Investing sweat equity and reaping dividends

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Friday, June 23, 2017

I was rousted awake at 4:30 AM on Saturday morning. I was aching all over, and my weekend of volunteer manual labor had barely started. I had managed to sleep for three hours sitting (well, slumping) in a lounge chair on the Wisconsin Valley, an ex-Milwaukee Road car belonging to the Friends of the 261 in Minneapolis. The car was sitting in the Rocket Yard, Metra’s former Rock Island coach yard on Chicago’s south side. It had arrived there at 8:30 PM on Friday night as part of the consist for weekend excursions powered by a certain 2-8-4 Berkshire from Fort Wayne. 

NKP 765 pulls Sunday evening's deadhead move to the Rocket Yard over the Englewood Flyover on Chicago's South Side. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.
I had been up till 1:00 AM cleaning and readying the train, assisting a fellow Millennial who is an eight-year veteran of logistics management for private railcars and excursions. He invited me to assist him for what turned out to be my first hands-on experience as a crew member on a passenger train (other than operating streetcars at the Baltimore Streetcar Museum). I’ve enjoyed watching and riding trains all my life, and I’ve worked in connection with railroads for eight years, but only in white-collar capacities. I figured it was time to get my hands dirty and experience all that it takes to run a passenger train. And I certainly gained a renewed appreciation for those who put long hours and sweat every week into giving people safe, comfortable and enjoyable travel by rail.

Among the insights I gained as I walked the entirety of the “Joliet Rocket” back and forth dozens of times each day is that every time you think your work is done for the time being and you can then rest a bit, there’s always something else that needs doing — trash that needs emptying, floors that need sweeping, supplies that need to get from one car to the other, a passenger who needs special assistance. Five times each day, during two round-trips between Joliet and Chicago’s LaSalle Street Station, my partner and I manned one of the vestibules, dropping and buttoning up the traps, making sure no passengers boarded or detrained before permission was given,  and helping people of all ages and physical conditions negotiate the steps.

Another fact of life on the high iron that you quickly learn to deal with is to hurry up and wait. The railroad moves at its own pace, especially when it comes to switching and yard moves. This is sometimes done surprisingly quickly (as it was at the completion of the final trip on Sunday evening), and sometimes takes hours, as it did Friday evening. Apparently after No. 765 had pushed the train onto the designated yard track, it was realized that the existing frog at the switch to that track could not handle the 200-ton Berkshire, so we waited three hours without head-end power while a track crew replaced the frog. At this and other times, we got used to working in dark, sweltering cars using flashlights. (At least the Wisconsin Valley, which served as our home base, had its generator on.)

NKP 765 awes the crowds on Track 7 at Chicago's LaSalle Street Station. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.
With each successive round-trip, my partner and I had a routine down. After standing at a vestibule for the entirety of the dwell time at either end, we would make a run through the train just after passing through Blue Island, Ill. — one of us sweeping soot and cinders from the vestibules, the other picking up trash from all the restrooms (usually also taking refuse from passengers while passing through the aisles). Approaching Joliet, we would gather at the vestibule where we were to unload all four First Class cars and two Deluxe Coach cars (all those cars could not make the short Metra platform there, but on the Sunday trips we were allowed to occupy the diamond with CN/BNSF just west of the platform in order to berth more cars). Approaching LaSalle Street, we would gather at the dome car’s vestibule before the train was split in half, with No. 765 pulling First Class cars onto track 7 and the Metra diesel at the rear pushing coach cars onto track 8.

At the end of Saturday’s second run, arriving at Joliet about 8:30 PM, a line of thunderstorms we had been watching on the radar started to enter. We donned rain jackets, fully expecting ourselves and disembarking passengers to be drenched on the platform. Luckily, it only rained lightly while we unloaded. Once the vestibules were buttoned up, we could enjoy the deadhead run back to the Rocket Yard. And what a run it was! 

Picture being in a dome car with the lights out, rolling through the night at full track speed (up to 70 mph) behind mainline steam. Now picture that in the midst of a raging thunderstorm, lightning flashing every ten seconds and rain pelting at the glass. I could feel the power of the locomotive coming face to face with nature’s power as we blasted through small downtowns and deserted Metra stations. This was one of the rewarding moments of the trip that made all the necessary toil worthwhile.

The ex-New York Central Hickory Creek, once part of 20th Century Limited consists that began and ended their runs at this same station, is tied up at LaSalle Street Station alongside Metra trains bringing commuters in on Monday morning. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.
I also managed to find time to catch up with several people I know who were on board, including Trains editor Jim Wrinn and fellow contributor Hayley Enoch (who has blogged about her experience on the engine crew), and Aberdeen, Carolina and Southern Railroad Owner & Chairman Bob Menzies, a fellow member of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. The final treat came at the very end, after we returned to the Rocket Yard Sunday evening and the train was about to be split up so the equipment could go various ways. That’s when Norm, the owner of the Tioga Pass (one of the two sleeping cars in the excursion consist, the other being the New York Central round-end Hickory Creek), kindly invited my partner and me to spend the night on his car, saving us the cost of a hotel. It and the other first class cars wound up being pushed onto track 1 at LaSalle Street to spend the night connected to ground power there. Amtrak then picked them up mid-day Monday and brought them over to the Roosevelt Road coach yard via the St. Charles Air Line.

Towards the end of Saturday, I was so exhausted that I started to doubt I would ever volunteer to do this kind of work again. But now that it’s all over, it’s something I think I’d enjoy doing more — but may not have the stamina to do more than a handful of times a year. It’s important for someone who values a particular experience (for me, the pleasure of train travel) and is able, to pitch in to help make the experience possible. One can do this with money, but when you contribute your own muscle and sweat equity, you will deepen your appreciation for all that goes into making it possible.

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