Train Set: Track Three

Roman Mars [00:00:01] This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. Happy National Train Day, everyone. For those who missed it, it was May 13th this year. How do I know that? Mainly because 99PI’s resident train aficionado Kurt Kohlstedt keeps reminding all of us.

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:00:20] Because I love trains, okay? 

Roman Mars [00:00:23] It’s also the one-year anniversary of our first collection of stories entirely about trains. We called it Train Set: Track One. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:00:30] And to the surprise of no one, I had more than one episode’s worth of train story ideas, even before 99PI fans started writing in with more ideas. So, Track One gave way to Track Two. And now here we are for the final part of our train-fecta. 

Roman Mars [00:00:44] Trains Set: Track Three.

Conductor [00:00:56] Greetings, passengers. This is your conductor speaking. Our first stop today is the fictional island of Sodor.

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:01:05] In the late 1980s, I first encountered Shining Time Station, which was this mesmerizing, animated show that played during prime time on PBS.

Shining Time Station Theme [00:01:15] Reach for the speed, reach for the whistle, go where the rail may run. Reach for the words, reach for the story, follow the Rainbow Sun. To a Shining Time Station where dreams can come true…

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:01:29] The show debuted when I was four years old. At the time, my family lived in this little red brick farmhouse in upstate New York. And like a lot of households in the ’80s, ours didn’t have cable. So, when my brother and I got to watch TV, we watched a lot of PBS. And in the era of less sophisticated animation, this show’s claymation was mesmerizing. I was enchanted by the charming characters, the backdrop of verdant rolling hills laced with locomotive tracks, and, of course, its breakout star, Thomas the Tank Engine. 

Thomas the Tank Engine Narrator [00:02:08] Thomas is a tank engine who lives at a big station on the island of Sodor. He’s a cheeky little engine with six small wheels, a short stumpy funnel, a short stumpy boiler, and a short stumpy dome. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:02:23] Its early seasons were narrated by none other than musician Sir Richard Starkey, better known to the world by his stage name. 

Newscaster [00:02:30] Former Beatle Ringo Starr is among the show’s cast and talked with reporters in New York. 

Ringo Starr [00:02:35] I love kids. I used to be one. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:02:37] In this cartoon world, anthropomorphized trains chug, chug, chug along the picturesque countryside of this hilly, bright, and colorful island. The stop motion animation makes the series feel rich and three dimensional. As a kid, that’s what I saw–an innocuous series about trains. But decades later, I read this essay by Jia Tolentino with a fun, upbeat title–The Repressive Authoritarian Soul of Thomas the “Tank Engine & Friends.” 

Roman Mars [00:03:06] So I know a lot of children’s shows have many levels of meaning so that they can have little jokes for the parents who might be watching. Is that what you’re talking about? Are these, like, subtle, dark jokes? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:03:15] Yeah, that’s part of it. But it also runs much deeper and goes all the way back to the origin of this fictional world. The Shining Time station and its characters grew out of a series of books that were published in the 1940s and were written by Anglican Minister Wilbert Awdry. He started out by telling train stories to his son Christopher, who was ill and bedbound, and then those started to become the basis for books. 

Roman Mars [00:03:40] Well, so far that’s not so dark–just telling train stories through his sick son. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:03:44] Yeah, it sounds really nice. But Audrey–he had this very “Make the British Empire Great Again” vibe. And like many a grumpy old man, he lamented the trajectory of his era. In particular, he was a big fan of the 19th century, and he longed for the time when those pesky 1900 troubles like class consciousness and civil rights and Postcolonialism started to pervade his precious society. So, to get around all of that, he set his stories on this imaginary island off the coast of England, which was a magical place untouched by all of this postwar progressiveness. 

Roman Mars [00:04:22] So how did that manifest? Like, how did Awdry’s mid-century worldview make its way from his books all the way to that 1980s cartoon show that you saw? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:04:33] Well, to be clear, the entire train utopia he envisioned was really a dystopia by almost any standard–a really disturbing place where the demands on these cute, anthropomorphized train characters are often excessive and unreasonable and the punishments for disobeying are strangely severe. 

Roman Mars [00:04:54] That sounds nightmarish. Can you give us an example? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:04:57] Yeah. There are tons of examples of how strange this is. In some episodes you see sentient vehicles being outright murdered–just crushed or ripped apart, dismembered effectively–and often for pretty minor offenses. One of the most vivid and horrifying examples I found is in this episode called The Sad Story of Henry. And it starts off whimsically enough with an engine named Henry who gets a spiffy new paint job, and he wants to shelter it from the rain as it dries off. Makes sense, right? 

Thomas the Tank Engine Narrator [00:05:28] Once an engine attached to a train was afraid of a few drops of rain. It went into a tunnel and squeaked through its funnel and wouldn’t come out again. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:05:40] So Henry comes to a stop in this railway tunnel and refuses to move. Eventually, the big boss, Sir Topham Hatt, comes along and has his henchmen try to push and pull Henry out of the tunnel. When that fails and the train still won’t move, he declares that they will strip away the train tracks out from under Henry and brick off the tunnel permanently. 

Thomas the Tank Engine Narrator [00:06:00] “We shall take away your rails,” he said, “and leave you here for always and always and always.” They took up the old rails and built a wall in front of him so that Henry couldn’t get out of the tunnel anymore. He was very sad because he thought no one would ever see his lovely green paint with red stripes again. 

Roman Mars [00:06:20] Okay, wait. So, for the crime of taking shelter in a storm so his paint wouldn’t run, they basically imprisoned Henry for life inside of a tunnel? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:06:31] Yeah. They walled him alive, which is straight up out of a horror film, right? And he goes through this disturbing mix of facial expressions as the walls are stacking up around him brick by brick. It’s like he’s frightened, but also confused. The whole thing is just awful. And then they go on to describe Henry’s friends passing by on adjacent tracks. One of them shouts a greeting, but another callously remarks that Henry got what he deserved. Meanwhile, for his part, Henry can’t even respond to them. 

Thomas the Tank Engine Narrator [00:07:02] Poor Henry had no steam to answer. His fire had gone out. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:07:07] Which I’m not really sure how to interpret. Like, did he starve to death? That’s really creepy if so. Or even worse, maybe trains can’t die, so he’s just in tunnel purgatory forever with no fire to go anywhere. The last line in the scene is especially chilling with Ringo Starr asking this leading question…

Thomas the Tank Engine Narrator [00:07:27] But I think he deserved his punishment, don’t you? 

Roman Mars [00:07:31] No, I don’t. Actually, I don’t. I mean, I suppose there’s kind of a message here for kids about listening to their parents or something, but oh my God. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:07:39] Yeah. No, the punishment seems so far out of proportion to the infraction. And I can’t believe how I missed this when I was a kid. 

Roman Mars [00:07:47] Okay, well, our train journey is off to a very positive and uplifting start, so let’s get this train rolling to the next station before we get bricked into a tomb like poor Henry. 

Conductor [00:08:41] Attention, passengers. I’ve just been alerted we need to make an unscheduled stop. Please remain seated at this time. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:08:50] Trains are nothing if not fast and massive, which means that slowing them down on short notice is going to be incredibly difficult. 

Roman Mars [00:08:58] Yeah, like, they’re not known for being nimble. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:09:01] No. There’s a reason that we stop cars and not trains at the train crossing. And so, from the start, railways have worked on ways of warning operators far enough in advance if they do need to stop. One popular solution was flags set out on the sides of tracks to warn oncoming trains of dangers ahead. But flags only work when you can see them, and that puts trains in foggy places like the UK in danger. So, in the mid 1800s, an English mechanical engineer started thinking about potential audible alerts that could be used on even the foggiest day and would be loud enough to be heard over in an already noisy train. And the solution he came up with was… explosives. 

Roman Mars [00:09:45] Trains and explosives generally don’t go well together, right? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:09:48] I mean, yeah, normally, but we’re just talking about little explosions here–just powerful enough to make a sound. 

Roman Mars [00:09:55] Okay. Well, I guess it’s fine then. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:09:56] In the UK, they call these “detonators.” In the U.S., they’re known as “torpedoes.” And oncoming trains would just roll over a set of these, they detonate with a series of bangs, and that, of course, pierces the steady train noise and gets the attention of whoever is at the helm. And they sound basically like this. 

Roman Mars [00:10:24] I mean, it’s hard to convey when you’re trying to, you know, mix the sound of a show so that it doesn’t destroy people’s ears. But that does feel loud. That feels like that’s a loud sound. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:10:33] It’s a pretty loud sound. I mean, it’s a very loud crack. It’s like a firecracker. And of course, you know, if there’s a construction site, those construction workers will have a set of these that they can run back up just in case somebody didn’t get the memo that this track has closed down. And then trains carry sets of these, too, so that if the train breaks down, they can send somebody back up the rails to lay down explosives and again, make sure that the next guy knows there’s something in the way. 

Roman Mars [00:10:58] Yeah, sort of like, you know, roadside flares that you put behind your car when you’re broken down on the side of the road. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:11:04] Yeah, exactly. And when people are working on the rail line, even if they don’t expect another train to come, they still might lay down some detonators just in case because an Under Construction sign only tells you so much. And if there’s some kind of human error in the system, it just serves as a nice backup way to make sure that they’re going to get the message. And of course, these bangs helped the rail workers, too, because if there’s an approaching train that they somehow don’t hear because it’s running quiet at night–meaning it’s not using horns and signals out of respect for sleeping locals–these workers get some alert as well to get the heck out of the way. 

Roman Mars [00:11:39] Well, better safe than sorry, I suppose. In this case, it’s “safe” meaning lots of little explosive devices stretched out along a train track. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:11:46] Absolutely. 

Conductor [00:11:53] In advance of our next stop, please check the seatback in front of you for your complimentary copy of the Guinness Book of World Records. 

Roman Mars [00:12:04] When you think of record-setting wonders of engineering, you usually think of grand feats, like the world’s tallest tower or the longest bridge. But cities and countries will still take pride in a world record designation at the opposite end of the size spectrum, boasting about things like the world’s shortest railway. A number of towns, cities, city states, and nations around the world brag about being home to the world’s shortest train. But which one has the most legitimate claim? It turns out the answer lies not so much in the actual inches and feet of train track, but in how key terms get defined. In this case, words like “short” and “nation.” The good ol’ Guinness Book of World Records lists the shortest train line by track length as the Fisherman’s Walk Cliff Railway funicular in Bournemouth, England. This wee railway is just 128 feet long. Meanwhile, the Vatican Railway, serving Vatican City, would seem to be a very distant second at 4,200 feet long. But they claim the title of the world’s shortest national railway, which makes sense because they are the world’s smallest nation. And right here in California, there’s Angel’s Flight, which operates on Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles. Whenever anyone asks me for something to do in LA, I send them to the Grand Central Market for lunch and then a ride on Angel’s Flight. It’s nearly 300 feet long–just one city block–and the ride only takes about a minute, which they argue makes it the world’s shortest train in terms of duration. But it doesn’t have to be a competition. As far as I’m concerned, all trains are good trains, especially funiculars. 

Conductor [00:13:45] For deluxe passengers traveling in private train cars today, our next stop will be in the city and state of your choice. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:13:53] A few years back, I learned that Amtrak provides a service that most regular train users probably don’t know anything about. For an admittedly high fee, they will hook up your private train car onto their train line that they are already operating and tow you around the country. 

Roman Mars [00:14:11] Your private train car, which everyone happens to have. I mean, that sounds absolutely luxurious, but more like something out of the 1800s than today. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:14:22] Yeah. The era of rich industrialists. And the equivalent today is probably a swank private plane. But back then, a private train car was just one of those things that rich people could own. And there’s this one car, for example, that was originally designed and built for Charles Schwab, who you might recognize as a famous financial executive. And it was a seriously posh ride befitting a man of his fame and fortune with fancy bedrooms and bathrooms and more. 

Tyler Trahan [00:14:49] When mealtime came, he wouldn’t even have to walk to the diner. This car has its own dining room, kitchen, and staff of two, including a chef. The chef and steward slept in humble accommodations off the kitchen. But guests of the Schwab family slept in these beautiful, full down berths with wood inlay. 

Roman Mars [00:15:05] Oh, that is nice. That is, like, all mahogany inside. That’s really beautiful. It looks like a library. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:15:11] Right, so you wouldn’t even necessarily know it was a train car at a glance because it has all these posh finishes and this wonderful gas lighting system, which, by the way, was upgraded a few years later in a pretty sophisticated way. 

Tyler Trahan [00:15:24] The car was built with gas lamps and modernized in 1912 with new electric lighting powered by batteries under the floor. Generators connected to the axles recharge the batteries as the car rolled down the rails. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:15:35] And the thing that I actually like the most about this particular design is actually less flashy and not immediately visible. It’s this chair that’s set up against one wall, and it looks normal enough at a glance–but if you lift the seat, there’s a toilet underneath, and if you pull down the seatback, you discover a fold down sink. 

Roman Mars [00:15:52] I mean, that is super cool. It seems like a kind of public place to have your toilet sink. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:15:58] Yeah. Yeah. Hopefully you’ve got the whole car to yourself. 

Roman Mars [00:16:01] Exactly. But I’m still having a hard time picturing it. How did you get your fancy, private train car–which I assume is stored in some kind of train yard somewhere–onto the back of the train that you’re sort of hitching a ride with? Like, how does that work? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:16:19] And so that’s where Amtrak comes in, right? For a fee, they will do all kinds of things for you. They will store your private train car. They will hook it up to an existing train that’s running along one of their routes. And what I found really remarkable is that this is a thing that’s still ongoing. I mean, it sounds like a historical, anachronistic thing, but it’s something you can still do today. Like, Roman, if you want to go out today and buy a train car, you can do that and then pay Amtrak to store it and to tow you around the country. 

Roman Mars [00:16:49] I kind of want to. I feel like this is a missed opportunity. I would feel like a, you know, Gilded Age baron if I did this. And that would feel pretty awesome. So, tell me a little bit about the price. Now, I’m really curious–what does this cost? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:17:05] Well, I saw one breakdown that it could cost over $10,000 for a 3,000-mile trip. And that’s on top of the tens of thousands you’d pay for the car itself or the thousands you’d spend to rent one. So, a private car probably isn’t in the cards for me anytime soon. But it’s fun to fantasize about. 

Roman Mars [00:17:23] Yeah, exactly. Well, this is so cool. I have a new thing to covet–having my own train car and traveling across the country, being pulled by Amtrak. That is awesome. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:17:32] I do hope you’ll swing by Minneapolis and pick me up on your way. 

Conductor [00:17:38] Attention, passengers. For those wishing to disembark at the upcoming station, please check and make sure you boarded the right car to begin with. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:17:48] We take it for granted that trains have to start and stop at stations, right? 

Roman Mars [00:17:54] Well, unless you’re the Snowpiercer train, yeah. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:17:56] Well, yeah. And then you just go on forever until everybody dies. But the Brits were way ahead of the game on this one, questioning whether trains did have to stop at stations. 

Roman Mars [00:18:06] Okay. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:18:06] Yeah. So back in the mid 1800s, on some routes, they began using what are called “slip coaches,” which are cars that could be detached at speed and then coast to a stop at a given station. 

Roman Mars [00:18:17] Okay. So, you’re going to have to walk me through this because I cannot picture it. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:18:21] Yeah, it’s kind of tricky. And basically, each slip coach car has this designated engineer. And that person would unhook the last car in the chain when they approach a target stop. And then they’d slowly bring it in for a landing and hit the brakes. Meanwhile, the rest of the train just keeps going. 

Slip Coach Documentary [00:18:38] The guard had two controls–the slip lever and the brake. To prepare for the slipping to take place, the guard first had to remove the safety pin. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:18:46] And like any good railway changing of the guard moment, it drew a crowd. 

Slip Coach Documentary [00:18:50] At Bicester, preparations were being made to receive the slip coach. Using his brake, the guard brought the coach to a smooth stand adjacent to the castle. 

Roman Mars [00:18:59] I mean, even with an engineer on hand to, you know, kind of, like, control the slip car, it seems incredibly delicate to detach from a speeding train. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:19:12] Yeah. I mean, there are literally a lot of moving parts to this whole thing, right? And so, as you can imagine, there were incidents. Some of these were pretty mild, like a coach getting slipped by accident in the middle of nowhere and then people getting stuck in the middle of nowhere. But in some cases, slipped cars would actually ram into the back of the train that dropped them off. So, for instance, if a car was dropped off, but the rest of the train had to make an emergency stop, the car would just crash into the train itself. 

Roman Mars [00:19:39] So is that why they stop using them–like, accidents and things going wrong? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:19:43] Yeah, in part. But there were other factors too. For one thing, trains were getting faster, making the process more dangerous. And slipping coaches was labor intensive. Not only did each slipped car need its own engineer, but they also had to have people reattaching the cars when they were getting picked back up. Slipping only worked in one direction. Plus, for the system to work, passengers had to be locked in their individual compartments. And if they got in the wrong car, well, they had a long time to think hard about their mistake while stuck in that car waiting to be slipped at the wrong station. And you’ll never guess what show spent an entire episode teaching kids that very lesson. 

Roman Mars [00:20:24] I’m guessing it’s Thomas the Tank Engine. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:20:27] Right. Of course, it is. 

Sir Topham Hatt [00:20:29] Pay attention! Make sure you get into the right coach–the one that’s stopping at your station. 

James [00:20:36] “All aboard! I’ll get you there on time with my brand-new slip coaches!”

Thomas the Tank Engine Narrator [00:20:45] James was very pleased with himself. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:20:47] But of course, something goes slightly wrong, and things escalate. 

James [00:20:52] Prepare to uncouple the rear coach. 

Duck [00:20:56] Don’t slow down too much in the station, James, or the last coach will bump into the back of you. 

Thomas the Tank Engine Narrator [00:21:01] But James liked everyone to see his shiny red paint, so he slowed down. The last coach couldn’t stop and bumped into the last of the slip coaches. Suddenly Sir Topham Hatt understood; James had only pretended to know about slip coaches. 

Roman Mars [00:21:23] Uh oh, James. You better watch out. It might be life imprisonment for you. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:21:28] Oh, yeah, on this show, no mistake goes unpunished. 

Duck [00:21:31] It just goes to show there really are only two ways of doing things–the wrong way or… 

Trains [00:21:37] The Great Western way!

Roman Mars [00:21:50] After the break, Kurt takes us on a tour of his new favorite museum. Guess which kind of museum it is? As a business-to-business marketer, your needs are unique. B2B buying cycles are long, and your customers face incredibly complex decisions. Isn’t it time you had a marketing platform built specifically for you? LinkedIn Ads empowers marketers with solutions for you and your customers. LinkedIn Ads allows you to build the right relationships, drive results, and reach your customers in a respectful environment. You have direct access to and build relationships with decision makers. 900 million members, 180 million senior level executives, and 10 million C-level executives. You’ll be able to drive results with targeting and measurement tools built specifically for B2B. Audiences exposed to brand messages on LinkedIn are six times more likely to convert. Audiences on LinkedIn have two times the buying power of the average web audience. Make B2B marketing everything it can be and get $100 credit on your next campaign. Go to to claim your credit. That’s Terms and conditions apply. Advance is proud to offer free curbside services at most locations for most vehicles to help drivers like you get back on the road. Head to your local Advance Auto Parts to get your existing battery tested for free. And if you need to buy a new battery, they can recommend and install one that’s right for you, including the powerful, durable, and reliable DieHard battery. Plus, Advance team members will test your starter and alternator to make sure your car starts and charges for even the longest road trips. They’ll also install your new wiper blades for free, loan out tools for your DIY projects, perform Check Engine light scanning, and more. Go to, download the Advance mobile app, or visit a store for more details. Whether you’re on a cross-country drive or on your daily commute, time in the car is perfect for listening to podcasts. T-Mobile’s network can help keep you connected to all your favorite podcasts when you’re out and about. T-Mobile covers more highway miles with 5G than anyone, so if you need great coverage, especially when you’re on the go, check out T-Mobile. They’re the largest and fastest 5G network. Find out more at That’s seewhy. Fastest based on median overall combined 5G speeds according to analysis by Ookla of Speedtest intelligence. Data download speeds for Q4 2022. See 5G device coverage and access details at With thousands of new podcasts being started every day, it seems, it’s more important than ever to make sure you stand out from the crowd. And that goes for any business, really, whether you’re selling custom dollhouses, marketing your graphic design company, or even producing a podcast. Squarespace helps you create an all-in-one platform to grow your business online through an engaging and aesthetically pleasing website where you can sell anything. Squarespace lets you use customizable galleries to display images in unique ways, like your model home blueprints. With member areas, you can unlock a new revenue stream for your business and free up time in your schedule by selling access to gated content, like videos, online courses on the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. Or newsletters. Squarespace email campaigns allow you to collect email subscribers and convert them into loyal customers. You can also display posts from your social profiles on your website. Head to for a free trial. And when you’re ready to launch, use the offer code “invisible” to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. 

Conductor [00:25:44] Our next stop is the decommissioned subway platform in downtown Brooklyn, New York. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:25:50] So I recently took a trip to New York City and met some of my 99PI colleagues who live there for dinner. And they told me about this transit museum, which I absolutely had to see. 

Kurt Kohlstedt (field tape) [00:26:02] So this is Kurt Kohlstedt of 99% Invisible. And I am in the New York Transit Museum. And it tells the history of the subway construction, subway cars, subway turnstiles. But possibly the most remarkable thing about it is that you basically enter through what looks like the entrance to a subway station. In fact, I have to imagine that sometimes people walk down those steps thinking they’re going to get the F train, only to find that there’s a museum that looks like a whole subway station. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:26:34] And that’s because it was actually a subway station. It was built in the 1930s and then converted into this museum in the ’70s. There are tracks and there are trains from all eras of the MTA. It’s really quite something. And you can walk through them–see the vintage advertisements. And those are real ads on real trains on real working subway tracks. And every winter they do what’s called the Holiday Nostalgia Train, where they Frankenstein together a train from a hodgepodge of different cars, from different eras, which you can ride on like a normal, everyday subway. The place is awesome. So, if you’re a train nerd like me, the next time you’re in Brooklyn, be sure to check out the New York Transit Museum. It’s well worth a stop. 

Conductor [00:27:22] Our final stop today will be in Durham, North Carolina. 

Roman Mars [00:27:30] Nicknamed the Can Opener Bridge, there is a rail overpass in Durham, North Carolina, that has become famous for scraping the tops off of trucks that dare pass beneath its tracks. The Norfolk Southern-Gregson Street Overpass was designed to allow safe passage for vehicles up to around 12 feet tall, which probably seemed like more than enough overhead when it was constructed in 1940. Over the years, though, trucks got taller, and more and more trucks hit the bridge. Despite the implementation of a series of bright signs, flashing lights, and other warnings that the driver’s too tall vehicle is about to be loudly decapitated, these collisions just kept happening. A local resident named Jürgen Henn was working in a nearby building when he began to notice the high frequency of incidents involving the bridge. 

Jürgen Henn [00:28:17] It’s pretty crazy sometimes. I sit there at my desk working peacefully, and all of a sudden there’s this massive crash out there. And I almost fall out of my chair. 

Roman Mars [00:28:26] In 2008, he installed a video camera to document the collisions. Since then, he has captured and posted over 100 videos. These short films capture a delightful spectrum of mayhem, at least for those inclined towards infrastructural schadenfreude. Especially tall trucks are stopped entirely by the bridge and bounce back like a person hitting their head on a kitchen cabinet. Shorter vehicles slide under with just a painful screeching sound. And in some cases where the vehicle’s height is just right–or rather just wrong–the entire tops of the vehicles are peeled back like a sardine can. Hence the name the “Can Opener Bridge.” After watching dozens and dozens of these incidents, one starts to wonder how such an obvious problem can go unfixed for so long. The railroad, the city, and the state have all taken actions to reduce incidents involving the bridge over the years–but with limited success. The railroad installed a crash beam to keep trucks from hitting the bridge itself. This protected the infrastructure and any freight and passengers that might be traveling overhead. But it didn’t do a lot for the trucks down below. Understandably, the rail company’s concern is not with the trucks on the road, but the trains on the rails. For its part, the city of Durham installed a supplemental array of warning mechanisms, introducing three low clearance signs posted at each of three intersections in advance of the bridge. A pair of smaller roadside signs with a stated height limit of 11′ 8″ were also put up, which shaved a few inches off the actual limit to introduce, you know, another safety buffer. At one point, the state of North Carolina also installed an OVERHEIGHT WHILE FLASHING sign with blinking orange lights directly in front of the bridge. Trucks, however, continued to crash into the beam, so the sign was removed in 2016 and replaced with a higher tech OVERHEIGHT MUST TURN variant coupled with an LED display, all linked with sensors to detect approaching oversized vehicles. The system was integrated with a new traffic light so that when the sensors were tripped, the stoplight would turn red. The idea was to give the truck drivers more time to notice the warning sign before plowing ahead. Despite this more sophisticated intervention, however, the bridge continued to claim and maim trucks. Since no amount of warnings seemed sufficient, other solutions were considered over the years, like raising the bridge, lowering the street, or redirecting truck traffic entirely. The railroad long argued that raising the bridge would require significant regrading on both sides, potentially costing millions of dollars. Lowering the street was also deemed impractical because a sewer main runs directly below it. Installing a low clearance bar in advance of the bridge or otherwise redirecting overheight traffic away from the area entirely would be challenging, too. Delivery trucks need to be able to drive right up to the bridge, then turn in order to access a set of restaurants nearby. Rerouting them just isn’t feasible. Finally, after years of delays and buck passing, in October of 2019, a work crew converged on the site to do the improbable and raise the bridge. What was once the 11-foot-8 bridge is now more or less a 12-foot-4 bridge, according to the new road-flanking height limit signs. Though according to Jürgen Henn’s measurements, the actual clearance is around 12 feet 8 inches. For the not so low cost of half a million dollars, the North Carolina Railroad Company jacked up their tracks as much as they could without impacting nearby crossings on either side of the Can Opener. Of course, this height still won’t accommodate every truck. The state allows vehicles up to 13′ 6″. Sure enough, a metal chunk was clipped off the top of a truck in a video posted by Henn just a few weeks after this “fix” was enabled. For decades, the Can Opener Bridge has represented a perfect storm of financial limitations, physical challenges, and political bureaucracy, all conspiring against a complete and permanent design solution. Even now that the bridge has been raised, it may still prove to be a flawed piece of infrastructure and a persistent nuisance. All cities have things like this–ill-fitting byproducts of conflicting priorities that trip up citizens or scrape their vehicles. But few are as large, troublesome, or as widely shared on the internet as the Can Opener Bridge. The story about the Can Opener Bridge first appeared in our book The 99% Invisible City by Kurt Kohlstedt and me, Roman Mars. You can get it in all kinds of languages all around the world. So, talk to your local bookseller and get yourself a copy. 99% Invisible was produced this week by Kurt Kohlstedt, with Jeyca Maldonado Medina and Martin Gonzalez. Edited by Kelly Prime. Original music by Swan Real. Mix and sound design by Martín Gonzalez. Chris Berube played our affable conductor. Delaney Hall is our Senior Editor, the rest of the team includes Jayson De Leon, Emmett FitzGerald, Christopher Johnson, Vivian Le, Lasha Madan, Joe Rosenberg, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered just one BART train stop north, in the Pandora Building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram, Reddit, and TikTok, too. There’s a new TikTok with Chris Berube you definitely should check out. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99PI at

Conductor [00:34:28] Thank you for riding with 99% Invisible, Stitcher, and Sirius XM. All passengers must disembark, as this train is about to be permanently locked away for a minor rules infraction. 

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