Cowcatcher Evolution

The ultimate cowcatcher

When I was a kid, the railroad that linked my hometown – Asbury Park, New Jersey – with New York City, about 90 minutes up the line to the north, ran on steam. That’s right, for years – until diesels took over – the trains were pulled by steam engines. I’d often ride with my mom on those trains, going up to New York on a Friday for a weekend visit with my grandparents. (My dad would drive up on Saturday and join us.)

The experience was unlike anything you’d normally have today, except for special weekend excursion trains that provide a smoky whiff of years gone by. Soot was also part of the experience, and in summertime, when the windows were open, I would occasionally get a tiny cinder in my eye.

Like many boys, I was fascinated by the hulking, chuffing black locomotives. Beyond the massive driving wheels, the prodigious pistons and rods, and the blasts of vented steam, one of the things about those engines that caught my imagination was the cowcatcher – the sturdy steel rig at the front that – as its name implied – was designed to catch any cows that might stray onto the tracks and push them out of the way. Not that I ever heard of any cows being abruptly shoved aside … but there the cowcatcher was. Just in case.

It’s been quite a few years since I’ve thought about cowcatchers. Until yesterday.

That was the day the train came to town. Let me explain. I now live and work three time zones west of Asbury Park – in Santa Rosa, California, about 60 miles north of San Francisco. For some years, local governments and business organizations here have been working to re-establish passenger service on an old line – the Northwestern Pacific Railroad – that links Santa Rosa and points north with San Rafael, a stone’s throw from the Larkspur Ferry that crosses San Francisco Bay.

These efforts are expected to be rewarded very shortly – no one is saying precisely when – with the debut of SMART train (Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit) service, which will be a boon to commuters.

No one will confuse the green, self-propelled two-car SMART trains with any of the legends of America’s railroad history – the California Zephyr, Super Chief, 20th Century Limited, Wabash Cannon Ball. But a lot of people will be happy to see SMART start rolling. So yesterday, anticipating the inauguration of service, SMART brought one of its trains to the future station at Windsor, just a couple of miles from my home, to show it off. I went with my wife to check it out.


SMART is not exactly another Zephyr, but it’s a pretty nifty-looking train. After admiring the clean, comfortable interior and talking with one of the engineers, we went down to the tracks to take a closer look. As we reached the front, I was not expecting to find a cowcatcher. Not on a sleek, 21st-century Bay Area commuter train.

But no. There it was. Not exactly a sturdy cowcatcher of yore, however, but a flimsy thin strip of metal that looked like a piece of salvaged scrap. An afterthought.

That’s IT! That narrow, black, barely wedge-shaped strip just above the tracks!

A gnat-catcher, Sandra called it. So look out, all you gnats! The SMART train’s coming down the track, and it’s gonna push you right out of the way!

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