Monday, March 17, 2014

War Stories - Episode 17: The Amtrak Eraser

"Fill this out.  It's for your Amtrak pass." said our Training Coordinator on the first day of work.


I get an Amtrak pass?  Cool.

So, what's a pass?

One of the age-old benefits of working for a railroad was being issued a pass.  A pass let you ride on your "home road", that is, the railroad you worked for, for free.  Exactly how that worked with Pullman accommodations I don't know, but it was still a pretty good perk, especially if your railroad went interesting places.

Once Amtrak took over the intercity rail passenger service in 1971, things changed.  The rule for who could ride where and when changed, but for those who hired after April 1, 1976, like me, got a pass that was good for 50% off any Amtrak train, including accommodations.  Good deal...

...for me. Maybe not so good for Amtrak.  The "problem" was that I used the pass.  I also tended to use Amtrak for business whenever I could.

  • I rode the Floridian between Chicago and Birmingham AL in the Spring of 1979.
  • I rode the Broadway Limited from Philadelphia to Chicago and back (via PRR mainline: Crestline and Fort Wayne) in the summer of 1979.
  • I rode the Lake Cities from Toledo to Ann Arbor (via Detroit) in the early 1980s.

So, big deal.  I rode all those trains.  Now, go to The Museum of Railroad Timetables and look at Amtrak's route map in 1979 and then in the late 1980s.

See what happened?  Everyone of these rides, I'm pretty sure, caused Amtrak to take the train off shortly after I rode!  The route just vanished from the map!  I'm not sure why, but I became a "human eraser" to Amtrak's route map.

In the early 80s, they changed my pass to be nearly useless - just 25% off coach fare for tickets purchased within 24 hours of departure - and no discount on accommodations.  I was sad to see the changes, but I never really understood why I was ever entitled to anything in the first place.

It's probably a good thing.  If they'd have left it alone, Lord knows how much more of Amtrak's route map I'd have wreaked havoc on.

Full disclosure:  I have ridden many non-NEC Amtrak trains since they changed the pass and every single route is still operating.  Lake Shore Limited, Maple Leaf, Crescent, Silver Star, Silver Meteor, SW Chief, California Zephyr, Adirondack, San Diegan, Cascade and Pennsylvanian.

Apparently the power was in the pass.

I still have my pass.  Might even use it again someday, when time is more flexible.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

War Stories - Episode 16: "Welcome to the (Metro)club!"

This is a war story about an actual war!

When Conrail was created from the wreck of the Penn Central et. al., Amtrak inherited the former PRR "Northeast Corridor" from New York City to Washington DC and the branch to Harrisburg since they were the predominant user of the line.  This was probably a good thing.  Conrail had enough trouble to keep them busy without having to figure out how to host another hundred or so passenger trains a day.

But, it didn't come without trouble.  Conrail still had the right to run trains there and had to negotiate with Amtrak over a whole host of issues.  The relationship didn't start out well but it got worse over time.  One of the first sticking points was over usage of electric traction power.

When PRR, and then PC, strung up the catenary, they didn't much care which particular train or MU car used how much power.  They just built the equipment with efficiency in mind and then payed for the generation needed to cover the total consumption.  They knew how much they were generating, but not where it went, specifically.  It really didn't matter to them.

Amtrak and Conrail negotiated a split to the electric bill, but after a few years, it was clear to Conrail that the method for splitting the bill was way off.  Both sides agreed to take a fresh look.

It was tricky because the power went all sorts of places. It was being used by commuter trains in Philadelphia and New Jersey, freight trains on Amtrak-owned track and some Conrail owned tracks, such as the Port Road or Enola Branch/Low Grade Line, Amtrak locomotive hauled trains, Amtrak Metroliner MUs and borrowed commuter MUs.  It also went to handle building light and heat in certain places as well as being converted for signal system power.

The looking included putting some power meters on locomotives and MU cars to see exactly how much power they were drawing.  Conrail's Equipment Engineering department ordered a few power meters and got them installed.  I believe one went on an E44, another on a SEPTA MU car, one on an E60 and aonther on a Metroliner.  They'd be moved to other equipment once enough data was collected in order to get good coverage.  That was the easy part.

There was quite a variety equipment and train types using juice from the wires....

E44s going through Princeton Junction.

GG1 at South Amboy

Soon-to-be NJT Arrows closing in on Princeton Junction
Soon-to-be SEPTA Silverliners at Radnor PA
Amtrak GG1 in Metroliner Service, Claymont DE

Metroliner passing Amfleet train at Princeton Jct NJ

Amtrak leased Silverliners from SEPTA for Harrisburg Line Service, Lancaster PA

The hard part was collecting the data.  That chore fell to Conrail since they were the ones complaining.  So, Conrail had to supply man power.  That typically consisted of stalking the equipment and when it was close to Phila, jumping on and reading the meter, often riding to the end of the trip and reading it again.

I found this all rather fascinating so I stuck my nose into it, and offered up a way to figure out approximately how many more runs were needed to get to specific confidence interval given the current small sample of data - sort of a backwards "t test."  The reward was I got the occasional quick slot in the data collection.

The memorable trip was the time I got the call to catch the early afternoon Metroliner to New York that was expected in Philadelphia shortly.  Just by luck, the power meter had been installed in a Metroclub car.  The Metroclub cars had actual parlor car seating in them - probably the last equipment built this way in the world.

I had ridden in Metroclub once before in my life.  It was on July 20, 1969 on a family trip to NYC for the day.  (Bonus points if you know what ELSE happened that day....)  I was thirteen years old and that whole trip remains cemented in my mind to this day.

So, I head down to the platform at the appropriate time with my clipboard and pencil.  The train arrives.  I hop on and find the power meter about mid-way in the Metroclub car on the left hand side.  It's not crowded so I take the seat under the meter.  I read the meter and write down the value.  The conductor comes along looking for tickets.  I explain.  He's good with it.  He also volunteers to get me a "dead head" ride back to Philadelphia since this equipment isn't turning until the next morning.   The train gets to New York. I write down my number.  Hard day's work!  It was the second and last time I ever ride in a revenue parlor car seat.

The conductor directs me across the platform to a long clocker that's just getting ready to depart.  I find the crew and settle in for the ride in the head end back to 30th Street. I get the center seat in the cab.
E60 near Grundy tower, Bristol PA
The E60s were just getting their ride quality issues sorted out after derailing at 120 mph back in 1974 and this train is allowed 90 mph between the stops as it makes it's way to Phila.  The ride is actually pretty decent....until we hit an interlocking while motoring at 90 mph.  The entire cab lurches sideways.  The seat armrest plants itself in my ribs.  Then, the locomotive cab lurches the other way and the opposite arm rest repeats the process on the other side of my rib cage.  This goes on for a couple cycles and finally damps out.   The engineer just rolls with it, looking much like a "Weebil".  You know, "Weebils wobble but they don't fall down!" Gadzooks!  Now I know why the cab seats have arm rests!  "How'd you like that?" asks the engineer with a big grin on his face.

That was my last ride for the project.  The "plug got pulled" - literally.  Conrail was relieved of commute operations, so the MU fleet operation fell to the state agencies to fight it out with Amtrak.  After studying electrification between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh and deciding against, Conrail decided to retire all the electric freight locomotives and run diesels under the wire...the secondary effects of this decision would come back and haunt them year later.

Conrail GG1s with no more work to do
But, that's another story for another day.

War Stories - Episode 15: "100 mph commute!"

A quiz.  Did you study?  It's multiple choice.

When you work in a train station, the best possible way to get to work is by:

a) train
b) train
c) train
d) all of the above

I chose "train".  In Philadelphia, that meant I had lots of choices of where to live as there were commuter rail lines radiating out from Philadelphia in all directions.  I ultimately chose to live in northern Delaware.  Delaware is just barely big enough to have a "northern" part, but it did - and I lived there.  In fact, the place I lived was within sight of the Pennsylvania border.  It was fairly close to the SEPTA Marcus Hook PA station a bit more than halfway from Philadelphia to Wilmington.

PRR-side trains all originated out of Suburban Station

RDG-side trains all originated out of Reading Terminal

To New Jersey, the choice was the PATCO Hi-Speed Line
...which connected to ex-PRSL Budd cars for Atlantic City, Ocean City and Cape May

Here, then, are some tales of the commute.

I had a fairly easy, cheap and fast commute.  I drove a few miles to Marcus Hook where I caught a SEPTA train scheduled for roughly 7:40 AM.  It was one of the few that started its route in Newark, DE and was often a few minutes late because of it.  It took me the 17 miles from "the Hook" right to the upper level at 30th St. Station just in time to get a Dunkin Donut and a Coke (Breakfast of Champions!) and be in the office at 8:30.

Most days, the train would be four Silverliners.  The train stuck to the historic schedules for the line and stopped nearly everywhere on the way in.   Lamokin St., Highland Ave, Chester, etc, etc.   It even stopped at the Baldwin Locomotives Works stop, which had been shut down for over 20 years!  Surprisingly, on the average, one and half people boarded there.

Silverliners at old Claymont DE station.  Next stop, Marcus Hook
One morning, the train was particularly late.  So late that SEPTA decided to turn the next arriving Marcus Hook local back immediately from the other platform instead of having it cross over and wait for it's regular schedule.  The station agent popped out of the old silver trailer that was the Marcus Hook station and told everyone to cross to the other platform to catch the inbound local, which was arriving soon, and would be the next train to Philadelphia.

There was an overhead bridge complete with stairs to the platform and a sidewalk, but nobody ever used it.  Most folk just walked across the four track, high speed mainline.  It was the shortest way back to the parking lot.  It wasn't the safest way, but it wasn't particularly hazardous if you took a bit of care.  Most people waited until the train departed before crossing the tracks, but there were always a few impatient people who crossed IN FRONT OF our train every day.  This was quite a bit more dangerous.

You'd think that, with all this practice, we'd be "pros" at crossing the tracks.  Not really.  Behavior was more like lemmings.  When one went, all followed blindly.  Maybe "creatures of habit" is the right term.  Yeah.  That's it. We were "Creatures".

Most evenings, the Silver Meteor would beat us out of Philadelphia and we'd have a clean ride all the way to Marcus Hook.  However, if it was a bit late, we would get passed by the Silver Meteor at Hook interlocking just before we arrive at Marcus Hook station.  He crossed over in front of us and then we follow him. However, on rare occasions, he would pass us on the other track while we're in the station.  Those days often had the "front crossers" scrambling for safety.  "Creatures" IS the right term.  Definitely.

Well, this particular morning, the creatures started swarming across the track as the agent told them that's where the next train would depart.  I looked up at the home signal for Hook Tower that was just to the north.  They'd just put up the signal for our delayed commuter train.  Hmmmm.  I also saw a headlight approaching from the north.  Double hmmmm. But, it didn't look like a Silverliner.  It looked suspiciously like the Metroliner that was out of Philly about 7:40 and through here about 7:55.  Triple hmmmm.  Perhaps the one we passed every day on the way in?  So, I stayed put...and watched things unfold.  This wasn't shaping up well!

Turns out, it WAS the Metroliner, closing fast!  Next thing I know, the hoard of creatures, 50-100 strong, were scurrying like rats.  The Metroliner's engineer was blowing his horn steadily, emitting that shriek that only Metroliners do.  I winced as he blew through the station at roughly 110 mph.  I don't see how, but everyone managed to scramble to safety.  A minor miracle.

Now, everyone is standing on the west platform.  I'm alone on the east platform.  The late, regular train rolls into the station and stops.  Nobody on the other platform budges an inch.  I get on the train.  The train departs. They're all still standing stock-still on the other platform.  It was hard to tell if they were more dazed or confused at this point, but NOBODY was crossing those tracks again this morning!

Metroliner at speed
The trip home was the best part of my daily commute.  It was fast and I liked fast.  I rode the express that departed the upper level of 30th Street Station at 5:03 everyday.  This four car train rolled out onto the center tracks at Arsenal and then did it's very best Metroliner imitation, quickly eclipsing 90 mph and sometimes just nicking 100 mph mark on the slight downgrade through Ridley Park, blowing by a local train en route.  How did I know the speeds?  I rode on vestibule every day.  The speed indicator on all the cab cars worked whether they were in the lead or not and the conductor didn't car much if we rode out there as the train was generally full leaving 30th St.  We usually had four Silverliner IVs but occasionally would draw the older IIIs or IIs.  The older Silverliners were a hair faster and would often get into the low 100s.

The train ran the first 13 miles to Chester in about 11 minutes and then started making local stops after that, quite often covering the 17 miles to Marcus Hook in 17 minutes.  That's a pretty fast commute!

One day, after fast run to Chester and knocking out the next two stops in short order, we come to a stop signal at Hook.  They were holding us for the Meteor. It would be by in just a few minutes and we'd be on time, still.   After just a few seconds, one cranky lady said out loud to no one in particular.  Why is this train ALWAYS late!?! I guess 100 mph just isn't fast enough for some people.

Another day as significant snow had the lineup of trains at Suburban Station in disarray.  The train behind ours was an all-stops local that usually ran with a six car set of ancient MP-54s.  At full boil, the MP-54s could just get over 60 mph.  In the place of our usual equipment, this set of MP-54 oozed up to the platform.  Everyone piled on and away we went.  We got the "high iron" at Arsenal as always and then bounced and swayed our way down to Chester at far less than our normal speed.  We got to Marcus Hook about 10 minutes late that day, but nobody was complaining this day.  They were just happy to get there in the snow.

The last tale comes under the heading of "Wayne's Law." (info here and here).  Ninety-nine percent of the time, the trains arrived and departed the upper level at 30th Street like clockwork and "creatures" like me depended on that.  One day, at 5:03, a train rolled in.  I didn't listen to the announcement or look at the sign by the vestibule door.  I just hopped on - like every other day.  "Hmmmm.  Six cars today.  That's unusual", I thought, priding myself on being so sharp as to notice.  Then as the train departed, I thought some more.  The Media Line trains have six cars. They share "our" platform.

Uh. Oh.

Yes, this was a Media Line train running slightly late.  So, I went to Media! I could have found my way back to 30th Street one of a couple ways and then tried another train for Marcus Hook, but that would have taken quite a while.  Instead, I found a payphone and had a buddy come pick me up.  The penalty for "stupid" was rather minor, this day.

I made the Marcus Hook to 30th Street commute until the summer of 1980 when I decided to move to an apartment in New Jersey.  Somewhere during 1981, Amtrak kicked us out of 30th Street.  They were going to renovate and move their offices from a rental on Market Street in Center City.  So, we moved to an older office building at 15th and Walnut, and a few years later into Six Penn Center, the last home of the PRR in Philadelphia.  Ten years after that, it was on to Two Commerce Square, down the block.

I used the PATCO Hi-Speed line, NJT express buses, and SEPTA heavy and light rail lines in various combinations over the years, but none ever came close to that 100 mph commute!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

War Stories - Episode 14: " Now arriving 30th St Station, Philadelphia - ME!"

30th Street Station in Philadelphia is a fabulous place.  It's one of the last, grand train stations built in the US and one of a few that is fulfilling it's original purpose handling large volumes of passengers every day in the structure designed for that purpose.   No "diappearin' railroad blues" here!  The cavernous concourse echos the train announcements almost to the point of being undecipherable.

"Noooowboardinnngggstairwayyyysssevennn, traaainoneoooohfiiiiive, thenineforrrrrtyeiiiightMetroooolinerrrr, makinggggstopsssatWilmingtonBaltimoreCapitolBeltwayandWashhhhinggggtonnnn!  Allllaboarddd, Stairwayyyysssevennn!"

That was part of the charm, though.

But, what you might not know is that there is a significant amount of office space in wings on each side of the main concourse.

See those windows at the end past the statue and columns?  There are hallways in those windows that connect the offices on each side of the concourse.  Six floors of them.

How do I know this?  I worked there for a couple years.

It's February 1979 and my class of trainees is supposed to rotate from their freight terminal locations to a commuter operations location.  Conrail ran all the legacy commuter routes that used to belong to the PRR, NYC, NY, DL&W, Erie, NH, Reading and CNJ.  They were paid a subsidy by the appropriate state agency, SEPTA for the routes out of Philadelphia for example, but the day to day operation was in the hands of Conrail.  However, by 1979, Conrail was pushing hard to shed itself of this so it could concentrate on hauling freight.  That wouldn't occur for another year or two, but the handwriting was on the wall, so they killed that part of the training and put us to work!

There was some amount of preliminary interviewing before placement.  After that, jobs were handed out to the 16 of us.  Some got jobs as assistant general foreman, mostly at car shops in out of the way places.  I probably wouldn't have hung around too long if I'd been placed in those jobs.  Some got Quality Control inspector jobs in Juniata Locomotive Shop.  Interesting, but I'd lived in Altoona long enough. (no offense!)  Some of us got jobs in the Equipment Engineering Department in Philadelphia.

That included ME!  Just the kind of job I wanted!  First day was Tuesday, February 20, 1979, the day after President's Day holiday.  I was supposed to be there at 8:30 AM.  I had packed up my stuff in Columbus and driven back to the folks house in NJ that weekend. I'd stay there until I could scout out a place to live on my own.

Great plan.  Except on President's day it snowed.  A lot.  More than a foot.  In fact it's still the 9th highest day total for Philadelphia ever. Take a look!

Snow, with some pretty good drifts...
I pretty much dug my car out that day, but I got a bit up early Tuesday morning in case I had to do some more digging.  I did some more digging.  Quite a bit.  It took me an hour of digging to get 150 feet to the end of the street!  The snow was wet and heavy and the car wouldn't make it it's own length before it got hung up on the snow again.  I finally got going, drove to the High Speed Line at Lindenwold without much trouble, took that to SEPTA's Market Street Line and took that to the 30th Street Station stop, navigating the underground concourse into the station.  It was nearly 10:00AM!.  The whole way, I'm worried about what kind of trouble I'm going to be in for being so late on my first day of work!

I walked in the office door wondering what kind of reception I was going to get.  What I found when I opened the door was, in an office of over 60 people, there were only a half dozen present!  I wasn't the only one who had travel trouble.  In fact, the few there were kind of surprised to see me so early!  Phew!

The offices in 30th Street Station were in original condition from 1928.  The furniture was a hodge-podge.  A lot of it old oak.  There were rugs in some offices that were rarely, if ever, vacuumed.  There were filing cabinets stained with 50 years of tobacco smoke.  There was the faint smell of ammonia wafting up from the blueprint machine at one end of the office.  It was not a glamorous place.  My desk was in an open area right by the front door.  I didn't care.  This was just the place I wanted to be!

It was a couple hours before everyone else showed up, including my new boss.  I was "Assistant Mechanical Engineer - Service Tests".  That meant I had to set up a test and monitor any new part, device, or change to locomotives, cars or cabooses that came along.  That include whatever cursory analysis that needed to be done before the item or change was placed in service.  I got to go places and see things and meet lots of people along the way. I got to work with vendors.  Some nice, some pushy.

I enjoyed that job and the subsequent ones I had there. But, best of all, I got to come to work every day to fabulous 30th Street!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

War Stories - Special Edition: "Car Wars"

This is not specifically a railroad "War Story" but is not completely unrelated.  Hence,  "Special Edition!"

Lesson number one:

A Belvedere is not a Road Runner

The last couple years of college I had use of a two door 1970 Plymouth Belvedere.  It was my Aunt's car.   I was glad to have it.  It had the famous 225 cu. in. slant six that had a long stroke and lots of low end torque.  It was mated to an ancient three speed manual transmission that allowed the car to get out of it's own way but wasn't going to win any races.  Compare to the car I learned to drive, it was sports car.  In fact, it shared the same sheet metal as the famous Road Runner.  Once, a young guy in eastern Kentucky said to me, "Ah lack yer Road Runner."  I told him it was just a six cylinder Belvedere and that was the end of the conversation.  I don't know if it was because he lost interest in the car or because he lost interest in talking to a "Yankee."

But, lets get a few things straight.  This was no sports car.  It was no luxury car.  And, it had it's share of quirks.

Here's a quick list of the car's features:

  • Vinyl bench seats with seat backs that flopped forward for rear seat access
  • Rubber floor mat in lieu of carpet
  • Manual air vents at floor level in lieu of AC
  • Non-synchro first gear for double-clutching fun
  • High dashboard and low windshield for poor visibility
  • AM radio with dash mounted speaker for high fidelity amusement while driving
  • Manual steering and manual brakes for physical fitness
  • A FULL set of seat belts.  Separate lap and shoulder belts for front, outboard seats, lap belts elsewhere.  All with matching buckles.  None with retractors.  You had to store the shoulder belt in clips above the door.

And a few quirks:

  • Door handle clip on drivers side fell off a lot so you'd have to enter through the passenger's door (I got really good a pulling the door panel and putting the clip back on)
  • Starter with a dead spot that required occasional roll-starting
  • Shift linkage that occasionally got out of correspondence with transmission requiring some specific yanking under the hood with arc-joint pliers (kept in glove box for just such an occasion)
  • Rear wheel bearings that would fail frequently
  • Parking brake release you couldn't reach wearing the shoulder belt - but you could hit it with your right foot if you crossed your legs.
But, all in all, it wasn't particularly hard to drive and it got reasonable gas mileage - around 20 mpg overall, so I was very happy to have it.  I drove it all over the place.  Lots of day railfan trips out of Troy  (unless my friends with nicer cars volunteered to drive!)   Trips back to NJ for the weekend.  A couple of long-haul trips to/from Kentucky in winter and summer.  I even added an FM radio converter and a really cheap cassette tape deck to go with a couple of 6x9 rear speakers.

On I-70 in Ohio.  Winter 1976/77
Lesson number two:  Just because you can doesn't mean you should (always drive)

I even drove it from Altoona to LaGrange IL for some training in the summer of 1978.  That was the turning point.  Getting to Chicago was rather uneventful.  The week there was rather uneventful.  Then I drove home via Lexington KY....

It started well enough Friday afternoon, heading down I-65 toward Indianapolis, but, as the day wore on, it got hotter and hotter, hitting the mid-90s by mid-afternoon.  I had the 2-60 AC system going full blast.  Both windows down, going 60 mph.  I about melted.  At one point, I was heading off at the next exit for gas only to find myself wheeling up to a truck weigh station.  Not good.

I got through Indy and down to Louisville where I hit some traffic.  While creeping along a ramp, I heard the unmistakable "cheep, cheep, cheep" of the rear wheel bearing with every wheel revolution.

Uh, oh.

I had just had the left rear wheel bearing replaced 10,000 miles ago and just 20,000 miles before that.  How can this be?

By the time I reached Lexington, the "cheep cheep" had become a very ominous "rumble rumble whirl whirl rumble rumble" and you could smell hot 90 weight gear lube.  I slowed way down, very afraid I'd break an axle. I arrived at my destination, hot, tired and worried - that I would have trouble getting my car fixed in time to get back to Altoona for Monday morning.

Saturday, the first order of business was finding a garage that was open and willing to do the repair.  Not easy, but I found one close by.  Next order of business was to rent a car while mine was in the shop.

I rented a brand new, 1978 Chevrolet Monte Carlo.!

Lesson number three:  When rental cars are much, much better than what you are driving, it might be time....

It had a small block V-8.    It had plush bucket seats.  It had air conditioning.  It had a four speaker stereo system.  It had quick power steering and power brakes and "wide" 70 series tires.  It had carpet.  It was quiet on the inside.  It road very smoothly.  It hardly seemed fitting that the word "car" could be used to describe both my Belvedere and this thing.

It felt like I was driving a rocket ship!  Step on the gas and it took off.  Step on the brakes and it stopped.  Straight and fast without having to stand on the pedal.  Aim it around a curve and it just went.  No wrestling, no cajoling, no bending it to your will.  Just turn the steering wheel a hair and it just WENT!

I got my car back on Sunday, all patched up, and returned the rocket ship to the rental agency, but I was ruined.  All the way back to Altoona I compared and contrasted.  The poor Belvedere lost every round.  Then, a dangerous thought took root.  "I have a good job. I'm making $16,275 a year.  I could buy a NEW CAR."  I thought.

It was true.  I did have a job and was still living the lifestyle of a poor college kid.  Most importantly, I had the mindset of a poor college kid, so my income was piling up faster than I could think of ways to spend it.  I didn't have enough money to buy a new car outright - my folks always did it that way, so I thought maybe I should just keep saving up.  But, I did have enough to get started and have a loan cover the rest.  I joined the Conrail-Altoona Federal Credit Union with this in mind.  Just in case.

I started researching cars.  I had conflicting goals.  I was ever the practical engineer, so I needed something practical.  Very practical.  Station Wagons were practical and I LIKED station wagons. I also needed something relatively efficient and reliable and I really liked having a stick shift car.  But, I REALLY liked driving that rented Monte Carlo "rocket ship".  So......

In September 1979, I wound up ordering "cousin to that rocket ship" - a Chevy Malibu Classic station wagon with the smallest small block Chevy ever made (a 267 cu. in. V8) and four on the floor.  I had deleted the radio because I had pretty good one I wanted to move from the Belvedere and I had also deleted the tinted windows to keep maximum visibility out.  Ralleye wheels, since they should be less of a headache than wheelcovers.  This was one very weird car.  Only a handful were ever made this way. Cost was about $4500.   I had about 1/3 saved up and applied at the credit union for the balance.

I had moved from Altoona to Columbus OH in the mean time (see Moving Day #2).  The GM "A body" cars (Monte Carlo, Malibu, et. al.)  bound for the northeast were all built in Doraville, GA and a bunch of them moved by rail via the Southern Railway up through Cincinnati to Conrail and then through Buckeye Yard up the northeast.  I used to spend my lunch hour watching loaded autoracks from the south go over the hump, wondering if I could catch a glimpse of my new car on its way to me.  I may have.  It was hard to tell...

Lesson number four:  Avoid Altoona.  Always.

Finally, mid-November, the car arrived at the dealer in NJ!  I headed from Columbus to NJ for the weekend to pick it up.  I had to go via Altoona to pick up the check at the credit union.  I hadn't been in Altoona since that day I got rear-ended on Plank Road the day before I moved to Columbus.  Wouldn't you know it?  I'm waiting at a light headed into "downtown" Altoona when, WHAM, I get rear-ended again!

This time the damage was very minor.  I couldn't tell any new dents from the old ones!  So, we decided "no harm, no foul" and didn't even exchange info.  I picked up the check and headed east.

The next morning, my folks took me to pick up the car.  It was fabulous!

Here it is.  That very day.

I had that car until 1988.  Put 170,000 miles on it.  Was it trouble free?  No.  Did it have it's own quirks and problems?  You bet.  But, you never forget your first new car.

Every now and again, I wish I would have hung on to it.

Monday, March 10, 2014

War Stories - Episode 13: "Chillicothe? Where's that?"

Fall 1978 turned to Winter 1979 and now I was at the car shop in Columbus.  Car shops at hump yards get quite a bit of work to do.  The humping of freight cars occasionally bangs the cars up pretty good and the car shop has to straighten things out - literally!  While I was there, I got to see and do a few things.  Survey some cars set out on line of road with a foreman who only knew two settings for his car's heater - full on and full off.  Show off my mad cutting torch and welding skills I learned at Hollidaysburg.  Really.  I didn't completely suck at it!  But, mostly I just got to watch guys repair freight cars everyday.

One Friday, about the middle of January, I got a phone call at the car shop - a rare event!  "Come to Philadelphia for a meeting Monday morning." Said our training coordinator.  "What's it about?"  "Don't know."  (Geez.  Not this again...) "What time?"  "9:00 AM". "Okay.  I'll  be there."

In 1979, a normal person would have called USAir and gotten a flight to Philadelphia for Sunday afternoon.  I was not a normal person.  I called Amtrak looking for a roomette on the National Limited on Saturday, so I could make the Monday meeting.  The train was booked.  How about tonight's train?  Also booked. Rats.  Guess I'll drive.  Ugh. It was a long trip and that was a cold, nasty winter.

Wait a minute!  What about the Shenandoah?  Could I take the Shenandoah to Washington and then another train to Philly?  The Shenandoah was created a few years prior, operating overnight between Cincinnati and Washington DC.  It ran on the old B&O through Athens OH, then on toward Cumberland Maryland through through the hills of West Virginia in the dead of night.  There, it joined the B&O mainline to Chicago for the last leg into Washington DC.  It was a tiny, poorly patronized train -  a political payoff for some Senator somewhere - I don't recall who.

I checked a map.  I could catch the Shenandoah at Chillicothe where the B&O line from St. Louis and Cincinnati crossed the N&W.  It was about an hour's drive south.  I checked the schedule.  Morning arrival into DC.  I could make a connection into Philadelphia, stay with my folks Sunday and travel into Philadelphia on Monday for the meeting.

Current Ohio State Rail Map

The Shenandoah didn't have a sleeper, but it did have a couple of experimental "economy sleeper service" roomettes built into the end of a regular old Amfleet coach.  I called Amtrak.  A room was available.  I booked it.

Shenandoah Schedule (courtesy
timetable image is ©1978 National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak).

I drove down to Chillicothe on Saturday evening and parked the old, brick B&O depot there.  There was no ticket agent on duty.   Amtrak had explained to me that all I needed was my reservation number and I'd be ticketed on board by the conductor.  The train arrived a 20 minutes late or so.  I boarded and then had to explain to the conductor that I'd reserved one of the "roomettes".  It was a bit laborious.  I guess they didn't get many passengers on at Chillicothe who booked a sleeper.

The train was about three cars long if I remember.  There was an F40PH up front, then an Amfleet I coach with a couple roomettes, one on each side of the aisle, I believe, at the forward part of the car.  The second car was a standard Amcafe and then, perhaps, another Amfleet coach.  The room had no sink or toilet.  The Amfleet bathroom across the hall was available, though.

I settled into my room and soon went to bed.  Being right behind the locomotive meant the ride wasn't the best, nor the quietest as the engineer blew for every crossing on the route.   But, I did get some sleep after watching one B&O color position light signal after the other pass at speed - sort of like counting sheep.

Morning came a early, but I enjoyed the scenic ride the last few hours into Washington DC.

Monday came and I found my way into a meeting with the department head of Mechanical Quality Control and three or four other Quality Control minions of various rank.  "What in the world could this be about?" I wondered silently.  

It was about FRA inspections of locomotives.  More specifically, about an attempt to game the system of FRA inpsections.  Someone, somewhere or maybe lots of people, lots of places, had noticed - or seemed to notice - that individual FRA inspectors had "pet" defects that they liked writing up.  The theory was that we could identify which inspectors looked for what defect and then focus our own inspection on those parts of the locomotives in the area the inspector worked.  For example, if inspector Joe Smith tended to write up "piston travel" and "pedestal liner clearance", then we should focus on the running gear of locomotives in his areas.

 My job was to sort through a couple years of FRA defect tickets to find the trends that could be used.  I was to do this work in the Quality Control office at Juniata Locomotive Shop.  "Okay, I can do this", I thought.  I said, "Okay.  I can do this."  Then, the conversation turned a bit.

Them: "Good.  You can drive to Altoona this afternoon and get started tomorrow."

Me: Uh, oh.

Me: "My car is in Chillicothe."

Them: "Chillicothe?  Where's that?"  

Me: "Chillicothe Ohio.  About an hour south of Columbus.  I took the train from there to get here."

Them: "The train?!?!?"

Me: Uh, oh. Danger, danger, railfan cover being blown...

Them:  (losing some interest in this line of questioning, thankfully)  "You can ride out to Altoona with these guys and get started tomorrow."

Me:  Happy that we weren't going to start talking in depth about the wisdom or riding Amtrak long distance trains for business travel, and deciding to put off the whole issue of how I was going to get back to my car in Chillicothe, said, "Okay".

So, off to Altoona I went.

And, it all turned out pretty well.  I got another ride Altoona back to Columbus on Friday from a nice old QC guy who told stories about working on the early diesel locomotives at the old 20th Street Shops in Columbus.  "Steam.  Five minutes to figure out what's wrong.  Two days to fix it.  Diesel.  Two days to figure out what's wrong.  Five minutes to fix it."

Once back to Columbus, I got a friend to give me a ride down to Chillicothe to pick up my car.  I spent the next several weeks in Altoona.  The original task took about a week and a half, but they didn't release me back to my "trainee job" in Columbus, instead keeping me in Juniata with almost nothing to do.  How did I keep busy?  I decided to read Locomotive Service Manuals and try to learn all the stuff they didn't teach me during my time as a trainee in Juniata. 
Locomotive Service Manuals

 I was really good at self-learning - a skill a perfected in college. Once I figured out the professor was teaching from the book - that was it for class attendance!

Knowing how locomotives worked would come in handy many times later in my career.

That FRA inspector game playing thing?  FAIL.  I tallied up hundreds and hundreds of records. There were no useful trends no matter how I grouped, sorted and correlated. 

Friday, March 7, 2014

War Stories - Episode 12: "Moving day #2"

September 1978.  The time as a trainee in Altoona was coming to a close.  Next stop, a location with a locomotive and car shop that supported actual train operations.  No more isolation in Altoona!  Out into the real world of railroading!

 Our choices were:

Selkirk, NY (Albany area)
Enola, PA (Harrisburg area)
Harrisburg, PA
Columbus, OH
Indianapolis, IN
Conway, PA (Pittsburgh area)
Collinwood, OH (Cleveland area)

Two guys to each location.  You could request where you wanted to go, but if there were more "askers" than slots, you'd randomly get assigned elsewhere.  I would have preferred Harrisburg, or even Selkirk, but I knew there'd be lots of competition for those locations.  They were close to where most of us were from.  One guy was commuting to Altoona each day from suburban Pittsburgh and I knew he absolutely had to have Conway, so I didn't get in his way.

I asked for Columbus, OH.  There were a few reasons. One was that I was pretty sure no one else was asking for it, so I'd get it and not get stuck in Indianapolis - far, far from home - too far from NJ to comfortably drive home for holidays and the occasional weekend.  Columbus was only about a 9 hour trip each way.  The other was it was it was reasonably close to Lexington KY -about 3 hours away.  What's in Lexington?  Old girlfriend.  What the heck - it was worth a shot.

In mid-September, they told us where we'd be going.  Columbus for me.  No surprise.

So, one weekend late in September, I set out for Columbus to find an apartment - with the memory of apartment hunting in Altoona fresh in my mind .  I grabbed a local newspaper and started scouting furnished apartments on the west side of town, near Buckeye yard.  Unlike Altoona, Columbus was a full-sized, full-service, modern, growing city.  It didn't take me long to find decent one bedroom place with modest, but serviceable furnishings.  It was only about a five minute drive to the yard, if I hit the lights right.  After convincing the leasing agent that I really, really did have a job that could be verified and that I really, really did understand that I'd lose my security deposit when I moved out after four months, she let me sign a lease.

Mid-October.  It was moving weekend.  Here's the plan:  Folks come out, load meager furniture from Duncansville luxury garden apartment into station wagon for NJ.  I load everything else into my car and head for Columbus, unload stuff into apartment, then take the train to Philly for reasons I forget.  Perhaps a debrief of Phase I of training at Six Penn Center?  Probably.

Friday, after work, a few of us were headed to a restaurant to eat dinner.  A "last supper" of sorts.  We're heading north on Plank Road, US-220,  which was where the most of the restaurants and newer stores in Altoona were located. It was four lanes, not divided.  No center turn lane.

The guy in front me signals for a left turn and stops.  I'm making a left a short way ahead, so I stop behind him.  Situation normal.  Everything's cool, until the car behind me decides to use "collision braking" and does not stop.  WHAM!  It felt like the end of the world!  My head slaps the head restraint and then I flop forward into the shoulder belt (Yes, I was one of the few, strange folk who always wore the lap AND shoulder belt back then...) of my 1970 Plymouth Belvedere as my car bashes into the car in front of me.


I feel okay, though.  I look behind me, expecting to see the grill of the car in back of me somewhere in the back seat. Nope. Looks normal. My car is curiously not very deformed.  In fact, I can't tell that anything is different.  What felt like the end of the world was just a fender-bender.  Everyone pulls over into an adjacent parking lot to take a look and exchange information.  The car that hit me has a slightly crumpled hood with a multitude of bondo flakes and cracks from several previous repairs.  Hmmmm. Looks like he's used "collision braking" before and was trying to perfect the art!  The car I hit had a tiny dent in it's bumper.

My car, in the front, looked okay.  In the back, the bumper was wrinkled and pushed up a hair into the trunk, making a gap where the trunk sealed against the fenders.  But, the real issue was the steam pouring out from under my hood.  During the wreck, the engine flexed on it's mounts a bit and the fan grazed the radiator, gashing about one third of the tubes. The radiator was scrap.


I left the car in the lot and went to dinner and got a ride home after.  Lots of trouble brewing for Saturday.  Could we find a new radiator?  Can we adjust the trunk latch to fully close the trunk?  Would we be able to install it in time to get to Columbus before the leasing agent went home for the day?  Could I unpack in time to make my train to Philly?  If I can't get into the apartment, would leaving car full of my stuff in downtown Columbus, with a trunk that really doesn't shut all the way be a good idea?


The next morning, my folks arrived and we nursed the car back to Duncansville.  Then, we hunted junkyards fruitlessly until we found one that had one used radiator to fit my car.  It was a ways away, but we had no trouble running over to get it. We  installed it and tested tested it.  It didn't leak!  Next, the trunk latch.  There were some adjustment slots in the mount and we managed to get it to close all the way.  Was it weatherproof?  Didn't really know....  Time would tell.  Then we got to the business of packing and moving, heading out late in the afternoon - no time to spare!

I drove straight to the new apartment.  It was too late to pick up the key, but I'd called ahead and the leasing agent met met at the apartment after I arrived.  I hastily threw all my stuff into the third floor apartment and had just enough time to catch the train, the National Limited,  in Columbus.  I rolled down I-70 and found the "Amshack" that was the Columbus Ohio station and parked.

Phew,  I made it!  The train arrived close to on time and I found my nice, relaxing roomette.  I exhaled as the train slid away from the station and headed east.  It was close to midnight. What a day!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

War Stories- Episode 11: "Print job - all, all, all. Uh, oh."

Remember "Wayne's Law" from Episode 9?

"Life is hard.  Life is harder if you're stupid."

This is a short story of stupid.

Fall 1978.  Still a trainee.  Still at Buckeye Diesel Shop.  Still stupid.

This time, I'm in the office at the fuel pad where they fuel, service and put together locomotives for outbound trains. "Building consists" is the vernacular.  In the office they had a computer terminal and printer for the new Locomotive Information System, or "LIS".  It tracked all the repairs made to locomotives.

Fuel pad at Selkirk, NY

It was a gadget.  I liked gadgets.   Still do.  So, I spent some time on it trying to see what it could do and what it could tell me.

There were several parameterized reports.  The most interesting to me was one that let you pull the history for a locomotive for a specific time period.  Or, several locomotives.  Or groups of locomotives.  You just filled out the parameters on the screen and hit enter and your report would pop out on the printer.  The more information you asked for, the longer the print job took to respond.

Conrail had about 5000 locomotives at the time.  I looked at all sorts of data.  One particular locomotive, all defects, for a month.  One for a year.  A group of locomotives for a month.  One kind of defect on a group of locomotives for a week. One particular locomotive as far back as the data existed (about a year, at the time, but they were growing the database).

All the reports came back nice and fast.  Some were as long as 20 pages, but most were a few pages at most.

Then, the "stupid" kicked in.

One of the values you could enter in the parameters was "all".  So, I started messing around with it.  "All" locomotives with "replace turbocharger" for a day.  No problem.  One locomotive for "all" dates.  No problem.  Then, trouble.  I while editing the screen for my next report, entered "all" everywhere and hit enter.  There was no "oops" button.  No, "escape" key.  No, "Alt-Cntl-Del."

The query hit the mainframe and in a couple minutes, the printer sprang to life, dutifully beginning the process of printing the entire contents of the database in report form!

Uh, oh.

After what seemed like a half a box of paper, I tried everything I could think of to get it to stop.  Turned off the printer, and back on.  No.  Bzzz, bzzzz, bzzz, more pages printed, line by line.  Unpluged the print and plugged it back in.  Nope.  Turn of the terminal and turn in back on.  Nope, again.  Bzzz, bzzz, bzzz...  Finally, I did everything at once.

And it stopped.  Phew!

Or, maybe some smart system operator back in 32nd St. Philadelphia saw what a dopey query I'd submitted and killed the job.

Either way, I didn't care.  The buzzing printer was silent!

Less than an hour later, it was time to go home.  So I did....

...only to come back to work the next day to find out the job lived!  The supervisor at the fuel pad told me that the printer had fired back up, and, after a whole box of paper, they figured out who to call in Philadelphia to get the print job killed.  Did I know anything about this?

I had to confess...  "stupid college boy"...  They weren't really as bent out of shape as I thought they might be - thankfully.

Ultimately, LIS and I would become great friends.  In later jobs at Conrail, I used to to study locomotive reliability and track "in service" component testing.  It was a very useful tool.

You'd think smart software would be "stupid proof".  We all remember when Microsoft  Office software was full of "are you sure?" pop-up boxes.  Perhaps, I wasn't the only stupid person.  Perhaps, I was a trend setter?  An inovator?  Perhaps I should have reasonably expected it to responded to my query with, "Are you SERIOUS!?!"

Nope.  I was just stupid.

Perhaps, if this career didn't work out, I could get a job as a "software tester."  What do you think?

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

War Stories - Episode 10: "Now, THIS is fun! (But it really was work)"

"Hi, ho, hi, ho, it's off to work I go!"

After my, um, "interesting" first train ride (Episode 6) I got a chance for another one.

Good thing!  Train rides were the "crown jewel" of the training experience to me.  What's better than riding on a train?

But first, some background.  Another trainee assignment was to follow a locomotive through a "heavy" repair and then ride the first trip to see how it fares.  I picked an ex-PC U33C that had become a "hangar queen" of sorts.  It was waiting in pieces for parts to arrive.  It sat outside the shop for a week.  Finally, the parts arrived and the ex-EL machinists set to work fixing it.

As I recall, this particular locomotive needed four or five power assemblies.  Not enough for a trip to the backshop but fairly major work for a small running repair shop.  The ex-EL guys were sharp.  They had had experience doing complete overhauls on the EL's GE U-boat fleet at Marion.  A half dozen power assemblies was simple for them.  They tolerated my questions as they worked.  Removing the bad ones. Installing the good ones.  Setting the fuel rack, etc.

Once all the work was done, it was time to fire it up.  Despite being outside for a week, the batteries were in good shape.  The 16 cylinder FDL engine slowly cranked over.  Would it start?  One cylinder fired.  Woomph!  Then a few others.  Woomph, woomph, woomph!  A big cloud of smoke filled the shop, but it was idling.  Gene Wilder's voice popped into my head. "It's alive!"  Very soon, the idling smoothed out and the smoke died down.  Acrid diesel smoke was everywhere, but who cares?  "It's aliiive!"

They moved the locomotive out to the load box.  A load box is a "fake train".  It a big box of resistors to which you connect the output of the locomotive's main generator.  You can then power up the locomotive's diesel engine to full horsepower.  Think of it as an electrical dynamometer for a locomotive.

Once they had the locomotive connected to the load box, they slowly warmed the engine up until they had it running in "notch 8"  - full power!  WOPWOPWOPWOPWOP!  The exhaust sounded a bit like a helicopter blade going around - steady and sharp.  They checked the engine speed.  Right on 1050 RPM.  They checked the voltage and the amperage going into the load box and adjusted for the generator efficiency.  3300 HP plus or minus a small amount.  They checked for leaks, looked at the exhaust and gave the locomotive a good once-over.  Everything was perfect.  Time for this locomotive earn it's keep.

I don't recall if I had any sway in the decision or not, but the locomotive was assigned to a road freight headed toward Avon Yard in Indianapolis. COIN in Conrail terms.  COumbus to INdianapolis. This was good.  A real road train.  Not some "peddler".  Better yet, the train was called for the next morning.  I could go home and get some sleep first!

The next day I arrived at the fuel pad about dawn and found my engine.  It was paired with a GP38 which was going to be the lead unit.  The crew came on board and I introduced myself.  We headed out to pick up our train in the departure yard.  The yardmaster told the crew we had a couple of bad orders to set out before we could depart.  Great. How long's THAT going to take?  It took two hours - ugh.  I might never get out on the road.

Not to worry, we finally got our air test completed and we were off!

It was a great fall day!  Sunny, dry and cool.  The consist was arranged "elephant style" - nose to tail, with the trailing locomotive cab, the one I was in, facing forward.  I sat in the engineer's seat where I could see the gauges, opened the side cab widow, and watched the world go by.

We headed out the north end of the yard onto the "Bradford side" main. It was the ex-PRR line to Chicago.  Nearly all of it had been recently upgraded with new ties and welded rail, making for a very smooth ride.  Along the way, we passed a rail gang working on finishing up the upgrading of the route.

GP38-2 led train east of Buckeye on PRR panhandle.  This line would late be sold off.

Conrail was spending bucket loads of money on equipment and track back then, trying to resurrect a corpse.  The thought was, if the railroad was in a good state of repair, it could make money.  It turned out there was more wrong with Penn Central than just deferred maintenance. But little did I know, riding that day, that this freshly rebuilt mainline would be ripped up in just a few years in an attempt to make the route structure fit the profitable traffic in the deregulated era that was coming.

But, this particular day on this particular train, all was right with the world.   We  crawled up the hill toward Bradford, then onto Union City Ohio where we joined the old Big Four mainline.  From there were rolled through Muncie Indiana and on toward Indianapolis.  So far, a flawless trip.  For long stretches, we held a steady 50 mph, the fastest were were authorized to go.

I would occasionally check the load meter and write down the value of the current going to the traction motors.  I wanted to be able to figure out what the load should be at various speeds when I got back home.  Always the engineer....

The line into Indy was also freshly rebuilt, but they hadn't worked the road crossings completely yet.  At the first one, the big U-boat bounced up, launching me from my seat cushion, and proceeded to bounce up and down for the next few hundred feet before the suspension damped it out.  Didn't see that coming!  The thrill ride was repeated at every crossing on the line.  I noticed the GP38 in the lead didn't seem to bounce quite as much.  Later in my career, I'd learn quite a bit more about truck design and ride quality, but this was an interesting introduction.

Just outside of Indy, an approach signal, then a stop.  We were being held out for traffic at the yard on the other side of town.  It was getting to be late afternoon and the crew was starting to get short on their 12 hour work limit.  But, not to worry!  Finally, a high green!

The engineer notched out.  The GP38 dug in and started to pull.  My U-boat was slowly thinking about loading up.  That's how they were.  The difference between the two was that one had a two stroke diesel that could get going quickly and the other had a turbocharged four stroke engine that needed time for the turbo to get spinning before there was enough air to pour in more fuel and get thinks moving.  This created a problem.  It only took the GP38 20 seconds to get to full load, by which time it was slipping and overheating its traction motors.  The GE took a full minute and a half.  After a couple of attempts at starting the train, the head end brakeman came back to make sure the GE was loading at all.  I told him it seemed okay to me and then engineer attempted another start so he could see what was going on with his more experienced eyes.

He radioed the engineer that the trailing unit was okay, just loading slowly.  They had a simple fix.  They "isolated" the lead locomotive by snapping the isolation switch.  This allowed the locomotive to control all the other locomotives, as it had, but disconnected that locomotive from responding.

The engineer notched out and slowly the big U-boat started to load.  After about a minute it sounded like it was starting to dig in.  The brakeman radioed "now!" and the engineer snapped the isolation switch on the lead unit.  A geyser of exhaust shot out of it's stack as the diesel engine revved rapidly from idle to full speed, full load.  The GP38 dug in and the train started to move.  Slowly we gained speed and crawled by the virtual ruins of the old Union Station in downtown Indy, arriving at Avon yard a short time later. QED.

It was dusk now and I got jitney ride back to downtown Indianapolis.  I found the Greyhound station and bought a ticket for Columbus.  I had a couple hours to kill, so I wandered around the downtown area a bit, walking over to the old Union Station.

Greyhound?  What was I thinking!  Amtrak's National Limited comes through here in the evening on it's way from Kansas City to New York.  Am I too late?  I go into the nearly deserted station.  What was a massive, ornate, first rate passenger station has nearly been abandoned in place.  A very sad and lonely place.  I find the ticket office.  The train comes by in about an hour - and is on time!  I buy a ticket, head back out and return my Greyhound coupon and return to Union Station.  Hot damn!  Two train rides in one day!

What took all day on the freight train, took four hours in reverse on Amtrak.  To be fair, the Amtrak train used the old PRR-panhandle line, which was shorter, but had very little traffic.  It, too would be torn up in the next couple of years.

The National Limited was freshly equipped with completely rebuilt, spotless "heritage" equipment - HEP equipped and nearly new F40PH-2 locomotives.  A very nice train that had not trouble holding down 80 mph all the way back "home" - on time!

A glorious day with a fitting end!  Maybe this IS the career for me!

War Stories - Episode 9: "Not dead yet..."

..but maybe I should be?  Or, at least somewhat mangled?

This story has little to do with "Spamalot".  It's more about "just plain stupid."

John Wayne once said, "Life is hard.  Life is harder if you're stupid."

Maybe this should be called "Wayne's Law".  If so, a corollary would be, "Railroad shops are dangerous.  They are especially dangerous if you are stupid."

I am occasionally stupid.  But, I am still here.  Maybe I'm lucky?

One morning in the Fall of 1978....

I was a Mechanical Department Trainee in Columbus Ohio, Buckeye Yard.  It was a small shop with two tracks that could hold six locomotives at a time.  It was typical of the small locomotive shops built during the period when the New York Central was rapidly modernizing in the 1960s.  This shop was one of the last built, constructed during the Penn Central era when former NYC and PRR facilities in Columbus were consolidated just to the west of the Intestate loop around the city and just north of I-70.

At one end of one track, there was a small drop-table.  A drop-table is what you use when you want change out a bad wheelset or traction motor on a locomotive.  Bigger shops have larger drop tables where they can drop an entire truck out from under the locomotive, but Buckeye only had a small, one axle one.

The drop table existed in a pit and was moved up and down by a motors powering a screw-jack arrangement for up and down and another motor with screw-jack handling left and right.  You could lower the offending motor/wheel combo, move it off to the side, and raise it back to floor level again, position the new combo and reverse the process.  The pit itself was about 10 feet deep and had the machinery exposed.  Normally, when not in use, it was cordoned off with posts and chain.  There was even a cover for the pit for times when it wasn't being used.  It fit into cutouts, about 10" square in the edge of the opening with matching feet on the cover.  But it was always in use, so the cover was almost never put it place.

Most days, there was at least one locomotive at Buckeye that needed a traction motor dropped and replaced.  For some reason - probably to do with the general friendliness of the personnel - I found myself hanging out at the drop table quite often.  The ex-PC guys weren't very accomplished since their shop didn't do much more than running repairs - Altoona and Collinwood took care of the heavy work, but the were friendly.  The ex-EL guys were very accomplished.  They came from the EL backshop in Marion.  They tended to have a chip on their shoulder and an attitude that came from having an unwanted 50 mile commute each day.  Changing motor/wheel combos was pretty simple work.

The hours at the shop were 7:00 to 3:00 for first shift.  7:00 AM was hard for me.  I had trouble with 9:00 classes in college.  A recurring nightmare for many is the one where you are having a test, but you don't know it and walk into the class unprepared.  That wasn't a nightmare for me.  It happened.  Strength of Materials, I think. I decided that I could learn the material from the book and just had to show up in class occasionally to find out when the tests were.  I procrastinated a bit too much and wound up, (luckily?) walking into class on test day. By sheer luck, perseverance, a solid shot of adrenaline and it being open book, I managed a 75 on it.  Salvaged a B in the course.  "Life is harder if you are stupid"?  Yup.

Anyway, I was managing to arrive each day at work by 7:00, but I wasn't always "all I could be."  I hit the morning meeting, found out they'd be doing a combo changeout that morning and  headed out to the drop table a waited for the action to start.  I was in my usual morning daydream/stupor as the other guys showed up.  As I turned to face them, one foot fell into one of the cut-outs for the cover.  I spun toward the pit, lost my balance and fell.


Would up sitting on the edge of the pit with both feet dangling in space.  Adrenaline flowing, heart pounding and a bit confused  But perfectly safe.  The only thing wounded was my pride.

What a dope. Life IS harder when you're stupid.  But, sometimes you get a second chance....