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. You can refer to USA by Rail to see the main routes, though!
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).
European Freight Train Schedules
Some railways in Europe do publish train schedules, even for freight trains. For example, Switzerland’s SBB publishes draft timetables for review and comment before implementing them. They even have train graphs which show when trains will be at certain stations.
Maybe you want to know how many trains per day are on a track?
Historical Train Schedules
Railroads employees are issued timetables with many details about each section of track, including where stations are, speed limits, and special instructions. In the past, these employee timetables also included schedules for certain freight trains. These schedules would show when the train should be expected at a station. This was important for “extra” trains and maintenance crews to know when to be clear of the main track to avoid collisions. Nowadays with computerized dispatching and radios, these scheduled meets are obsolete.
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.
You might want to know how busy a railroad track is.
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