Tuesday, February 18, 2014

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.

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