Just when you think tourist railroading is tame, watch out

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The problem: the tree has come to rest on the train. The solution: Mr. Chainsaw to the rescue! Jim Wrinn photo

 

First off, I swear to you: I did not see the tree coming. I wish I could say that I did, because I've always prided myself as having eagle eyes (and I did spot that guy in the tracks near Santa Cruz last year). But it was Sean on the right side of the cab who saw the tree directly in our path. He manipulated the 24RL brake to bring our train to a smooth but abrupt halt at the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad on a late April Saturday morning. A good train load of passengers probably didn't even notice, and Conductor Alan Rice even called and asked, "No. 800, why are we stopped?"

We were in the cab of a 1959 FPA4 that is painted for Baltimore & Ohio and numbered 800 but is surely an ex-Canadian National unit that found an afterlife on VIA Rail. We'd left the Canal Visitor Center and were headed to Akron. We were talking about the beauty of this area, which is a gorgeous National Park, with hiking, bicycling, skiing, and of course, the train ride. We'd watched birds, snapping turtles, runners, cyclists, and observed a lot of high water in the river from torrential rains. 

The crew was all volunteer: Sean is Sean Veney, a biology professor at Kent State and a student engineer this day under veteran Tim Osyk, a retired Ford motor company machinist. I was riding on the left-hand side of the cab with Craig Sanders, president of the Akron Railroad Club, and brakeman Charlie Hosta. Rolling down a tangent, Sean spotted and called out the tree, which was hanging horizontally over the tracks about cab height. The hiss of air filled the cab. My first thought: "DUCK!" Yes, the nose of an Alco cab unit is a formidable determent to a tree trunk about waist thick, but when you hit one of those things you never know what it will do. My initial worry was that it could smash the windshield or come flying through the side window on Sean's side. As we approached the tree, I dropped down under the "dash" as apparently did everyone else. The tree struck the nose, bounced up and by the time we got stopped in front of the Botzum station, it was resting on top of the former Florida East Coast round end observation that was in this day's consist behind the power car. Miraculously, the tree did not shear off the airhorns or the bell, both of which would have severed an air line and made the rest of our trip to Akron a real problem. 

"So does anyone have a chainsaw?" I asked, immediately recalling a ride in the cab of a C420 (I wonder: Do Alcos and trees have something out for each other?) with my pal, Dick Renker, a few years back on the Medina Railroad Museum's train where the chainsaw was on another unit and nobody could be reached via phone or radio to bring it to us. That day in New York State we found every able-bodied trainman and physically dragged and shoved the tree off the rails. On this day in Ohio, Hosta just stepped into the nose of the unit and pulled out the chainsaw. A few minutes later, we were watching the offending tree reduced to fire wood. And then, we were on our way.

Every time I hear someone talk about how museum or tourist railroads aren't real, I think about incidents like this. A train is still a train, no matter what it is pulling, who is running it, or whatever the conditions may be. It's still a dangerous but exciting job, one in which everyone is best to remember the admonition from the rulebooks to "be ever vigilant."  

Earlier in the day, I'd met 91-year-old Claude Cooper, a retired bus driver who'd started volunteering on the railroad six years ago after his wife passed away. "I really like working out here," he remarked on the way from the shop to the depot. "The people are great, and there's always something new."  Truer words were never spoken. 

 

If you can't see the slideshow, click here.

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