Further confessions of a train chaser

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sometimes I am too smart for my own good. Let me tell you about today. I am in Selma, N.C., where the CSX New Jersey-to-Florida “A Line” crosses a Norfolk Southern branch. Two things to know about Selma: It has a beautifully restored union station immortalized by J. Parker Lamb in a 1960s black-and-white photograph. And it is where Amtrak trains from Raleigh, N.C., curve gracefully past that station to go from NS to CSX stewardship.
Now, the plan. The northbound Silver Star is due any minute from Raleigh. It takes the transfer track away from Norfolk Southern at about 30 mph, and a mile to the north, on CSX, crosses over at about the same speed to get onto the CSX main line. I figure that this gives me time to scoot out of Selma on U.S. Highway 301, let it catch up with me a few miles to the north where tracks and highway converge, and pace it as long as I can. I’d done it before. Piece of cake.
Matters begin nicely. The Star comes into Selma heading east, crosses 301, and a block later begins the turn north toward CSX. As soon as the last of the two sleeping cars is by, I’m off. Trouble is, while Selma is not Dallas, there is still a lot of it. All at 35 mph. And municipal police cars seem to materialize every block to enforce the 35-mph maximum. Still, flooring my accelerator pedal as I am finally free of Selma, I think I am in the lead. In fact, I believe this so firmly that I hold back a bit the next couple of miles, until the CSX tracks come alongside 301.
You no doubt know the rest of the story. The Silver Star gives me the slip, it does. By the time I know it is in front of me, it’s five miles in front. Ahead lies Wilson, N.C., a substantial town with numerous traffic lights.
Being a reasonable man, I give up. I obey all speed limits during the next half hour, imagining trains I would see later today. I am so wrapped up in future train sightings, in fact, that I fail to notice an important silence: that of Amtrak train 92, the Silver Star. I no longer hear its engineer calling the wayside signals.
On the southern outskirts of Rocky Mount, N.C., I am jarred to attention. If it’s not to be heard on the radio, why? That’s when it occurs to me to consult the Amtrak timetable on the seat beside me. Sure enough, the reason the Star is quiet is that it has spent the past 20 minutes at the Rocky Mount station, waiting for its 10:15 a.m. departure.
I had grown so used to Amtrak trains suffering at the hands of merciless CSX dispatchers that I had forgotten the Star had a ton of “rubber” in its schedule if only it got a fair shake from the host railroad. For the past year or so, CSX has been an exemplary host to Amtrak trains on the A Line, giving Amtrak the benefit of every doubt vis a vis its own freight trains. Yet my mind was slow to adjust to this new reality.
Now it’s 10:11 as I blast through Rocky Mount on a road parallel to the CSX and its substantial switching yard. Four minutes later, I am passing the Amtrak station, a former division office building, as the conductor finally breaks radio silence to tell his engineer, “Well, I guess it’s time to go.”
There the train is, the smokers among its passengers now crushing their fourth cigarette on the platform. But I will not now get ahead of it again. Foiled! I photograph it a block or two north of the station, before it gains speed. Had I thought to look up its departure time from Rocky Mount, I could have overtaken the train during its 20-minute halt and gotten a spectacular photo of it passing the Battleboro, N.C., power plant a bit north of Rocky Mount. That will have to be another day
Morals of this story: Never take anything for granted. Conditions change. Be aware. Refer to the timetable. Never think you'll not catch up with a train; trains always stop.
On the other hand, upon occasion I really do manage to be at the right place at the right time. At twilight tonight, on the Halifax Road overpass at South Collier, Va., 30 miles south of the state capital in Richmond, I’m there as the southbound Silver Star races past (top photo). That's Q401 (Cumberland, Md.-Hamlet N.C.) switching on the lead track to Collier Yard. A dozen minutes later, just missing a yellow block signal in the Star’s wake, comes the Auto Train, exactly on target for an hour-early arrival in Sanford, Fla., tomorrow morning. My day began 14 hours earlier, at 4:30 a.m. Time to hang it up and make that martini. — Fred W. Frailey

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