Nudge me if I fall asleep at the wheel

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, February 3, 2012

Last October, I treated you to getting up with me at 1:30 a.m. until dawn (see “Train Watching Taken to Extremes”). The experience was interesting enough to merit repeating this week, when I spent the night in Emporia, Va., on the CSX North End Subdivision. The North End Sub is part of the A Line route from Philadelphia and Washington to Miami, and I had visions of seeing the northbound Silver Meteor and Auto Train as well as intermodal trains in both directions and whatever else was wandering around loose at that time of night.

Normal people don’t do stuff like this.

The alarm goes off at 1 o’clock. I’ve had five hours sleep and feel reasonably alert. No sooner do I reach trackside a few minutes later than the hottest freight on the A Line slams by at 70 mph. The train is Q032, which operates from Jacksonville, Fla., to North Bergen, N.J. three days a week, mostly with United Parcel Service trailers. UPS is about all it carries tonight, and the short train is by me and gone in less than a minute. What a way to wake up.

CSX a month ago became the railroad of choice to handle Maersk containers from the Portsmouth, Va., area port to points in the Midwest. The Portsmouth Subdivision joins the A Line near Weldon, N.C., 20 miles south of Emporia. Q135, an intermodal train loaded in the Portsmouth area, should pop up soon in ATCS Monitor, which is running on my laptop, so I point my car toward Weldon on U.S. Highway 301.

Meanwhile, I engage in a few tricks. My iPhone and iPad each have apps that let me listen to railroad radios feeds over the internet. I tune the iPhone to a listening post at the Richmond, Va., end of the North End Sub and the other to the Florence, S.C., radio feed, more than 200 miles south of me. The first news I get comes from Richmond: Q130 is on its way south with Maersk containers from Chicago for the Portsmouth Sub. There are no sidings on that subdivision more than a mile in length, so Q130 and Q135 will likely meet north of Weldon.

And 60 miles to my south, a northbound train is leaving Rocky Mount, N.C., I see on ATCS Monitor. I consult Amtrak Status Maps on my iPhone and sure enough, that’s the Silver Meteor.

I’m standing beside the Good Earth Peanut Company store in Skippers, Va., when Q130 rushes past with 9,000 feet of single-stack containers. A dozen minutes later, it slowly clears for the Meteor at Gary, N.C., two miles from the Portsmouth Sub switch, telling the Amtrak train to pace itself unless it wants to stop and wait for the long freight. The Meteor no sooner goes north with two motors and 10 cars than Q135 shows up from Portsmouth, to follow it toward Richmond. I watch it at the Virginia-North Carolina state line, and it seems three miles long, more than half its length empty well cars.

All this time F782, a long Rocky Mount-Portsmouth local, has been waiting on Track 2 at Weldon for Q130 and Q135 to get out of the way so it can venture onto the branch. With Q130 headed toward Portsmouth, the dispatcher gives F782 a track warrant and it follows.

Right about then the Florence radio comes alive. I hear the Auto Train and intermodal train Q034. Both are hours late. Do I want to stay awake the rest of the night and into the morning to let them reach me? The answer is no. This has been fun, roaming around and watching interesting trains on a busy railroad while the rest of the world sleeps. But the fun is over for a while. I pull into the Marriott in Emporia at 4 a.m., set the alarm for 6:15, and resume my dreams.

It’s raining lightly when I venture back out at 7. ATCS Monitor shows what must be Q034 waiting just north of Rocky Mount for the Auto Train to lap it. They are still more than 40 miles to the south. At a leisurely pace, I drive 35 miles north to Collier Yard, just south of Petersburg, Va., to await the Auto Train and take my only photo of the day, to prove to you I was there.

Would I do this again? Are you kidding? Remember, I’m not normal. — 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