Just Another Day Working on the Railroad…

I may not be a smart dog, but I know what roadkill is.



So you think your job is tough.

Every now and again, one observes a situation that reminds us that the word work used to mean doing something physical.  Over the first weekend of May 2017, we got to watch from on high as one such situation played out.

By way of background: I decided to “invite” the family out for a little near-wilderness camping in the BLM lands west of Grand Junction.  In our case, this meant that I pulled our Hi-Lo camper trailer over six miles of ghastly roads to a remote campground overlooking the inner gorge of Ruby Canyon.  Not coincidentally, the Union Pacific has a rail line down at the bottom, the former Rio Grande mainline.  The spot where we parked the camper had a decent view of a stretch of track between McDonald Creek and the next curve to the east.  This is about a mile or so east of the Utah/Colorado state line.

12:07 PM
On Saturday, I was out for a stroll when I heard the noise of a train coming down the canyon.  Sprinting as fast as my out-of-shape 56-year-old legs would allow, I got back to camp in time to grab the telephoto and snatch an image of the front end just before it passed out of view.  Not having time to get down to the actual rim (so I thought), I contented myself with snapping photos of the train from where I was.

Head end of the MNYRO (UP 5922 on the point) approaches McDonald Creek. The “hill” that obscures the front of the train is actually the top of the 300-foot high bluff above the tracks and river.

12:09 PM
It was a westbound manifest freight– which simply means a mixed freight train, for those of you not into rail subjects.  It was a long one, and after a while the rear end snaked into view with a single remote locomotive hanging on the back.   (It totaled out to 131 cars, 3 locos up front, another on the rear.)  I snapped a couple more photos and prepared to go about my business when suddenly I heard a lot of squealing and banging.  The visible part of the train was decelerating rapidly, and within seconds was at a complete stop.

Well, to quote Jim Varney, I may not be a smart dog, but I know what roadkill is.  Hurriedly hustling down the intervening benches, I soon found myself peering over the 300-foot precipice at a scene guaranteed to redefine the term “bad day at the office”.  Directly below me the train was broken in two.  54 cars stretched out to my left and around the curve across McDonald Creek; the lone SD70ACe remote locomotive sat at the end, idling in a bored manner.  To my right, the balance of the train reached all the way past the east switch of Utaline siding.  In the middle was perhaps a quarter mile of empty rail.

The rear end of the MNYRO, severed from the rest of the train by a broken drawbar

By the way, the pictures illustrate that this is a fabulous location from which to observe a railroad problem!  If the train had to break somewhere, this was the perfect spot for me.  My luck was spectacular.  On the other hand, for the crew it was about as bad a location as could be.  Inside a tunnel might be a worse spot, but not by much.  The luck of the guys managing the problem was, well, somewhat less than perfect.

Here’s the gap in the middle of the train (front end is at top of image)

Thankfully I had remembered to grab the scanner as I left camp, enabling me to garner the actual details of what followed.  Before long I spied the conductor, a bearded fellow in a florescent yellow vest, walking back from the locomotives to check things out.  He looked things over and called in a status report.

Conductor: “Yeah, it looks like the drawbar came out of one of the flatcars.”
Engineer: “Ah crap…”

They identified which car it was (UP 217030), then the engineer asked where the drawbar had gotten to.  The conductor hiked back to the back half of the train and eventually located it, under the sixth car from the break.  The cars had rolled over it as the train went into emergency after the air line parted.

For perspective, keep in mind that the drawbar is a 4-foot steel structure weighing a couple thousand pounds, with coupler attached.  It was resting between the rails, perilously close to the southern (river-side) rail, and the conductor was not confident that the train could pass over it without snagging something important.  They were actually lucky that it didn’t come down on an end and make the first car pole-vault over it.  (** but, see update below, with photo **)

The engineer remarked that they were in a bad location for radio communications, but they finally managed to raise the dispatcher and explain the situation.  Dispatch pointed out that Amtrak No. 5 was due from the east before long, but please take as long as they needed to work safely.  Meanwhile the conductor tied down several cars on the broken section (i.e. set the handbrakes).

12:51 PM
Ultimately, they decided that they must set out the broken centerbeam flat in some siding to the west– I never heard which location was chosen but speculate it was Utaline siding. The conductor began his long march back to the head end, and we decided to go do something fun for a while.  We hiked back to camp and drove out to take photos of flowers and lizards and dinosaur fossils.  Meanwhile, based on visual evidence and conversations heard later on the scanner, the crew kept busy with the following:

  • Moved off west to set out the broken car
  • Returned to the scene of the crime (backing from wherever they went)
  • Conductor walked back to the gap
  • Decided to cut the train again and uncover the wreckage of the drawbar by pulling the cars off of it forward.  Since it was under the sixth car from the break, they coupled on and cut the train again behind the sixth car, carefully moving forward until the drawbar was exposed.

5:23 PM
At about this point I returned to observe the doings.  The engineer asked where the drawbar was, and the conductor replied, “Oh, it’s outside the rail now, toward the river.”  The engineer sounded pretty surprised by this, as was I– I am still trying to figure out how he accomplished this feat.  Perhaps he had a prybar back there and managed to lever it over the rail.  I did see some other tools, so I suppose it’s possible.  Regardless, once it was reported clear the engineer brought the train back and coupled on to the rear section.

Oh, and did I mention that it had been raining for a while now?

Looking down on the front end of the train. You can clearly see how limited the space is in this location.  Note the slide fences on poles alongside the track.
Looking down at McDonald Creek bridge. The decks of these bulkhead flatcars are shiny and slick from the steady drizzle.
Here’s the conductor again, inspecting the train.  I hope he remembered to collect his yellow spade before he went back to the locomotive.

5:43 PM
So, after rejoining the train, they just throttled up and headed for Utah, right?  Wrong.  After this kind of event they have to perform a complete air check (i.e. air brake integrity and functionality) of the rear of the train.  More conversations with dispatch about this; the engineer estimated another half hour to complete it.  The conductor released all the handbrakes he’d set earlier and went off to inspect brakes, while I called it a night.  An hour or so later I noticed that the train was gone.

** Update**  See the photo below and its caption.

See that object on the ground just ahead of our intrepid conductor?  That’s the offending hardware that he’d been referring to as a “drawbar”, but actually just a coupler.  That explains something he said about the retaining pin being bent out on the car…

All throughout this process I kept wondering about the Amtrak train trapped behind this mess, and all the irritable passengers griping about the four-hour delay.  I know it was weighing on the mind of the dispatcher, and I’m sure the train crew was brooding about it as well.  But nobody from track maintenance ever showed up to help– indeed, how would they get there?  There is no access road for some distance in either direction, and no hi-railers ever made an appearance.  The train crew were basically on their own, which really meant that the conductor was on his own to do all the physical work.

7:23 PM: The westbound California Zephyr finally makes its appearance

. . .

Work.  Ponder that concept.  While most of us sit in our air-conditioned offices and do what we call work, there are those out there in the world who are still performing work in the very manual sense of the word.  My hardhat’s off to them…  actionroadlogobang

Safety, Macro and Micro

The other day I happened to check my Facebook feed for activity in a group I belong to. This group is dedicated to the (memory of the) Denver & Rio Grande Western. Anybody who knows me or has been to my site knows that I’m a huge fan. Anyway, there I was scrolling through the activity, when lo and behold I saw an image that I recognized. It was of the side of a GP40 with a serious scrape along the cab side. Aha, methinks (methought?), that’s a photo from a web page on my site. I had a brief glow of satisfaction that someone had linked to my material, until I began to read the comments.  Uh oh, it turns out that there was some dispute about the description of the accident being documented on my web page.

Now, this particular page was about an accident that occurred in 1992 in the Spanish Fork Canyon in Utah. I was not present; I did not witness it; I am (or was) actually pretty ignorant of the geography where the incident occurred. Rightfully shame-faced, I corrected the description that had been given me by the contributor of the material, apologized to the troops unit by unit like Patton, and then fell on my own sword. Pretty neat trick writing a blog entry after falling on one’s sword, huh? I’ll explain how that works later.

I don’t know about your brain, but mine has an annoying habit of jumping all over the map sometimes. The online brohaha over the incident at Sheep Creek got me thinking about other train wrecks, which jumped me over to the eastern slope of the Rockies and back to 1991. One night in September, an eastbound manifest was coming down South Boulder Canyon when it came around a corner and into a massive rockslide. The resulting collision sent two locomotives down the side of the mountain and killed two career railroaders. I still have newspaper clippings (remember those?) that my mother sent to me, complete with color photos and suitably-somber text. This dreadful accident happened along one of the most picturesque segments of the Ski Train‘s route, so we often passed over the site. I would always look for the memorial on the west portal of tunnel 26 and point them out (again) to the kids and wife. Somber stuff indeed.

Never satisfied with being just a little somber, my brain then rewound back six more years to an even more terrible accident, this one on the BN just east of Broomfield, Colorado. In case you don’t recall it, two trains collided head-on underneath the US36 overpass, killing five crew and destroying the bridges. Curiosity being what it is, I googled the wreck and ended up reading through the NTSB Accident Report.  The whole thing.

Wow. Talk about grim reading. Talk about a needless tragedy. Talk about frustrating. The whole thing was avoidable, as most accidents are when proper procedure is carefully followed. You can read it for yourself, but it was a maelstrom of human error, carelessness, inattention to detail… a classic Swiss-cheese scenario. You know, this is where you stack several pieces of Swiss cheese together and try to see through it.  Most of the time you can’t see through it because the holes don’t line up; at least one slice is solid right there. But every once in a while… the holes line up.

When enough steps are missed, processes not followed, processes not sufficiently comprehensive, people too careless, if enough factors are out of whack, the holes just might line up and you have a catastrophe. Although not a railroader, I spent 25 years working in the coal mining industry. I don’t know how often people think about it, but there are a lot of ways to kill and maim when humans build and operate huge machines built of steel, digging in massive piles of earth (or under it). So, the company pounded SAFETY into our heads.  Safety before production. Safety above all else. Your number one priority is to return to your families safely. Maybe your company wasn’t like that, but mine– props to BHP Billiton– made it a religion. Sometimes we’d roll our eyes at the perceived excess, but despite that the concepts and practices found their way into our heads. Even so, occasionally someone would go apostate and pay the price for it.

Dude, you say, stop being such a bummer. Quit preaching to me! OK, fine, but here’s an application I bet you hadn’t considered: scale safety. Let’s think about a model railroad for a few moments. Like the real thing, it has: Wheels. Track. Freight (more on this below). Operators. Risks. Investment. Lots of time and money that went into it. Owners. Even customers, if you think of your layout’s visitors as such.

So what?

OK, maybe your layout is a few Tyco cars and a bunch of snap track nailed to a sheet of plywood. Mine is not. I probably have north of fifteen thousand dollars tied up in this. The other day I did a count and I have over a hundred locomotives! Some were pretty expensive, where others may be cheaper but have fifty or a hundred hours of my time put into their construction. This isn’t even counting hundreds of freight cars and my handcrafted passenger equipment. Add in trackwork, scenery, yada yada and I’ve got an enormous investment tied up in this scale world with which I amuse myself. Given that, should I not perhaps take some thought to protecting it?

We painstakingly recreate real-life equipment in miniature. We study traffic patterns and try to reproduce them in our miniature kingdoms. Heck, I even have a dispatch form that I fill out to control traffic movement in certain operating scenarios. I know people who have radio headsets and crew chiefs to manage operations. Why not put a little effort into scale-sized safety practices?

Let’s elaborate. Say that your scale-sized engineer has just climbed up onto the lead unit. In real life he and the conductor (post-1986) are running air tests, checking train orders, and any number of other tasks. But we, the model railroader, just hit the throttle and take off. But wait! Where exactly am I taking this train? Is the track clear? Have I bothered to verify switch alignments? Have I inspected my train? Do I pay attention to it while it’s rolling to make sure nothing’s dragging a wheel? Maybe we need a procedure or two to make sure our ducks are aligned before we highball outta town.

And what if you haven’t run the railroad in a few weeks?  How do you know that you didn’t leave something undone, or hidden?  Maybe the cat has paid a visit. Maybe somebody bumped the layout and derailed a few things. Maybe you left a set of pliers in the middle of North Yard. Maybe an inspection of the property is in order. First.

I have dozens of coal hoppers. In recent years I’ve gotten lazy (or bold) and have begun to use loose coal loads in a lot of my cars. Actual coal, some of it– a benefit of working for a coal mine is that you can acquire coal. It must be crushed and screened, but that’s for another post. Anyway, what if I forget that I’ve left a second train behind my helix, and sideswipe it with a dozen open-top hoppers full of coal? Well, that’s a risk.  Or several risks. One risk is that you’ll have a LOT of scale-sized coal spilled all over creation. Ask me how I know about this.

Other risks can be as simple as dropping that $175 Kato locomotive onto the cement, or breaking off those tiny little details that took you hours to install on another piece of rolling stock, or shattering some assembly that can only be replaced after hours of online hunting. My time is pretty valuable; how much is your time worth to you?

Do you have any rail that perches above a precipice? Have you ever run any cars onto the tile from four feet up? Maybe (especially in trouble spots) we should install some mitigating controls like a net, or a piece of plexiglass, or some other barrier. I know that I’m long overdue for some risk management projects.  They’re not as interesting or exciting as creating some scratch-built wonder, but they might protect one you’ve already made.  You never think disaster will happen to you… until it does.

No, we’re not likely to kill anybody with our scale railroads. But there’s plenty of risk to manage. Initiate a little operating discipline, and your next open-house might be a whole lot less embarrassing!

Oh, and as to falling on one’s sword?  It’s best if certain practices are kept metaphorical.ActionRoad.net