How do Trains Switch Tracks?

The United States rail network runs on over 160,000 route miles, out of which almost 140,000 route miles are considered freight rails and over 20,000 miles passenger rails network.

With tens of thousands of locomotives being operated daily nationwide, the rail network system can get extremely busy. 

Without going too much into the details of how this large network is operated safely and efficiently, we will take a look at how trains switch tracks to avoid collision and navigate to the desired destination.

How do trains switch tracks?

 

how do trains switch tracks

Simple answer.

Trains switch tracks with the help of a device called “switch” also known as rail turnout, that is operated by the dispatcher, which monitors the rail traffic in real time.

Long answer.

Trains switch tracks with a help of a switch, not too hard to guess, right? However, let’s take a closer look at how trains switch tracks.

The train tracks switch was patented in 1832 by Charles Fox, back then the switches were from a signal box, built near the tracks using a complex system of rods and levers.

While there are still old-style switches operating as we speak, most of the switches are operated remotely and are controlled by an electric motor or a hydraulic machine.

There are many types of switches, let’s list a few.

  • Variable switches
  • Spring Switches
  • Weighted Switches 
  • Crossover
  • Off-trailer
  • Wye Switch
  • Stub Switch

Few components of a switch:

  • Points
  • Frog
  • Guard Rail
  • Switch Motor
  • Points Lever
What is a switch more exactly?

A railroad switch is a connecting device that is used to allow the train to switch between tracks, the switch has three forms: connection, cross and a combination of both.

How does a railroad switch work?

As already presented, a railroad switch job is to safely move the incoming train into another track.  Please take a look at the figure below.

Image
 
How important are the railroad switches?

Railroad switches are crucial, an incorrect set point may result in a train collision, reversing the points under a moving train will almost always derail a train.

Many switch related accidents happened because of improper operation or maintenance.