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OPINION: Trains and boats and planes (and how to identify them)

George Mathewson Last year a reader directed me to a really cool website that allows you to track passing aircraft in real time.

George Mathewson

Last year a reader directed me to a really cool website that allows you to track passing aircraft in real time.

If you’ve ever looked up to watch a jet cutting across a clear blue sky and wondered where it’s going, check out

The site features a map pinned with a constantly shifting array of plane icons. Click on any one and it immediately identifies the aircraft, the airline and its flight plan. It even gives you the plane’s altitude and speed, and if you have a Google Earth plug-in, a 3D view of things.

The skies over Sarnia are often crisscrossed with wispy contrails and at you soon realize why. We’re surrounded by airports in Chicago, Toronto and Detroit, not to mention Hamilton, Buffalo, Cincinnati and even New York.

The hulking freighters that rumble past us on the St. Clair River have long been a magnet for photographers, hobbyists and “sidewalk supervisors.” If there’s a more evocative local sound than the mournful call of ship horns on a fog-bound night, I haven’t heard it yet.

So it seems fitting somehow that our neighbours in Port Huron created the go-to place for online Great Lakes and Seaway shipping news. features daily updates on all the shipping news, as well as port reports, historical features, water levels and even contests.

Best of all, a “vessel passage” section and map lets you see what’s coming and going on the river.

As I write this, for example, a quick check shows a downbound tugboat destined for Toledo is pulling a barge into the river filled with taconite, a low-grade iron ore.

Heading the other way is the Canadian bulk carrier Peter R. Creswell, which is preparing to dock at Sarnia to refuel.

When it comes to public tracking there are few things more accessible, strangely, than objects in space.

Numerous websites including NASA’s, and allow you to identify and follow what’s revolving in orbit above the earth. Thousands of satellites and spent rocket bodies are whizzing around up there, and you can watch the International Space Station on a live video feed as it soars overhead.

At the other end of the scale, however, are the railways, the laggards of the transport brotherhood.

Amtrak has a limited “track a train” tool, but it covers only U.S. lines. And though CN and CP launched an AskRail app last week that gives real-time information about rail cars, it’s available only to emergency responders.

As a result, it’s easier to trace the launch date and country of origin of space junk than it is to identify a single railcar parked at Sarnia’s train station.

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