As big as they are, you wouldn’t think you’d ever need to make a train more visible. But after an alarming number of accidents at grade crossings where drivers drove into the middle of a passing train, the Federal Railroad Administration decided they needed to do just that.
In fog or a dark night, a train can actually be very difficult to spot. Much like the conspicuity striping which became a requirement on trailers in the 1990s, railroads too have adopted a reflective stripe pattern for their equipment. These reflective stickers are now a requirement for all new cars and must be added to all equipment in service by 2014.
Although they are becoming standard now, reflective markings are nothing new. The Santa Fe first applied reflective stripes to freight cars in 1971.
On most freight cars, the stripes are small reflective strips, usually yellow or white, applied at regular intervals along the sides of the car. They are placed at a height where they can best reflect the headlights of a car. On some car designs, locating these stripes around existing data can be a challenge. There is a lot of latitude in the regulations, so you will see lots of variations in placement, especially on older cars.
On locomotives, many railroads have become much more creative and liberal in their use of the reflective markings. Not only are reflectors typically placed along the locomotives’ side sill, often additional stripes or even entire logos are made reflective further up on the car body as well as on the front.
During the day, these stripes often blend in with the paint, or simply look like yellow squares. But shine a light on them at night and they come alive! Of course, they reflect a camera flash as well as a headlight – a new challenge for night photography.
So the next time you’re out watching trains in the evening, or just driving near a crossing, keep your eyes open. You wouldn’t want to miss the train!