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. 

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