Tuesday, March 22, 2011

What is a Blerf Blog

Blerf is a word coined by a former boss - and still friend - as a placeholder for a more precise word or definition.  "Blerf" generally gives way to the improved word or definition as work progresses.

So, it is a placeholder for just about anything.  Like a Conrail locomotive.

This blog is a spot for just about anything I care to write that I'd like to keep and look at later.  If anyone else likes looking at or reading - that's fine.  I could put this stuff elsewhere, but I'd forget where I put it, or even that I did it.  So, uh. blerf.

A Gift

A gift. There are a few ways of looking at it.  A gift is something you are given.  Sometimes you ask for it.  Sometimes it's a surprise.   Sometimes it's tangible.  Sometimes it's innate.  Sometimes it what you do with it that counts.  Sometimes it's what it does to you that's more important.

I have the gift of trains.  I'm pretty sure I was born with it, but it was well fed and watered by my dad along the way.

Now, I work for a railroad.  I also have trains in the basement, a closet full of slides and prints, shelves full of books and memorabilia.  I manage to include train activities in every family vacation, know where and when Amtrak runs, and hear about it from the neighbors whenever there is a train blocking the local road crossing.

And, I love every minute of it.

There were several defining moments along the way.  My 17th birthday present was one of them.  It was a trip from Seattle to Philadelphia on Amtrak in April 1973.  I often got really nice gifts for Christmas and my birthday.  One year, I got a nice SLR camera.  Another, new carpeting for my room.  But, this birthday, I was particularly amazed by the gift.

It was a big deal. My dad had business at the Navy yard in Bremerton, Washington that month, so he flew me out and we took the train home together. First, I had to fly by myself to Seattle.  I had taken trains alone before, but never flown alone.  It was a bit unnerving when Northwest made an unscheduled plane change in Minneapolis en route.  But, I was amazed seeing Mt. Ranier sticking up through the clouds on the way into Seattle.

Second, I had never taken a long distance train trip before.  I had ridden Metroliners, eaten in diners,  and spent hours in coach seats, but I'd never ridden overnight in a sleeper or been seated in a dome car.  I was very excited to be able to do both.

After I arrived in Seattle, we did a little sightseeing.  The Space Needle and monorail that night and some driving around during the next morning.  Finally, the afternoon came and it was time to board the train!

King Street station had been modernized, but still was a respectable building and place to board a train.  It got quite a bit shabbier in the subsequent decades, I hear, but is now going through a back-to-original renovation.  It is also quite a bit busier now, with Sounder commuter trains and Amtrak Cascade Talgo trains to Vancouver, BC and Portland and Eugene Oregon.

Before boarding, we walked down the platform to see the locomotives and take a few pictures.  The train had four locomotives. All F9s in A-B-A-A configuration.  The lead locomotive was wearing old Northern Pacific's classy two-tone green and white paint.  Except for the missing nose logo and "BN" stenciling by the road number, it looked like it the NP was still alive and kicking.  The other three were ex-Great Northern, still in green and orange.

ex-NP F9 sits awaiting departure

The train was made up of a mixture of BN predecessor equipment.  Silver CB&Q, "Burlington Route" cars.  Blue Great Northern cars, complete with "Rocky" the mountain goat logo. Northern Pacific cars.  

My dad posing outside our slumbercoach

Empire Builder - ready to go!

We settled into our slumbercoach rooms.  We both had "uppers", which was nice.  The rooms were staggered so that your head and feet were above or below the adjacent room.  The upper seemed much roomier because so much of the space was above seat level.  The lower rooms had the head and foot space for the adjacent uppers intruding at eye level.  Each room had it's own sink and toilet.  The seat folded down to make a narrow bed at night.  Not very roomy, but comfortable enough for good sleeping.

The train headed south out of Seattle for Tacoma.  After stopping there and picking up the bus connection passengers from Portland, it headed east up the old NP mainline.  By late in the afternoon, the train was deep in the Cascades and I was firmly planted in the dome car watching the train, the scenery and the train moving through the scenery.

Rolling through the Cascades

On the other side of the Cascades, the train rolled though the dry interior of Washington and into the night passing through Yakima, Pasco and Spokane.

Sleeping on the train was easy, and not easy.  Making up the bed, lying down was easy.  The motion of the train made me sleepy.  But, not wanting to miss any part of the trip made sleep hard.  I slept with my window shade up part way, so I could peek out.

I woke up and peeked out my window.  It was dark.  The train was gaining speed.  I looked at my watch.  It was about 7:00 AM.  It should be light. The next morning, I awoke in a tunnel.   It was dark. Could this be inside a tunnel at Marias Pass? Soon, the train popped out of the tunnel to a cold, gray dawn in the Rocky Mountains.  The train spent all morning in the mountains, skirting the south edge of Glacier National Park.  Once again, I was firmly seated in the dome car.

The next morning - a foggy morning in the Rockies.

The train wasn't particularly well patronized at this point in the journey.  The dome cars were nearly empty - great scenery notwithstanding, but that just meant more room for me!

The view from the dome car.

We ate breakfast in the diner and then returned to the dome car.

For most of the morning, we cruised through the Rockies and by Glacier National Park, making stops at tiny towns along the way.

Me in my slumbercoach room

As morning turned to afternoon, the mountains gave way to prairie.  Lots of it.  Having motored though Montana and North Dakota six years earlier on a family vacation, I was ready for it.  It was more fun on the train, however.  It was much faster.  The train zipped along at 79 mph for mile after mile on the BN's heavy duty, welded rail mainline.  In the car with the pop up trailer, it was 400 mile per day at 60 or 70 mph.  On the train, we actually passed through every little town on the route.  Most of them were identical.  A grain elevator and a few houses and stores.  On the interstate - nothing.  Just interchanges out of sight of the towns.

Prairie skyscrapers....one after another.

In the middle of the prairie, there is a larger railroad town.  Havre. Here, they serviced the train and changed locomotives.  We got to stretch our legs on the platform and have a look at the train that carried us from Seattle half way across the country.  

A BN man on the train said the F9s were well suited for the mountains and E units were better for the flatland and higher speed, so they changed them at Havre.  Well, sort of.  The maximum speed east and west of Havre was 79 mph.  Both the Fs, which had passenger train gearing, and the Es can make 79 mph, so no advantage in top speed.  But, once upon a time, the Es powered the CB&Q's prized Zephyers and there were places where higher speeds were allowed.  Three E units would likely stall on the mountain grades that the F managed quite easily, so change engines, they did.  Later in the Amtrak era, when Amtrak had enough of their own, new locomotives, the engine change at Havre was eliminated.  

Changing power in Havre Montana

A weather beaten ex-CB&Q E8

This particular great dome car got a BN paint job during the short period between the GN-NP-CB&Q merger and the formation of Amtrak.  Not much BN passenger equipment was repainted.

The only Amtrak repainted - reupholstered car on our train.  Unfortunately, Amtrak's strictly cosmetic approach to refurbishing their fleet did not work out very well.  The cars were plagued with a variety of age related mechanical and electrical troubles that were not sorted out until their complete rebuilding with HEP in the early 1980s.

After Harve, we rolled through the eastern half of the prairie, bounced into Fargo on the old, jointed rail passenger main, went to bed, and woke up in time to the see the train fill to the gills in Minneapolis.  Couples, individuals, scout groups.  A couple hundred of them.  Now, the coaches were full.  The dome cars were full and the diner was busy.  

Lunch in the diner along the Mississippi River

The train now operated over the Milwaukee Road mainline, a route that include Milwaukee where the old CB&Q route the train used in pre-Amtrak days, did not.  The Milwaukee had caught a case of East Coast Railroad rot and was not in very good shape, as measured by me through my seat cushion.  We bounced and jiggled our way toward Chicago,  The super dome, which rode like a Cadillac on the BN track, bottomed out a couple times along way.

Finally, we arrived in Chicago.  Union station was still a busy place and there was a lot to take in walking from the train to the station.

Union Station.  The Southwest Limited arrives.  Santa Fe-owned FP45s are still in charge of the train, but have already given up their red and silver warbonnet for freight service blue and will soon be hauling only freight.

The last leg home was on the famed Broadway Limited.  Only, it was a faint shadow of what it once was.  My dad and I shared a bedroom, with an upper and lower bed.  The car had bedrooms on one end and a first class lounge for the sleeping car patrons in the other.  It was a nice place to sit, but not nearly as much fun as a dome car.  

The train pulled out of Union Station and was soon up to speed on the old PRR mainline, headed for Fort Wayne and then east through Indiana and Ohio to Pittsburgh.  This was the route where railroad lore has it that the PRR could run at 100 mph and once set the record for a steam locomotive of 127 mph, a record that has since been disputed and debunked, however.

This was the during the darkest days of the Penn Central bankruptcy, however, and there was to be no high speed running for us.  There were long stretches of 79 mph, accompanied by  lots of shaking and bouncing.  These were punctuated every so often by slow orders where the we had to slow down because the track condition had deteriorated too badly.

We ate dinner in the diner where they didn't dare fill the cups too full and headed for our sleeper. Morning came in Central Pennsylvania, just in time to get out in Harrisburg and watch them change from the brace of E8s to a single GG1 that was to haul the train to New York City.  Little did I know that the man who was managing the Harrisburg Locomotive shop, the shop responsible for both the E8s that came off the train and the GG1 that went one, would be a friend and mentor in my early years working for Conrail.

After a swift and uneventful trip toward Philadelphia, we said goodbye to the train in Paoli and hopped on a commuter train to take us into 30th Street Station, Philadelphia.  The Broadway still made the turn at Zoo Junction and headed directly for New York, by passing the main station in Philadelphia.  A vestige of the days when speed was of the utmost and shaving off those few miles into and back out of 30th Street meant keeping pace with arch-rival's 20th Century Limited.  The days when that was important died with the rise of commercial aviation in the 1950s when time sensitive travelers left overnight train travel for same-day flights.

Soon, the Broadway Limited would be reconfigured to better fit the rail travel market.  It would stop in Philadelphia's 30th Street Station, dragging the train backwards from New York and changing directions at Philadelphia.  A Washington DC section would be added.  Amtrak would buy new locomotives and completely rebuild the passenger cars.  Conrail would raise Penn Central from it's ashes and improve the track.  The train would be rerouted west of Pittsburgh to get closer to the population centers in Ohio and Indiana, as the original PRR mainline was little used by Conrail.  It was later sold to Norfolk Southern, and then swapped to CSX in 1999 as part of the Conrail merger.

You can still make this trip today.  It's a bit different.  In some ways better, and others worse.  The Empire Builder is still there.  It's route through Washington is different and there are no dome cars although Amtrak's Superliner cars are all two floors high and there is a nice Sightseer Lounge car for viewing the passing scenery.

The Broadway Limited finally died in the 1990s, but you can still get from Chicago to Philadelphia one of two ways.  The Capitol Limited uses a route that once belonged to the NYC, the PRR and the B&O to get to Washington DC.  From there you hop on an Amtrak Northeast Corridor train to Philadelphia.  The alternative is the Lake Shore Limited that follows the route of the old 20th Century Limited along the shores of Lakes Michigan and Erie and then along the Mohawk and Hudson River valleys to New York, arriving at Penn Station.  It's a short Amtrak or NJTransit/SEPTA trip to Philadelphia from there.

Me?  I'm still here.  Still working for the railroad with a house full for train stuff.
I have the gift.