Train 21Q runs the Chicago gauntlet

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, June 22, 2010

One of the toughest jobs in railroading has to be dispatching the Chicago West desk of Norfolk Southern. It controls the double-track line from Porter, Ind., to the approach to Chicago Union Station, not quite 40 miles on what used to be Conrail’s east-west Chicago Line into the Windy City, and before that, the Water Level Route of New York Central. Within its boundary are three yards that concoct a stew of activity. You’ll see 14 Amtrak trains a day, several score of NS’s own freights, a dozen or so Canadian Pacific trains on trackage rights, train movements in and out of four steel mills, road switchers, yard engines, track inspectors and foremen wanting access to the tracks, and Lake Michigan snowstorms and thunderstorms to make everyone miserable and depressed.

Get the picture? You can start at one end, or you can start at the other. Very rarely can you make it through without taking some hits. Tonight we’re going to run that gauntlet.

NS train 21Q is a daily train hauling doublestack containers from Morrisville, Pa., to Chicago. Engineer Steve Rathki boarded at Toledo, Ohio, and gets us out right on time, at 6:35 p.m. He takes his 7,000-foot train nonstop from Toledo past the big classification yard in Elkhart, Ind. (9:15 p.m.), through South Bend (9:40) as Amtrak’s eastbound Capitol Limited boards passengers and then LaPorte (10:15). So far, so good. Now we’re nearing Porter, and wouldn’t you know, we get a yellow approach signal, meaning Rathki must approach the next signal prepared to stop in case it’s red.

We hear the Chicago West dispatcher tell an automobile train ahead of us, on our track, that it can enter the Porter Branch, which connects to Indiana Harbor Belt’s Gibson Yard, as soon as a loaded Powder River Basin coal train gets off that single-track branch at Porter.

We reach the red signal two miles east of Porter and stop. If we don’t move soon, Rathki figures, we’ll be stuck at Porter until sometime after 11 p.m. waiting for Amtrak 355, the Wolverine out of Detroit, to come off Amtrak’s Michigan Line at Porter. But the coal train from the Porter Branch quickly shows up on the south track, the auto train ahead of us enters the branch, and the red signal flashes to green. We’re going through Porter.

We don’t go far, however, just 3.5 miles to the east end of Burns Harbor, where another red signal stops us short at 11:00. Judging from radio transmissions, no train is within several miles of us. The dispatcher must be devising a plan. The eastbound Lake Shore Limited for New York City and Boston is overdue, the westbound Wolverine could reach Porter any time, and who knows what else is lurking out there? Conductor Chris Nemecek gets off the locomotive for a smoke. It’s his birthday, and he swears this is his last cigarette.

Chris barely has time to crush the butt underfoot when the signal changes to approach. The dispatcher has a plan. Let’s find out whether 21Q is a star of her show or just a bit player.

We’ve barely kicked off the brakes and begun moving when, 200 feet to the south, a four-car Chicago, South Shore & South Bend train flashes by, the last eastbound of the evening. We go only to the next control point, at the west end of Burns Harbor, and find another red signal. But very soon the eastbound Lake Shore Limited appears on our track and crosses over to 2. The dispatcher sets us loose on 1 at 11:20.

Now we can hear Amtrak 355’s engineer calling the signal at Porter, nine miles behind us. Where will we let that train by? The answer soon becomes apparent: We cannot. We reach one control point and crossover after another to find other freight trains, in both directions, standing still on track 2. It’s a Gordian knot that can’t be untied until our train and 355 are gone.
Finally, past Gary and past Colehour Yard and a mile inside Illinois, at the seventh crossover, we trundle over the Calumet River drawbridge and find the other track unoccupied. Now the Wolverine can get around us. A few minutes after midnight (NS observes Eastern Time in Chicago), it goes by 21Q as our train stares at a red signal at Englewood, where NS crosses Metra’s Rock Island line to Joliet, Ill.
Box score: Train 21Q and its 194 containers reach 47th Street, Norfolk Southern’s intermodal terminal, at 12:21 a.m., 49 minutes ahead of time. Amtrak’s 355 gets to Chicago Union Station 26 minutes late, having suffered a five-minute delay behind us and maybe less than that. The Gordian knot is untied as other trains resume their travels. And a new day has begun, so the process can repeat itself again on this fascinating 40-mile microcosm of congestion. — Fred W. Frailey 

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