Fred Frailey Blog

The education of a train watcher

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I was west of Topeka today, more than half way from Virginia to the Colorado Rockies, driving a steady 79 on Interstate 70 and admiring the layer of snow the season’s first storm had delivered the day before, when I saw the exit sign:



McFarland! Oh my goodness. The memory of that evening some 50 years ago came rolling down like a Big Sur wave and washed over me.

Growing up, there wasn’t an interlocking tower or other 24-hour office in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, or Missouri I wouldn’t walk into. “Hi,” I’d say, sticking out my right hand. “My name is Fred, and I like to watch trains. Do you mind if I visit for a while?” Never—not once that I can remember—was I told to leave. I would be invited to sit down, and the train order operator or tower leverman and I would begin talking. It might last but 10 minutes, but sometimes for hours. At McFarland, it lasted an entire shift.

This is how I sharpened my understanding of railroad operations. I would study the employee timetables to the point of memorization and now could pepper my host with questions. How close to schedule do the freights actually run? How often are extra freights run? Do the passenger trains ever give way and take the siding for freights? Where do the through trains set out or pick up cars on the subdivision? How much local business is there here? These were smart men I visited with, and I think one reason they tolerated me was that they were bored. Plus, they were probably flattered that someone, even a teenager, thought what they did for a living was exciting.

This had begun in my home town of Sulphur Springs, Tex., where the Cotton Belt's day clerk-telegrapher, Jack Elliott, let me sit at his desk, headphone clamped on my 12-year-old head, and copy train orders on a yellow pad of flimsies as they were issued to other stations by the dispatcher in Tyler.

Anyway, as I grew older, I had my share of interesting experiences. The yellow wood tower at Holliday, Kan., just west of Kansas City, protected the junction of Santa Fe’s main line with the Topeka branch. I was a regular visitor late on weekend afternoons in the autumn of 1962, just before it was automated and closed. At 5 o’clock each afternoon, minutes apart, Kansas City Union Station would shoot three westbounds toward Holliday. The Chief and Tulsan stayed on the main line tracks and blew past us at top speed. But the Kansas Cityan was routed through Topeka, and as soon as it was out of KCUS the dispatcher would issue the final train orders and a clearance card to Holliday, and out they would go on forks, to be snatched by the enginemen, conductor, and flagman as their train eased through the sharp turnout. I always found that brief flurry of streamliners exhilarating. Sometimes in the midst of this, the eastbound Fast Mail Express would fly by in the opposite direction.

And one late afternoon in October, what did I and the towerman see but a mile-long special train of U.S. Army tanks, behind a quartet of blue-and-yellow FT diesels. The towerman said it was headed to Galveston, Tex. I remembered that train just days later when President Kennedy startled the world by revealing that the Soviet Union was planting missiles aimed at the U.S. in Cuba, and we teetered on the brink of war.

This was while I was studying journalism at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, a 30-minute drive from Holliday. Other nights I wandered far afield. After visiting the 24-hour office of Missouri Pacific at Durand, Kan., on the Kansas City to Coffeyville, Kan., line, I mistakenly thought I would find a service station open after 10 p.m. I was somewhere between Wichita and Emporia on a lonely road when the motor sputtered and died. Now it was past 1 a.m. But out of nowhere came a deputy sheriff. He took me to the nearest country general store, banged on the owner’s apartment above it until lights came on, and drove me back to my car with a can of gasoline.

Another evening, in Sedalia, Mo., my cousin Mike and I were given a post-midnight lesson in operating an armstrong interlocking plant by the leverman. The tower protected the crossing of MoPac’s St. Louis-Kansas City line and Katy’s St. Louis-Parsons, Kan., branch. They were called armstrong plants because signals and switches were connected directly to the levers on the second floor of the tower by a network of pipes, and you needed a strong arm to manipulate them.

“Go ahead,” the wiry little man told me, pointing to a long lever, “try to reverse this switch.” I grabbed the lever with both hands, took a breath, and jerked it back with all my 20-year-old strength. It didn’t budge. Cousin Mike did no better. “Now watch me,” the leverman said. He stuck out one hand and casually pulled the lever straight back to a locked position. What!? “You have to know how to use your leverage,” he explained. Ten minutes later, after some instruction and practice, Mike and I were pros. By then it was 2 o’clock, and we got $1 rooms in a downtown Sedalia hotel. In that era it seemed that every county seat town had a $1 fleabag, because I stayed in my share of them. The enduring memory is of musty odors.

But I digress. McFarland had always fascinated me from afar. It was mysterious, remote, and operationally important. About 30 miles west of Topeka, it was on the double-track Rock Island Lines artery used by trains going to Texas and to the Golden State Route to California (the two routes split at Herington, Kan.). At McFarland, a branch line about 100 miles long shot northwest to Belleville, Kan., on the Rock’s Omaha-Denver main line. The branch hosted two scheduled through freights in each direction, which was why operators were kept in McFarland on the day and evening shifts, to copy train orders for these trains.

I showed up at 4 o’clock on a cold, cloudy winter Saturday afternoon, just as the evening operator arrived. “Hi, my name is . . .” I went through my usual introduction, and the fellow invited me in.

McFarland used to be a far more important place on the Rock Island than it was by 1965, and my host regaled me with stories, for hours. Every so often a train would roar by at top speed and we’d inspect it for defects. I don’t remember any branch line activity. At 9 o’clock he said he was heading home for supper. “Come with me,” he said. “My wife will be glad to have you join us.” So that’s how I was fed that evening. Just before midnight, the Twin Star Rocket passed on its way to Texas. The westbound Golden State would be next, but the hour was late, and I needed to get back to Lawrence.

The next day, still romanticizing about my experience, I sat down at my typewriter and banged out a feature story for the Kansas City Star. I was its KU correspondent, knew practically the entire staff of both the morning and evening editions, and was well liked. Banking on that well of good will, I send my profile of a lonely country depot that had seen better days to the Star’s state editor and held my breath. Two or three days later, opening the front, or A section, there it was. It was, actually, my first railroad story. Many hundreds more would follow.

So when I saw the green sign on the interstate, it's little wonder that I briefly forgot where I was and where I was going, and wandered down the dim hallways of my past  — Fred W. Frailey

  • Fred, your tales always intrigue, always bring pleasure, and I daresay always make me think of David P. Morgan, which I hope you will take as the high compliment I intend it as.  Although a good deal your junior (born in 1965, as it happens), I had the good fortune to have some of the same sort of experiences, taught how to approach people by my father, a Bronx-born school teacher who likewise walked into interlocking towers, paper mills, and coal mines, stuck out his right hand, introduced himself, and expressed an interest in what the inhabitants did.  Like you, we even got a few meals out of it -- and memories by the score.  Thanks for writing the way you do, and sharing your railroad life with us.

  • Fine, fine work!!

  • Great story. And familiar.

    At a younger age I took to hanging out at the C&IM depot in Manito, IL.  The agent, John Crumb, allowed me to stay around and was more than willing to explain railroading.  Just two trains a day duriing the time the depot was open.  But I learned about waybills, connections and shippers.

    One time an elevator operator came in and wanted cars, Now!  John went to work, but explained:  "He doesn't order a car for six months and then wants me to pull 13 of 'em out of my hat."  The elevator got its cars.

    And one express truck per day.  I remember John giving water to two dogs shipped in by Railway Express.

  • Summer 1961, Carrollton, Texas, Kenneth E. Dafft was the Cotton Belt agent/operator at the SSW depot that also served as a joint Katy/Frisco agency as well.  Ken didn't run off that 15 year old teenage railfan but gave him his first real education into what real railroading was all about.  I had discovered Trains magazine and David P. Morgan's wonderful writing a year before having purchased my first issue off the newsstand at Tampa Union Station in Tampa, Florida.  After a three year hitch with the US Army Transportation Corps, I returned to Texas and hired out on the Cotton Belt as a switchman, working out of the S.P. Miller Yard facility, SSW's operations having been shifted there.  The old SSW yard in downtown Big D was still used to switch local industry though.

    Fred, your book on the Blue Streaks brought back many fond memories of my days spent on the Cotton Belt.  What is the SSW St. Louis-Texas corridor like today under UP?

    As nice as your memories read here I think it is high time to put all in a book and I agree with GG1 4882, you can be compared to the late great David P. Morgan.  He did make Trains, THE magazine of railroading!  Another great editor of the time was Freeman Hubbard at Railroad Magazine.  Hubbard also authored a classic book of railroad stories in Railroad Avenue.  First published in 1945, he, along with Lucius Beebe, helped pioneer the mass produced railroad book market in my opinion.

    Trains hasn't been the same magazine since.  It needs to return to its roots like founder Al Kalmbach intended and let Railway Age continue to report the hard core business and financial side of modern railroading.  A pity Fred, that you didn't assume editorship of Trains when Morgan retired!  It would be more than worth the current cover price which it most certainly isn't today.  With Union Pacific's 150th Anniversary I expected Trains to release a special on UP's historic past and dynamic operations in the 21st Century.  It only netted part coverage in a regular issue of Trains.  A real Bummer!

    As nice as Norfolk Southern's heritage fleet of diesels are, it has been overkilled by the railroad press with Trains even releasing a special publication covering them.  UP deserves more since they started the heritage program and even painted a diesel honoring the Desert Strorm troops years before!  

    Is it any wonder why I cancelled my Trains subscription several years ago?    

  • Great story.  Fred, I note that you took your railfan avocation seriously enough to memorize employee timetables and probably were well on your way to being able to pass a rules test also.  Many railfans are way too comfortable with speculating about the whys and wherefores of railroad operations, when a knowledge of the rules and applicable instructions would indicate completely different explanations than the ones they advance.  That you did the work of studying and asking questions is one of the things that still distinguishes your writing.  It only seemed like fun.

  • Wow, what a nice read as we ease into the end of the year holiday season. So many thoughts come to mind with this post.

    First comes the nostalgia, being old enough to have firsthand memories of when this sort of railroad experience was possible. I recall bicycling across southern Wisconsin with a couple of high school buddies from my Oconomowoc hometown at 16 or so, with La Crosse on the Mississippi River as our destination. Our route took us away from mainline railroading for the most part, although the C&NW fielded a few trains past the Rock Springs ballast quarry into Elroy, WI and beyond. Elroy was only barely a railroad town by that point, but it did have the requisite fleabag RR hotel, which was welcome for washing the road and the ride off, and for having a softer bed than the ground. We then joined the Elroy-Sparta bike trail on former Omaha Road RoW, with grades only easier than the Driftless Region roads we'd been riding, and complete with three short tunnels. Easy to see why the Adams Line took the C&NW traffic away from Elroy.

    Upon reaching La Crosse though, mainline railroading excitement was on tap as I'd be able to experience busy Burlington Northern action for the second time in my life. (The previous summer the biking destination was Prairie Du Chien, and was sufficiently recent from the BN merger that I was able to catch an SD45 in Northern Pacific colors and a Q waycar). The best place to view that action? Of course it would be the "Grand Crossing" diamonds just south of the BN yard where the nearly-as-busy Milwaukee double track main and the C&NW Winona-Rochester-Dakota line all crossed each other forming a triangle. Although the view of the Burlington action from atop Granddad's Bluff was a pretty decent second best. So that's where we hung out, watching trains and checking signal aspects and tracing the armstrong piping to the various turnouts and semaphores and - for me, as I was the sole railfan and my buddies were just humoring me or occasionally biking off elsewhere when bored - picking out of the weeds discarded flimsies and fallen sheets of lithographed Old Style beer can tinplate destined for the Heileman brewery off the MILW.

    The highlight was when the MILW tower operator finally came down the steps to see what we were up to. He was a taciturn and foulmouthed and cynical individual, but not so much so that he would display hostility towards us and run us off the property. Maybe it helped that I showed interest in his job and asked MILW-informed questions that at least weren't totally stupid. He invited us into the tower, which is the one and only time I've ever seen operation of an armstrong interlocker.

    It's probably fortunate for the railroads (but unfortunate for the railfans) that railroad employees today are much too busy and KPI-conscious to spend time shooting the bull with teenage fans. And arguably unfortunate for everyone that trespassing on railroad property is now such a zero tolerance, protect the ignorant-from-themselves endeavor that the keeps the serious, knowledgeable railfan - the kind ideally positioned to being a potentially very effective employee or advocate - separated from the professional.

    Finally, not only have pretty near all of the interlocking towers disappeared, along with the first generation diesels and 40 foot boxcars and cabooses/waycars of my childhood, but Grand Crossing itself now sits in the dank shadows of the massive 90s era Gillette Street overpass and the C&NW tracks and diamonds are long gone (but UP still has rights over CP to reach its otherwise isolated Winona, MN trackage). Such is progress, and that's why in my opinion Trains Magazine in general and Mr. Fred Frailey in particular do a great job of balancing the story of the business rationale of that progress with the aesthetics of and enthusiasm for the big tonnage steel machines we all love.

  • WOW!  the memories this post brought back.  I was a 16 year old at Woodward High Schol in Cincinnati when my friend Frank one day asked me, "So do you like trains?"  Well, yeah, I replied diffidently, not wanting to display my true enthusiasm.  C'mon tonight I'll come pick you up and we'll go see some trains.

    Around 6:30 we hopped into his 65 Chevelle SS and took off for Norwood, not the greatest part of town, and proceeded down by the Fisher Body plant.  He pulled to a stop in the gravel parking lot of the East Norwood  (GK) tower on the old Baltimore and Ohio Chillicothe Division.  Frank goes charging up the stairs and throws open the door, yelling "Hey, howareyadoin' " at the tower operator.  Who looks at us like who the heck are you?  Frank recognizes the guy as being extra board and asks where's ______ tonight?  Then proceeds to ask after several other guys he knew who were on the extra board.  By now the guy opens up after Frank asks about several regular trains and thier movements that evening. After that we became regulars visiting the tower,  If Frank wasn't available, I would ride my bike down there from my home in Bond Hill.  After a while the operators would ask us if we would like to "hoop up" train orders to an approaching train?  Would I???? The excitement of being 16 years old standing on the platform with a diesel locomotive bearing down on you, feeling the ground shaking under you, remembering the admonishment from the tower operator, whatever you do, don't miss!!!  Running back up the stairs to hear the conductor on the radio, "Gee, operators are getting younger all the time".

    One time another extra board operator was in the tower, the switch job from the former Pennsy Flynn yard called to come through the interlocker to move into one of the switch yards on either side of the Fisher Body plant.  The operator was standing there scratching his head staring at the plant trying to figure out the move, when Frank says, "Aw, c'mon that one's easy" and proceeds to start pulling stocks on the plant!  The operator immediately goes into meltdown, "OHMIGOSHWHATAREYOUDOIING" or words to that effect.  Frank slowly and calmly as though speaking to a small child proceeds to explain the move, pointing out each signal and switch, and then pointing to the corresponding switch handle on the plant, explaining the whole sequence of moves the job wanted to meke. Finally the operator says, "OK I guess you do understand this plant, BUTDON"TEVERDOTHATAGAIN!!!"  Eventually, through those same extra board operators we got to visit some of the other towers around Cincinnati.

    I would not be where I am today were it not for those extra board tower operators and thier "intro to railroading".  More's the pity, There is no opportunity for a youngster to be exposed to railroading today like I was then.  Fast forward 22 years, I was in Halifax, Nova Scotia riding on the schooner Blue Nose, when I came upon two gentlemen wearing CNW ball caps talking railroading.  I introduced myself expalining I was nearing the end of my Air Force careeer and was hoping to become a railroader after retirement.  I was met with blank stares.....

  • Wonderful post, Fred. I'm thankful I came up "in the ranks" as a young train watcher just before the door shut on all this good stuff--by the mid-1980s, TWC/DTC, expansion of CTC and increased  computerization had gotten rid of nearly all the interlocking towers, train order offices, and legion of clerks. Another couple rounds of mergers would put the nail in the coffin of smaller dispatching offices in favor of consolidation, "security portals" and magnetic reader cards keeping out those without official business.

    My time spent watching trains, riding with crews and hanging out in dispatching offices and depots in that era bubbled under the surface, to be realized as a second career in life after abandoning my first career out of college. I'm a little sad to say that I've since become a cynical, bitter old head like the guys I used to hang out with.

    Looking back, I marvel at the access us teenage and young adult fans were able to have on the property. I'm guessing that, like your tower operator, many were just flattered that someone would take the time and interest in what they're doing--to want to learn at the ground level how a railroad is operated. And teenagers were less threatening than other adults to veteran rails. .  we clearly weren't officials looking to snare them on a rules violation, nor were we creepy grown ups with nothing better to do than hang out watching trains instead of being home with family, chasing women in bars, or fishing.

    Maybe it's just my middle age, but I get the impression from many young fans that without this access to the "nuts and bolts" of railroading, much of what they have learned and expouse comes from off the internet. . .and you know how accurate that is!

  • I'm glad to say that as one who is middle aged and works for a short line conglomerate, that our owner still wants us to further the interest of young railfans.  I have been personally able to take several on cab rides, into the office to explain operations, dispatching and the other vagaries of modern railroading.  I can also say that most of our employees tolerate young railfans as long as they behave themselves and stay safe.  I'm proud to work for a company that is still trying to keep some of the traditions of railroading going in this modern and very litigous society.  

  • Good article, Fred. Growing up in a suburb north of Minneapolis, I had no access to towers, but lived a couple of blocks from Northern Pacific's Northtown yard. Soon enough I was hanging around the yard office and was invited to ride the switch engine, which I did regularly. It was a flat yard and they kicked cars, which coasted into the various yard tracks. One day they kicked a tank car and it didn't roll very far, coming to a stop on a switch. For reasons that elude me to this day, they didn't shove it off the switch with the engine. Instead, I joined about 4 switchmen and we pushed it into the siding manually.

  • Oh my gosh. That is how I came to know the  T&P agent in Eastland, Tx., Andy Hatton.  And from there on your story  became my story---that is until you changed locations.  This really brings back a flood of memories.  How I wish young boys of today could experience what we did.  I can't help but think the world would be a better place.

    Now everything has become so cold and distant.  And, is isn't just railroads.  To many lawyers and law suits have ruined the innocence of growing up in a friendly world. Impersonal communication is the rule.  You can't even find the office of many companies, all you can find is a 800 number.

    P.S. Ain't that speed limit 70?

    Tom Stamey

  • I agree with several of you, Fred's writing is the best since D P Morgan who would glue your eyes to the printed page.  It was so obvious he enjoyed what he was doing and writing about trains.  Never once did I ever quit reading a story of his until I had read all of it.  Fred leaves me with the same feeling.

    Fred's series on the UP Sunset Route, UP meltdown, and renewing the T&P was captivating, easily understood reading.  It seemed like you were with him when he was gaining all that information.   I have followed Fred's writing a long  time and only once was I  slightly disappointed feeling that we didn't get all the information he could have provided.  Hell, one out of hundred tain't bad.

    But as for editing Trains Magazine--I think his travels would not have allowed him to be glued to that desk.  His blogs are proof enough of that.  If I am wrong, just tell me so.

    Tom Stamey

  • Thanks for this Fred. A lot of people payed attention to a 13 year old in 1965 in my life. It's those people you never forget. Engineers Harry Ball and Fred Corral on CN, Orville Wells and Gordon Penrod  on GN. The kindness these guys showed left an indelible impression in my very young mind. A year later, I met G.Dean Ogle operator, later dispatcher for GN-BN-BNSF at New Westminster BC. We, togother with his wife Marjo and fairly newborn daughter Karen, traversed the Fraser valley looking for the last traces of the VV&E (GN Subsidiary), and chasing some of the last NP FTs south of Sumas Washington. I hope GDO reads this, to understand the esteem I have for him, for putting up with me.

    All the best to you and yours for the Holidays!

    Jack aiple

  • I envy you Tom.  The T&P put on a great show.  I am still at war in my mind with the stupid idiots who ran the State Fair of Texas in Dallas for scrapping T&P #638 back in the mid-50s!  My grandfather took me on top of the tender when I was no taller than a Texas grasshopper.  It was a long long ways from there back down to Planet Earth!  As good as Steve Goen's all color book on the T&P is, it still was a disappointment in that he didn't cover the beautiful Art-Deco General Office/Passenger Station in Ft. Worth or include a color pix of the #638 while on display at Fair Park in Dallas.

    I wrote to David P. several times and he always found time to reply to my replies despite the fact I was a young teenage railfan and didn't write a fancy letter on a typewriter.  He left the desk and went out on the road and still found time to burn a lot of midnight oil to get the next issue of Trains out on time.  These were the days of typewriters too, no computer in sight!  His trips with the late great Phil Hastings recording the last of steam in America and the articals he wrote on them are priceless pieces of literature at its finest!

    With computers and ipods today, Fred could easily get away from the office and go out on the road and put out a great magazine each month.  His book on the Cotton Belt Blue Streak freights still brings back fond memories of my days when I switched for the SSW in both Dallas and Ft. Worth in the late 60s.  Thanks again Fred for a great book!  It deserves a Golden Spike Award!

  • Tom and Trinity River,

    The Texas & Pacific was a big favorite of mine, and the route under Union Pacific remains so. It got within 35 miles of my home town. Plus, I was able to take two trips from Mineola to Midland at ages 11 and 12, and images in my mind of those experiences remain vivid. The line was almost an abandonment candidate west of Odessa before the SP-UP merger. Prior to that, competition between the two railroads prevented through traffic. Post merger it is seeing maybe 20 trains a day - a huge change.

    Trinity River, the State Fair scrapped the T&P locomotive because it had been abused and vandalized to the point of embarrassment to the railroad, which paid to buy and put on exhibit a sister locomotive from New York Central. Of course, you probably knew this.

    Merry Christmas to all.


The education of a train watcher