Can you spend a day just sitting and waiting? Let’s try

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Yesterday was a killer. Up at 2:30 a.m. in Georgia and on the road until 6 p.m. that evening in Virginia. This is what you like to do: drive and watch trains. But it’s probably an instance of too much of a good thing. Just north of the North Carolina border in Virginia, you pass on U.S. Highway 301 a nook beside the CSX North End Subdivision tracks. You could sit at this curve all day and let the trains come to you. You know this, because your fellow train lovers have worn a path through the weeds driving here to prove this very point.

So last night, as your eyes close, you decide to spend the next day at what you call Frailey’s Curve. Call it your job, on at 7 and off at 4, with an hour for lunch. Do you think you can bear to sit still that long? Try me, you decide. Only an Extraordinary Event will make you abandon your post. To keep your mind occupied, you bring a book. (That's your mobile observation post in the top photo.)

You’re barely in place when northbound intermodal train Q034 comes by with 86 trailers and boxes. You once came up with a rule of thumb that 90 intermodal units pays for a train. True or not, on that basis, this train, going from Jacksonville, Fla., to North Bergen, N.J., almost cuts it. Right behind it is Q416, which is headed to Cumberland, Md., with mixed freight for points west; it had been overtaken by Q034 down the road a bit.

Before we go on, let me draw the lower 90 miles of the North End Sub for you. The left column is the nearest milepost (showing the mileage from Richmond) and the letters “DT” mean two main tracks between the locations shown.

Miles

30   Reams, Va. (Collier Yard)

38   Carson, Va.

       DT

42   Stony Creek, Va.

51   Jarrett, Va.

       DT

58   Fox, Va.

65   Emporia, Va.

      DT

71   Frailey’s Curve

       DT

74   Pleasant Hill, N.C.

79   Gary, N.C.

       DT

82   North Weldon, N.C. (junction Portsmouth Subdivision)

85   Weldon, N.C. (junction Roanoke Rapids Spur)

       DT

86   South Weldon, N.C.

       DT

89   Halifax, N.C.

97   Delmar, N.C.

       DT

105 Bricks, N.C.

112 Battle, N.C.

       DT

120 Rocky Mount, N.C.

This is CSX’s A Line, so named because it was once the Atlantic Coast Line route from Richmond, Va., to Florida. On a typical day, this part of it is visited by 30 or more trains, 10 of them belonging to Amtrak.

So here we go: At 8:04 a.m., local F730 rushes by with four cars, headed for Weldon and then the spur to Roanoke Rapids, N.C., where it will tie up. Twenty-five minutes later, the third northbound train of the morning, Q400, comes by. Like Q416, it’s en route to Cumberland. By then, the Tropicana orange juice train, Q740, is leaving Rocky Mount with 21 cars of liquid for the breakfast tables of New York City. It passes Frailey’s Curve at 9:40 a.m. On the radio, you hear it give the all’s well to southbound Q409, the daily freight from Selkirk (Albany), N.Y., to Waycross, Ga., which passes you at 9:55 a.m.

Also on the radio, you hear the dispatcher tell local freight F774 to put its train of 74 cars in the back track at Weldon and wait for a taxi to take the crew back to Rocky Mount. F774’s job is to interchange with the North Carolina & Virginia Railroad at Boykins, Va., on the Portsmouth Sub, and the NC&V probably doesn’t have a crew ready to meet the CSX train.

Back at Frailey’s Curve ... are you readers really interested in this narrative? Admit it, you’re bored. Except for the northbound Silver Star, which will pass here by and by, and a big ballast regulator you see in the distance, the subdivision is dead for now. So maybe you’d like to know more about the book; we’re here to please. It’s a Michael Connelly novel, “The Fifth Witness,” and the protagonist is criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller, aka the Lincoln Lawyer, because his office is the back seat of his chauffeured Lincoln Town Car. Mickey has fallen on hard times, because while crime in Los Angeles flourishes as always, the Great Recession has made criminals less able to pay Mickey’s retainer. So he has branched out to defending deadbeat or hard-up homeowners against foreclosures. This works well until one of his clients, an emotionally edgy woman, is arrested and accused of murdering the banker trying to foreclose on her home. Doesn’t Mickey want to know if she’s innocent, she asks him in a jailhouse interview? Not really, the Lincoln Lawyer replies. This is certainly more interesting than late morning activity at Frailey’s Curve. You read on.

Amtrak trains have been extraordinarily prompt today. The northbound Auto Train got to Lorton, Va., more than two hours ahead of schedule. The northbound Silver Meteor and Silver Star were on the nose, too, and so is No. 80, the northbound Carolinian. It bounds past you at the curve with seven cars at 12:50, the first train since the Star two hours earlier. In the interim, you took your lunch break, driving 30 miles north to Stony Creek, solely for the pleasure of ordering a jumbo smoked pork sandwich with extra hot sauce at Addie Winfield’s Tastee Hut.

Amtrak 89, the New York-Savannah Palmetto, breaks the punctuality mode. It runs about 20 minutes late leaving Richmond and meets No. 80 on a two-track segment between Carson and Stony Creek. It’s the next train by you, at 1:40 p.m. Which reminds you: What do locomotive ditch lights blinking alternately on and off bring to mind? Try this: a potbellied western gunslinger deliberately walking down the road, hands on pistols, first on this foot (blink) and then that one (blink), leaning with each step. The thought crosses your mind once again as 89 approaches.

As the afternoon wears on, more trains pile onto the North End Sub, until by 2:10 you’ve got a pot of them stirring around you. Here’s what the radio and ATCS Monitor tell you (go here to learn more about ATCS): Going south, Q405 (Philadelphia-Rocky Mount) is leaving Collier behind Amtrak 79 (Carolinian), grain train G892 (Crestline, Ohio-Lee Creek, N.C.) is sitting on Track 2 at Fox, another edition of Q409 just passed Gary, and Amtrak 89 is approaching Battle, as it nears Rocky Mount. Going north, the ballast regulator waits at Emporia on Track 2; Q406 (Rocky Mount-Philadelphia) waits on Track 2 at Gary, Q438 (Hamlet, N.C.-Selkirk) is nearing Battle, and Amtrak 90 (Palmetto) is at Wilson, N.C., 15 miles south of Rocky Mount.

At this moment, the dispatcher in Florence, S.C., says over the radio: “Right now I am single-tracked all the way from Rocky Mount to Emporia.” More accurately, by the time he’s through, the North End Sub will be single tracked all 70 miles from Rocky Mount to Jarrett. There are only two open slots: between South Weldon and Halifax, and between Delmar and Bricks. And in those spots, he has to get southbound Q409 and Amtrak 79 past northbound Q438 and Amtrak 90. Worse, the freight trains are in the lead, further restricting the dispatcher’s flexibility; when it’s over, the Amtrak trains must be in front of the freights.

Whatever he decides will be an Extraordinary Event. To hell with sitting here at Frailey’s Curve. You want to be where the action is and immediately start toward Weldon. By the time you get there, the dispatcher has a plan, and it is brilliant. Q409 holds on Track 1 at Halifax for 30 minutes, for Q438 to get there and clear on Track 2; that's in the middle photo, with Q438's locomotives on the left and Q409's marker on the right. By then, Amtrak 79 is coming to a stop at South Weldon behind Q409. As soon as Q438 clears the crossover at South Weldon, Train 79 crosses to Track 2, goes around Q409 (see the bottom photo), and is on its way to meet Train 90 between Delmar and Bricks. Q409 immediately follows the Amtrak train to Delmar, where the triple meet occurs. Because there’s nowhere to go just now north of Weldon, Q438 sits still on Track 2 until the Palmetto (90) gets in front of it.

By then, the second-trick dispatcher is at the desk and slowly begins to unwind the mess caused by four Amtrak trains in quick succession amid five CSX freights and that ballast regulator. But more trains keep pouring onto the subdivision: Q439 (Selkirk-Hamlet) and hotshot Q031 (North Bergen-Jacksonville) are south of Collier by 5 p.m. By 6, expect the southbound Silver Star and Auto Train to be nearing Collier, one behind the other. Not until almost 9 p.m. will the subdivision begin to clear up.

What you are enjoying is a busy American railroad up to its keister in trains, directed by a train dispatcher with the aplomb of a seasoned symphony conductor. You just wish you knew his name (you tried to find out, but nobody at CSX answers the phone anymore). You love to get close to railroads being run so well; you've told your wife it’s almost as good as sex, which of course she takes the wrong way. Dear, what I meant to say was ...

As for Frailey’s Curve, it’s not your style to sit and wait. Besides, it’s too far removed from Ms. Winfield’s Tastee Hut. — Fred W. Frailey

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