Covered wagons Redux

Posted by Roy Blanchard
on Thursday, January 6, 2011

Posted by Roy Blanchard

It’s quite a treat to climb into the cab of a 50-year-old F-unit and go tooling along at sixty-plus over a piece of railroad one first rode as a teenager behind E7s. The sensations are all there — no sound insulation from the horn or bell noises, the smells are right, and the view is correct. The only alteration to the control stand is the 21st century radio unit — the box above the engineer’s left hand. Finishing out the sense of a time-warp is the D-22  brake valve and the side window cranks that look like they must have come from  1955 Chevrolet Bel Air.

The power in question is one of a pair of ex-Canadian National FP9s in charge of Pan Am Railways’ office car special. These units were essentially F9As with four feet of extra length to accommodate a larger steam generator and commensurate water supply for passenger service. Fifty-four of them were built in Canada between 1954 and 1959; Pan Am’s units wore CN numbers 6505 and 6516 and are now Pan Am Nos. 1 and 2, respectively. No. 1 is my ride on this day. And what a treat it was. 

It all came about because I was visiting Pan Am Rail’s East Deerfield Yard in north central Massachusetts to get a better look at the railroad track structure rehab work being done in conjunction with the Pan Am Southern joint venture with Norfolk Southern. Ed Motte, Pan Am’s Transportation vice president, had told me how much more quickly crews were getting over the road thanks to this work and went into some detail concerning the operating plan he was putting together to capitalize on this greater fluidity. I had to go see it. 

Motte met me at the East Deerfield Yard Office one gray November day and we covered the yard itself plus the rehab work done all the way to Gardner, site of the Providence & Worcester interchange, 40 miles east. The plan was for me to call Pan Am Railways President David Fink when done with Motte to confirm meeting up with him the next day to debrief and cover other business. You can imagine my surprise and delight when David suggested I meet up with him and a few of his office associates to ride the rails behind the Fs from Rigby Yard in Portland, Maine to Lawrence, Mass.  

This is the same route that Amtrak’s “Downeaster” service traverses in it five round-trips per day between Boston and Portland. It’s the same ex-Boston & Maine route that hosted such name trains as the “Flying Yankee,” the “Kennebec” and the “East Wind,” all mainline varnish accommodations. My first experience with this railroad was nearly 60 years ago when my School chum, John Sinnott, asked me to join him at his family cabin on the rock-bound coast of Maine for a week. Naturally I took the train up, booking a round-trip to Bangor from my Hartford, Connecticut home. (The Hartford-Boston leg was on an RDC via Willimantic, a ride you can’t take anymore because the 30 miles of railroad east from Hartford are gone.)   

So here I am on a gray November dawn at the MBTA’s sprawling Lawrence (Mass.) Transportation Center facility *** five-story parking garage, piling into a Pan Am Rail van with David and about a dozen staffers for the ride up I-95 to Portland’s Rigby Yard to catch our train.  I’ve no sooner climbed aboard the obs when David says, “You want to see the locomotives?” And so we go up to the head end to make introductions and marvel at the Waterville shop crew’s meticulous restoration job. (These units had been in tourist service on the Conway Scenic Railroad in New Hampshire before coming to Pan Am). 

Pretty soon it’s time to go and I’m invited to take the “fireman’s seat” and stick around for the 92-mile dash to Lawrence. My hosts in the cab are Jamie Robinson and Jason Strout (pictured), both road foremen for Pan Am. In a reverse move, we shove our two-unit, two car (business car No. 100, a 1916 American Car & Foundry product built for Norfolk & Western, and business car No. 101, a 1950 Pullman-Standard product built for Chesapeake & Ohio) train out onto the main and wait for the CP 199 home signal to clear. It does in short order and we’re off. 

The sound brings back fond memories in a heartbeat. I’m told that Conway Scenic had removed the transition mechanism for its slow-speed operation but the clever lads in Waterville had brought that key piece of technology back to life. No doubt. Even with our small train you can hear the 16-cylinder 567C prime movers going through the steps and in no time we’re up to track speed. 

It’s a beautifully maintained and manicured railroad. The track charts tell us the line was re-railed with 115-lb rail and retied in 2000, all part of the “Downeaster” program to restore the Boston-Portland passenger accommodation. Mileposts are from Mattawamkeag, Maine (“Keag” for short), the northern end of Pan Am predecessor Maine Central. It’s a single-track Rule-261 railroad with approach-lit wayside automatic block signals. Control points and mile-long (or even longer) passing sidings are spaced out at suitable intervals to keep traffic fluid.  For example, we take the runarounds well in advance of the meets at two locations to let the northbound Amtrak trains through without ever slowing down the paying customers. 

We pass numerous active industries and branch lines along the way, telling me the freight business is alive and well. Right out of Rigby are two customers doing paper, lumber, and plywood. Another ten miles and we see another pair of building products customers and a corn sweetener receiver.  

The Saco Industrial Park lead, MP 210, is the stub-end of the former Boston-Portland line of the Eastern Railroad, a Boston & Maine predecessor, with three more industrial products customers. At CP 241, two miles north of Dover, we see one of the New Hampshire North Coast’s four-axle units with an aggregates train waiting for interchange. The busy Portsmouth Branch comes in at Rockingham, MP256, and we see the local just east of us approaching the diamond across the main, which we occupy. 

All too soon we’re on the MBTA at the Massachusetts-New Hampshire State line, MP 274 for Pan Am Rail and MP 36 (miles from Boston North Station) on “the T.” I elect to go back to the cars for the final 10 miles to Lawrence — I can’t remember how long it’s been since I walked through the engine room of a live E or F unit at speed. But the sounds, smells and sights were as they should be. And all was right with the world. Thanks, Pan Am Railways, for a delightful day that brought back fond memories and left me even more new ones. 

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