Watching the bulls run on CSX (sort of)

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Planning a drive up the Atlantic coast from Jacksonville, Fla., more or less on U.S. 301, I realize that no fewer than six high-priority trains leave Savannah, Ga., for Jacksonville on CSX between about 3 and 7 a.m., with a seventh train bringing up the rear a bit later in the morning. So I say to myself, let’s watch this run of the bulls. I set my alarm for 3:30 a.m.

The trains I’m speaking of and their CSX symbols are these (in roughly their order of appearance):
Q741, Philadelphia-Jacksonville containers and empty Tropicana orange juice refrigerated boxcars headed from northern New Jersey to Bradenton, Fla. Scheduled from Savannah at 4:45 a.m., it usually runs one to five hours earlier.
P053, the Auto Train, informally scheduled by Savannah at 4 a.m., but regularly passes an hour earlier.
P091, the New York-Miami Silver Star, scheduled to depart Savannah at 4:34 a.m.

, northern New Jersey-Jacksonville intermodal, due by Savannah at 5:15 a.m. and generally doing so about then.
Q103, Charleston, S.C.-Jacksonville intermodal, due from East Savannah at 5:55 a.m. but sometimes jumping the gun two or three hours.
P097, the New York-Miami Silver Meteor, due to leave Savannah at 6:50 a.m.
Three to four hours later comes Q181, an intermodal train operated between Charlotte, N.C., and Jacksonville. And running against all these trains is Q104, due to leave Jacksonville at 3:30 a.m. for Savannah and Charleston. Pity its crew!
I leave my hotel at 3:50 on a Monday, headed for Folkston, Ga., 25 minutes away. Folkston is about two hours running time from Savannah for intermodal trains, a few minutes less for passenger runs. There is no Q741 or Q181 scheduled going by on Mondays, so already seven trains become five. The first thing I hear on the radio is Q171 calling a signal south of Folkston; it’s more than three hours ahead of its usual time, and now five southbound trains become four.
I’m almost in Folkston when I hear Q103 calling the home signal. Who is letting all these bulls out of the corral early? I never see it. In fact, I’m lucky to get to Folkston just as its counterpart, Q104, heads north toward Charleston. I go north beside it on nearby 301.

Beside me, my laptop is running ATCS Monitor, software that in conjunction with a wireless modem gives me train locations and signal aspects on this, the Nahunta Subdivision. ATCS Monitor doesn’t identify trains it sees, but it’s pretty obvious at 4:15 that the southbound train that just passed McIntosh, Ga., is the Auto Train. McIntosh and Folkston are 80 miles apart, the Auto Train and Q104 both are authorized 70 mph, and splitting the difference would place their meet at Hortense, Ga. But Q104, with one locomotive and an 8,400-foot train, won’t be making 70 mph and is inferior. So back off one siding toward Folkston and the meet should be at Nahunta, Ga.
Sure enough, the dispatcher lines Q104 into the siding at Nahunta. As the Auto Train approaches the north switch, its headlight refracts off the ground fog, making it appear dawn has arrived an hour early. At the last moment, the signal changes from yellow (approach) to green (clear), meaning that Q104 is finally tucked away, and the two P42 locomotives growl as they ramp up. P053 is past me at 5:05 a.m. with 16 passenger cars and 30 automobile cars.
Fifty minutes ago on ATCS Monitor, another southbound train was just behind the Auto Train at McIntosh, and a third train was lined into the Savannah station, obviously the Silver Star. The middle train goes into the siding at Jesup, Ga., midway between Savannah and Folkston, to be passed there by the Star. Now Q104 seems to take forever leaving Nahunta. The Star is making 79 mph, there’s nothing to slow it down but a curve in Jesup, and any way I look at it, Q104 can do no better than to hop one siding north, to Hortense. Again, the dispatcher agrees. The Star catches an approach signal at the north end of that siding as Q104 snakes its way in, and glides by me at 5:36 a.m.
The train passed by P091 turns out to be U148, a unit train that shuttles coal between a mine in Loyall, Ky., and a power plant in Park, Fla. It follows the Star south and waits in the siding for Q104 at Broadhurst, Ga., midway between Jesup and Hortense.

That leaves only P097, the Silver Meteor, to see of those seven would-be southbound bulls. Well, I screw it up. In my defense, it’s difficult to get from highway to railroad in the 30 miles east of Savannah, and I confess to running into a McDonald’s for a burrito. The Meteor slips past me about 7:15 before I can devise a plan. Stomach 1, Trainwatching 0. By the way, having slowed the Auto Train and Silver Star, Q104 brings the Meteor to a halt for a couple of minutes at South Ogeechee, where a two-track segment begins.
I'm not at all unhappy about this experience. I enjoy myself, and having ATCS Monitor show me where everything is becomes a huge help. It’s fun to play dispatcher and find that the real dispatcher makes the decisions I would. And I learn how to make this more enjoyable the next time; for example, I’ll pick a midweek morning and overnight right in Folkston. If you beat me to it, and watch the bulls run before I report back, let us know how it goes for you. — Fred W. Frailey

To leave a comment you must be a member of our community.
Login to your account now, or register for an account to start participating.
No one has commented yet.

Join our Community!

Our community is FREE to join. To participate you must either login or register for an account.

Search the Community

Newsletter Sign-Up

By signing up you may also receive occasional reader surveys and special offers from Trains magazine.Please view our privacy policy