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Sand Patch Grade

Great Allegheny Passage

Railroads

A train heads eastbound preparing to enter the tunnel at the summit of Sand Patch Grade, Pennsylvania.

This stretch of the Great Allegheny Passage (gaptrail.org) between Sand Patch and Meyersdale, Pennsylvania, runs parallel to CSX Railroad’s Keystone Subdivision mainline rails, which date back to 1871 and were once a part of the B&O Railroad. [1] At Sand Patch, the GAP veers in a more southeasterly direction, while the tracks continue due east toward Hyndman, Pennsylvania. The 20 miles between Hyndman and Sand Patch are known as the Sand Patch grade—a fairly steep and curving section, as far as railroads go. It takes more energy for trains to go up steeper terrain, slows down their speed, and adds wear and tear to equipment, which is why train tracks ideally follow straight, level paths. Roads can dip and curve because cars, unlike locomotives tugging along miles of cargo, can easily compensate for the changes. (This is why roads usually have a slight incline when they approach railroad crossings.) Along the Sand Patch grade the tracks do not incline uniformly, so depending on the spot, the gradient is anywhere from 1 to 2 feet for every 100 feet of track (i.e., grades of between 1 and 2%). [2] For comparison, tracks ideally have a grade lower than 1%, and the steepest mainline grade is currently 3.3%, at Raton Pass in New Mexico. [3] There is also a horseshoe curve in this section, adding to its difficulty—but also making it an especially fun place to be a rail fan. To watch trains climb through the horseshoe curve, hop off the trail at Old Deal Road and drive 15 minutes to the nearby town of Mance. There’s a popular viewing spot where Mance Road crosses the tracks. To find it, plug Mance Road, Meyersdale, Pennsylvania, into your GPS.

 

  • [1] “Sand Patch Grade,” American-Rails.com, accessed April 2, 2020, https://www.american-rails.com/patch.html.
  • [2] Robert S. McGonigal, “Grades and Curves,” Trains Magazine, May 1, 2006, https://trn.trains.com/railroads/abcs-of-railroading/2006/05/grades-and-curves.
  • [3] It is difficult to find an authoritative source for the steepest grade along the Sand Patch section, but in a 1935 Senate hearing, C.W. Van Horn, general manager of the B&O Railroad’s eastern lines, testified that the maximum grade on the western slope was 1.6%, and on the eastern slope it was 1%. U.S. Congress, Senate, Subcommittee of the Committee on Interstate Commerce, To Provide Full Crews on Trains in Interstate Commerce, 74th Cong., 1st sess., 1935, 238–40.
References

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