Rollin’ round the bend

Rollin’ round the bend

by Michelle Martin

When travelling as pedestrians, we rely on sight and sound. Our brain reacts, and we adjust our behavior as needed in order to avoid hazards. Crossing the street, for example, is a complicated undertaking involving perception, judgment, and reaction time.

Experienced pedestrians have learned how to decide if a car coming toward them will be able to stop, or will be blowing through the stop sign. It gets trickier to determine this from a longer distance, when a vehicle is really speeding, because the speed of a fast-approaching vehicle is difficult to judge when it is farther away. This is why we have speed limits, and why pedestrians are not allowed on freeways.

Consider how an airplane appears to you, when you look up and observe it flying. It will seem to be travelling more slowly than any cars driving past your house. Our brain judges speed according to the time it takes an object to cross our field of vision. The farther away the object, the longer it takes to cross our visual field, even if it is travelling at 1,000 km/hour. This isn’t a problem with airplanes because we aren’t normally at risk of being hit by a plane as we walk across an intersection.

Where this trick of perception can get us into real trouble, however, is on railway tracks. Trains are big—they can weigh tens of thousands of tons—and can’t stop quickly. According to the Operation Lifesaver Canada website, the average freight train travelling 100 km/h needs about two kilometres (roughly 18 football fields) to stop.

The distances trains cover, combined with the speed at which they travel, can make trains look as if they are approaching more slowly than they actually are. This combination of distance, speed, and bulk can be deadly if you are crossing the tracks illegally. By the time you’ve seen that the train is too close, it’s too late for you to move away. By the time the engineer sees you, it’s too late to avoid hitting you even after braking.  

The stakes are so high that it is illegal to cross train tracks anywhere but at designated crossings. “But I can hear the train coming,” you say. Well, no, not necessarily—because of the way we perceive sound. To begin with, modern trains are very quiet, with tracks designed to be as frictionless as possible. On top of that, what you hear of a train’s approach depends on your position relative to it. High school physics students know this is called the Doppler Effect: sound waves change depending on how far away the sound-creating object is from the person hearing it.

In fact, the Doppler effect was demonstrated on train tracks in 1845. A brass band was pulled in an open cart behind a train, and a change in instrument pitch was observed, even though the same note was being played. You can conduct an experiment of your own this summer, if you’re a GO train user. On the platform as the train approaches notice how close the train is when you actually hear it—you’ll be surprised. If you were walking along tracks and a train was approaching from behind, odds are you wouldn’t know until it was on top of you, even without earbuds in.

From January to May of 2018 alone, according to Transportation Safety Board of Canada numbers cited on the Operation Lifesaver website, there have already been 19 fatalities and 31 serious injuries on railway tracks. We know there was a serious injury recently, just west of Gage Park. When I was a teenager, my cousin’s boyfriend lost his life trespassing on tracks to take a shortcut. I wonder how many of us are six degrees of separation from someone killed or hurt by a train.

Operation Lifesaver ( has an excellent set of resources on railway safety, including suggestions on how to raise the topic with our children, if we have them. Among their online material is a hair-raising virtual reality demonstration: just search “I didn’t hear a train” on YouTube.  

Stick to safe pedestrian routes and designated railway crossings. Don’t trespass on railway property. Just because Johnny Cash said he heard that train a comin’ doesn’t mean you will. Don’t risk it.  

Michelle Martin lives and writes in Crown Point. She sometimes tweets @deltawestmom.

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