Disturbing the peace

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Well, CSX sure made a mess of things in Emporia, Va. The town of almost 6,000 people, some 10 miles north of the North Carolina border, was invaded yesterday morning by System Tie and Surfacing Gang  T-2. T-2 and its allied contractors proceeded to tear out all but two of the pencil-shaped town’s nine street crossings. The armada of some 30 pieces of mechanized on-track equipment was all but gone by quitting time today, leaving behind 6,000 people who cannot easily get from one side of Emporia to the other.  A cab driver who stopped me to ask what’s going on was upset, but he shouldn’t be because detours only add to the size of his fares.

Tomorrow, no doubt, CSX people will relay timber in the crossings, paving contractors will spread asphalt, and life will return to normal in Emporia for another seven years, when the next disruption should occur. CSX likes to revisit main lines every seven years, replacing one-third to one-fourth of the ties. This guarantees that all the ties won’t wear out at the same time.

I seldom see system track gangs of this size, and even less often have time to stop and look at the work they do. This is a big event on the CSX A Line, which connects Philadelphia and Washington to Florida. Gang T-2 and sister gang T-9 get 10-hour curfews every Monday through Thursday during the month of March, working between Collier (Petersburg), Va., and Selma, N.C., some 100 miles. Today Gang T-9 was 20 miles south of Emporia, in Weldon, N.C. Both gangs are heading south.

The impact of track work of this sort is enormous. Above all else, they leave behind a better railroad. But the short-term down side is big, too. CSX intermodal trains by and large run in the evening and early morning and clear the curfew handily. Not so lucky is Amtrak. Its New York-Savannah, Ga., Palmetto is cancelled during curfew days this month. The New York-Charlotte Carolinian runs only between Raleigh and Charlotte, N.C. The northbound Silver Star from Miami to New York is running five hours early all seven days of the week. But most CSX freights just grin and bear it.

The first trains through Emporia this evening were two favorites of mine, Q740, the northbound Tropicana orange juice train, en route from Bradenton, Fla., to the grocery store shelves of New York City, and its southbound counterpart, Q741, which in addition to its empty juice cars picks up southbound containers in Philadelphia, to drop off in Jacksonville, Fla. This will be a busy night as CSX tries to do in 14 hours the freight traffic it normally handles in 24. Too bad I won't be up until 4.

My friend Andy works on a CSX system tie gang. He’s presently in southern Indiana. I called Andy this afternoon to ask about the best part of his job. “Nothing,” he replied. On second thought, he said the pay is good, $22 to $24 an hour. CSX puts him up in a clean hotel room every night, too. And what’s the worst part, I asked? “I have no life,” he replied without an instant’s hesitation. “I’ve been home one time this year.” Yet Andy seemed almost thrilled that someone would be asking questions about what a tie gang does. “The simple things we do appear hard, and the hard things simple,” he began.  I managed to say goodbye before he kept me up all night.

That’s it from southern Virginia, folks. Tomorrow, on to Jesup, Ga. Surely some adventure awaits me. If so, you’ll hear about it. — Fred W. Frailey

Top photo: Q741 blazes its way through Emporia, Va., kicking up dust from the just-disturbed track bed.

Middle photo: Why Emporia residents are unhappy campers.

Bottom photo: Like cows going back to the barn, track machines head to Trego, Va., to tie up for the night.

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