A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Will a penny on the tracks derail a train?

April 12, 2001

Dear Straight Dope:

Having recently moved right next to a set of train tracks, I am tempted to try a stunt I have heard tell of since my youth: putting a penny on the railroad tracks. Not being able to find anyone who's tried this, I thought I would ask your advice first. I have heard that either 1) the penny will get flattened and thus be bigger or 2) the train will derail and kill me. Let me know whether I should pursue this course of action!

Dear Straight Dope:

I heard as a child (from the same guy who told me the story about the escapee with a hook) that by simply placing pennies on a railroad track, a 1,000-ton monster of a train could be derailed and hobbled, mass destruction all around. I know this isn't true but how did this idea come about?

Before we go on, here's a picture of one of the earrings my brother made for me from pennies he set on the track and had flattened by a train. We used to do this all the time.

When a question like this pours in from two readers, it warrants investigation. So I wrote to the Federal Railroad Administration (safetydata.fra.dot.gov/) and asked, "How big of a thing would I have to put on the railroad track to derail a train?" Huh, no response. Perhaps I should have tried a more tactful approach.

I called a few railroad track construction, maintenance and repair companies (these places are thrilled when girls call) and asked specifically if a penny on the railroad track could cause a train derailment. Vern, Lee and Brad all told me absolutely not. According to Lee, a train engine weighs over ten tons and very small objects won't cause a train to run off the track. A very large boulder, cow or car--maybe. Most derailments are caused by breaks or fissures in the rail or wheel defects. A few are caused by human error--a long, heavy train isn't easy to handle, and an inexperienced engineer going too fast around a curve or applying the brakes improperly (there's quite an art to it) can cause a wreck. A very few derailments are caused by vandalism or sabotage, usually in the form of seriously damaging the tracks, removing or loosening sections of rail, etc.

I was aghast to read on the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) website that there were 2,059 train derailments in 2000, up from 1,741 in 1997. There are close to 2,000 derailments every year, in spite of the fact that most heavily used tracks are inspected visually several times a week and examined monthly with an ultrasound device to find hidden defects. Inspection focuses mostly on tracks that carry passengers and hazardous materials. The majority of derailments occur in railroad yards, typically at speeds of around 5 miles an hour. Yard track isn't as well maintained and cars are frequently jostled during switching, which sometimes leads to derailments. The FRA is continually working on improving track inspection methods and ways to improve train safety. But they're understaffed with only 550 people to make sure the industry is adequately checking 230,000 miles of track.

Finally getting the FRA on the phone, I spoke with M.B., who confirmed that they probably thought from my earlier e-mail that I was some kind of moronic terrorist. She told me that about a thousand people die each year in train-related accidents. Many of them are idiot drivers who ignore the signals and other warnings at railway road crossings and have their cars creamed by trains.

M.B. asked me to point out to our readers that about half of the train-related fatalities are trespassers on the tracks (suicides and of course guys like us, putting pennies on the track). Many people apparently don't even hear the train coming. I told her wistfully what a thrill it was as a kid in the Santa Cruz mountains to race across a high trestle, just ahead of a train tunnel. If the train appeared from the tunnel before I was on the other side, I'd have the choice between getting run over or plunging to my death 50 feet below to the creek bed. She gave me a big ol' lecture, but I assured her she was 30 years too late for that (anyway, there aren't any trestles near where I live now, so my kids are outta luck).

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