The bulls wear you out

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Six months ago, you set out to witness an interesting event: a northbound CSX intermodal train, Q104, running through Georgia against a wall of superior southbound trains, three of them belonging to Amtrak. This was between Folkston and Savannah, and you called it The Running of the Bulls. It was a bit of a disappointment, largely because you got up too late. (To read that account, go here.)

Today you get another opportunity to watch Q104 make headway, and take no chances, setting the alarm for a 2:30 a.m. wakeup in Folkston. You’re awake, alert, full of energy, and ready to go at 3 a.m., 35 minutes ahead of Q104, which carries double-stacked containers between Jacksonville, Fla., and Charleston, S.C. Coming against it this morning are (in order) the Auto Train, Charleston-to-Jacksonville Q103, the Silver Star, Silver Meteor, and New Jersey-to-Jacksonville intermodal hotshot L031. (Most days, there are also an empty Tropicana orange juice train and a third southbound intermodal train to contend with.)

Between Folkston and Savannah, 100 miles, Q104 will meet all five of them. It’s a question of where and how. To help you figure things out, you call up ATCS Monitor on your laptop computer. ATCS displays the track plan on a railroad line and shows the location of trains. (To learn more about ATCS Monitor, go here).

Q104 passes Folkston at 3:35. Five minutes earlier and 80 miles to the north, the Auto Train went through McIntosh, Ga. But Q104 covers only 23 of the miles separating the two trains before entering the siding at Nahunta and stopping at 4:10. Several minutes later you begin to hear the Auto Train whistling for farm roads in the Okefenokee Swamp.  But another 15 minutes pass before it clatters across the Brunswick Subdivision diamond in Nahunta and passes you with 16 Superliner cars and 26 auto carriers.

You get the jump on Q104 leaving Nahunta, but it’s all you can do on U.S. Highway 301 to fudge the 55-mph speed limit and still beat the train to Jesup, 30 miles. There, on Cherry Street, you get your only look at this 7,800-foot monster. On the front are 40-foot ocean containers headed back to the ports of Savannah and Charleston. Then come some empty well cars, followed by a big block of 53-foot domestic boxes. Where they’re headed and what (if anything) is inside them is a mystery to you; almost no loaded domestic containers come north from Florida, which consumes whole trainloads of goods every day but produces almost nothing except construction aggregates (and very little of that lately).

You know that Q104 will wait at Doctortown, five miles east (railroad north) of Jesup, for its southbound counterpart, Q103. And behind Q103 is the Silver Star. You make it to Doctortown just in time to see Q103 go past in darkness, at 5:15a.m., with domestic containers on the front and ocean boxes on the rear. But back on U.S. 301, you miss the road leading to the end of two tracks at Back Swamp and don’t get to see Q104 meet a slightly delayed Silver Star. Just as you reach Ludowici, your northbound train goes roaring through at 90 mph (actually 60, but it seems like 90).

From here to Savannah, 34 miles by rail but 40 by highway, keeping up with Q104 is hopeless. But that’s okay, because Q104 both sets out and picks up in Savannah, and the next train south, the Meteor, isn’t due out of that city until 6:50.

CSX gets through Savannah on two lines, the East Route (former Atlantic Coast Line) and West Route (Seaboard Air Line). On the north end of town, near the Amtrak station, they join together at Alabama Junction.

You get to Alabama at 6:25, and see Q103 backing a cut of cars into the West Route yard. At the Amtrak station just to the north, the 11-car Silver Meteor comes and goes, on time to the second. It passes Alabama Junction and takes the East Route, the crew neither knowing nor caring that Q103 is just out of sight on the other line.

There’s one southbound train of the five left to meet: L031 from North Bergen, N.J. You noticed on ATCS that is was passing Yemassee, S.C., 55 miles to the north, at 6:45. By 7:15, the dispatcher has it lined all the way into Savannah. It’s obvious that Q104 will be switching for a while, so you drive several miles north on a parallel highway, and near the Savannah River watch L031 tear by you with more than a mile of single-stack containers and trailers. Q104, it turns out, will spend four hours in Savannah this morning.

The morning is young; it’s only 7:35 a.m. The running of the bulls is over. It was the highlight of your day. Unfortunately, your day is far from over; you have 450 more miles to cover. By noon, you’re in Florence, S.C., and all that energy you had almost ten hours earlier has dissipated. Still, you plod on, gulping coffee and 5-Hour Energy bottles, caring less and less about the trains you pass. By the time you reach Mother Marriott in Emporia, Va., you’ve been on the road 15 1/2 hours. People your age shouldn’t try stunts like this. But would you do it again? You make a note to ask yourself that in the morning. — Fred W. Frailey

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