Nemesis to a mighty GO train? How squirrels and the rest of nature challenge experts who keep transit running on time

GO Transit service boasts bragging rights when it comes to on-time performance. But you may be surprised how nature looks to test and vex the women and men who keep trains, even beyond GO Transit, rolling along. Mother nature is not always such an easy rider.

It’s often the meddlesome, invasive, trying, out-of-the-blue, what-the-heck, who-saw-that-coming little things.

This is as true for those who run train services, as it is for the rest of us who are just trying to keep our own lives on track.

When a GO train, or most any other train service, reaches a destination on time, it seems like the credit should largely go to the well-oiled machines and those at the controls. But across each season, and around the world, rail experts deal with a constant challenge from natural wonders – tiny obstacles that can pit a living environment against the heartiest infrastructure and vehicles.

Two GO trains are seen on tracks.
GO trains move along tracks on a cold day. Winter and the heat of summer always try to challenge transit experts. (Metrolinx photo)

It’s more than just the cold of winter and heat of summer that nature throws at trains and buses. Mother Nature has her troops that are always on the march, and ready to test the theory of natural selection.

Consider the tiny millipede. A recent New York Times article pointed out the arthropods have been responsible for periodic disruptions to train service in Japan. Their unusual life cycle has seen them, especially in the early part of last century, pour over rails in the mountains west of Tokyo in such great numbers, even trains were unable to get through their slippery remains. Experts have recently pinned down their patterns, though the numbers of ghostly-white creatures – which are not actually insects – have seemed to have been reduced on rails and local roads over the decades.

But they still march on – and are not alone.

Rob Andrews, senior manager for Metrolinx Rail Operations, recalls when he previously worked for Canadian Pacific, he witnessed the collective power of tiny critters.

The tiny caterpillar can challenge – when combined with friends and family – train movement, as they can create a slippery surface on rails. (Photo by Pixabay)

“I actually had mile long freight trains unable to move because of tiny, harmless tent caterpillars,” he says.

“Literally millions of these creatures would migrate in northern Ontario across our tracks and if a train were stopped at any point, and tried to get going with these caterpillars in front of it, the engine couldn’t gain enough traction to move due to the mashing up of body fluids the wheels would do.”

Though not creatures, tree leaves pose similar issues for trains on various parts of GO Transit corridors.

“The liquid inside the leaf (guttation fluid) causes locomotive wheels to slip on steeper grades as we run over the leaf litter,” Andrews notes. “We have specially designed gel applicators across the network that dispense an adhesion gel that adheres to the wheels and gives us better traction.

“Our track forces also do patrols and physically blow the leaves off as well.”

Then there’s the usual hornets and snakes that find homes in switches, though they don’t often impact service.

Though at least one snake did cause some customer commotion aboard a Richmond Hill bound GO train in 2013. The locomotive had stalled in rising floodwaters, and a curious or misguided snake became a social media celebrity as it came aboard along with a rising tide of rainwater and runoff.

“Snake on a train” was trending for a bit.

And last year, a wayward squirrel managed to test the power of GO Transit’s mighty Willowbrook Rail Maintenance Facility. One of two large depots where GO trains are stored and serviced, Willowbrook plays an important part in keeping – even during COVID-19 times – essential workers moving.

Here’s looking at you – A squirrel (not this one) managed to disrupt power at the Wilowbrook Rail and Maintenance Facility in 2020. (Photo by Pixabay)

But in 2020, a squirrel managed to intimately cross paths with a high voltage supply line connected to the Etobicoke facility. The quickly-departed rodent managed to blow a fuse at Willowbrook, which pointed out a fault at a piece of aging equipment that was already scheduled to be replaced.

Metrolinx officials point out that service disruptions caused by animals are still rare – thanks to those watch out for the unexpected.

“There are very dedicated people putting their minds, effort, creativity, and sweat into making sure they don’t impact our service,” says Robert Fuller, director of Rail Services.

But nature can certainly test systems – and even civilizations used to being on the move.

Look at COVID-19, which is responsible for a temporary drop of more than 90 per cent of riders on GO Transit. The impact has included a recently reduced train schedule.

“I think the message is even in spite of all the things the Corona virus is, and how it has changed our lives, the trains and buses still run,” says Fuller. “In spite of the virus, creativity and innovation hasn’t stopped at Metrolinx.”

He points to the use of a long-lasting, antimicrobial agent used on GO Transit vehicles to kill bacteria, barriers that provide separation between passengers, as well as visible cleaning efforts to continuously disinfect high touch areas on buses and trains, as well as stations.

That means a big effort on something major – that still starts out small.

The diameter of the COVID-19 virus can reportedly range between 60 to 140 nanometers.  To understand how tiny that is, a sheet of paper is said to be about 100,000 nanometers thick.

Small can be formidable – even when compared to the momentum of a large locomotive.

Every day, GO Transit experts are constantly tried and tested by countless natural – and mechanical – reasons why a vehicle should be late or stopped in its tracks. And yet, for 98.9 per cent of the time, those trains and buses are arriving and leaving at the minute expected.

Which, arguably, makes the service a bit of a natural wonder as well.

Story by Scott Money, Metrolinx media relations senior advisor