Monday, August 11, 2014

War Stories - Episode 23: How to Scare a Child in an Airport Without Really Trying.

Cabooses were iconic.  Still are.

Wait a minute!  What does this have to do with scaring kids in airports?  This isn't another railroad story, is it?

Yes.  Another railroad story.  Really.

Back to cabooses.  (cabeese?) Or cabin cars, if you prefer.  Or waycars.  Or vans, crummies, hacks, buggies, etc. There were lots of proper names and nicknames for them.

Everyone knows what a caboose is, even 25 years after their demise.

Cabooses just aren't really part of the railroad scene anymore. Sure, caboose-like things now known as "shoving platforms" still exist.  Whenever a train has a long shoving (i.e. backing up) move, you need one for the trainman to ride.  The doors welded shut and the are interiors are gutted.  It's just a bit better than having to hang on the ladder of a car.  You see them here and there occasionally.

You also see old cabooses scattered around as museum pieces, tourist offices and as ornaments at fast food joints.  They also exist on tourist railroads as a fun place to ride.

But cabooses as the ubiquitous period at the end of the freight train sentence are gone.  I miss them.  I understand all the good reasons they are gone.  Railroading is a better place without them, but, trains still seem incomplete to me without them.

Coupla or bay window?  Old NH and new CR at Selkirk

In Spring.  Old PRR "cabin car" on the Southern Tier

...or Fall on the Hudson Line. night in the rain - transfer caboose headed back through Albany-Rensselar station to West Albany.

When one isn't enough - repositioning - westbound at Herkimer NY.

A Boston and Maine "buggy" crossing the Hudson River in Mechanicville, NY

Cabooses have been replaced by the "end of train device", usually referred to as an EOT these days.

How'd we get from there to here?  I'll tell you.

Freight cars move stuff from A to B.  Along the way, they're likely to ride on several different trains.  Before the days of data communication, the information about the shipement was carried by the conductor on a waybill.  It told where the car was coming from, where it was going to, what was in it, who shipped it and who was going to receive it.  It also contained the route which told each railroad along the way which interchange point they were supposed to use to transfer the car from one railroad to another.

Carrying the waybills was very important.  You could not possibly jam all that information over telegraph wires or even telephone lines.  The conductor had to had carry them from one place to the next so that the next yard knew what to do with the car when it arrived.  Should the train stop along the way an pick up or set off cars, the conductor had to direct the work and handle the waybills with the station agent.

He needed a place to do this work.  Finding a good spot on the train was tough.  A full train crew in the 19th century would have the following people working:

Engineer - his job was to run the locomotive so that the train was where it needed to be when it needed to be there, following the timetable and train orders given to him.  Make the train go and don't hit any other trains - that was his job.

Fireman - his job was to make sure the locomotive had enough steam for the engineer to operate the train.  This involved shovelling coal into the firebox and putting water in the boiler.

Head and rear brakeman - Before airbrake systems were implemented, these guys applied the brakes on the cars in the train.  They did this by turning the brake wheel on the top of each car, walking along the roofs of the cars whenever the engineer signalled for a stop by blowing the whistle.  The headend brakeman typically rode in the locomotive and the rearend guy in the caboose.

Flagman - When the train stopped somewhere it wasn't supposed to, his job was to protect the train from getting hit by a following train by carrying a flag the proscribed distance from the where the rear of the train stopped.  He typically rode in the caboose.

Conductor - He was in change of the train and the employees working on it.  He kept the waybills and supervised the other workers.

The steam locomotive pulling the train was a dirty, noisy, crowed, cramped, busy, open air place - a lousy place to care for vital paper work!  So, conductors started commandeering empty freight cars to use as an office.  Over time, these repurposed freight cars evolved into the caboose.

Over the years, much work got automated.  The work of the flagmen was replaced by electric signal systems.  The brakemen were replaced by automatic airbrake systems.  The fireman was rendered surplus when steam locomotives were replaced by diesels.  The changes in staffing occurred somewhat slower than the technology advanced with state "job protection" laws and labor agreements often slower to change than the techonolgy allowed.

The caboose changed with the times, too. More than just a place to keep the paperwork safe, it developed into an important part of safe operation, particularly as trains got longer and longer.  It had an airbrake gauge and valve to allow the conductor  to tell the engineer what the brakepipe pressure was and so he could stop the train if something went wrong.  It had a coupla or bay window to allow the condutor to keep a eye on his train - looking out for mechanical defects and other trouble.  It also had heat, lighting, a toilet and, finally, a two-way radio.  It had a marker light on it so following trains could plainly see when they were approaching the end of train ahead.

By the early 1980s, a typical freight train had three men on it. An engineer in the locomotive, a conductor in the caboose and a single brakeman - who functioned as the conductor's assistent - typically sitting in the locomotive.  The conductor still carried paperwork about the contents of the train - important if something were to go wrong along the way - but the waybill information was routinely being forwarded from place to place electronically.  On a through freight train operating from one place to another - when nothing went wrong - it wasn't unusual for the conductor and brakeman to have almost nothing to do.

Cabooses were a big pain in the neck for railroads.  You had to make sure the light, heat, radio and toilet always worked.  You had to keep them supplied with water, fusees and tools.  You had to switch one onto the end of every train you built in a terminal.  You had to make sure you had enough on hand plus en route in order to cover the trains that you need to dispatch.  You had to repair and overhaul them when they got worn and tired.

If you could move everyone up into the locomotive cab, and cover the function of the caboose with some electronics, maybe you could eliminate cabooses.

Southern Railway got the ball rolling.   They built a battery powered device that you could hook up to the brake hose on the rear car of a train.  It could transmit the brake pipe pressure to a receiver on locomotive.  They tried it out.  It worked!  This shouldn't have been a huge shock.  NASA got telemetered data from the moon in the 1960s.  How hard could it be to do a single pressure transducer in the 1980s?  The Southern quickly started building their home-grown devices for expanded testing.

Everyone noticed.  Soon the push was on and outside suppliers started building end of train device systems.  Conrail purchased a few from Dyanamic Sciences Ltd. (DSL), a Canadian company, to try out.  They had a big NiCad battery that could run the transmitter for a couple days, a clamp to hold them onto the coupler, an accelerometer to tell you when it's moving and a button to test the radio link on them  For a marker, you were supposed to use an old battery powered one that fit in the coupler flag stick hole.  The EOT device just relayed the brake pipe pressure and movement sensing to the locomotive.  That's it.

Modern EOTs have added an LED marker light, an air turbine to charge the battery, a GPS receiver, an AEI tag and the ability to apply the brakes by command from the locomotive.  Much fancier than the original DSL model.

Meanwhile, back in the 1980s...

Conrail equipped SD50 6750 with the head end box and started running trips between the Whiskey Island ore dock in Cleveland to Mingo Jct in the summer of 1984. No caboose. The conductor rode in the locomotive.  These trains had no brakeman.  We typically accompanied the trips to educate and keep an eye on the equpment.

My turn to ride came on Friday, August 24th. I was happy to have scored a train ride!  I flew to Cleveland Thurday evening, rented a car, practice the route to Whiskey Island and went to the hotel for a short, fitful, night of sleep.  The call came at 4:00 AM.  I hit a convenience store, grabbed some sandwiches, snacks, soda and a coffee and headed for Whiskey Island, where the train was waiting.

The crew arrived and boarded the train about 7:00 AM on an overcast, somewhat foggy morning.  The power was SD50 6750 and a nearly new C36-7.  The engineer did his walk around.  He wasn't happy.  He wanted the power bad ordered because he thought the independent brake was not operating.  I investigated and insured him it was fine, the piston travel was just very short because of new brakeshoes.  He still wasn't happy, but away we went with our 100 cars of ore and EOT happily trailing along.

We pulled up to the mainline, got a medium clear signal, went accross the drawbridge, diverged onto the Cleveland line across from the Amtrak station on the lakefront on a limited clear and ground our way up the hill away from the lake.

The conductor was reasonable chatty, but the engineer still had a scowl.  It was smooth sailing to Alliance. We snuck up on the 40 mph limit in a few places, but the engineer was generally playing it safe.  We rattled across the diamonds there and proceded down the Bayard Branch which had a 25 mph limit.  The engineer was happy to regulate the speed in the 17-18 mph range.  I didn't care - it was still a pretty decent day for a train ride.

The EOT was doing it's thing without a hitch.  The voice radio crackled.  It was the Road Foreman who had been hiding in the weeds.  "ZWW-501 - are you having trouble with your power?"  "No.  The power is fine".  "Then why aren't you moving at track speeed?"  The engineer replied, "I'm running this train.  If you'd like to run this train, come on up and do it yourself."

Sort of.

Actually, he stood up, put his mouth inches from the radio microphone and screamed, "I'MRUNNINGTHISTRAIN!  IFYOUWANTTORUNTHISTRAIN, COMEONUANDDOITYOURSELF!" *

(* PG version of actual rebuttal)


The engineer had snapped.  I have no idea what the back story was, but, clearly, some line was crossed.

He sat back down.  Silence.  We continued down the line.  Steam stopped coming out his ears.  Only the scowl remained.  I guess the road foreman wasn't going to push it.  That was pretty much the end of the "conversation".

Fortunately, shortly after, the sun finally burned through the clouds and everyone's mood lightened.  We tootled down to Bayard Juntion at 17-18 mph, then hung a left and headed for Yellow Creek.

Yellow Creek was still a manned tower and they gave our train a CT-501 (in NORAC-speak, a Form D) that allowed our train to use the track from Bayard Jct. to Yellow Creek.  For the uninitiated, there are no electrical signals on this line.  Trains operated on the "Mother-may-I" system know to railroaders as Manual Block operation.  There were stakes in the ground with names on them.  These were block stations.  The engineer and conductor got instructions telling them how far the train could go.  There was a line on the form that could be filled in if the crew was to report clear from any of the intermediate block stations along the way.

Normally, this was no biggie.  As the caboose passed the block, the conductor would report clear. The conductor took down the CT-501 over the radio and then asked the operator at Yellow Creek if we needed to report clear of the intermediate block station.  Silence.  Then, "ZWW-501, yes, report clear."  It seemed the operator did not know about our lack of caboose and/or what it meant to require us to report clear and the train crew was strictly operating on "don't ask, don't tell" even before that was a thing.

We ground up another hill at full throttle and 8 mph.  I could jog faster, but it was quite a show listening to the locomotives work up the grade.  The EMD was blasting out it's high pitched turbo whine accompanied by the sharp, bass "whop, whop, whop" of the C36-7 trailing.  The SD50 had EMD's new Super Series adhesion control and the GE had their response - Sentry Wheelslip Control.  Both worked well as the locomotives maintained a good grip on the rail as the load meter moved steadily upward and edged into the red.  We crested the grade had then braked down the other side.

We approached the intermediate block station.  The engineer and conductor had a quick conversation about what it meant, excatly, to report clear.  It was becoming clear that they were not supporters of EOTs replacing cabooses and this was a bit of passive-agressive "we'll show you, Conrail!" behavior.  We stopped at the block station sign.  The conductor got off.  The train pulled slowly by until we cleared.  The conductor radioed the engineer who radioed the dispatcher.  The conductor walked back up.  Off we went.  A wasted 30 minutes.

Soon we were at Yellow Creek where we turned right and headed down to Mingo Jct. We rolled by a power plant that caused the cab signals to flip up to approach a few times.  That was wierd - but not dangerous - we weren't in cab signal territory - but it was weird to see the cab signals flip up and down like that.  We rolled by a steel mill with some hot, molten steel cars on the adjacent track.  They were radiating blazing heat, even with all that insulation.  Finally, we yarded at Mingo Jct. with an hour or so left on the crew's hours of service.  They found their jitney and headed for rest.

I went into the yard office, got a car inspector to go fetch the EOT with me and found out about a return trip.  "Tomorrow or Sunday" was the answer.  You can ride back to Cleveland on an empty ore train headed back in a few hours if you like.  "Can you swap power and run it with the set I just came in on?"  "Hmmmm.  Maybe. Let me check".  It turned out "yes".  They did a quick servicing and got the power ready for the return to Cleveland.

About this time, I was starting to feel the effects of a short night's sleep.  I was getting tired, a bit grungy and a headache was taking root.  The train was assembled and we hung the EOT on the rear car and ran the test to make sure it linked with the head end all right.

The crew came on duty about 4:00 PM and we got out of town about 6:00 PM.  By now, I was nicely dirty, had finished my sandwiches and snacks and the headache was full blown.

We had 206 cars.  Six coil steel cars to set off at Alliance and 200 empty ore jennies for Whiskey Island.  Despite the big train, we had no trouble getting over the road at close to track speed.  The set out at Alliance went without a hitch and we headed up the Cleveland Line at roughly 10:00 PM.
Now, I was tried, dirty, hungry and the drone of the locomotives and blare of the horn for all the road crossings hurt my eyes, ears and head.  I was starting to look forward to the end of this train ride.

As we approached Cleveland, the radio crackled with the voice of the dispatcher.  There had been a derailment somewhere.  We weren't going to be able to make it back to Whiskey Island.


Worse yet.  The derailment was burning up potential relief crews as pilots somewhere and the jitneys were busy ferrying crews hither and yon.  We were to pull down to where the Cleveland Line joined the Chicago Line and wait.  They'd get us a jitney as soon as they could, but didnt' know when that would be.

We crawled down the grade in Cleveland came to a stop just passed the Amtrak Station just past midnight....and waited.  I closed my eyes and dozed a bit.  That helped.

Finally, at 4:00 AM on Saturday, the crew expired and asked the dispatcher again about a jitney.  They were still busy working around the derailment - he couldn't promise anything.


I had an idea.  I could walk a short ways back, and across the tracks to the Amtrak station and call a cab.  I said my good-byes, grabbed my stuff, and headed out.  The EOT would just have to take care of itself for the last few miles back to Whiskey Island.

The station had just opened for the arrival of the westbound Lake Shore limited, so I went inside and dialed up a cab company.  A few minutes later, I was on my way back to Whiskey Island to pick up my rental car.  The Whiskey Island ore dock was not a typical destination for a Cleveland taxi driver and I wound up having to give him direction along the way.  I think he was somewhat relieved when we finally go there and I paid him his fare with a nice tip.

I headed for Hopkins Airport just as the sun was peaking up over the horizon.  I ditched the rental, went inside and bought a ticket for the 7:00 AM flight to Philadelphia.  I headed down the concourse for the gate.  Along the way, I passed by a family.  The parents leading and a young girl, about 7 or 8 years old, trailing.   The girl glanced at me and then moved ALL THE WAY TO THE FAR SIDE of the corridor.  She just stared at me with a big-eyed, scared look on her face, quickly running to catch up with her folks.

I was puzzled by this until I made a restroom stop.  I was dirty from head to foot, including my well worn steel toed boots.  I had a permanent scowl from the headache and probably reaked from a day's worth of dried sweat.  I was a mess.  Pretty scary looking!  Not a whole lot different from a homeless person living under a bridge, I suppose.

I might have brushed my teeth an splashed some water on my face and even changed my shoes, but I didn't really care.  I was going home and there was nothing a shower and a nap couldn't fix!

I did exactly that and even made it to a wedding and reception that afternoon.  Twenty five years later, all that remain of that trip are fond memories.

Both my headache and the cabooses are long gone.  At least I think all that remains are memories....

But, maybe that little girl was scarred for life!  Wonder what she thinks of cabooses?

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