Train watching taken to extremes

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, October 28, 2011

How do I begin this sorry tale? Maybe with a second question: Where would I be today without ATCS Monitor? I’d be flying blind, as I did most of my life, hoping to accidently come upon a train now and then. ATCS Monitor (go here for a fuller explanation) gives you a dispatcher’s view of a railroad and shows you where the trains are. So far, so good. But software like ATCS Monitor can also get me in trouble.

I go to sleep at 9:30 p.m. in Stony Creek, Va., on the CSX North End Subdivision. The alarm is set for 4:00 a.m. because I want to see the northbound Amtrak Auto Train and whatever else is roaming about in the pre-dawn hours.

But I wake up at midnight. Then again at 1 and yet again 30 minutes later. Finally, at 1:45 a.m. I give up and peek at ATCS Monitor on my laptop. My, my, the railroad is busy. Why try to sleep when I can probably see the Silver Meteor and two or three intermodal trains, plus goodness knows what else? I get dressed.

At 1:58 a.m. I am trackside in Stony Creek. I see the lead unit of a southbound freight waiting at the end of two tracks and a northbound train coming against it. That turns out to be Q136, an intermodal train handling mostly ocean containers between Portsmouth, Va., and the intermodal sorting center in North Baltimore, Ohio. Q136 is short and fast today, just 25 boxes.

The next northbound train I see on ATCS must be Q172, the Jacksonville-New Jersey United Parcel Service train. I drive 15 miles south to catch it. Q172 is also short today, with 45 trailers and containers.

I continue south, across the state line, to watch the Silver Meteor streak north near Garysburg, N.C., then go into Weldon to see Q410, which runs from Waycross, Ga., to Selkirk Yard near Albany, N.Y.

Now it’s 4 o’clock, when I planned to get up. The railroad is quiet and frankly, I’m bored. And getting sleepy again. I slap myself a lot and manage to stay awake to see the Auto Train slam through Skippers, Va., and a third northbound intermodal train wake the dead in Stony Creek. I eat breakfast at the hotel and fall back in bed for three hours.

It’s okay to be stupid and do this once. What seemed like a good idea at 1:45 in the morning wasn’t so wise four hours later. Without that nap I’d be a basket case today, or wrecked in a ditch somewhere. Technology in the form of computer programs like ATCS and sensitive radios help us find trains easily. But more than technology, we all need our rest. — Fred W. Frailey

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