City Quotient: Columbus and U-Turns

Jeff Darbee
The Columbus skyline

A quick online review of laws and discussion chains showed that in all five states (and most likely the other 45), U-turns are allowed statewide but with restrictions having to do with proper signaling; visibility of and distance between the U-turner and other vehicles; school zones, railroad crossings and intersections; narrow streets and roads; and crests of hills and other places with limited visibility. In addition, the states generally allow municipalities to impose further restrictions. As you’ve noted, Columbus has a blanket prohibition—no U-turns anywhere in the city unless it’s marked as OK.

Why so restrictive? It’s a safety issue, says the Columbus Division of Police, because narrow streets, blocked sightlines, lots of pedestrians and greater traffic density make city U-turns more risky than in open country. In some locations, there are “No U Turn” signs, but not always, so don’t do it even if you think it’s safe. We decided to check, too, with cities in the other states you mentioned but could only get information from Houston. We were told the city “doesn’t enforce” against U-turns (unless there is a prohibition sign), which sounds like maybe you’re not supposed to but the city has bigger fish to fry. But back here in Cbus, if you’re planning a relaxing afternoon of U-turns, it’s wise to just keep on keeping on.

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Sometimes when I’m stopped at a railroad crossing, I wonder what all those letters and numbers on the sides of the train cars mean.

At the start of 2020, there were just over 1,658,000 railroad freight cars in the USA, operated on 140,000 miles of track by around 550 railroad companies of all sizes. Knowing where those cars are and various kinds of information about them is really important. Most significant are the “reporting marks”—one to four letters identifying the owner, and a number, up to six digits, below the letters. A given number might be used by another owner, but the letter and number combination on each car is unique and is used for planning movements, billing customers and tracking car location.

Most letters stand for the owning railroad—CSXT for CSX Transportation, NS for Norfolk Southern, BNSF for Burlington Northern Santa Fe. Letter groups ending in X indicate a nonrailroad owner such as GATX—a car-leasing company once called General American Transportation Corp. Other information includes interior and exterior dimensions and volume in cubic feet (to help customers plan loads); construction and rebuilding dates of the car; COTS (date the car’s parts were cleaned, oiled, tested and stenciled).

Then there are “CAPY,” “LD.LMT.” and “LT.WT.” These stand for capacity, load limit and light weight; they are shown in pounds. Other marks indicate limitations of what can be loaded in a car (for example, to avoid contamination of cargo), and there is a whole series of official placards for cars carrying dangerous materials so emergency crews have information in case of an accident.

Sources:; state websites and discussion chains; city of Columbus Department of Public Safety and Division of Police; Houston Police Department;; Association of American Railroads website;;; Trains magazine website


Jeff Darbee is a preservationist, historian and author in Columbus. Send your questions, and the answer might appear in a future column.

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