An insomniac’s nighttime adventure

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, March 17, 2010

What do you do when you can’t sleep? If you were me last night, you got up at 3:30 and watched trains. Okay, it helped that I was overnighting 40 miles south of Richmond, Va., alongside the CSX mainline to Florida. There’s not much else to do in Stony Creek.

A call to Julie, the automated agent, revealed Amtrak’s northbound Silver Meteor to be about an hour late. When I booted up my laptop to ATCS Monitor, the software that gives you a dispatcher’s view of a railroad, there was the Meteor just north of Rocky Mount, N.C., 80 miles to the south. It would race past Stony Creek in just over an hour.

Actually, ATCS Monitor revealed the North End Subdivision, which extends 120 miles from Richmond to Rocky Mount, to be packed with trains at this uncouth hour. As I drove south from the motel, I could hear on the radio Q130, an intermodal train destined for the Portsmouth branch, calling a signal indication a few miles behind me. I could see that the dispatcher had Q130 lined to meet the Meteor on a stretch of double track about 15 miles south of Stony Creek. So I drove to the south end of that section, to a control point named Fox, parked my car, rolled down the window, and waited.

Above me the night sky was alight with stars — a marked contrast to almost a week of steady rain in this area. Insects were singing their usual love songs. The sound of howling locomotives began faintly then rose to a crescendo. Over a rise popped a headlight. It bore down on me. Whoosh! Two P42 diesels and 10 darkened cars. I swear, five seconds of violent movement and it was gone. A minute later the southward Centralized Traffic Control signal nearby silently changed from red to red over flashing green, authority for Q130 to enter single track at up to 45 mph, then proceed at track speed. And here Q130 came, accelerating as it entered single track.

Now it was 4:20. I got onto nearby Interstate 95, which loosely parallels the railroad, and drove around Emporia, Va., to intercept Q130 again on U.S. 301. At about 50 mph, we jogged along together into North Carolina for about 15 miles, until the train slowed to enter the Portsmouth branch at a town called Garysburg. As it cleared single track at Garysburg, a northbound train of empty grain cars accelerated past.

I’d been keeping my eye on ATCS Monitor on the laptop, and what could only be the Auto Train was coming toward me. Just across the Roanoke River from Garysburg is Weldon, where CSX goes through downtown on a trestle leading to the river bridge. I parked behind a row of buildings and watched this massive train go by above metwo P42s; 16 Superliner coaches, sleepers, diners, and lounges; and 27 aluminum-sided automobile cars. What an awesome spectacle at 5:10 in the morning.

I'm not going to bore you with a bunch of “I-saw-this” and “I-saw-that.” But I did make it to Rocky Mount before dawn, turned around, and began driving north. Along the way, a bright sun popped out, I met a parade of southbound freights and let northbound intermodal train Q174 from Jacksonville overtake me so we could pace each other for 15 miles, from Garysburg back to Emporia. It was a pretty sorry train, I might add, with a mere 39 containers and trailers and a mile of baretables. (That's Q174 above, flirting with the shadows as it passes control point Fox.)

By 8:30, the railroad that was so jammed with trains five hours earlier had emptied out. I was back at the Hampton Inn in Stony Creek.

What do you do when you’ve been without enough sleep the night before? You take a nap. See you folks later. — Fred W. Frailey

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