Thursday, February 27, 2014

War stories - Episode 8: "White hot trouble?"

Having survived our trainee rotation to Hollidaysburg Car Shop in the summer of 1978, we moved on to the Juniata Locomotive Shop in August.  Part of our rotation to there was spending a few days in the Altoona Car Shop.  Wait. What?  Another car shop?  What was all that time in Hollidaysburg about?

At the very south end of the Juniata shop complex was the Altoona car shop.  They did specialty repairs there.  In fact, Conrail housed the K4s there during it's brief return to excursion service.
cavernous Altoona Car Shop in background

The 1361 in place to be fired up for a weekend excursion

Juniata Shops K4s May 1918

The work they did there was specialty work.  For example, it was where they kept and maintained the ex-PRR monster heavy duty flat car, the "Queen Mary".

A lot of basic car repair is the same everywhere you go.  This was true of Altoona Car Shop.  They did all the basic stuff.  They just didn't have a production line.  The car held a spot in the shop and the work came to the car.

There was one major difference.  While Hollidaysburg had begun using Huck bolts in place of rivets, Altoona still used hot rivets.  I was unfamiliar with hot rivets. We didn't do any hot riveting in our manufacturing methods class in college.  I was particularly unfamiliar with how the Altoona car shop went about doing the riveting. 

The basic science behind hot riveting is simple. A rivet is a chunk of steel with a head on one end and a blank shaft on the other.  You heat the rivet up until it glows red, put it in place, then hammer the blank end down into a head.  You can do this by hand, but usually an air hammer is used to form the new head on the blank end.  Then the rivet cools and shrinks slightly putting the shaft in tension and making a very tight joint.

That's what they did at Altoona.  But, here's the amazing thing.  They had their soaking oven in one spot and then transported the hot rivets to the spot they needed them.  Okay.  That doesn't sound very amazing.

How about this?  They didn't carry them to the spot.  They threw them.  These two guys, who to me seemed about half past retirement age, did the throwing.  One guy would grab the hot rivet out of the oven with some four foot long tongs.  The other guy stood about 60 feet away holding a tin cup.  Literally.  A tin cup - with a handle on it - an ugly version of what you see Civil War reenactors tote around.  The guy with the tongs launched an underhand lob, letting go of the rivet with the tongs at just the right point.  The rivet sailed through the air.  The guy with the tin cup staggered around underneath it like a drunk centerfielder.  And the rivet the cup!  Sometimes.  Sometimes it would miss and roll around on the floor.  Sometime, it would hit the lip of the cup and bounce God-knows-where.

Now, we were all dressed appropriately.  Long pants, jacket, hard hat, googles, steel toed boots, etc, but the thought of a 1500 degree rivet bouncing off in some direction of it's own choosing was a bit hard to comprehend.  This was just how they did it.  Must have been doing it their whole career.  Must have learned it from carmen from the previous epoch.

I could not think of a more dangerous way to deliver white hot rivets (actually, they were only red hot) unless it involved hungry Bengal tigers.

Amazing.  And I thought I was going to be bored!

War Stories - Episode 7: "Where? Who? Why? What?"

We're taking the low grade route on this story.  Longer, but easier.

Here's a few fun facts:

Railroads were built out in the 19th Century by Civil War vets.
Railroads, like Armies, operate over broad areas where direct, "hands on" supervision is not possible
Railroad culture, up until the last couple decades, was almost entirely "command and control".
Railroads have strong unions.
Railroads, up until the the last several decades, attacked crises by sending people.

How do these facts interact?  Here's an example.  Suppose it's the 1970s and there is a major, mainline derailment in your area.  What do you do?  You round up a bunch of guys, jump on the wreck train, and go to the derailment site where you will camp out until the mainline is open and most of the wreck is picked up.  The clock is ticking for the hourly guys and they get paid handsomely.  For the management guys, its like going on a Boy Scout camping trip - they get to do something different and are away from their parents/boss.  Talk to a retired railroader, particularly a Mechanical guy, about derailments and they'll get this strange wistful look in their eyes.

Snow in Buffalo?  Round up a bunch of guys and send them there to shovel.  Loaded autoracks backed up from NJ to Syracuse?  Send a bunch of guys...

Those days are gone.  There aren't "a bunch of guys" to grab.  Everyone who isn't doing something vital is gone.  A lot of the old "vital" jobs have been automated. The wreck trains are gone.  They were expensive to keep.  What you do is call Hulcher or RJ Corman, who swoop onto the derailment with their trucks loaded with monster caterpillar "sidewinders" and cranes.  They clean it all up cheaper and faster than you ever could.

One more fact.  Railroads were the first to have their labor relations regulated by the government.  Railroads were so important to the economy that any prolonged strike was a disaster.  Consequently, the rules of the game required all the railroads to negotiate a "national" agreement with each of the unions.  If agreements couldn't be reached, then there were all sorts of attempts at arbitration, cooling off and haranguing before there could be a strike.  When there were strikes, they typically lasted only a few days until the government would order everyone back to work and mandate or legislate a deal.

A particular railroad could opt-out of the national deal if they wanted to.  This was rare.  The two best examples that come to mind were when the Florida East Coast was just plain broke and opted out back in 1963, seeking lower labor costs, mostly through reduced train crew size.  The other was the N&W in 1978.  Notable in both cases was that both roads continued to operate during the strike.  This did not sit well with the strikers who tried many tactics to gain some traction.  On the FEC, some of those tactics were highly illegal, like blowing up trains.  On the N&W, it usually involved moving pickets around.

The N&W and Conrail both operated in Buffalo, NY.  From time to time, the N&W strikers would picket Conrail on the grounds that the N&W was somehow using the Conrail facility at Frontier Yard in Buffalo to circumvent their pickets elsewhere.  This was a pretty common "cat and mouse" game played by both sides, depending who was picketing where for what reason.

So, back to Altoona in the summer of 1978.  It's a Friday, mid-afternoon.  We get a called up to the training room in Juniata.  One of the instructors tells us, "Go to Frontier Yard in Buffalo and report for strike duty."  That's pretty much all he knows.  It's what he got fed from higher up on the food-chain. You didn't question stuff like that. You just took orders and obeyed.  Command and control management, remember?   But, being of an engineering bent, we had questions.  "Where?"  "Frontier Yard in Buffalo" "Do you have directions there?"  Getting irritated,  "No."  Remember, this was a PRR lifer who didn't really know much about the railroad east of Tyrone and west of Cresson - and that was pushing it.  "Who do we report to?"  "Oh, I have that.  They said 'Mr. Hamberlang'."  "Can you spell that?"  Somewhat more irritated, "No.  Hamberlang, or something like that. You figure it out."  "When do they expect us there?"  More irritated, "I don't know.  As soon as possible." "How should we travel?  Should we fly up or drive?"  Really irritated now, "Just leave now!"

Well, there goes the weekend!  Some guys flew up to Buffalo, which wasn't easy.  You had to take one of several puddle-jumpers a day from Altoona to Pittsburgh, then get a flight to Buffalo.  I hated puddle-jumpers and it was only about a six hour drive to Buffalo, so I decided to drive!  I went back to my apartment in Duncansville, packed up, plotted my route on a map and headed for Buffalo about 5 PM.

Headed west on US 22 to I-79 North to I-90 east to Buffalo arriving about 11:00 PM.  Wandered around until I found the locomotive shop at Frontier.  No pickets.  Not much going on anywhere.  Park.  Wander into the shop.  Find the assistant general foreman.  "Hi, I'm supposed to report to Mr. Hamberlang."  "Who?"  "I'm a management trainee up from Altoona for strike duty.  I'm supposed to report to Mr. Hamberlang."  "Oh.  The strike's over.  Did you mean Mr. Hammerline?  He's at home now.  Lets's see if you we can get you a room for the night."

He called the local Holiday Inn in Depew they used for away-from-home train crews, but they were full.  So, they said I should use a hotel in downtown Buffalo.  They occasionally used it when the place in Depew was full. Then, he gives me the phone number for the shop for me to call in the morning and sends me on my way.  It's midnight now as I drive west to downtown Buffalo.

Remember, this was the 1970s.  Urban decay was the norm and Buffalo was about a decayed urban center as you could get.  All I could picture was some ancient, worn out, flea bag that had had it's heyday in the roaring twenties and had been fading ever since.  Oh, boy.

I arrive.  Yup.  Old brick building in decayed downtown Buffalo.  Park the car in a dingy parking garage nearby.  Walk into the lobby.  It's nice!  Hmmm.  Well, maybe they keep the lobby up, but have let all the rooms go to pot.  I check in.  Room rate is $9.  That's right.  $9!  What kind of room can you get for $9?  A cheap chain hotel is $20-30.  $9 is not much.  They won't even "leave the light on for ya" for $9.  Oh, well.  I'm tired and I'm here.  I can survive for a night.

I go up to the room.  The elevator seems in good condition.  The corridor seems in good condition.  The room is....very nice!  Neat, clean, moderized bathroom, nicely decorated!  $9?  How can this be?

As it turns out, the New York Central Railroad had negotiated the $9 rate decades ago when they regularly used the place and sent a lot of business that way.  I don't know if they used it for crew lodging ever, but the rate stood even as the NYC turned to PC and then to Conrail.  It stood even after the hotel was modernized a few years prior.  It stood even after Conrail had almost no business travel in downtown Buffalo.  It stood even as inflation eroded the value of $9 down to the price of a couple record albums or a few rolls of slide film.

The next morning, I called the shop and talked to Mr. Hammerline.  He told me there was no reason to hang around Buffalo.  The picketers weren't coming back anytime soon, so I headed for home.  It was a really nice day, so I did a little railfanning along the way.  Even caught one of those N&W strike trains that had stirred up the trouble in the first place.

N&W strike train run by management personnel east bound from Cleveland to Buffalo.

The low grade line.  Hope you enjoyed the scenery as we snaked along the curves and followed the babbling brook on the way to our destination.  There'd be other strikes, other "send a bunch of guys" duty, other interesting places to stay, but those are stories for later!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Get Smart

Control or Kaos?

Remember "Get Smart"?  The old show with Don Adams as Maxwell Smart where the enemy was "Kaos".  Well, this isn't that.  It's just me trying to figure out how to control trains on my model railroad.


Here's the background.  Most everyone knows that train sets come with a "power pack". Hook it up to the tracks.  Turn the knob.  The train goes.  Simple.

What happens if you want to run two trains at once?  On the same track?  We'll, you could separate the track into sections and run each section with a separate power pack.  Each person runs a train through their section of track.  For a big train layout with lots of trains, this gets complicated, quick, but it is doable.  And, you need a person for each section of track.

The "holy grail" was to have each person run one train - just like a real train engineer runs a real train.  A bunch of clever people developed a number of ways of doing this over the years.  The first used relay logic that would connect your "power pack" to the section of track with your train on it, so you could follow your train around the layout.

Then came some really clever analog transmitter/receiver systems.  Power was always on the track, but each locomotive only "listened" to it if it received a signal from the "power pack" (now referred to as a "cab" - as in the controlling compartment of a locomotive).  So, the cab had a transmitter that send an analog signal in the rails to the locomotive that had a receiver tuned to listen to it.

There were various versions of this that had varying degrees of commercial success in the middle 70s and early 80s.  They were pricey, but quickly gained popularity among folks who were interested in trying to run their model train layouts like they were real railroads.

I was - or at least I was planning to - so I bit on one of the more popular systems called "Dynatrol".  You could run up to 16 individual locomotives with it.  The "cabs" cost about $100.  The locomotive receivers cost about $40 - in 1985 dollars.  I had a few cabs and a about 10 locomotives equipped.

Kids arrived.  Focus shifted.

Now, it's 30 years since I started with Dynatrol.  The world of model railroad train control has moved.  A lot.  Now, all the equipment is digital.   It is cheaper (in constant dollars).  It does more things.  Model trains can have realistic sound, for example.  But, it isn't free.  And, I have all this Dynatrol stuff.  I even bought more over the years - from ebay - for a song.  It all works. Sort of.  One by one, the locomotive receivers have failed.  There is a guy who operates out of his basement, who will fix these things - maybe.  But, his price is twice what an new digital receiver costs.

So, I'm afraid the handwriting is on the wall.  It's time to ditch the old Dynatrol and buy some digital stuff.

Which brings Kaos.

There are at least a half dozen manufacturers of digital equipment out there.  The good news is that the basic locomotive receivers are compatible between the manufacturers.  The bad news is that nearly all the other stuff you need is not.  And, there are levels of systems, and methods for expansion.


None of this is clear to me.  I've been all over the internet trying to figure out what I'll need and how much stuff to start out with.

So far, it's just been all Kaos.   I need Control.  Will I figure it out?  Maybe.

Anyone need some old Dynatrol?

War Stories - Episode 6: "Highball! way or another..."

Fall 1978. Columbus Ohio. Buckeye Yard.

Finally!  I get to ride a train!

Part of our assignment as trainees was to follow a locomotive through normal maintenance at our shop location and then ride it on it's next assignment.  Fabulous!

A GE U23B came into the shop for an annual inspection and I decided to follow it.  I went around with the inspector as he wrote up the items that needed attention while it was shopped.  The list included the regular items like changing the oil filters and air filters as well as a dozen or so small broke/fix items.

I dutifully followed this locomotive each shift it was in the shop, coming it at least once a shift to see what progress had been made.  First shift, they got most of the big items. Second shift, almost nothing.  Third shift - around 1 AM, nearly nothing more, but miraculously, by 7 AM the next morning, it was all done and ready to hit the road.

A quick check showed that this engine had been "papered", as they called it.  That is, they didn't really do all the work, they just signed off on it.  Clearly, they needed the engine and weren't going to let it be held hostage for a missing air compressor shaft guard bolt or such.  Out the door it went, ready or not!

The locomotive was called for a turn job to Collinwood.  The Columbus crew was supposed to take it up to Collinwood overnight and then a new crew was to bring it back the next day.  Along the way, it would drop off and pick up blocks of cars at various yards.  Kind of a third rate road freight or travelling road switcher.

My locomotive was the trailing locomotive in the consist and this was back in the caboose era, so there was a locomotive engineer and head end brakeman in the lead engine cab, and a conductor in the caboose.  I rode the cab of "my" locomotive.  We departed Buckeye at dusk, getting a green "highball" and proceeded up the aptly-named Scottslawn Secondary.  First stop, the Scotts fertilizer factory.

We came to a stop outside the factory and started switching.  It took quite a while.  After a while I found out why.  Our head end brakeman came bounding into my locomotive cab.  He might have been a couple years older than me and was pretty outgoing.  "Hey, man,  Want to smoke some hash?  I got plenty!"

Wow.  Welcome to the railroad.  I had no idea.  Rule G anyone?  Apparently not. This had not been covered in our training!  What do I do now?

Now, going through college in the 1970s, it was pretty much impossible not to come in contact with drinking and drugs.  The drinking was pretty much legal as the drinking age was 18 back then.  Drugs were a bit more hidden, but you didn't have to look too hard.  Believe it or not, I was only the very occasional drinker and completely abstained from drugs.  Just not interested - although I knew lots of kids who were!  But, I never expected to find someone "putting the high in highball" at work!

Geez.  My very first freight train ride and I wind up with Mr. Pothead.  I politely declined and hoped he'd get back to work so we could get on the way.  We eventually did, making the move from the Scottslawn onto the Big Four at Ridgeway Ohio, managing a steady 50 mph all the way into Marion where our crew outlawed - apparently a regular occurrence. There was no relief crew in sight, so I bailed with the inbound crew, walked into town and caught a Greyhound back to Columbus.

Now, if it had been 2014 and not 1978, this whole incident would have been a big mess for everyone.  As an officer of the company, I would have had explicit training and a no-way-around-it requirement to take the guy out of service and have him tested, etc, etc.  But, this was 1978.  Times were different and, as it turns out, this was a not-as-rare-as-it-should-be event.  I later heard and read plenty of stories about drinking and drugs on the railroad and there was lots of looking the other way and covering up, as long as the work got done.  However, it all came to a tragic and overdue end nine years later in 1987 at Chase Maryland.

The tolerant, "look the other way", culture has been totally replaced with a "one strike and you get help, two strikes and you're gone" policy.  Drugs and drinking while on duty are at near zero levels - an we are all safer for it.

Friday, February 21, 2014

War Stories: Episode 5 - "Locomotive Diversity"

Just like at Hollidaysburg, there was a classroom session at Juniata at the end of each day.  Unlike Hollidaysburg, we really didn't learn very much from these sessions.  In retrospect, it wasn't the fault of the instructors.  They were experts at HOW to do the work.  HOW to read a wiring diagram.  HOW to read a schematic.  HOW to use a megger or a test lamp.  What we needed were the basics of WHY things worked the way they worked.  We asked lots of questions and generally got rather unsatisfying answers.  WHY does the governor have four solenoids?  WHY does EMD use current transductors and GE use axle alternators to sense wheelslip.  WHY do switchers have air cooled air compressors instead of water cooled?

The instructors had not a clue about any of this and they were rather puzzled why we were asking such strange questions.

One guy had quite a bit of knowledge of locomotives, picked up over the years from hanging out around the railroad near where he lived.  He could ask the most specifically pointed questions of all, like, "How can you tell which locomotives have power knock-out type 1 versus power knockout type two?"  Jeez...  Most of us had no idea even what "power knockout" was much less that it came in "types".  Sounded dangerous...

The poor instructors didn't stand a chance.

Their standard answer for questions like this was, "Every one is different."  To a 21st Century ear, this sounds an awful lot like we were in the midst of diversity training.  "Differences in the work place are a key to success, etc. etc."

A little known fact about Altoona is that it is not only west of Harrisburg, it is years behind Harrisburg.  The general rule is every 10 miles is worth a year, so 120 miles west is worth 12 years.  So, 1978 felt quite a bit like the 1960s in Altoona.  The buildings hadn't really had any modernization since the 1960s.  There was little new construction in the town, too, so this was easy see.  What drove this home to us was a "pep talk" we received in lieu of some instruction one afternoon about "why it's good to work for the railroad".  It was clear that they understood the "the railroad" was now called Conrail, but it was not clear that they understood that "Conrail" was just another way of saying "Pennsylvania".  The best part of working for the railroad, they said, was "you always got paid on time", recounting how they once ran a special train from Philadelphia to Altoona during a blizzard, just to make the payroll.  A couple mergers, bankruptcy, and blue paint had not changed the view from Altoona one iota.

This was not diversity training.....

"Every one is different" was generally rather unsatisfying and most of the time we thought were getting the run around - and we were.  However, at least part of the time, "every one is different" proved to be very true.  Conrail had a huge locomotive fleet of more than 5000 locomotives inherited from five major railroads that seemed hell-bent on buying at least one of every model and model variant ever produced by the four major locomotive builders. Add to this every road had their own "particulars", so an SD45 on PRR wouldn't be the same as one on EL, for example.  Then, add that NYC and PRR had their own very particular particulars and PC attempted some level of standardization on some locomotives, or groups of locomotives and these standardization attempts were applied variously not at all, partly, or fully to each particular locomotive.

So, "every one is different" might not have been much of a cop-out!

Old Alcos and Baldwins with EMD engines in them, one-of-kind Reading SW1000s...

...rebuild Geep, cabless Geep, some with dynamic brake, some built without, some with them removed...

Fortunately, Conrail had the foresight to send us to a few rounds of school at the locomotive manufacturers in La Grange IL and Erie PA as well as air brake school in Pittsburgh.  We learned a lot at these classes.  The instructors all had engineering backgrounds and could give us all the  "WHY" we could handle!

We never once heard "every one is different"...even though, quite often, it really WAS true.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

War Stories: Episode 4 - "White shoes Oltmann"

"White shoes"

It was the end of August 1978.  All sixteen of our trainee class were still working. Eight, including me, at Hollidaysburg Car Shop and the other eight at Juniata Locomotive Shop.  It was time to trade places.  Locomotives!  Finally!  Freight cars are fine, but not very interesting compared to a locomotive.  Just a "box on wheels".  In fact, a few of us had decided that car shops could be fully equipped with just five items:

1. Acetylene
2. Oxygen
3. Welding rods
4. 5 pound hammers
5. 20 pound hammers

Really.  That's about it.  If you can't fix a freight car with these five items, it's time for scrap!

Now, locomotives have lots and lots of moving parts...and wires! This HAS to be more engaging.

A locomotive.  Even a small one has lots of parts!

The hard part about going to Juniata was we had to get up an extra 30 minutes earlier to cover the drive up though Altoona to the shops.  I was just barely getting used to the early start for Hollidaysburg.  Throw in the days getting shorter as Fall approached and that made it doubly hard on me.  I had had a hard time making 9AM classes in college!  7:00 AM to Juniata was really tough!

Still, we managed to get there on time, every day.

Was it more engaging?  Yes.  ...and no.  Sure, there were lots and lots of parts, and much more varied work going on.  There were more stations in the shop to visit.  But, the basic problem of not being allowed to do any actual work remained.  We just got to watch.  The guys in the shop knew what they were doing, but not why.  We had the same conversation with all of them.  (See episode 3)

Consequently, it was quite easy to wind up daydreaming, or watching the overhead crane work, or watching the material handling carts go by, or thinking about cheese-steak hoagies for lunch, or listening for traffic on the main line.  Sometimes, we'd fight the boredom by wandering off into other parts of the complex and climb on and around locomotives that were queued up for work.  But, mostly we'd just watch guys put rings onto pistons, or band on a traction motor commutator over and over again.

Our occasional lack of attentiveness didn't always go unnoticed.  It was quite easy for the guy you were working with to see this going on.  They'd seen it before. In fact, they had developed a way of tagging this behavior.

White rattle cans of spray paint were frequently used to mark work in progress and were everywhere in the shop.  Whenever they got the chance, they'd identify the daydreamer, sneak up behind and spray a dab of white paint on the back of the heel of their shoes.  It was noisy enough, you'd never hear it.  They didn't just do this to us trainees, but to each other, as well.  You would occasionally see a guy with some white on the back of his shoes.  I'll bet they'd been doing this for decades - maybe a century.  Juniatans don't change much.

I'd like to say that they got the other trainees and not me.  I'd even like to say, they got me, but a few of the other guys.  But, truth be known, I was the biggest daydreamer.  They got me and only me.  And, I never knew it.  I first noticed it that night when I got home.

Getting picked on like that used to bother me quite bit.  But, that day, it only bothered me a little. I don't know why.  Was it because I was becoming more mature?  Was it because the railroad was involved?  I don't know.  Maybe both.  But, it wasn't the last time I got "rewarded" for doing something dumb.

Stay tuned!

War Stories: Episode 3 - "Coal mine"

Is this a coal mine?

Mechanical trainee job with Conrail?  Check.

Place to live in Altoona?  Check.

Time to go to work!

First assignment was in Hollidayburg Car Shop - still referred to as Sam Rea by the locals who remember when it was built and named after a long-dead Pennsylvania RR president.

My roommate and I parked and walked into the shop building at 7AM.  Tuesday, June 20th, 1978.  The quarter mile long building was four tracks wide and full of freight cars of various kinds in various states of dress.  It dark, noisy and acrid with welding smoke and acetylene inside.  We found out where the general office was and reported to the shop manager whose name I forget - all eight of us college kids.  He briefly said hello and then gave us our schedule for our stay there.  We were to rotate through the various areas and lines in the shop for the next 8 weeks and spend the last couple hours of each day in class - "Carknocker's University".

I don't recall where I went first, but I do remember the first day's lunch. The shop had a cafeteria - of sorts - and we were invited to buy our lunch there.  The carmen, still dressed in the their coveralls, jackets, goggles and hard hats lined up.  They were filthy.  Car repair is not next to godliness.

I had been on a bunch of factory tours in my life.  A cement plant, a plastic injection molding firm, a paper mill - even an integrated steel mill.  But, this seemed a bit more unworldly than any of them.  "Where am I?" I thought, "A coal mine?"

I remember the food being somewhat less appealing than the old Freshman Dining Hall back at school.   High calorie, "meat and potatoes" type fare.   So, we quickly learned what places on the outside were good for a quick lunch where we could still make it back to work on time.

"Work" was typically watching others guys work.  Union rules, you know.  Most of it was boring and repetitive and not very informative. A typical interaction:

"What do you do?"
"I measure this part with this gauge. If it's bad, I get a new one.  Then I put this together like this."
"What does that part do?"
"I have no idea."
"So, what happens if the part is undersized?"
"I have no idea."
"How long have you been doing this?"
"Twelve years... (pause)...  You'uns fish?"
"You'uns hunt?"

...sound of crickets chirping....

Then we'd have to figure out what we were going to do for the next 7- 1/2 hours plus the next several days before we rotated to the next area.  There were each of the four production lines.  A hopper car line that was originally set up to build new, 100 ton hoppers - H43 class - for the Pennsylvania Railroad.  A gondola line where they attempted to coerce gondolas back into serviceable condition and two house (mostly box) car lines.  There was the airbrake shop, the wheelshop, the paint booth and the reclamation plant where they cut up scrap cars and recycled old castings.  We also spent a week in the offices where they actually did some engineering, planning and estimating.

One of the most memorable operations there was repairing old gondolas.  Fifty foot mill gons often got swayback from being "improperly" loaded.  That is, if you drop steel slabs in the middle of the car enough times, the car will bend and sag.  One big, long, negative camber.  Part of the repair was removing this sag.

Did they replace the center sill with a new fabrication?  No.

Did they cut out the bent sections and weld in new, taking care to insure that the proper positive camber for the car's capacity was recreated?  No.

Here's what they did it.

Anchor each end of the car to the track using some large cut steel hooks created just for this job.  They hinge off the track and loop over the coupler shank (probably not) or striker casting (probably - I don't exactly remember - but that's not the good part).  Then three or four guys with huge acetylene heating torches "warm" the centersill until it is glowing red.  Making this much heat wasn't a great job to have in the summer, but was probably a good one in the winter as the shops were unheated.

Next, a large ram (not the animal - or the pickup truck) is positioned under the middle of the centersill and energized, and with a groaning sound, the center of the car is pushed upward.  The ram was stopped when the center was the same height  as the ends.  Voila!  A straight-as-string centersill!  Well...not quite. Instead of one "scallop", there were now two of them.  Good enough!  Some new grabs, a wood floor, some new ends, slide some rebuilt trucks underneath, connect the brake rigging, bolt the brake valve portions on and send it to the paint shop!

Box car repair consisted primarily of finding, fixing or building doors and door tracks to fit the myriad of box car classes that existed on Conrail at the time.  It seemed that no two cars used the same door.

Car repair is pretty low-tech.

The best part of the day was the late afternoon in "Carnocker's University". It was run by a couple of "old heads"in an area behind the shop.  They provided basic skills training and some education for new hires at the shop.  After they spent their day teaching the new hires, they got us for a couple more hours.

We got a good lessons on air brakes, car construction and nomenclature, the arcane and bizarre world of AAR billing, and learned some welding and burning.  I really enjoyed learning to weld and burn.  This is probably related to what I learned about boys from leading Cub Scouts on camping trips.  All boys need for fun are rocks, sticks, water and fire.  They can make do with any one of these, but in multiples, the possibilities for joy increase.  Welding and burning are all about fire.  Big, hot fire - with sparks!  Fun!

We also learned some history.  For example, we found out why it always seemed so humid in the summer there.  The shops were built on the old boat basin of the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal.  I have no idea if the story was true and if it actually effected the local climate, but it was all good.

We even got to get our hands dirty occasionally.  The gang assembling trucks at the end of the lines put us to work building three piece trucks.  I don't know if they didn't care about the work rules, or were looking to get paid extra that day, but it was probably one of the only days we got paid for actually accomplishing something.  It was one of the most enjoyable days there.

I wasn't sorry to leave Hollidaysburg for Juniata and points beyond in late August 1978, but I was sorry to hear the place finally closed a few years after NS bought their share of Conrail.  That shop churned through a small mountain of bad-ordered equipment in the early years of Conrail and helped get Conrail back on it's feet.  Those "coal miners" worked hard!  They churned out car after car painted in that dark Conrail brown with that sharp, white "broken wheels on rails to nowhere" logo on them.  It wasn't hard to be proud of the work the shop did, seeing freshly painted cars, ready for work, waiting to be picked up at the end of the day - even if all I did was watch.

Hollidaysburg Car Shop may be gone now, but I'm still going!  And I'll always remember Hollidaysburg Car Shop.