Looks Like Fun

Posted by George Hamlin
on Saturday, August 15, 2020

I suspect that many railfans have imagined themselves in this pose: hand on the throttle (or horn); window open and arm out on a nice summer day while you enjoy the ride, and the adulation of the lineside fans.  A heritage unit for your chariot? Even better, such as at Boyce, Virginia, on August 7, 2020 as NS intermodal train 228 swiftly passes the former N&W depot while running on what’s known today as the H-line, formerly the Shenandoah Division of the Norfolk & Western.

Apparently, though, a lot is involved in getting to this exalted status, including the investment of a great deal of your time, on an ongoing, and often unpredictable basis.  It may not be entirely accurate to say that you needed to sell your soul to the railroad to get here, but I suspect that there are some practitioners of the craft that don’t find that statement to be a complete stretch of reality.

Before you get to sit in the right seat on the locomotive on a regular basis, there is the intermediate step of being a conductor, in today’s two-crew-members-in-the-cab world.  While technically, the conductor is in charge of the train’s movement, it should be noted that it’s definitely viewed as a promotion and upgrade to become an engineer.

One reason for this is that, should something, such as a hotbox detector alarm, require that the train be stopped and inspected, “command” responsibilities notwithstanding, it is the conductor that will be descending to the ground and walking the train to discern the problem’s cause, and then, if possible, fixing it.

Sometimes, it’s something fairly common, and easily fixable, such as an air hose separation.  Of course, while it may be easy to restore in this case, first it has to be located, and on a 12,000 foot train, this can burn up more than a few calories.  In addition, taking this stroll during the daytime with good weather is quite a bit better than confronting rain/snow/wind/temperature extremes.

In addition, while the problem may be easy to fix, once located, significant exertion may be required.  Consider this picture of NS train 18T on June 26, 2020, north of Boyce, Virginia, between Front Royal and Berryville.  Two things are missing: the front portion of the train, and the coupler knuckle on the gondola loaded with scrap metal.

Thus, the solution is: replace the knuckle; coordinate with the engineer by radio to recouple; restore the air hose connection; return to the cab; and finally, resume the journey.  Nothing exotic or complicated, except that the knuckle might weigh 80 pounds, and it isn’t going to transport itself to the scene of the break-in-two.

Fortunately, in this case, some assistance was available from another nearby NS employee; these professionals got the job done in a modest time, and not long after the following photo was taken, 18T was on its way, and the single-track main was open once again.

So, the next time you see a seemingly relaxed engineer’s arm out the window, remember that it’s very likely an earned privilege.

(Photos by George W. Hamlin)

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