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Stop right there. We're not getting to the USDA Choice meat without a Standard Disclaimer. DO NOT DO WHAT YOU ARE ABOUT TO READ. NO. BAD NODER. Trespassing on railroad property is against the law. As is messing with railroad crossing signals. Also, you could get hit by a train and die, die, die. That would be bad. So, no matter what a stripper tells you, DO NOT DO THIS. So there.

The easiest way to figure this out is to understand the fundamental way a railroad crossing system works. The basic concept is there is current running through one rail. When a train passes over said rail, the current goes through the axle of the train wheel to the other rail. This goes back to the big ol' control box, and thus the circuit is complete. The gates go down. Cars stop. Donkeys eat waffles. Life is good. But what if you don't have time for that?

Ok, hold the phone.

There are two basic kinds of crossing systems out there: complicated and simple. We are going to be talking about the simple ones for now. Towards the end of the node we will talk about the complicated ones, and how to tell the two apart.

OK, first you gotta find yourself a railroad crossing. Generally not too hard. Next, obtain a jumper cable (note the singular expression of this item). Actually you can interchange the order of those last two. I actually think it would be easier if you did them in reverse order. But I digress. Next you gotta find the sweet spot on the rails. It usually starts about a foot or two from the road and can go down the line anywhere from 100 feet to several miles, depending on the speed of the trains on this section of track. You can tell this area because any breaks in the rails are connected with wires, or welded together. The beginning and end of these sections are denoted by a fiberglass insulator connecting two sections of track. Any location in between these two insulators are fair game. Now, carefully avoiding any trains which happen to be traversing the railroad you happen to be on, clamp one end of your jumper cable on to one track and the left over end on to the other track. Wait about 5 seconds. Then watch the magic happen. Hug the nearest person. Rejoice in what you have created.

Different types of simple systems have different reactions to this. Sometimes the gates will stay down only until the cable is removed, at which point they will promptly go back up. Sometimes the gates will only stay down for 5 or 10 seconds regardless of how long the cable is attached (to counteract this, keep one end clamped on, and alternately remove and attach the other end at 3-5 second intervals. This makes the system think that a train is passing over it (since the resistance is changing) and it will stay down). You may encounter something different. Who knows?

Differentiating between simple and complicated crossing systems
The easiest way to tell the two apart is to note if the rail line is major or not. Basically, if the rail line you are looking at is -anything- national, you are going to be dealing with a complicated system. Specifically, look for a box about a mile down the track with xxx.xxHz on it. That works with the transponders on the trains to figure out where they are. That just makes things a little more difficult. See below.

Complicated Systems
Since these employ transponders and such, the only reliable way to trip these is to be right next to the road when you do it. That's all there is to it. It's some sort of fail-safe mechanism. If you know of any other way (short of using a train), let me know.

Troubleshooting

No dice? A couple of things to try.

  • Make sure you are in the sweet spot. See above for finding it.
  • Make sure the tracks aren't rusty. This is a common problem on abandoned or near-abandoned lines. A little sandpaper will take care of the problem.
  • Make sure there is current running through the tracks. You can use a voltmeter if you'd like, or just look at the control box. There are usually lights on them. If it is out, chances are there is no power to the track.
  • Make sure you are dealing with the right system. If it is a complicated system, follow the correct directions.

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