Will the trains cooperate?

Why one town asked CSX not to run during the total solar eclipse Aug. 21
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A fine sliver of sunlight escapes around the edge of the Moon during a Nov. 2012 solar eclipse. Organizers of solar eclipse watching in Hopkinsville, Ky., have asked CSX Transportation to plan train operations around the relatively rare celestial event.
Mike Reynolds via Astronomy Magazine
HOPKINSVILLE, Ky. — Aug. 21 is the Great American Eclipse: The first total solar eclipse in history that’s only visible from the U.S. With 200 million Americans living a day’s drive from totality, NASA predicts this will also be the most viewed eclipse in history. It begins in Oregon and ends in South Carolina. At the center — what scientists call the point of greatest eclipse — is Hopkinsville, Ky., former L&N stop on the Evansville to Nashville mainline, currently served by CSX Transportation.

Hopkinsville has known the eclipse was coming for 10 years. But with less than a month to go, city leaders still aren’t sure what’s going on with the trains.

CSX’s freight line cuts straight through the heart of Hopkinsville, a rural town with roads built for the 31,577 people who live there. But the city expects more than 100,000 guests — which means traffic will be bad long before passing trains block roads.

“We have a very active railroad in our community,” says Hopkinsville Solar Eclipse Marketing and Events Consultant Brooke Jung. “The railroad adds to the charm of our wonderful community.”

As much as Hopkinsville loves its train, the city did ask CSX “to potentially delay the train schedule during the 2 minutes and 40 seconds of totality and immediately prior to and after, to ensure a more direct connection with nature for our guests.”

During a total solar eclipse, the sky grows blacker than black — the moon completely covers the sun after all — and the point of greatest eclipse is where it will be blackest. Guests are coming to Hopkinsville from 36 states and 14 countries to be in the dark. The last thing they want is a loud freight train with a bright headlight barrelling through.

Federal — laws regulate train operations, so the most Hopkinsville could do was ask politely. In January, the city’s eclipse transportation committee asked CSX if the train could stop during totality.

The city soon learned that might not be for the best, though, and changed its request.

“Since we have such an active train system, that would just cause more delays with regards to traffic. We talked about potentially adjusting the train schedule, just to ensure that the train [horn] didn’t blow during totality, as we thought that should be a serene moment, if possible," Jung says. "So there is really only about a 10-minute window of time that we requested to halt the train, if it was even scheduled to run at that time.”

That’s a big if. Totality starts at 1:24:41 p.m. local time and ends at 1:26:51 p.m. That’s a pretty tight window.

“Freight trains do not operate on precise schedules so it is difficult to predict how many trains might pass through Hopkinsville that afternoon," CSX representative Rob Doolittle says.

But with the way celestial mechanics work, the moon doesn’t cover the sun — POOF — for a moment, then disappear. At 11:56:05 a.m. Central, it will gradually begin to move in front of the sun, casting its shadow on the earth, and will continue to cover areas of the sun until 2:51:16 p.m. That “serene moment” could last three hours — a wide enough of a window for a railroad company to know whether a regularly scheduled train is coming through.

“Our plan is to conduct normal train operations,” Doolittle says, meaning Hopkinsville’s answer is no. Meanwhile, the city’s thinks CSX is still deciding. Local CSX officials were "going to take the request back to his team,” says Jung. “We don’t have a timeline.”

Of course, there might not be the need to stop any train or to ask CSX not to sound the horn.

“This could all be a non-issue if no train is scheduled during that time, which very well may be the case,” says Jung.

How many trains might — or might not — come through Hopkinsville on Aug. 21 is an answer the city’s still waiting for. Whether they get that information or not, two things are certain: Aug. 21, the moon will move across the sky and thousands of tourists will watch it. In the meantime, city leaders are in the dark.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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