Snakes on Trains

All my friends know of my passion for all things "railroad". Thus I am always grateful when I am alerted to Internet stories, links and news reports about trains from them. So it was just yesterday when I received a link to a story from Ron and Gerry in Perth, Australia

It appears that, during the evening rush hour, one of the suburban train services in Sydney met with an unusual fate. A length of steel came through the floor of the train car.


The train was derailed, but the railroad company does not think that the metal piece was the root cause of the accident. According to them this is a part of steel edging, used on concrete platforms and walkways. Fortunately nobody was hurt during this incident.

Luckily this was an exceedingly rare event, nowadays at least. Incidents of objects coming through rail car floors were not so rare during the beginning of the railroad age here in the US. In the 1840's through the 1860's a lot of the US railroad companies used steel strap rail. Basically it is a thin strap of iron, nailed on wooden runners.

Example of Steel Strap Rail (Photo by Mendocino County Historical Society)

Steel Strap Rail was cheap to construct, but it had some rather nasty habits. The constant pounding of the locomotive and coach wheels would work the nails loose. Consequently the strap of iron would separate from the wooden base, curl upwards and project through the floors of the coaches into the passenger cabins. In those days rail cars were made almost totally out of wood, so it really did not take much force to come through the floor. The railroaders would call them "snake heads"!

There is a spirited debate in railroad historical circles on how prevalent this problem was. But there are some interesting newspaper notices of the times, regarding this issue. Like this one from the Baltimore Sun on August 22, 1843:

 Here is a 1860's lithograph copy from The Buffalo History Works web site showing the problem.

Doesn't look like much fun! Fortunately, through public pressure, the railroads started using rolled steel rails around the 1860's. No more snake heads.

Modern High Speed Track in Germany

A modern "Waratah" EMU for Sydney Suburban Services (Photo by "Bidgee")