Fish the Dime?

Time is short, and so is this article

If life has taught me anything at all, it’s that time is fluid.  Stretchy.  Compressible.  Short moments that last forever, and years that pass in a blink.  As The Doctor (in Doctor Who, the weird British sci-fi series that itself has become somewhat eternal) would say, it’s a wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey thing.  But mostly, for those of us who lack a time machine, time basically accelerates… with time… and before you know it, your whole life is behind you.

Now, technically, everyone’s whole life is always behind them.  Since, you see, the future has not happened yet, therefore it does not exist, therefore all the life that anyone has is that which they’ve already had, therefore their whole life is behind them, always.  But– that’s an argument against myself, and as a rule I don’t allow that, so we’ll dispense with the technicalities and move on!

Where was I?  Oh, yes.  So, there’s this thing, this trap, that many of us fall into.  This trap where we say, “When I get all this other stuff sorted, I’ll take the trip.  I’ll remodel the spare room.  I’ll learn the piano.  I’ll write that book.  I’ll bungee-jump the Royal Gorge.  After I get all this other stuff sorted.”  (I’m using “sorted” in the British sense, which means that I’ve been watching too much of The Crown and Doctor Who and The Chronicles of Narnia again.  Maybe it’s British entertainment that’s my personal trap?)  In other words, we allow the mundane to control our existence, and we allow that which is special to slip away.

I’ll use my wife’s aunt and uncle as an example.  During their entire marriage, he worked long hours and put everything into his job, not spending much time with his wife (except just enough moments to generate a bunch of kids).  Saving all the fun for when he retired.  Sacrificing the present for the future, which I suspect included their relationship, which I also suspect may be why she smoked and drank.  So, one day, the future finally arrived, it was time for him to retire, and he did so– just in time for her to be found with cancer.  In a matter of a few short months, she was gone.  So remind me: why was it that he worked so hard all those years and spent all that time away from her?

Well, maybe Uncle Jack preferred to spend time at work than with Aunt Kitty.  If so, then good for him, although I bet Aunt Kitty didn’t prefer that.  Not unless she liked to drink alone or something.  Even if he was living his preferred life, she wasn’t, and suddenly it was gone.  So maybe the lesson to learn here is, take charge of your own dang life.

I think that Jack and Kitty’s story provide a multifaceted object lesson, but the overall summation might be, don’t let time slip away.

Well, that’s all very cheery stuff, Jim (you say).  I come here to read about hobbies and modeling, and you’re laying this heavy philosophical crap on us?

Stay with me.  This has application of a positive nature, and I’ll give you an example from my own hobby set, railroading.  You see, I dearly love to ride trains, especially in scenic places like the mountains of Colorado.  The top of that heap is the line west of Denver on the Moffat Line (now owned by Union Pacific and served by Amtrak).  Starting in 1993 I started dragging the family up from New Mexico to ride the erstwhile Ski Train up the mountain and back, at least once a year.  Eventually I started getting the dreaded “not again!” response from people, and I reluctantly gave up on the idea.  Then in 2009 the Ski Train was abruptly cancelled and I lost that opportunity, forever.  So, let’s list the regrets from this.  Do I regret the 10 or 12 trips we made to ride the train?  No.  Do I regret giving up the trips while they were still possible?  Yes.

But now, I can remedy the situation!  Thanks to Amtrak– and I can’t believe I’m thanking Amtrak for anything– there’s a new service over the same route, called the Winter Park Express.  This (2018) is the second full year of service, and I took the initiative to book a trip.  And yes, we’re making a family event of it.  After a hiatus of 14 years, we will be riding through the Tunnel District once again.  Hopefully not for the last time, either.

I’m making an effort to apply this principle to other areas in my life.  I realize that I have wasted literally decades in needless frustration staying with depressing organizations, simply because I felt too guilty or duty-bound or just plain loyal to find a better situation.  No more.  Next time, and the next, I will simply, and without bitterness, move on.  I refuse to get sucked into the drama of other people’s bad choices.  I choose to decide where the boundaries are, and to respect them.  Love is one thing; needless self-imposed misery is another!  Getting a little far afield from riding trains here, but it’s connected in the sense that I just don’t want to waste any more of my time on pointless futility.  The larger share of my life is behind me now (even if you ignore the second paragraph in this essay).  My time is precious.

But, in the main, Time is an unsympathetic teacher, a terrible taskmaster, and a cunning trickster.  As we age it quietly speeds up on us.  If you’re not careful, you can fritter it all away.  You have to remember to actively look for chances, else they will simply… pass you by.

Some smart Roman dude once said, Carpe Diem.  Seize the day.  Avail yourself of opportunities.  Don’t let the moment pass by.  Take the trip.  Remodel the spare room.  Learn to play the piano.  Write that book.  Bungee-jump the Royal Gorge.  You can sort the laundry when you get home.  There’s all the time in the world to take care of the mundane stuff.

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Stories from Trackside

Sometimes, memories without cameras to help preserve them are the most vivid of all

In an earlier post I discussed of memories and nostalgia as it relates to our leisure pastimes.  It turns out I’ve had several such moments related to railfanning in which I found myself sans camera, and all I had to remember them with was my own senses.  Here’s a selection of a few such events.  Maybe this will inspire you to dust off your own recollections and relive some of those magic moments of your own.

Sledding and Surprises

It was the winter of 1978 and I was a senior in high school.  I had a good friend, Curt, and the two of us were oddly obsessed with snow– and sledding on it.  One Saturday morning we decided to load up his VW and go west until we found something white to slide on.  Not our first such attempt; on a previous occasion we had gotten clear up into the Indian Peaks wilderness west of Boulder in a (vain) attempt to find snow.  Now, a couple of months later, we reckoned that we had a better shot at it.  I guided the expedition to a place west of Rollinsville, in the upper reaches of South Boulder Canyon.  We followed the snowy gravel road through the steadily-falling snow past Tolland and pulled over just east of a railroad overpass.  I knew the area pretty well, since even as a child I’d been obsessed with the Moffat Tunnel.  We were just a couple miles east of the tunnel and it was a good hillside for sledding.

[Google earth: 39°54’08.21″ N 105°36’50.30″ W]

Being both in the prime of youth and reasonably fit, we steadily built a toboggan run from the top of the hill down towards the road.  This was no mean task considering the deep and drifting snow, the cold air, and the elevation– right at 9,000 feet.  By the way, I use the term “toboggan” only loosely; our only equipment was a couple of Mini-boggans.  Remember those?  A rolled-up piece of stiff plastic with a hole for a handle in one end, suitable for getting oneself intimately acquainted with the ground, and getting killed during the introductions.  They were almost large enough to hold a fourth-grader, or to cover everything between my collarbone and my knees, if I were careful.  Anyway, the snow was falling in huge flakes and we were completely covered in it.  The day was dim due to the thickness of the clouds and density of the snowfall.  And yet, not long after our arrival, I was able to plainly hear the muffled call of train horns down the valley to the east.  I’d secretly hoped we would see a train or two, and my wish was to be fulfilled in the most unexpected way.

The tracks here follow a sweeping S curve that brings them from the south to the north side of the broad valley, climbing all the while to reach the upper bench where the tunnel is located. Much of that climb is hidden back in the trees, so when the headlights finally shone through the snowflakes I was amazed to see that the train was led by an F unit.  A string of F units!  In beautiful golden orange paint.

(As an aside, keep in mind that I was not a “connected” railfan, or a railfan in any real sense of the word, at this time.  I hadn’t seen an F unit in a decade, since I was a child, and had no idea that any still existed.)

I can see the scene now, some forty years later, like a movie playing in my head.  The train in its matching golden paint rounding the curve below us through the dim light, diesels muttering, snowflakes glowing in the headlights.  Mixed in with the power was something that looked like a steam locomotive tender. Behind this was a passenger train, painted to match the locomotives, and even then I recognized them as being old heavyweight cars.  I stood dumbfounded at this relic from the past, and recorded the scene in memory as it clattered around the curve towards Moffat and was lost from sight.

Later I learned that this was the Ski Train; the F units were the F9 trio normally assigned to the Rio Grande Zephyr; that the strange car shaped like a tender was in fact a steam generator car.  Furthermore, I’m 90% sure that this was February 26th, the day of the Moffat Tunnel 50th Anniversary ceremonies being held just up the hill from us. This is why the F units were on the Ski Train that day.  If only we’d known!

But that snowy morning during my last semester of high school, all I knew was that I’d gotten to watch a rare and beautiful railroading scene.


 

Nocturnes

When we were newlyweds in Boulder, night-time drives in the mountains were often a thing.  Not infrequently these would put us in the proximity of railroad tracks.  (This is hard to believe of me, I know, but nonetheless true.)  Two such excursions come to my mind, brief little episodes that I still see in my memory.  Considering that it was completely dark and no photograph would have worked had I even tried it, my memory is all the recording device we have on it, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

Nocturne the First: One such evening, guessing early 1983, we drove up above Boulder and onto the Gross Dam road. This gravel road winds around and crosses South Boulder Creek below the eponymous dam, climbing the south side of the canyon where it crosses the Rio Grande’s right-of-way and ultimately emerges on Colo. 72 below Wondervu.

[Google Earth: 39°55’45.25″ N 105°20’36.51″ W]

This particular night we parked north of the tracks to see if there might be a train coming by.  Shockingly (considering my luck most of the time), a we soon heard a westbound train approaching in the darkness.  Even more shockingly, I remember most of the details.  It had several locomotives up front, 38 piggyback flatcars, and a helper shoving on the rear.  A lot of power for not much train, I remember thinking.  Too dark to see much of anything, but the scene conveyed the message that the business and drama of railroading goes on continuously, even in dark, remote places.

Nocturne the Second: Another meeting was more deliberately designed.  It is entirely possible that it was the same night as the story above, but I really can’t tell you one way or the other!  We (I) wanted to watch the Rio Grande Zephyr on its descent into Denver.  This is definitely early 1983, probably February.  At the time we were borrowing my parents’ 1972 Suburban, as our own Mustang II hatchback had recently bent a rod one cold morning.  This night we drove the gas-guzzler down to the Blue Mountain Road crossing, on the south shoulder of Coal Creek Canyon’s mouth.  South cheek of the mouth?  Right canine tooth of the mouth?  Sorry, I got lost in the mixed metaphors.

ST84_12
Same location, same locomotive, different train, different time and date. Here No. 5771 leads the Ski Train past Blue Mountain crossing in March 1984, during daylight.

Rabbit trail!

OK, back to Blue Mountain road.  From there you can watch trains descending from Tunnel One and loop around the canyon mouth until they pass you and round the corner towards Clay siding.  We parked on the south side of the track and watched the show.  Finally the train passed close by us– headlights on, Mars light flashing, and white class lights illuminated on F9 No. 5771’s cheeks (there’s that word again).  Why the class lights were on I do not know, but I swear they were.  Maybe just to get more illumination on the front of the train?   At any rate, this night’s train was incredibly short.  All three F units and the steam generator were up front, followed only by a combine, one dome coach, the diner, and the dome/obs.  It was a mid-week run during winter so I suppose this wasn’t too surprising, but I usually observed the train on Saturdays when it was filled out with most or all the cars available.

Within a couple of months the Rio Grande Zephyr was no more.

Nocturne the Third: It’s now Spring 1984.  Though we lived in Boulder, we had won some contest on a radio station for free ice cream cones down in Westminster at a shop I no longer remember.  As dead broke as we were, any chance for something to do was welcome.  By now we were driving an incredibly unreliable 1971 Renault R10.  This car is worthy of a blog post of its own– the adventures we had in that vehicle when it broke down at the most inconvenient times would fill a book.  It was French, and looked French, and it attacked us without warning, so we dubbed it Kato, after Inspector Clouseau’s sidekick in the Pink Panther movies.  Adopt a Peter Sellers accent and shout “Not NOW, Kateau!”  and you get the idea.  It would break down and we’d yell “Not NOW, Kateau!”

Yes, I know, technically the Kato character was Asian.  Don’t quibble with me.

Well, this night Kato was operating within parameters and we collected our free ice cream cones without incident.  The night was young so I decided to go visit North Yard.  [Google Earth: 39°47’26.84″ N 104°59’57.81″ W]  At that time, access was not nearly as restricted as now.  I drove right up onto the gravel road along the west side of the yard and we just watched and listened to the activity for a while.  The sun was down but the yard was brightly lit by the floodlight towers; the steady throb of diesels and the rattle and pop of yard activity formed a constant background of sounds. As we sat there, we noticed a caboose rolling along to the north, all by its lonesome (the switcher must have kicked it down the track).  This looks interesting, we thought, so I began pacing it next to the tracks.  The caboose was perhaps a dozen tracks from our side of the yard, not terribly close to us; the yard was fairly clear of cars and obstructions that night.  We followed our quarry for quite a ways at about 15 MPH, when suddenly BANG! the caboose slammed into the back of a string of cars.  I mean, it was really moving when it reached its train.  Now, I realize that rolling stock is pretty durable and all that, but this seemed a bit… sloppy… on the part of the switch crew.  But, no matter.  I’ve seen baggage handlers who treated my suitcases no better, and those aren’t made of heavy gauge steel.


Business Train at Coal Creek

Have you ever made a decision that later had you asking yourself, What the heck was I thinking?

April 1989– We were visiting family in Boulder again.  I invited my cousin “Dan” for an obligatory train-chasing morning. This time I decided not to take a camera– “I’m spending too much on film on this stuff” I told myself.  We went up to Coal Creek as usual, parked and walked up near Tunnel One.

[39°52’44.87″ N 105°16’37.97″ W]

Well, guess what?  An officer’s special was operated by the railroad that morning.  I stood there dumbfounded and watched a pair of GP40-series locomotives lead a train consisting of three gold-painted streamlined passenger cars.  A vista dome, a flattop car [I now know it was a diner], and a very familiar-looking observation car.  These were, in order, lettered CALIFORNIA, UTAH, and KANSAS.  And there I stood, thirty feet from trackside, watching this priceless photo-op roll past me, with no freaking camera!

What the HELL was I thinking?  #KicksSelfInTheButt!

Pretty sure “Dan” gave me a pretty thorough heckling over it, too.  Thanks for rubbing in the salt, Cuz.

Yeah, sure, I saw this trio many times on the Ski Train in subsequent years.  But not like this.  Not alone.  Not in 1989.

I learned my lesson about taking a camera with me, after that.


Post-Merger Lash-up

Signals
Searchlight signals on the Joint Line in north Colorado Springs. The rails were very, very quiet that day. That’s Cheyenne Mountain poking through the clouds in the background.

A brief vignette, this.  We were in Colorado Springs to attend a Phil Keaggy concert in October 1996.  This was about a month after the Union Pacific – Southern Pacific merger, and we were staying in the La Quinta just off Austin Bluffs / Garden of the Gods Road.  Being adjacent to the Joint Line, one would expect that there would be constant trains going by, but that was not the case.  I haunted the tracks for a half hour one day when I had some free time, with no success.  Then, the final morning of our stay, I happened to hear the rumble of approaching diesels, and ran for the car where I thought the camera was.  Turned out I had left it in the room on the second floor.  I knew I did not have time to retrieve it before the train arrived from the south, so I simply ran across the street and watched the train.

[Google Earth: 38°53’43.21″ N 104°49’36.93″ W]

The head end consisted of eleven– count ’em, eleven– locomotives.  Nine were Southern Pacific and mostly pretty tattered-looking.  The other two were D&RGW tunnel motors.  I noted their numbers: 5390, 5411.  The SP units were far too numerous (and frankly not interesting enough) for me to note all their numbers or even their types, other than being pretty much all EMD products.  The Rio Grande being my first railroad love, I paid more attention to these two.

After this time those two units spent most of their time around Helper, Utah, where I managed to photograph the 5390 in November 2001, five years later.

Nothing but memory to help me remember the roll-by, but it’s still fresh in my head.  The last days of the Espee / Grande combo, or the first chaotic days of the UP regime, depending on how one looks at it.


Now I have a very nice digital camera– have have some kind of digital camera for 10 years now– plus there’s always a cell phone camera if one gets caught completely unprepared.  Such camera-less moments happen rarely these days.  Back when incomes were less and film was a real cost to consider, it was far more likely for one to get caught short.  As it is, I am hoping that I actually remember all these stories aright.  But on the other hand– who’s going to prove me wrong? <wink>

actionroadlogobang

Beware that Nostalgia, Folks

It’s the dead bringing you back to life. Or else, just sentimental bushwa.

So I’m going to make some sweeping generalizations in this post.  For many people, hobbies have a strong overtone of nostalgia.  I’ll go so far as to say that nostalgia is the driving force behind many of our efforts and obsessions– a drive to recreate (often in miniature) that which no longer exists.  And if you’re not careful, you can become that person who’s always making statements like “The first time we did such-and-such was in nineteen ought-six, when you were only eleven years old.”  I even say things like “I remember that this song was playing when we were doing X and Y.”  In other words, if you allow your nostalgia to get the best of you, you might just turn into… me.

I know what you’re going to say next.  Sentimental bushwa! I chase trains because I love the excitement of seeing new/old/classic/different equipment.  Or, I photograph/model/study navy ships because I find the latest warfighting technologies fascinating.  Or, I fly ultralights or I GoPro myself base-jumping off of bridges for the rush of it, for the immediate thrill.  Fill in your own blanks.  And I do not argue, not one little bit!  But this is my point.  Once that experience is complete, what do you have left from it?

Memories.

Even if it’s captured on film or digital media, what you did yesterday has now become an event from the past.  It’s history.  It’s experience.  It’s a memory.  And, if it’s something you enjoyed, it’s a fond memory, which is just the first milepost on the road to nostalgia.

This is even more pronounced when you find yourself aging and no longer are able to bungee-jump the Royal Gorge or free-climb the Bastille.  Or, when the thing that you chase or photograph or study or admire has ceased to exist– for whatever reason.  Now, all you have left is your photos, or videos, or memories of something that you can never have again.

That wistful feeling you got when you read that last sentence, and thought about it?  Bingo.  Nostalgia.  One of the most intoxicating and most painful facets of human life.

I have a friend who’s a total Route 66 nut.  (I mean this in the clinical, not the pejorative, sense.)  He has collected an astounding amount of relics and Americana from the Mother Road.  He’s building a replica of some gas station from Texas in his front yard.  He knows everything about it.  He loves everything about it.  He also does a fair Elvis impersonation.  He’s almost worse than I am about railroads.  OK, he IS worse.  And what do you think drives his obsession?  Um, Duh.

In a strange way, when it comes to nostalgia about the past, it’s the dead bringing you back to life.  My friend the Elvis singer is never so alive as when he’s talking about his stuff, and what he’s building, to re-create the spirit of Route 66.   And maybe that’s the appeal.  Through our nostalgic hobbies, we are somehow transported to another time, another place, a time and place where we were having a magical experience, a moment when we were… happy.

Don’t get me wrong here.  It’s not that we are necessarily unhappy now.  But to be transfixed in a happy moment– this is what some hobbies are all about.


Let me walk you through one example of how this occurs.  I’m a self-confessed railfan and rail hobbyist, amongst a number of other things.  I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and had always liked the Rio Grande railroad just south of town.  I could actually hear the trains on the mountain as they came and went on the old Moffat line.  Well, when I was 23, my wife and I relocated to New Mexico, a long ways from Boulder.  This was in the pre-internet age, pre-digital cameras, pre-email.  And though I liked to take photos of trains, I could not afford to spend a lot on film or film processing, so my pictures were far fewer than today.  I was also not connected in any way to the railfanning community; I did not even know that such a community existed.  All my information was gathered in little snippets– a newspaper article here, an article in a hobby magazine there.

So in 1988 I became aware of an impending merger between the Rio Grande and  Southern Pacific railroads– a development I viewed with some dismay, although it seemed that the Rio Grande was going to be purchasing the SP, which might be OK.  I also read an article in Model Railroader about a fairly new, hot overnight piggyback operation  called the Railblazer that the Rio Grande was running between Denver and Salt Lake City and vice versa.  We were planning on visiting family in Boulder at Christmas, and I made it a priority to plan a “train-chasing” trip with my cousin whom I’ll call “Dan”.  I wanted to see this little piggyback train, and also see if the Rio Grande was even still the Rio Grande.  The merger was already a couple of months in the rearview mirror, after all.

So, early on the morning of Christmas eve, Dan and I met up and headed out to Coal Creek Canyon, parked by the overpass, and hiked up towards Tunnel 1.  Not having scanners and not knowing where exactly the Railblazer might be, we started over the top of the hogback pierced by the tunnel to wait for the train.  We had not reached the summit when we heard train horns up ahead– something had just hit the east switch of Plainview siding just up the hill.  Hurriedly we about-faced and hustled back down the hill to observe whatever was coming down the mountain.

Our timing was perfect.  It was indeed the Railblazer, and I captured one of my favorite rail photos ever in that split second (see the image at the top of this article).  I shot two more photos of the train from our elevated vantage point.

Railblazer 1
The Eastbound Railblazer comes into view, behind GP40 No. 3077 and GP40-2 No. 3116.

We stayed long enough to watch the train transit the curve in the mouth of the canyon.  I had no telephoto lens back then; this was using a 50mm fixed-length lens and ASA100 print film.

Railblazer 2
The eastbound Railblazer crosses the bridge in Coal Creek Canyon on 12/24/1988. You can see nearly the entire train in this shot.

Somewhere during this interval we had heard a train stopping down on Rocky siding to the southeast, quite some distance by railroad from tunnel 1, and we decided to move uphill from here and catch it coming out of the tunnel’s opposite end.  Like idiots we dropped down to the tunnel and walked through it– somewhat nervously, to be sure.  The most instructive thing we discovered was a dead deer midway through the bore, evidently cornered by a train and mashed up into tiny components.  Yeah, the smell was intense.  Makes you think about what you would do if you got surprised by a train in there.  What we did was hustle on through there as fast as possible!

Fortunately nothing else was trailing the Railblazer down the hill, so we had 20 or 30 minutes cushion before the westbound arrived.

D&amp;RGW 3130
The highest-numbered GP40-2 was leading this westbound freight as it rolled out of tunnel one on Christmas Eve 1988.

Well, eventually the train rumbled out of the tunnel, and I began shooting frames.  If I’d had a digital camera like I have now, this would have been a hundred or so; as it was I took three 35mm exposures.

Remember what I said earlier about the merger with Southern Pacific?  Well, the middle unit in the 5-locomotive consist was a harbinger of things to come.

SP 8550
A Southern Pacific SD40T-2 “Tunnel Motor” was the third unit on the front of the train. Within a few years, it would be rare to see a Rio Grande locomotive on these rails.

A train passes rather quickly, even at 25 MPH.  My third and final image was of the power as it roared away from us.  Behind was a long train of mixed freight.  I recall specifically that there were a lot of large tank cars lettered ANHYDROUS AMMONIA, and remember feeling glad that they did not derail while we were standing there!

DRGW 3051
The power was a real mix of heritage this morning. The leader was only 5 years old; the second unit was an ex-Conrail unit that was originally built in the late 1960s and painted for the Rio Grande in 1984. The SP tunnel motor was built in 1979. The two Rio Grande units at the rear date from around 1966, and are still in original paint.

So the train disappeared up the hill and we went back and had Christmas and life went on and the Railblazer was cancelled and the Rio Grande faded away and so did the Southern Pacific, and now all I have are six photographs and a bunch of indelible memories of a magical Christmas Eve morning many years ago.

Every Christmas season I remember this brief morning when I went out to see something new, and ended up capturing the end of an era instead.

Nostalgia.  It’s a killer.  actionroadlogobang

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.

DSC_0369
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.

DSC_0382
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.

DSC_0383
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?

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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.
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Looking down at McDonald Creek bridge. The decks of these bulkhead flatcars are shiny and slick from the steady drizzle.
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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.

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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.

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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