A very common question I receive is: how do I know when a train is coming? An alternate question is: can I get a freight train schedule?
The short answer is, unfortunately, there’s no public schedule, and there’s no easy way to know if a train is coming.
Freight Train Schedules
Freight trains have “call times” when the crews are due to start work. This is not when the train leaves the depot, but when the crews arrive. They check in, get their paperwork for the train (destination, what’s on the train, daily operating bulletins (DOBs), special instructions), then get on the train and get it ready for departure. This may involve switching cars before departure, checking the brake system, etc. so it could be an hour or two after the call time before the train actually leaves.
These call times are not published publicly. I don’t have them.
Many things could prevent a train from departing at or near the call time, including traffic, lack of crews, mechanical issues, weather… so a train that is called at, say, 8 AM may not leave until the afternoon if there are issues.
If you observe the railways long enough in an area, you will get a sense of when trains do run. For example, in Winnipeg you may notice that CN switches the Fort Garry area in late morning, or the BNSF Manitoba transfer train generally leaves their yard around 11 AM (these are examples, and are not necessarily correct).
Knowing if a Train is Coming
If there are signals around, they can help tell you if a train is coming.
Most signals are “approach lit”, meaning they are dark when there are no trains around, and light up when a train is nearby. This is done to save power, as some signals are battery powered.
If a signal is lit up and shows all red lights, it is possible that there is a train approaching from “behind” the signal as shown in the photo above.
If a signal is lit and shows a green light at the top, that means it is cleared for a train to approach from the lit/facing side, so a train may be coming. This is no guarantee and it could be literally hours before a train comes. This site might help interpret Canadian railway signals.
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