Sperry Rail Detector Open House in St. Paul – January 1978


From the Clinch Valley Times, February 2, 1978

Bored with staying aboard the Sperry Rail Service Detector car over the weekend, the three-man crew decided to hold an open house while the self-powered, self-contained rail car was parked on the siding behind the post office in St. Paul.

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T. J. Horn (Chief Operator), J. J. Langdon (Assistant Operator), and R. E. Potter (Operator) conduced the tours of the living and work areas, and explained the purpose of the detector cars.

The detector cars of the Sperry Rail Service, a division of Automation Industries, Inc., check rails for various defects which could result in train wrecks if left unattended.  Railroad companies contract Sperry Rail Service to run the rails and report on the conditions so that any necessary repairs can be made to maintain safe and efficient rail traffic. 

Clinchfield Railroad had contracted this routine inspection from Erwin, Tennessee to Elkhorn City, Kentucky.  The rail inspection system used by Sperry allowed the route to be checked in just over a week.

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Rail inspections are done by applying an electric current to the rails through a series of brushes located on a carriage under the car.  The current sets up a magnetic field around the rail.  Any defect on or in the rail distorts the magnetic field, and that distortion is picked up the Sperry Detection Control Center and monitored by an operator watching a print-out graph.  Spray paint automatically marks any defect area on the rail, and any indication of a serious defect is checked out by the crew members using an outside-mounted reflectoscope.  In addition to this induction – or electronic – check of the rails, the detector car also carries ultrasonic, or sound wave testing equipment.  These tests can be conducted regardless of weather, at rail travel speeds of up to 13 mph.

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Crew quarters inside the car consist of four bunks, a complete kitchen, a dining and sitting area, and restrooms.  The car is equipped with an oil furnace and electric generator for the crew quarters.  The driving compartment is in the front with the monitoring equipment in the back.

NimoFilm_3419This crew worked together since the first of January, and they say that they may be out five or six more months before being transferred or going home. 

R. E. Potter, a resident of East Smithfield, Pennsylvania said, “It takes a special kind of person to do this job.” He added that his two years of college and various jobs did nothing to prepare him for this job which takes him all over the country for extended periods of time in close quarters with the same people always there.

J. J. Langdon of Elmira, New York, who is currently training as an operator, agreed, saying that adapting to the living situation is as hard as anything he is learning.

T. J. Horn, from New Athens, Illinois, is a veteran with 5-1/2 years on the job. He has adapted well to the lifestyle, although he was the one who thought of the open house idea to relieve the boredom.

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R. E. Potter (left) and J. J. Langdon in position at the monitoring station.

The Sperry detection car left St. Paul on Monday on its way to Norton to test rails for the L & N system.  The crew said before leaving that they were going to save the open house sign just in case they got bored again.

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In 2019, Sperry Rail Service is still in business and its familiar yellow cars still ply the rails in our area from time to time.  The following company information is from Sperry’s website:

For 85 years, Sperry has been the world leader in Rail Health® solutions, helping railroads achieve continuous safety and performance improvements. Our integrated full-coverage solutions are designed to detect more defects in less time, so you can resume operations quickly. Inspired by the passion of our founder, Dr. Elmer Sperry, the inventor of the first non-destructive method for testing rail, Sperry is committed to delivering fit-for-purpose Rail Health® solutions that make railway travel safer and more reliable for everyone.

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