Yes, It Is Cold

Posted by John Hankey
on Friday, January 5, 2018

In winter, and especially during this kind of cold snap, my thoughts run to the folks whose work takes them outdoors in often harsh conditions. Yard men, track men signal maintainers, trainmen unlucky enough to have to flag a mainline train—a great deal of railroading remains outside work. And by definition, railroad work unfolds 24/7, 365 days a year, in all weather. I often imagine what outside railroad work was like 100 or 150 years ago, before we had warm clothing.

The nasty Nor’easter that plowed up the East Coast this week brought back memories of 1982 or 1983. As usual in winter, I had been cut from a regular fireman’s job, and as was my habit, bid on a cat eye hostling job at Chessie’s Riverside Terminal in Baltimore.

Keep in mind that 35 years ago, we had no Internet, Weather Channel, or the foul weather gear available today. Local TV and radio stations kept up a steady drumbeat of warning. We were facing a nasty, extended cold spell with overnight lows in the naughts and wind chill effects even lower. For us, that was really, really cold and unusual.

Exposed flesh would freeze within 20 seconds. Unprotected ears would go solid and break off within a minute. Noses could be lost in a single blast of polar wind, and hypothermia was, at best, an embarrassing way to go west (they wouldn’t even find your bleached bones in the ditch beside the tracks until the Spring thaw). The advice was unrelenting, and grim. Collectively, we were weather weenies.

I remember one night shift in particular, when it was to be especially cold overnight. At “new” Riverside (the replacement terminal for “old” Riverside, a typical early 20th century locomotive facility), we had a reasonably nice locker room heated to whatever temperature we chose. There were cafeteria tables where laborers, machinists, electricians, hostlers, and outbound crews could gather between work.

Outside were the fuel rack, sand tower, receiving track, outbound tracks, and whatever else we needed. It was a compact layout and everyone knew their jobs. There was a mix of “regular” work (getting the Budd cars and locomotives ready for the morning commuter trains), predictable work (servicing power from Baltimore Terminal’s yard jobs and transfer runs), and the varying consists from scheduled and extra mainline freights. Sometimes we switched Riverside Shop, the light repair facility a quarter mile to the east.

That night, it seemed that everyone on the cat eye trick came in wearing every article of clothing they owned. Layering was the advice we heard, and layer we did, probably directed by concerned wives and girlfriends.

The norm seemed to be a couple layers of underwear, followed by two layers of pants and shirts. Then a vest or jacket of some sort, followed by a heavy coat. Ideally you had boots large enough for two pairs of socks, and an inner and outer set of gloves. Scarves, hats, and ski masks seemed essential to survival.

One by one, the ten or so guys on the Third Trick Ready Track crew filtered into the break room beginning about 10:50. Folks at Riverside tended to be “minute men”—most everyone got there just before the start of their shifts and hoped to leave a few minutes before the start of the next one. But no work was ever left undone. We even sometimes stayed over without claiming extra time. That was the “deal” with the Company.

Normally, the real work—the actual outside tasks—got underway around 11:30, after new coffee had been made, orders and instructions checked, lunches prepared, and so on. Once in a while there would be a round of Pitch or Hearts played, or the little B&W TV would come out of a locker and an episode of Star Trek watched. In fairness, more nights than not we didn’t get mid-shift “lunch,” because the rhythms of the night simply didn’t allow it.

That night the hats and coats came off. But after a little while, it was still too warm inside, so the door was propped open. That helped a bit, but after a few more minutes, we decided to go out and begin the night’s work. It was just too uncomfortable inside while being dressed for outside.

Are you familiar with the advertising character “Michelin Man”? That is what we all looked like, and it was a problem. Or the first of several.

I literally could not lift either leg high enough to make the first step of a locomotive. Machinists couldn’t bend down to inspect or change brake shoes. Laborers did not have the flexibility to make it to the sand tower or manipulate the hoses. Bending down to throw a switch was difficult. After a half hour or so, it dawned on us that we physically could not do our work because we were so constrained by the many layers our wives and girlfriends (or fear) had stuffed us into.

We also noticed that we were sweating. It was perhaps ten degrees outside, and we were more at risk of dehydration than hypothermia. None of us were standing a half-mile behind a stalled train in a blizzard ready to flag an oncoming movement. We were bustling around outside, and usually moving between cold and warm spaces.

Locomotive cabs were always somewhere between toasty and oppressively hot. Baltimore Division engineers would not accept a lead locomotive without a toilet or adequate heat, however often the Power Bureau tried to foist off Seaboard System engines with neither.

By midnight, the strip show had begun. Over the next few hours, the break room became littered with clothing as, one-by-one, everyone shed layers. The pace of work picked up because we could again move in productive ways. The cold seemed bracing rather than life threatening, and we all worked hard to both stay warm and get back inside as efficiently as possible.

As usual, we were largely done the night’s work by six or six-thirty. Some of the commuter trains had been dispatched and a few remained on the ready tracks. Everything else was done, and we were pulling layers back on. The darkest night is just before dawn, and even cat eye owls got cold just before the sun came up.

We learned a useful lesson. We didn’t so much fear the cold—at least so long as the little oil furnace in the utility room next to the break room seemed happy. And there were always locomotive cabs.

Still, when you read accounts of winter railroad work in years past, consider the harsh conditions they had to contend with. When today you hear reports of nasty weather, think of the railroaders out there making the trains run—maybe on reduced schedules, and maybe not on time. But they are doing their level best to see that they run at all. That part of railroading hasn’t changed in a very long time.

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