One Wild Ride

Posted by John Hankey
on Wednesday, January 10, 2018

I’ve had some interesting experiences out on the railroad. By far, the wildest ride I ever experienced was a trip over the Chicago & North Western in late Spring of 1991.

 The B&O Railroad Museum had sent a few pieces out to participate in Railfair ’91, the tenth Anniversary of the opening of the California State Railroad Museum. Our contribution was the operating replica of the “Tom Thumb,” the operating replica of the 1837 Norris 4-2-0 “Lafayette,” and a sort-of replica of an 1830 Imlay coach—something like a double decker stagecoach on railroad wheels.

 CSX, which had formed the new B&O Railroad Museum Foundation a couple of years before,  provided an 89 foot flat car for the replicas, rail transportation to and from interchange with UP, and helped coordinate gratis transportation from Chicago to and from Sacramento.

The railroad also sent its exhibit car West Virginia (a converted 1950s ACF Army hospital car) and a modern CSX caboose to represent Eastern railroading. The West Virginia featured an exhibit describing the newly-reimagined corporate structure of CSX. The caboose was something people could climb on and experience “real railroading.” In mid-1991, cabooses were being phased out railroad-by-railroad. They apparently were no longer used on Chicago & North Western mainline trains.

 We had some trouble getting the equipment to Sacramento. In western Indiana, a thunderstorm microburst had hit the train and damaged the replica Imlay coach, skinning off the top deck of the car. What arrived in Sacramento was essentially a single level stage coach body on railroad wheels, minus the picturesque upper bits.

The CSX caboose did not show up at Railfair until near the conclusion of the event. It seems that UP needed a caboose in Pocatello, Idaho, and somewhere around Salt Lake City simply commandeered the CSX car and sent it north. That made me wonder at the time: How does one railroad simply steal a waybilled car from another railroad? As I recall, they had telephones in 1991.

 Our contact at CSX was Gordon Mott, a senior staffer in the C suite in Jacksonville. Gordon had come up on Burlington Northern and was a delightful, effective, genuinely engaged colleague. He was a good friend of the new B&O Museum.

 He flew out to enjoy the last few days of Railfair ’91. I recall, on the Fair’s final day, mentioning the troubles we had had getting the equipment out there. Gordon had used his contacts to find the errant CSX caboose on UP and get it to Sacramento. He apparently had also quietly worked with UP to coordinate the movement of both railroads’ equipment back home. He asked if someone should accompany the CSX and Museum’s cars going east.

 At that point, I was exhausted, thick as a green oak tie, and not at all grasping what he was suggesting. So he tried again.

 Would it be prudent to have Museum staff accompany the CSX and Museum equipment on the return move to Baltimore,” he asked (or something like that).  He pointed out that the West Virginia would provide suitable staff transportation.

 I got it. I remember answering to the effect that if a senior CSX operating officer was directing me, as B&O Railroad Museum Chief Curator, to personally oversee the safe and expeditious movement of CSX and Museum equipment eastward, I would do so. I had come up on the old B&O--Orders were orders.

 There is much more to the story, but in early June I found myself, along with Harold Dorsey (one of the Museum’s ace restoration staff) in CNW’s Council Bluff yard.  We had come east on the WP and UP through Omaha.

 UP assembled a Hospital Train at the old WP yard in Sacramento, lead by UP Centennial Diesel 6936 (one of its fabled DDA40x road units). It pulled a couple of UP office or exhibit cars, a flat car carrying No. 1243 (the little UP ten-wheeler now in the Durham Museum in Omaha) our flat car carrying the replicas, the recovered CSX caboose, and the West Virginia. We slowly worked our way east as an extra, sitting in sidings for anything that might remotely earn money for the railroad. It was a delightful few days.

 The West Virginia was a utility car in the CSX business train fleet. The large central room that once housed hospital bunks was an exhibit or hospitality area, often set up at at events like the Kentucky Derby or for Clinchfield Santa trains. CSX had retained and updated the car’s compact kitchen.

The car had two single-berth roomettes (originally for medical staff), a shower, upgraded diesel generator, full HVAC, and a very nice open platform carved out of the former vestibule. It was classed as an Office Car, and aside from sharing the large room with a boxed up exhibit, it offered the same basic amenities. Harold and I were our own crew.

 The train operated as an extra as far east as Council Bluffs. At that point, UP cut its cars out and handed us off to CNW, which was still an independent railroad (UP absorbed it four years later). This was a period of incredible merger activity in the railroad industry, with UP almost literally reinventing itself for a third time.

 By that point in the trip, I had the routine down pat. Wherever we stopped, I would find the Yardmaster or Trainmaster and remind him (no “hers” then) that we were an occupied Office Car and go over the paperwork. Gordon Mott had done a splendid job of issuing transportation orders, and UP was conscientious and cordial. We got diesel fuel, fresh water, ice, brake shoes, and whatever else we required at every opportunity. If we needed groceries (it was a long trek east), a jitney got us to and from the nearest store.

 At Council Bluffs, I thought we had a clear understanding with the local CNW folks. Unlike UP or CSX, they didn’t have sufficient railroad handy-talkies to give us one for the trip, and our Museum radios couldn’t speak CNW. They put us on the end of the train rather than against the locomotives. The Yardmaster/Trainmaster swore that everyone on the crew, and up-and-down the line, understood that there was an occupied Office Car on the hind end.

 Except that they didn’t.

 A Council Bluffs yard man or carman did the air test from the hind end, got into his truck, and left us after a brief exchange. We departed after dark and began the trek over CNW’s two-track main line through Iowa. I had never been to Iowa before, and like most innocent Easterners, assumed it was mostly flat. Iowa is anything but flat, as Harold and I learned that night.

 If you look at UP’s main line from Omaha to Chicago today, you see a superb physical plant. Ribbon rail, deep, traditionally pink Wisconsin ballast, and excellent line and level keep traffic moving fast and smoothly. Like the rest of the UP system, it is a textbook example of a super railroad.

 Things were different 26 years ago. That route was part of a rapidly shrinking, seriously challenged Midwestern road spinning toward an uncertain future. Like the Rock Island and Milwaukee, CNW seemed too big to fail, but caught in a kind of death spiral. The end of the ICC and new Surface Transportation Board were five years into the future. At that point, UP simply handed traffic off for the CNW haul east and probably hoped for the best. And what a ride it was.

 On the old B&O, they taught us how to “stretch brake” or “power brake.” That was the art of keeping the slack stretched out and under control by simultaneously braking a train lightly with air while pulling it through curves and up and down hills. That gave the engineer exquisite control and minimized slack run-in and run-out.

 But that manner of running also used up a lot of brake shoes and fuel. By the mid-1980s stretch braking had been either discouraged or outright outlawed in favor of dynamic braking. Freight generally didn’t care if it was banged around a bit. That was the worry of the Freight Claims Department, and they could always blame lading damage on the shipper.

 A lack of concern for slack action was apparent on the constantly up-and-down line of the CNW across Iowa that night. At the end of our train, slack viciously ran in and ran out. It was like a giant game of whiplash. Technically, it was near instantaneous acceleration in one direction followed by near instantaneous deceleration in the other. On the B&O, hind end crews would quickly let us know if they were having a rough ride. In this case, the head end didn’t even know we were there.

 Then there were line and level. At least part of that route was stick rail with low joints, and even the sections of welded rail had serious issues. Our car bounced, swayed, jostled, hunted, slammed from side to side, and found ways to move abruptly through space in ways that I did not imagine possible for a steel vehicle weighing 120,000 pounds.

 Independently (for it did not seem safe to open the roomette doors and try to communicate), Harold and I arranged our bedding in defensive ways. We found what handholds we could, and rode it out. We may have had snatches of sleep; I don’t recall.

 I wanted to pull the air on whoever was beating us up so badly. But that would have meant going out onto the open platform to reach the back up valve, or traversing the length of the car to get to the “A” end Conductor’s valve. Neither seemed like a good idea at the time. At least in the roomettes, we had cushioning. We must have stopped briefly to change crews, but there was no way to communicate with anyone. That might have been when we had a few minutes sleep.

In the dawn’s early light, we slowed to a stop. Harold and I quickly dressed and went out onto the platform, just as the train began backing through a crossover. The look on the face of the brakeman when he saw us appear was priceless—surprise, consternation, horror, and whatever else might enter the mind of someone who did not expect to see two people on the platform of an occupied Office Car at the end of a long, roughly handled freight train.

 We backed through a crossover onto the westbound track to get in the clear for some other train. I don’t recall whether it was a faster eastbound, or a wrong-running westbound.

 When we later pulled east through the crossover to continue our journey, I dropped off to have a word with the brakeman. I explained that we had had a pretty rough night, and wondered if they could take it a little easier. Then the train backed westward to pick up the brakeman at the head end. it was a lengthy, complex process.

 We made Chicago at some point that afternoon with a much smoother ride. After a grocery trip to a nearby Dominick’s supermarket, we got cut into a transfer run to CSX’s Barr Yard for the last leg to Baltimore over home rails.

 The trip east on the old B&O was peculiar for so many reasons. But that is a different story, and at least we didn’t fear for our lives.

 Railroading was so very different then. And it wasn’t even that long ago.


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