Waiting Games

Posted by George Hamlin
on Monday, April 18, 2022

Today, it’s difficult for railfans and railroaders to interact, especially in the realm of operations.  With the exception of passenger trains, there aren’t many places where “civilians” can encounter crew members on a regular basis.  Railroad facilities are almost universally off-limits, and modern locomotives seem to have elevated engineers and conductors literally higher above the people that they are passing by on the ground than was the case previously, at least in the diesel era.

One thing they still have in common, however, is their joint familiarity with the phrase “hurry up and wait”.  While I believe that this was applied originally to military operations, it certainly covers the rail field.  Take for, example, the picture above, of a crew member sitting patiently, chin on his hand, awaiting departure.  Since this photo was taken on October 17, 1971, this is almost certainly a fireman, and not a conductor; the latter would be aboard the caboose, way out of sight to the rear, and probably be accompanied by a brakeman, as well.

Passenger trains have fixed departure and arrival times, at least in theory (and more likely achievable at the beginning of the run that at the other end); freights, like the one depicted here may be “regularly scheduled”, but in most cases, “down to the minute” (or even hour…) probably doesn’t apply.  And just because the train eventually begins moving doesn’t mean that waiting is necessarily over for this trip.

With the advent of fewer instances of multiple-mainline operations in the post-World War II era, many crew districts were effectively single-tracked, which lead to meets, and more waiting.  The bane of crews’ existence became the disembodied voice of the dispatcher on the radio with the happy information that “Train XX, you’ll be going in at (name of siding) for three”, which translates as your train will be sidelined while three other movements pass by on the main; hopefully there isn’t too much time between them.

Railfans have to endure the same waits, of course, but we’re doing this deliberately, willingly, on our own time.  Nonetheless, it can get frustrating, especially when the crew has been advised of the downtime prior to leaving the initial terminal, and the information isn’t broadcast over the airwaves.

 n the other hand, from a fan’s perspective, the traincrew’s mundane workday assignment can be made much more interesting by the presence of unusual or desirable equipment.  Such was the case here.  While the ex-Pennsylvania Alco C425 heading up this westbound wears the simple (bleak might be a better word) livery of its present master, the Penn Central, it’s set to head west from the Milwaukee Road’s Bensenville yard. The MILW at this point was leasing power from the PC, and of course, received only the best units from the eastern carrier, although in fairness, this is a “second-generation” diesel, and the Milwaukee still had plenty of EMD F-units in its employ.

Sometimes, there is an actual benefit from waiting, at least from a fan’s perspective.  Alco’s have been known to produce immoderate eruptions of exhaust after idling for a long period of time; this can be fun to see, and photograph.  As viewed below, the 2440 and its two colleagues didn’t disappoint in this respect when the highball was eventually given; enjoy the now-long ago show. 

Had a chase ensued, we probably would have been eager to have found out where this train would be “put in the hole” to wait, in the hope that such a display would repeat.  The crews, however, simply had to endure the wait(s), and hope that they could get over the road before being caught by the hours of service rules, which (wait for it) would likely have involved even more ... waiting.

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