Every railroad man is full of stories, and loves to tell them. I'm no exception, so this page is reserved for my stories.
SOLUTION TO THE PUZZLE FROM ISSUE 54
A and B cross the bridge together (2 minutes)
A returns with the flashlight (3 minutes)
C and D cross the bridge together (13 minutes)
B returns with the flashlight (15 minutes)
A and B cross the bridge together again (17 minutes)
THE GREAT LOCOMOTIVE FIRE
For several years, I held Q420 as a regular assignment. Formerly known on Conrail as SEBO, the Q420 was a Selkirk to Beacon Park (Boston) freight train. It was usually a heavy train of 8,000 tons or more; most of the train would be dropped at Framingham, and a handful of cars would continue on to Beacon Park. Today, the Q420, as well as “Beacon Pahk Yahd” are long gone.
On March 19, 2003, I was pulling up the hill east of Palmer and got a hit on the high car detector at West Warren. The detector informed me that the clearance defect was near axle 16, which would be the third locomotive in my consist. I looked back and saw a thick column of smoke coming from the third unit. I assumed that the smoke was coming from the stack; a common problem with older General Electric units.
My conductor looked back and told me that the engine was on fire. He was a relatively new employee, and I explained to him about the thick exhaust. “No, it’s on fire, come see!” he replied. I went over to his side, and sure enough, the side of the engine was engulfed in flames. I contacted the dispatcher, who instructed me to stop where the fire department could get to us.
The fire department arrived promptly and extinguished the blaze. After the fire was knocked down, we discovered that the locomotive fuel pump was still working and squirting a stream of fuel oil out the side of the locomotive. I pressed the emergency fuel cut off button to stop the pump, but the fire had damaged it and nothing happened. It was necessary for someone to enter the smoke-filled cab and open the circuit breaker.
While the firefighters had air packs, they explained that they wouldn’t know what to do, so it was up to me. I climbed onto the nose, took a deep breath, entered the cab, knocked down the entire panel of breakers and exited as quickly as possible. We informed the dispatcher that the fire was out and we were now ready to continue.
We had been stopped there about three hours, and the dispatcher was concerned about whether we could make the hill at Charlton with only three engines. I told him that we should make it, but getting to Boston with the time we had left was out of the question. We dragged over the hill and were relieved in Worcester.
While all of this was happening, the Q168, a hot intermodal train was stuck behind me. The engineer was the senior man on the division and a rather dour soul. Because the dispatcher was afraid to stop me in Charlton to get him around me, he had to follow me all the way into Worcester. He was never happy about getting stuck behind a heavy freight (usually me), and after this, he called me “the turtle” until the day he retired.
As for the rest of the story, a photo of the burned engine parked at Worcester was posted on the “CSX sucks” website the very next day. The photos below were taken by a bystander I was talking to at the scene. When he found out I was the engineer, he graciously offered to send me copies of the pictures. As for the locomotive, it was repaired and put back in service; I spotted it that August, none the worse for wear.
KNOCKING DOWN A BRIDGE
On September 22, 1987, I was called out of the hotel for TV-401 at 9:00PM; a northbound stack train with three engines and thirty-one cars. At 12:55 AM, as we were operating through a thirty MPH temporary speed restriction in Nyack, we felt a lurch and the train went into emergency. It felt as though we’d gotten a knuckle and I looked at my engineer in disbelief. There is little slack in a stack train, and I’m sure the engineer was as puzzled as I was.
As I was preparing to inspect the train, my engineer reset the air brake, and the air began to restore on the rear of the train. Well, that ruled out a knuckle, and my engineer discussed whether we should just continue our trip. (This was known as “long-pool rules back in the day). I had a weird feeling about it, so while my engineer notified the dispatcher, I began the mile-and-a-half walk to the rear of the train.
I’d gotten about two cars back when the dispatcher called to tell us that the local police had called him to report a derailment. I told him I didn’t think I was a derailment as the air brake had restored. However, this didn’t reassure him, and every couple of car lengths he would call and ask: ”Did you find anything yet?”
It was a dark and foggy night and visibility was poor. About twenty-five cars back I smelled the scent of burning rubber and my foot hit a large timber that was lying on the ground. It took a moment, but I finally looked up and discovered that the timbers were from a small bridge that we had knocked down. When I notified the dispatcher, the pandemonium began.
The police arrived in short order and blocked off the road, while I inspected the rest of the train. Happily, it was all on the rails. Apparently local residents had heard the noise and called the police, who notified the railroad, and somewhere along the line, somebody just assumed it was a derailment. The top division officers “J1” and “J2” came all the way from Philadelphia that night. And a host of car inspectors and trackmen were on the scene as well.
When I finally got back to the engine, I noticed several water bottles on the ground underneath the engineer’s window. Apparently, like me, he was concerned about taking a urine test, but we were never given one. Everything was “good to go” at 5:55 AM, and we took the train to the siding at Haverstraw. We waited three hours for our relief while the car department went over the train with a fine-tooth comb. We were finally off duty at 12:05 PM.
After an incident like this, there is a period of anxiety while you wait for a certified letter informing you of the formal investigation.
However, if there was an investigation, the train crew wasn’t invited. To this day, I still don’t know exactly what happened. One possibility is that an overweight vehicle crossed the bridge while we were going under it, as the bridge rubbed across the top of several containers before collapsing. Another possibility is that the track department may have raised the track. They had been working on it the day before, which was the reason for the thirty MPH speed restriction. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened at the normal fifty MPH speed!
It took a while, but the bridge was finally repaired with a metal span in the middle.
I WAS ONLY FOLLOWING ORDERS!
On August 16th, 1991 I was called out of the hotel for OISE-7X out of Oak Island at 6:00 PM. I examined the paperwork and noticed that we had a car with a height of 17’ 11”. There were two routes get to the River Line from Oak Island and each route had a tunnel. The first route was through the Weehawken tunnel which had a height of 17’9”, while the other route was through the Croxton tunnel which had a height of 19’.
I called the dispatcher to let him know that were had to go via Croxton as we had a car that was two inches too high for the Weehawken tunnel. He was not pleased to hear this as we had cars to pick up in North Bergen, and going through the Weehawken tunnel allowed us to make the pick up without tying up the main line. We had an animated discussion about this as the dispatcher was determined to send us through Weehawken. He finally ended the conversation by telling me that my paperwork was wrong and we were going through Weehawken!
As we exited the Weehawken tunnel and entered North Bergen yard the dispatcher called us on the radio and instructed me to “call him on the phone”. When we got to the north end of the yard, I went into the yard office to use the phone. He told me that he was sending a car inspector to examine the car, and to call him back to let him know what we found.
What we found was a bi-level auto rack loaded with small two-axle military trucks and trailers. The car inspector, brakeman and I climbed to the upper level to check the damage. The hoops used to support the canvas in over the bed were damaged; the wooden ones had splintered and the metal ones had been bent. I don’t know if the trucks originally had the canvas tops, but there was none aboard the car. We took the hoops off of the trucks and threw them over the side. In addition one of the trucks had a large wooden crate which had had a hole ripped in the top. The car inspector looked in the crate to see what was inside. If it had contained weapons or munitions he would have had to report it, but it was full of MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat).
I went back in the yard office to inform the dispatcher of the situation. I would imagine he was waiting rather anxiously for my call. He was relieved when I told him the trucks were secure and the evidence had been removed (Except for the crate, of course), The dispatcher instructed us to carry on, so we made our pick up and departed for Selkirk. Naturally, because of the delay, we outlawed in Coxsackie, and were on-duty for fourteen hours and twenty minutes.
I was fairly confident I wouldn’t get in trouble as I was only following the dispatcher’s orders, but I spent the next few weeks wondering if the mail carrier was going to bring me a certified letter inviting me to an investigation.
CHRISTMAS ON THE RAILROAD
For most professions, being home for the holidays is a given. However, for those who work 24/7/365, working major holidays goes with the job. I hired out with Conrail as a trackman in Dewitt (Syracuse) on September 4th, 1976. At the time I was still living with my parents. Trackmen normally got Christmas off as a paid holiday, however, shortly after I’d opened presents with my family, the phone rang. A track supervisor told me that they’d had a derailment in the yard, and wondered if I’d be willing to come in and help get things going again. As I was expecting the seasonal lay-off any day, I figured it would be a good idea to come in.
I reported to the supervisor in the Minoa shanty at the east end of Dewitt Yard. He informed me and the other men who came in that we would get to work as soon as the crane operator came in. As railroad men always did in idle moments back then, we sat down to play cards. I don’t remember having won anything, so I assume I lost, as usual. A few hours later, the supervisor came back in and told us to go home, as none of the crane operators were willing to come in on Christmas. I got back home in time for dinner; the eight hours of time-and-a-half on top of the paid holiday made for a nice Christmas bonus!
I was furloughed for the winter just after New Years, three days short of qualifying for vacation in 1977. A few weeks later, the great blizzard paralyzed Buffalo, and I went there to fight snow for two weeks. While riding with a local job to clear snow the conductor advised me to see a certain person in the labor relations board to transfer to train and engine service after I was furloughed again. I took his advice and became a brakeman on February, 14th 1977. However, work in Buffalo was tight due to consolidation of the terminal, so I moved to Selkirk in September of 1977.
In December of 1977, I was on the Mohawk Brakeman’s extra list, which covered road trains moving between Selkirk and Dewitt, as well as various local switchers. I tied up from a job on Christmas Eve morning and asked the caller if I could mark off for Christmas. Because I was such a new man, he refused; and I jokingly asked if I could get a tramp to Dewitt, then. Road trains are crewed by regular jobs and a number of pool crews who stay in a motel at the opposite end of the road and work back. When there are no pool crews available, a “tramp crew” is called; which is entitled to deadhead home instead of taking lodging.
As my family lived in the Syracuse area, a tramp crew offered an opportunity for a visit. I would pick up my Amtrak ticket, call my parents for a ride, and take the train home the next day. The system for tracking crews in those days was rather simple; consisting of punch cars in a rack. If you took a while to mark back up, nobody noticed, or at least they never said anything to me. Anyhow, I was indeed called for a tramp to Dewitt that Christmas Eve. I assume it was just a coincidence, but perhaps the day caller passed my wish to the second trick.
In December of 1978, I was working the Selkirk Yard brakeman’s list, and was called for an East End Puller at 11:59PM on Christmas Eve. The job of a puller is build freight trains by hooking the tracks in the classification yard and swinging the blocks of cars into the departure yard. There were four pullers per shift, each reporting at a different time. I had loaded the presents for my family in the car and was going to head for my parents as soon as my shift was done.
A snowstorm was predicted for that night, and the Albany area received about a foot of snow. The snow came down heavily and it was one of the few times in my life I’ve experienced “Thundersnow”. Needless to say, work slowed to a crawl, and the yardmaster sent us home around 4:30 after the most important trains had been built. I stated for my parents home, following a snowplow all the way up the New York State Thruway. Only one lane of State Route 13 had been plowed, but I finally made it to my parent’s house around 9:00AM. Needless to say, my parents were surprised to see me!
Prior to 1983, Amtrak and Metro-North trains were crewed with Conrail personnel, and maintained separate extra lists for passenger trains. Of course when those lists were exhausted, crew callers would look for men off the freight boards. While I would turn down regular passenger jobs, I did enjoy working the Rensselaer depot switcher or baggage man on the Lake Shore Limited.
One Christmas Eve, (I forget the year) I was called by a crew caller desperate for a brakeman for an Amtrak to New York. I tried to beg off, telling him I didn’t have uniform, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Since I knew a deadhead home would be involved, I finally relented. I put on a nice shirt and tie and reported to work. The conductor gave me a door key (which I still have) and sent me to the rear car to watch the dragging equipment and hotbox detectors. He added he would call me when he needed help opening doors at stations.
I didn’t deadhead home from New York, however. I was asked to “turn” and work back to Albany Rensselaer. The trains were crowded, but it was an interesting experience. When was called to open an extra door, one passenger tipped me $5. I was approached by another passenger who was rather inebriated; I couldn’t understand much of what he was saying but I definitely heard “Rhinecliff”. I told him it was the first stop after Poughkeepsie, and he left. I met him again as we were approaching Hudson; apparently, he had slept through his stop. I took him to the conductor, and he got off in Hudson. As we approached Albany-Rensselaer, I was asked if I would work through to Syracuse. Since I was going to head for my parents as soon as I got off duty, I agreed. Upon arrival in Syracuse, I got my deadhead ticket and called my parents, returning home on the 26th. The three timeslips made for a nice Christmas bonus.
The early eighties were lean years, due to a recession and the elimination of the second brakeman. I spent several years furloughed; but worked sporadically in other terminals and taking calls whenever the railroad ran short of men. On December 22, 1985 I was called to work a freight train to Buffalo. The “long pool” to Buffalo was established recently, and this would be my first trip. Being furloughed, I couldn’t refuse; road crews are paid by the mile, and the 300-mile trip to Buffalo paid twice as much as going to Dewitt. Besides, I should be home by Christmas.
The trip west was uneventful, and I was off duty in Buffalo the morning of the 23rd. I was taken to the motel, where I took rest. By evening I was waiting for a call to return, but was still in the motel on the morning of the 24th. As the day went by, I grew more apprehensive, finally getting called for PXSE in the early evening. PXSE was a hot perishable train, so I assumed I’d be home by Christmas morning.
When I reported for duty, I was relieved when the conductor informed me that PXSE had only 35 cars; unfortunately Frontier Yard had a rather large pickup for us. It was a the night was cold and there was about 10 inches of snow on the ground. When we tied onto the pickup we were unable to get our air. After a couple hours, the yardmaster instructed us to cut some cars off of the pickup. When this didn’t help we cut off some more, and then some more. By the time we were finally ready to go, we were nearly eight hours on duty. This was not nearly enough time to make it to Selkirk, but the dispatcher sent us east, anyway.
Our trip ended Christmas morning on a siding at Savannah, New York. Being Christmas morning, the dispatcher was unable find a van to pick us up. We sat on the train until about noon, and I didn’t get home until six that evening. As far as I can recall, this was the only time I ever missed Christmas day, though technically, I worked the 24th. As a result of this trip, I was never a fan about going to Buffalo, despite the higher pay rate. Of course, with my seniority, that wasn’t much of a problem!
The furloughs ended in 1987, when I became qualified as a conductor and by 1993 I had been promoted to engineer. When I began writing “Tales from the River” in 1994, and I always tried to have a new issue around Christmas. There was more Christmas spirit in those days; Conrail would actually endeavor to get crews home for the holidays, and it wasn’t unusual to see a yard office or tower decorated with Christmas lights. Though Conrail never gave out Christmas bonuses, I do remember one year the served a ham dinner in the wreck train diner, and others when they handed out $25 gift cards for Thanksgiving.
For a few years a Christmas tree would be set up in the crew room by one of the clerks, which would contain cards listing gifts for underprivileged families. Employees could take a card and buy the gift, dropping it off at the region building. One year somebody beat the clerk to decorating the tree; tractor feed printer paper edges served as garland and bad order tags and other railroad paraphernalia were ornaments.
Locomotives are equipped with a standard household plug to access the 72 volt DC auxiliary power, and in 1995, I got the idea to decorate my engines with Christmas lights. I brought a fifty-light string, a twenty-foot extension cord and a roll of making tape. However, the lights were rather dim, so I cut the string down to thirty-five lights. Not only were the lights brighter, but as you can see from the photo below, the string fit perfectly across the nose of a wide body locomotive. I did this for a number of years, and my co-workers enjoyed it.
When the new company took over in 1999, things gradually got worse. Christmas eventually became just another day, and no effort was made to get crews home for the holidays. Though supervision had never given me a hard time about my lights, I gradually began the get the feeling that they would eventually get me in trouble. I joked to my co-workers that I they were afraid they would be given the nickname of “Ebeneezer Scrooge” if they bothered me about it. Finally, a fellow engineer on a passing train blurted “Unauthorized Electronic Equipment” over the radio and that was the end of my Christmas lights. I heard a few years later that another engineer had been written up for hanging a wreath on the nose of his engine.
This photo was taken by my conductor on SEBO-0 on December 30th, 1998. The car inspector is handing up our air slip and we'll be on the move in minutes!