The apocalyptic railroad

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, August 2, 2011

As is their habit, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse today strode up and down the North End Subdivision of CSX, 123.2 miles of action-packed railroad extending from Richmond, Va., to Rocky Mount, N.C. For those of you who haven’t met the Four Horsemen, their names are War, Famine, Pestilence and Unexpected Delay. I witnessed (or was involved in) numerous interactions with these visitors from hell.

The first affected train, No. 79, Amtrak’s southbound Carolinian to Charlotte, N.C., arrived at Staples Mill Station in Richmond at 1:05 p.m., five minutes before the scheduled departure. Then it sat, and sat, and sat, not leaving until 55 minutes later. I know this because Julie, the automated agent, told me. But I don’t know why the Four Horsemen grounded the train so long. My train-watching friend Al DiCenso suggested that a union meeting was in progress — in other words, that the inbound and outbound operating crews were exchanging gossip. I think they were probably forced to groom the four horses.

Anyway, the dispatcher in Florence, S.C., established a meet between a preceding southward train, No. 89, the Palmetto to Savannah, Ga. and train 80, the northbound Carolinian from Charlotte, at the end of two main tracks in Emporia, Va. Trouble was, the Four Horsemen got there first and caused the ghost image of a Norfolk Southern train to appear on the dispatcher’s display where the two railroads cross. Thus, he could not clear the home signal at the crossing.

So the assistant conductor of train 89 walked to the signal shack. Then began a series of at least three six-minute countdowns. Why three? I haven’t the slightest idea. But I do know that those pesky Horsemen caused a 90-minute delay to the Palmetto. And while it sat at the NS diamond doing countdowns, northbound No. 80 sat 2.2 miles to the south waiting its passage. Meanwhile, two northbound freights crept behind No. 80 on the double track.

And when the Palmetto finally headed south from Emporia, it was No. 80’s turn to run the Four Horsemen’s gauntlet at the NS crossing. More six-minute countdowns. I walked up to the conductor and his assistant and offered, “A bad-luck day you’re having.” Shot back the assistant: “Not bad luck. This is railroading.” Through it all, Amy, No. 80’s perky engineer, sat patiently in her air-conditioned P42. The Carolinian’s total delay: two hours and nine minutes.

Before more trains could be caught in the spiderweb at the NS crossing in Emporia, the problem magicly corrected itself. I think the Four Horsemen just got bored and decided to go somewhere else.

Where they went was 22 miles to the south, to Weldon, N.C., where the dispatcher decided to meet No. 79 and No. 90, the northbound Palmetto. But the hapless dispatcher could not clear the signal to enter Track 2 at Weldon for No. 79. The train was required to stop and proceed at restricted speed.

Finally, because I had been mocking the Four Horsemen in remarks to Al, they rode up and visited me, causing my Nikon battery to run out of fuel as I framed what would have been a Steinheimer-class photo of No. 90 sweeping by me on a curve near South Weldon.

Well, that was our day. I hope yours was as much fun. Any time I hear that the Four Horsemen are out and about, I want to be there. Train watching doesn’t get much better than this.—Fred W. Frailey

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