigning all those trucks.

After stumbling into a rabbit hole of YouTube videos depicting large vehicles being decimated by speeding trains — sometimes derailing the train in the process — Fermilab Technical Specialist Derek Plant got to thinking about the problem. He studied how railroad signaling systems work and called on the skills he had honed at Fermilab, a particle physics and accelerator lab in Illinois, to invent the device he calls the Ghost Train Generator.

Derek Plant demonstrates how the Ghost Train Generator works.

I Think I Can, I Think I Can

Trains don't just go full steam ahead until they reach their destination — conductors can change speed or even stop depending on the current circumstances, including signals from the tracks themselves. "If you cross over a railroad track and you look down the tracks, you'll see red or yellow or green lights," Plant said in a press release. "Trains have traffic signals too."

Those signals come from segments of called signal blocks. When a train passes over these segments, their metal wheels and axle connect both metal rails, forming an electric circuit. That circuit triggers the signals, which inform other trains that this train is on this signal block and that they shouldn't keep going until it's clear.

Plant's device essentially fools these signal blocks into thinking there's a train. The Ghost Train Generator is made up of two strong magnets attached by a special wire. When a driver gets stuck on the tracks, they can place one magnet on each rail, and the device will create that same electric circuit to trigger a signal that tells oncoming trains not to proceed.

"Keep it just like you would a fire extinguisher — just behind the seat or in an emergency compartment," Plant said. He compared it to a seat belt. "Is it going to save your life 100 percent of the time? Nope, but smart people wear them."

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Written by Ashley Hamer December 5, 2017

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