I went on a brief roadtrip last Autumn, an experience I described in more detail in my Adventures along Maryland I-70/68. I mentioned a massive road cut at Sideling Hill. I couldn’t find a reason to highlight another feature, a runaway truck ramp just west of the cut as one descends descends the hill at great speed. I had enough material for the article so I saved it for another day.
You’ve probably seen these ramps too: odd, stubby stretches of roadway designed to halt trucks in their tracks should brakes fail while descending scary road grades. They exist all over the world with a similar purpose although under different names. Runaway truck ramp; truck arrester bed; safety ramp; escape bays, escape ramps and other variations influenced by engineering techniques or geography. Let’s see one in action during a 2009 test conducted by Canada’s Ministry of Transportation on Highway 11 in North Bay, Ontario. This one comes courtesy of YouTube. It’s all rather self-explanatory.
Few people probably realize that there are several different types. Auto Evolution describes four of them: A gravity escape ramp forces a truck uphill so gravity can slow it down. Arrester material ramps feature a thick gravel layer or some similar material causing friction as a truck passes. Sand pile ramps work in a similar manner. Arrester barriers act somewhat like arresting wires on an aircraft carrier as trucks barrel through a series of cable nets. Designs can be mixed-and-matched. The one I saw in western Maryland combined a gravity ramp with sand piles.
Runaway truck ramps have become a common roadway feature in mountainous areas. They also come in handy more than I imagined. Car and Driver explains,
By 1990, there were reportedly 170 runaway ramps in 27 (mostly western) states. Current data is scarce, but a 1981 NHTSA study notes there had been 2450 runaway-truck incidents that year, with 2150 of those involving the use of ramps… [a study described] the stopping inertia as “strong but absent the jarring impact of other crashes.” Vehicle damage was confined to lower engine accessories and air tanks.
Does this stretch of highway look familiar? It should. I found the exact place along Highway 11 in North Bay featured in the video. The most difficult part of today’s article was finding runaway truck ramps on Street View. They aren’t labeled and I had to search areal imagery in painful detail before drilling down. I’m actually pretty proud of myself for finding this one.
This ramp definitely has cable nets and possibly gravel judging by the dust kicked-up as the truck makes its approach in the video.
I already mentioned the example in Maryland. This particular version can be found just outside of Vail, Colorado along Interstate 70. Notice how it would force a truck uphill so gravity could slow it down. It also appears to use a thick bed of gravel. It’s hard to tell.
I managed to find an Australian example in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. Here signage along the Great Western Highway declares it a "Safety Ramp." Once again, gravity and gravel are combined to force a stop. I’d be a bit wary of the large stone outcrop on the right. The ramp seems a little narrow to me. Imagine barreling down a mountain in a tractor-trailer without brakes and having to angle for that slot. I’d categorize that as a good example of threading-the-needle.
12MC reader "Thomas" in Scotland challenged me to find more Scottish material for my articles. Thomas, I searched satellite imagery all over the Highlands for a solid half-hour trying to uncover a runaway truck ramp for you, and I failed. Send me a map link if you’ve seen one.
The United Kingdom was difficult and not because of the issue of Truck vs. Lorry. Search engines dealt with that distinction without a problem. I did finally find one as I was about to give up on the UK entirely. It’s in Wales along the A4119 as one approaches Tonypandy in the county borough of Rhondda Cynon Taf. In this instance the descent doesn’t last very long but there’s a vicious roundabout at the bottom. I’d hate to consider the devastation that would ensue should a lorry plow into the circle at full speed, and I guess the road engineers in Tonypandy felt the same way.
I know runaway truck ramps exist in other countries but I don’t know what they’re called in their native languages. It’s hard enough with all the different English variations. What might this piece of road engineering be in German or Russian or Portuguese? A search engine isn’t much use if one can’t plug-in the proper term and, as I mentioned, they are exceedingly difficult to spot from satellite imagery.
Please post your favorite runaway truck ramps along with map links or embedded Street View images in the comments. Readers posting examples found in non-English speaking countries get double bonus points.
Good times were had by all at the American Meridian Happy Hour on Tuesday. Our county counter extraordinaire is on the left (he said it was OK to post this). I’m on the right. Can you tell it was a LONG day at work? I’ll let other attendees self identify if they wish. We swapped all sorts of travel adventures involving geo-oddities. Thanks guys! — I wish the rest of the 12MC audience lived close enough to attend. Where else can one find people who totally understand why I once took my family miles out of the way to see the 45X90 Spot?
Many years ago my fiancé (now wife) and I traveled through northern New England for two weeks. This was so long ago that we actually tent-camped our way through a string of rustic state parks with few amenities. That changed to Bed-and-Breakfasts once we got married, and then changed again to whatever hotel happened to have an indoor pool and a free breakfast buffet once the kids came along. Imagine though, a time when I once trampled through the wilderness without regard to creature comforts.
One of our stops delivered us to the top of Mount Washington, the highest point in the state of New Hampshire and indeed anywhere in the northeastern United States: 1,917 metres (6,288 feet). The observatory atop the mountain claims to be the "Home of the World’s Worst Weather" but it didn’t live up to that reputation during our visit. It was postcard perfect.
We saw a terrible column of black smoke rising from the valley. What could possibly burn on the barren rock above the tree line? It moved closer. Soon enough we saw that it belching from an ancient machine, a mighty hissing steam engine pushing a passenger car, the Mount Washington Cog Railway
I didn’t know anything about the cog railway prior to our visit. I will take a ride if I ever return, now wiser and lazier after the passage of more years than I’d like to admit.
The Washington Mountain Cog Railway is an institution. It was the very first mountain cog railway ever constructed, and of course it continues to be the oldest by definition. Tourists have taken the railway safely to the summit of Mount Washington since 1869, pushed along nearly unimaginable gradients up to 37%.
Generically it’s a "rack and pinion" railway, a technology particularly suited to steep mountainous terrain. The rack is a toothed track strung along a rail bed and the pinion is a cog wheel that aligns with the rack. It’s easier to picture than describe. They’ve been deployed worldwide in places where ordinary trains would spin their wheels on their tracks.
A rack and pinion design has worked efficiently for over a century at Snowdon, the highest peak in the British Isles other than Scotland. The Snowdon Mountain Railway rises to a 1,085 m (3,560 ft) summit from Llanberis, a village in Gwynedd, North Wales. It is the only example of a cog railway in the United Kingdom.
Reputedly the SMR served as an inspiration for the fictional Culdee Fell Railway, which in turn spun off into the whole Thomas the Tank Engine phenomenon. That probably doesn’t matter much to you unless your household went through a Thomas the Tank Engine phase, as mine did when the kids were younger.
Not every cog railroad dates back to the Nineteenth or earliest days of the Twentieth Century. The technology continues to fill a small but important niche in the modern world.
Perisher is a large ski resort in the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales, Australia. The only road into the area was frequently blocked by the same weather that makes the resort so attractive, an overabundance of snow. The proprietors dug a tunnel through a mountain to provide an alternate path, and within the tunnel they constructed an underground rack railway. Perisher Skitube Alpine Rail has delivered skiers to the resort since 1987.
A segment of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway in Tamil Nadu, India, is a cog railway climbing up through thick, uninhabitable jungle slopes. The rack-and-pinion portion of the railway running from Kallar to Coonoor includes "208 curves and 13 tunnels, and 27 viaducts" as noted by UNESCO when it added Nilgiri to the Mountain Railways of India World Heritage Site. It has operated here since 1908.
More accessible, yet also confronting the challenges of extreme topography, the Trem do Corcovado of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, climbs to the top of Morro do Corcovado. This is the famous mountaintop crowned by the statue of Cristo Redentor — Christ the Redeemer — that is easily one of the most recognizable and iconic images of the nation.
There are other examples, but Cog railways are still a rather unusual phenomenon. Even so, a rack-and-pinion design is still the best technology for a very special set of circumstances. That hasn’t changed in more than a hundred and fifty years.
I guess it was back in January when I focused on the little town of Halfway, Oregon. I was pretty impressed when I thought they’d named it that way because of the nearby 45th parallel of latitude north — i.e., halfway between the equator and the North Pole. That turned out to be a false assumption. Nonetheless I still managed to find something interesting with Halfway. I tucked away thoughts of other "halfway" places for future exploration.
It didn’t take long to generate several lists of halfway place names. Many nations provide online databases that allow keyword searching. I’m not going to reprint entire lists but I’ve included links to those resources should you wish to explore the subject further. Repeatedly, I asked myself as I reviewed the tallies, "halfway to what?" It’s not often self-evident. Most of these landmarks are rather small. Additionally, many of the endpoints that determined halfway were obscure when referenced originally and have continued to fade in relevance over time.
The Canada Geographical Names Data Base (CGNDB) from Natural Resources Canada, a government agency I’ve referenced a number of times, lists 153 Halfway place names including several inhabited but unincorporated areas. There is even a Halfway Mountain in Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Halfway shown above can be found in the township of Madawaska Valley, Renfrew County, in Ontario. I couldn’t find an exact population but there were barely 4,000 people in the entire Madawaska Valley. It’s tiny.
The halfway phenomenon seems considerably less pronounced in the United Kingdom. I found only 12 halfways including six inhabited places as I consulted the Gazeteer of British Place Names. I guess this makes sense. I can imagine nineteenth century Canadian mapmakers struggling to come up with enough names, and resorting to halfways and all sorts of other contrived conveniences just to fill the voids and complete the job. The UK is considerably smaller and they’ve had a lot more time to create meaningful names.
I’ve chosen a Halfway in Cynghordy, Carmarthenshire, in Wales. It seemed to be the most significant of the UK halfways based on a quick eyeball examination. I don’t have any empirical evidence to back that claim so please correct me if I’m wrong.
The hunt for halfways then switched to Geoscience Australia where I got 96 matches. The most significant of these seems to be Halfway Creek in New South Wales. It’s not much more than a crossroads on the Pacific Highway where one can stop for fuel and maybe a rest. It does look like an attractive place in Street View, though.
The final stop on our halfway tour takes us to the United States where the USGS Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) uncovered 372 instances. One, of course, is Halfway, Oregon which I featured previously. Another is Halfway, Maryland, named for being halfway between the dueling metropolises of Hagerstown (which I’ve heard of) and Williamsport (not the one in Pennsylvania but a much more obscure one in Maryland that I’ve never heard of)
The other decently-sized Halfway, bearing in mind that I’m using this in a relative sense, is Halfway, Missouri. This is distinguishable for being the hometown of David Smith, they guy who shot himself across the Mexico-USA border with a cannon. Did any of you guess where this thread would eventually lead?