What is Heavy Rail?

Mary McMahon

The term “heavy rail” has different meanings, depending on the region of the world. Generally, heavy rail is defined as an intercity train transport system which runs on dedicated tracks which have a separate right of way. Some Americans also use the term in reference to rapid transit, such as elevated subway tracks in New York and Chicago. This American usage is meant to differentiate these systems from other public transit train systems which may share the road with traffic.

The caboose was once a common part of freight trains.
The caboose was once a common part of freight trains.

Typically, heavy rail tracks are run from one city to another by a single train operator, but this company may allow other companies to use the tracks. In this way, operators can create a network of usable tracks without having to personally lay them. Because the tracks are shared between multiple operators, the gauge is standardized to ensure that all trains will fit on them. The use of the tracks is also carefully scheduled to avoid collisions.

Heavy rail usually refers to rapid-transit trains that run from one city to another.
Heavy rail usually refers to rapid-transit trains that run from one city to another.

Unlike intracity light rail, heavy rail handles freight in addition to passengers. The trains themselves may be heavier or lighter than those used in city transit, and they tend to be slower. They are also designed for long trips, with passenger trains offering bathrooms, dining cars, and sleeping accommodations. These trains can get very lengthy and cumbersome, so the grade on heavy rail is kept deliberately gentle, so that trains do not have to climb steep mountains or rapidly descend. The tracks are also usually gently curved, so that trains do not topple when they take turns at high speed.

Because heavy rail tracks are run on a separate right of way, the train rarely has to deal with vehicle traffic. The exception to this rule occurs at train crossings, where a train may have to cross a public thoroughfare to reach a destination. In this case, the train usually has the right of way, although it slows before reaching the crossing to ensure that all of the cars in the vicinity are stopped. For drivers, the wait at a train crossing can be frustrating when the train is extremely long.

Especially in the United States, heavy rail once reigned supreme, with thousands of miles of train tracks criss-crossing the country. With the rise of trucking, the use of heavy rail declined, although many goods are still shipped by train. Some train enthusiasts think fondly of this era, and they dedicate a great deal of time and energy to researching heavy rail systems. Many of these train enthusiasts also greatly enjoy taking train trips, preferring the train over driving, flying, and busing since it allows them to slowly savor the country while traveling.

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