Saturday, June 15, 2024

Leaves & Locos


“Talking Transportation”

By  Jim Cameron
Photos by Emily Moser / Metropolitan Transit Authority

It ain’t exactly Star Wars, but Metro-North has some new tech that should make your commute more reliable: Laser Train!

This $3+ million custom railcar, pulled by a diesel locomotive, is blasting our tracks free of the annual scourge of leaf slime… and doing it at 60 mph. So impressive is this new car, that the railroad has “wrapped” it in a distinctive blue livery so you’ll notice it when it whizzes by, covering every mile of tracks in the system daily.

Lasers for leaf slime? Really?

Yes, with the beautiful New England fall comes the annual problem of wet leaves on the tracks, decomposing into pectin, one of the most slippery substances known to man.So bad was the leaf slime problem in years past that the railroad could have 25% of its fleet out of service as the trains’ onboard computers sensed a loss of traction and locked the wheels’ brakes to stop, grinding flat spots on the wheels, requiring repairs.

You’d be traveling along on your train at speed, hit a slimy patch and feel the train’s computer send the train into emergency braking mode, dumping the air brakes until the train came to a full stop and got re-set. It wasn’t dangerous, just delaying.

The railroad would also lower trains’ speeds in leaf-slime prone areas making more trains late. This was especially a problem on the Danbury branch, a 397-foot uphill climb from Norwalk to “The Hat City”. Often, locomotive-pulled trains couldn’t get enough traction so that they had to skip stations like Cannondale just to keep momentum to climb uphill.

You see, on a diesel locomotive there are only eight traction wheels making contact with the rails. But on the electric M8 cars, every car is a locomotive, so contact with the wheels is spread across the entire train, increasing traction… another good reason to re-electrify the Danbury branch.

Over the years the railroad tried everything to build up traction… from old-school sand dispensers on locomotives to “Water World”, a home-built gizmo blasting the tracks with high pressure water at 48 gallons a minute. And now, lasers.

Credit goes to the Long Island Railroad for debuting the leaf-blasting lasers first in 2017, but given the LIRR’s flat terrain compared to hilly Connecticut, that railroad could hardly put the tech to a real test.

Last year they tried out the Laser Train in Connecticut and saw a 40% reduction in “slip slide” events, leading to the lowest wheel-regrinding costs on record. In fact, Metro-North was given a Gold Award for Rail Safety this year by APTA, the American Public Transportation Association.

So, keep watching for the Laser Train as it blasts its way through the fall, keeping you on-time and safe during your travels.

Jim Cameron is founder of the Commuter Action Group and advocates for Connecticut rail riders. His weekly column “Talking Transportation” is archived here. You can contact Jim at”


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