How to stop a GO train in its tracks – the momentum of science and skill behind aligning with a platform perfectly

As passengers, we can’t wait to get to our train stop. But, amid occasional platform overshoots and safety reminders to stay off the tracks, few of us know how complicated stopping a train can be. And that each stop starts long before the brakes are ever applied.

For passengers, the effort of arriving at a GO station amounts to gathering up any bags and stepping onto the platform. It can burn, if lucky, about five calories.

But for the GO train, and those at the controls, it’s an exertion of brain and braking power. In fact, the amount of energy required to stop a loaded 12-car GO train, weighing just over 1,100 metric tonnes from a speed of 80 mph (129 km/h) could power the average Ontario household for eight days.

And the mental effort behind that stop may make that mechanical output seem rather modest.

A line of customers produce long shadows on the platform, as an early day sun rises behind them.

Long shadows – Customers line up at the Bramalea GO station on June 4, 2019, as they wait for a GO train to arrive against an early morning sun. (Photo by Thane Burnett)

We are all about safe arrivals. For many customers, it’s the moment that’s most important. But they are more complicated than stomping on a brake pedal.

So we’ve created this primer. It’s an explanation on what it takes to stop a GO train, and speaks to everything from our constant reminders to never trespass onto train tracks to why our locomotives occasionally have to back up, once they’ve arrived at a platform.

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For customers, it can be frustrating while waiting to be let out as an arriving train ever so slowly backs up – though platform realignments actually happen infrequently as GO makes an estimated 75,000 station stops each month. But understanding the locomotive physics, and knowing what goes through the mind of a commuter train operator – you know them as ‘engineers’ – may stop some of the impatience in its tracks.

Kevin Claerbout, manager of train operations for Metrolinx’s rail operations branch, says rule changes introduced in 2018 are quickening up the pace when a GO train overshoots a platform. Those changes include, in some cases, not needing a spotter to make their way to the rear of a train before it reverses.

But Claerbout says there are a number of factors that play out before a GO train loaded with anxious and eager passengers, can make a stop in the perfect platform position. It begins in the memory banks of the Bombardier operators. They have to know – with at least a qualifying mark of 95 per cent during testing – every main switch and element and detail along every mile of track GO operates on.

Much like professional skiers, golfers and race car drivers, they must be able to visualize every section of track without seeing it. As each station stop may have different braking points in advance, those at the controls must master the routes enough to stop perfectly, even in the thickest fog or blinding snow.

Not knowing, and slowing down would throw the scheduling off and delay passengers.

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“Every station is different and requires a different braking point – it’s about understanding something as small as a change in grade, that you might not be able to see if you look straight at it,” says Claerbout, who has a lengthy history as a locomotive engineer, as well as in the training and qualifying of those at the controls.

For example, the same train may brake differently from one station to another contingent on passenger load. Take, for instance, if a train stops – fully loaded after a concert – at Exhibition. That train will brake differently at other stations as passengers get off, so the engineer is constantly making adjustments to accommodate these types of changes.

Claerbout explains that moving uphill may require the train be throttled down rather than brakes applied earlier. Small grade changes can have a big impact on the momentum of a fully packed commuter train. Tracks leading into the Rutherford GO station, for example, may seem flat, but actually have a steep grade that has to be carefully managed.

Weather can have an impact on braking. So can having a new operator, even if they’ve memorized the route.

To protect the movement of trains, there is a signal system in place to maintain a prescribed distance between the trains. When one experiences an overshoot, or undershoot at a station, the delay incurred will migrate back to following trains.

Regular customers are used to lining up on platforms and waiting for an arriving GO train, knowing the doors will usually line up with them. This is calculated by hitting the mark for the accessibility coach to offload passengers on the raised platform.

Consider having to maneuver around these realities – you’re parking a 1,100-foot (335.28 metres) vehicle at a platform that can be 35 feet (10.7 metres) in length, and are spotting a four-foot (1.2 metres) opening in the side to perfectly line up everything.

The smallest miscalculation can translate into being off a few feet. Think about it as trying to always place your vehicle tires on the same spots in your driveway on the first attempt – only on a GO train, there are at least 88 wheels.

And train operators usually get it exact.

GO trains make about 900,000 stops each year. Every month, there are, on average, 200 overshoots. And of those, 90 per cent are between one and 10 feet off (.3 metres to 3.05 metres), with the majority not needing to reverse or realign.

GO Train travels along the Lakeshore East line in this undated photo

GO Train travels along the Lakeshore East line in this undated photo (photo by Jordan Hollingsworth).

And while it seems like a long time as customers standing inside, waiting for the telltale click of the sliding doors, average delays are quite small.

Claerbout says Metrolinx is working to make the numbers even smaller, and overshoot delays even less of an issue for passengers. That includes changing markers used to line up stops on platforms. A project is ongoing to make them more visible – brighter and reflective – for operators.

There are also studies ongoing to determine where operators may be making overshoots – for example, at the start or end of their shifts. This could help them adjust to compensate.

Says Claerbout: “We look at everything because we take it seriously for the customer.”

And now we return to safety. Stopping accurately at a platform takes experience and a plan long before arrival. But a person suddenly on the tracks – including rushing across as a short-cut – can not only be terrifying for an engineer, but can often defy the laws of physics of stopping in time.

A train comes into a platform station, as customers wait in lines to board.

A GO train on the Kitchener Line moves along a platform on June 3, 2019.

Trains are big and move quickly. Bringing them to a stop – let alone suddenly – is always a combination of science, math and human reaction.

For you, our customer – as we more fully try to explain the workings of the transit system you count on – it’s perhaps enough to make you stop and think.

Steps to a stop – A countdown to an arrival.

Congratulations. You’re now a Commuter Train Operator – an engineer – guiding a GO train into a platform. Here are just some of the things you – as well as the second person manning the engine with you – have to keep in mind.

  1. First, you know every kilometre of rail in front of you.
  2. Everything before and after this arrival is about safety. In all your procedures, that’s the top priority.
  3. Now what about the particular GO train you’re using during this run? It could be different than the one you were using earlier in the day at this same station. Every train handles differently – “You can feel it in the chair,” Claerbout explains. Think about the difference in your vehicle and what a family member drives, even if they are similar sized.
  4. Now factor in how many coaches you’re pulling – and even whether the train is full of customers or fairly empty. A ‘six pack’ – an engine pulling six passenger coaches – isn’t going to stop as well as a ‘12 pack’ – yes, a dozen coaches. The longer train has greater braking power.
  5. Far from the platform, look for a mileage marker – or even a rock or tree – to initiate your arrival. Wait – that may not mean applying the brakes just yet. What’s the grade like? That will impact the speed at which you first begin to enter the station. If the grade is elevated, you can slow pretty quickly.
  6. Don’t blow the whistles previous to arriving at stations unless you are encountering a crossing. Look closely for distracted customers who are standing over the yellow line. There’s nothing more nerve-wracking on an engineer that seeing someone not paying attention. Oh, and remember, some stations are on a slight curvature.
  7. “Less is best” when it comes to braking, as you don’t want all your passengers to collectively lose their balance. So while guiding one of the largest people movers around, be gentle.
  8. If you’ve been running your train at a 60 mph sprint (96.6 km/h), you’ll want to slow down to about 45 mph (72.4 km/h) jog when you first ‘hit the pad’ – the start of the platform.
  9. Now, you have as long as your train is to come to a complete stop.
  10. Look for special markers – each is different, depending how many coaches you’re pulling – to line up next to the window of your engine. Think of it like the tennis ball you may hang in the garage to tell you when to stop moving ahead.
  11. Put your train in neutral, and brakes on full.
  12. The customer service attendant (CSA) is an important part of the safety team. If the stop has not involved a re-spot, no discussion between the operating crew and the CSA is necessary – they will open the doors if the train is spotted accurately.
  13. Once everything is confirmed, it’s in the hands of the CSA to open the doors. A light up front will tell you when those doors are open.
  14. Customers safely exit before others board your train. The doors close, and you begin your GO trip to your next stop – to do it all again.

GO train operators aren’t just smart at what they do, they’re smart to pick a great occupation. Being a train engineer is one of Canada’s top jobs in 2019. Don’t just take our word for it, check out this story in Canadian Business. Just click here.

Story by Thane Burnett, manager of editorial content for Metrolinx.