Up and over the Alleghenies

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, June 18, 2010

Your train is still 20 miles east of Altoona, Pa., several miles past the location called Tunnel, when engineer Ron Washington announces, “We don’t really need a helper.” You look across the cab and ask why not. “Because if I can haul us up a 0.4 percent grade at track speed [35 mph] in notch five or six, we can make it up The Hill.”
The Hill, of course, is the Allegheny Mountains. You’re just in the foothills, crossing the Little Juniata River again and again as a summer morning begins. You’re on Norfolk Southern train 21Q, which originated the night before in Morrisville, Pa., across the Delaware River from Trenton, N.J. At Harrisburg, Pa., the train paused to set out one block of doublestack containers and pick up two others. That’s where you had boarded, prior to the 4 a.m. departure.
Harrisburg and nearby Rutherford, Pa., are the heart of Norfolk Southern’s intermodal network. From there, truckers can deliver or pick up trailers as far away as northern New Jersey and Washington, D.C., and make it back in the same day. Train 21Q’s job is to leave Harrisburg and be yarded in Chicago at the 47th Street terminal 22 hours later. You’re along to watch it happen.
 You pass control point Gray, the start of three-track territory that will last until Pittsburgh, at 6:37 a.m., and nine miles and 11 minutes later CP Antis, the eastern edge of the Altoona terminal complex. Most manifest and unit trains between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh change crews at Altoona, but not the intermodal shooters. Your train eases by scores of black-and-white diesels outside the Juniata Shops complex, the little Amtrak station, and finally Alto Tower, going by several sets of idling helper locomotives. Nothing but clear signals. You won’t be getting a helper.
At 6:59, half a mile beyond Alto, is Slope, aptly named. From Slope, you can clearly see the tracks bend upward. “Ever stall on The Hill?” you ask. Conductor Dan Cikovic, seated in front of you, chokes on his coffee at the stupidity of that question. Ron and Jay Marotti, the division road foreman of engines, think it’s funny, too. “Everybody has stalled, at least once,” replies Jay. “The formula in the special instructions says you can make it, but what does a formula know?”
The far bigger problem is not going up The Hill. It’s coming down that 1.8 percent grade with a long, heavy train. That’s why helpers go down the grade behind trains, too, to add their dynamic braking ability to what the road locomotives provide.
Ron has his train hunkered down to 14 mph. Depending upon the season, it can be pleasantly sunny in Altoona and either raining or snowing like crazy on the mountain. Approaching Horseshoe Curve, a micro-squall whips the branches of trees adjacent to the right-of-way like a launderer shaking a bedsheet. You lean out the window as General Electric locomotive 7530 rounds the curve and marvel at the sight of your train going the opposite direction behind you. At 7:15 on a weekday morning, there’s nobody on the ground to wave to.
A helper set comes down the The Hill on Track 1. Behind you, your three GE bruisers are pounding it out with everything they’ve got. Inside the cab, you can barely hear the tumult. Fourteen miles per hour seems like 4. You can talk without raising your voice.
There is, literally, nothing to do. “You ride it out,” says Ron. Adds his boss, Jay: “And hope nothing happens.”
You pass the crossovers at MG. The interlocking tower there hasn’t seen regular duty for at least half a century, and today its windows are boarded up. Through the trees, you look down on Interstate 22. At Bennington Curve is where the Red Arrow in 1947 lost control and tumbled down the mountain, killing 24 people and injuring 131. Those with you in the cab agree that the last true runaway was a welded-rail train, whose engineer broadcast his harrowing experience over the radio as he bore down on Altoona. That was more than three decades ago. He and his train, somehow, made it down. After listening to the war stories, you’re grateful to be going up this morning and not down.
Forty minutes after leaving Altoona, 21Q enters Allegheny Tunnel, after a short stretch of 2.23 percent grade. Trains going down the mountain call that The Slide. At the west portal is the summit of the grade: Gallitzin. Now you’re going down a 1 percent grade, and Ron transists from full throttle to full dynamic brake. Chicago, here you come! — Fred W. Frailey


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