Thursday, December 12, 2019

Getting Home by Rail

"Getting home or bugging out to a safe(r) spot" is one of the more common topics for prepper articles. Travel after a disaster or emergency has different challenges than a daily commute, so we try to look ahead and plan around those challenges: roads jammed with traffic after a hurricane; bridges closed or damaged by floods, earthquakes, or fire; civil disturbances that make travel through an area unwise; they, and a host of other conditions, could make you consider getting off the paved roads and finding another route to your destination. One option to explore is the railroads.

My father retired from one of the major US railroads after 30 years, so I was raised with an awareness of railroads and routes. I'm also old enough to remember going to the centennial celebration of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1969 held in the town where the eastern section began. Railroads have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.

Since the creation of Amtrak by Congress in 1970 ended private passenger rail service, the quantity and quality of passenger service has declined, and with the increase in Over The Road (OTR) trucking in the same time-frame, even the freight services are dying off. The total miles of rails have been shrinking for decades, but there are still a lot in place and many of the abandoned lines have been repurposed as biking/hiking trails. The most recent number I could find was from 2014 when we had about 137,000 miles of active track in the USA.

Can I get there from here?
  • There are a few online resources for rail maps, the best I've found so far are OpenRailwayMap and RailMapOnline. The first is an interactive map of the entire USA, while the second covers the western part of the US and most of Britain and Europe. Google of course will show rail lines on their maps, but the routes may be a bit hard to pick out from all of the clutter.
  • Abandoned tracks that have been converted to trails can be found at and (those are two different sites despite the similar names). 
  • For local travel, keep an eye on your area's tracks and bridges. Things do change over time, and the railroads don't advertise those changes.

Why follow the rails?
  • Railroads maintain their own tracks and right-of-way (ROW), so well-traveled routes will be kept clear even if the local infrastructure is overwhelmed by a disaster. After the last few floods around me, the railroads were always able to open their lines before the roads were cleared.
  • Rails are easy to follow, even in the dark. Those two steel rails are pretty obvious once you get close to them. The ROW is usually covered with coarse rock and sprayed with a blend of chemicals that prevents any weeds from growing for a year, so they'll be easy to walk along.
  • Many tracks have a maintenance road that runs parallel to the rails. They're usually rough gravel roads, but they are smoother than the tracks and ties.
  • Railroads build their own bridges. If you have waterways to cross in your journey, knowing where an alternate bridge is may be helpful. Rail bridges are also built to handle a lot more weight than most normal traffic bridges and are usually better constructed. 

What are the downsides?
  • Tracks and their ROW are private property. Legally, walking alongside the tracks is trespassing, and so state and federal laws apply. Did you know that the railroads have their own police forces?
  • Walking on the rails can be very dangerous. Trains don't stop quickly, and by the time the engineer sees a person on the tracks all he can do is call for an ambulance. I have a cousin who used to drive trains, and some of the things he saw still give him nightmares.
  • The coarse rock used around rails is not easy to walk on, so wear good boots with ankle support and watch your step. Bicycles and motorcycles with soft tires will do okay; four-wheeled vehicles may have to move slowly and watch for narrow spots in the ROW.
  • Don't be that guy and try to use a compass to figure out which way the tracks are running while standing on them. Those long steel tracks will definitely screw up a compass, so walk several yards away before trying to read one.
  • Tracks are often elevated above the local terrain, so walking along them will not be very stealthy. If you're trying to sneak, stay off the tracks and use the ROW.

As an alternate route after TSHTF, keep railroads in mind. Be safe and respect the danger of traveling where trains have the “right of weight”.

1 comment:

  1. Never thought of the compass issue, thanks big time for that one!


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