Brain surgery on the main line

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Sunday, September 13, 2009

My column in the September issue about the calamities that befall trains on the North End Subdivision of CSX (“Where Bad Things Happen to Good Trains,” page 14) provoked a lot of responses. My favorite concerns the really bad night on BNSF Railway’s double-track Chicago-Galesburg line recently.


Union Pacific enjoys trackage rights for some of its intermodal trains over BNSF between Chicago and Kansas City. UP recrews its trains midway, at Fort Madison, Iowa. Our story begins with UP intermodal hotshot ZTUCS (Expedited Tucson-Chicago Canal Street) leaving Fort Madison at about midnight. An hour later it passes through the big yard at Galesburg, Ill. Along the way it overtakes and meets a multitude of other trains. No exceptions are taken.


The peaceful early morning trip ends abruptly 56.9 west of Chicago on the Mendota Subdivision, near Sandwich, Ill. A defect detector reports dragging equipment on the first multi-unit doublestack car behind the locomotives. ZTUCS stops, and the conductor walks back to check it out. To see what he saw, look at the photograph at the top left.


The conductor found a hand brake applied. Quite possibly it had impeded this axle since Kansas City, some 375 miles to the west. By now the wheels are far beyond just being ruined. Melted brake shoes had created a slag that froze the axle in place. Some tugging and pulling succeed in working the axle loose, but 8-inch flat spots on the wheels cause thumping sounds on the rails that sound like sledgehammer blows. No way can this car be pulled, even at a walk, to the next setout spur, which is nine miles away.


So BNSF people do the only thing they can, which is perform brain surgery on ZTUCS where it stands, right on Track 2. The wheel truck is summoned from Eola, Ill., near Aurora. When it gets there, one end of the car is jacked up so that the wheel assembly can be pulled away. A crane lifts the frame off the ruined axles and sets it atop two new ones. The reconstituted wheel assembly is slid back in place and the jacks are lowered. Mr. Conductor, your train is ready to go!


Except all of this takes a lot longer to do than to write about, and by now a new crew is on its way from Fort Maddy. All the while, the dispatcher in Fort Worth is running other trains around the injured one on the other main track. 


Groucho Marx once said, “I wouldn’t be a railroad conductor even if they paid me.” Well, Groucho didn’t actually say that. But this tale I relate is one more reason why Mrs. Frailey’s boy Fred would rather write about working on the railroad than actually do it.—Fred W. Frailey


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