March 28, 2008

Train Engines Backward/"Flea Markets"

Stupid Question ™
Jan. 17, 2002
By John Ruch
© 2002

Q: When a train is being pulled by two or more engines, why is one engine always facing backward?

A: Train engines can reach the same speed and pulling power whether they run forward or backward.

The lead engine must face forward so the headlight, cowcatcher and similar essentials are out front. But it doesn’t matter which direction any additional engines are pointing.

And so, railyard crews usually don’t go to the trouble of turning them all the right way around. Instead, they attach the engines in whichever direction they happen to be pointing on the yard.

“They don’t make any effort to put them in any order,” said John Bromley, a spokesperson for Union Pacific in Omaha.

It’s not true that one engine will always be facing backward, but it happens that way often enough. For one thing, an engine that comes into the yard will usually be facing “backward” relative to a return trip (presuming it’s heading back more or less the way it came). If nobody bothers to turn it around, it will remain “backward.”

Bromley said that in the Rocky Mountains, trains often run with extra engines in the middle and at the end of the train, both for extra power and for better handling and stability. He said that in this configuration, the engine at the end is often put on facing backward. This is so that the train, once it reaches its destination, can immediately go back the way it came without having to turn the engine around.

* * * * *

Following my Jan. 3 column on the origin of the term “flea market,” a reader wrote in with an unusual alternative.

I explained that the term is a direct translation from French, and was coined in 1800s Paris as a joking reference to garbage peddlers.

But reader Gwen wrote that a tour guide at Vienna’s Schoenbrunn Palace had shown her a painting of a monkey in a marketplace picking fleas off people for money—and said this historical practice was the origin of “flea market.”

Susanne Gruber-Hauk at the Schoenbrunn confirmed that the palace indeed has such an image—actually a tapestry.

But she quickly backed off from the “flea market” origin claim. In fact, the Schoenbrunn has no historical or linguistic evidence for it. They simply have a cute story based on what they think the tapestry depicts.

And I’m not sure it depicts what they think. The tapestry is Flemish, and the scene on it designed by the painter David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690).

Teniers put monkeys in several of his paintings. Like many artists of his era, he typically used them to symbolize human foolishness and vice. It seems likely that the tapestry is some sort of social satire, not a historical or documentary scene.

Of course, even if there were such monkeys, there’s still nothing linking them to a French phrase of 200 years later. There’s just the pat folklore that is all too commonly spread by historical site tour guides.

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