Monday, May 6, 2019

Getting the Freight up Mesa Hill: 08:04 - 11:31: Part 1

Running #420, the Upbound Freight, on the Daylight Pass Railroad

October 20 1954: 08:04 – 11:31

Though just 12 track-miles away, getting a train from Big Timber to Rockhouse is not easy.

Mesa Hill sits between the two and, despite its somewhat benign name, is not a hill so much as it is part of an imposing escarpment that sweeps in an arc from beyond Bug Scuffle Hill in the south to well past Goblers Knob in the north and separates the upper valley, known as Russian Flats for reasons no one seems to remember, from tilted eastern edge of the basin that Big Timber and Appleford rest on. Under normal circumstances it takes an hour and a half to wrestle heavy trains up the nearly 1000 foot altitude gain.

Today Tom and Jake work the engine for all it’s worth in an attempt to stick to that hour and a half schedule, but it is not to be. As Tom suspects, despite what the numbers say, the train is just too heavy for 1428 today. There is more force dragging him backwards than the engine can lay down on the rails.


Just as they enter the mouth of Wild Woman Canyon, where things really start getting hairy, where the track uncharacteristically rides smooth around the approach curve because the track-gang just replaced the ties and un-kinked the rails last spring, Jake sands the flues by holding a couple scoops of sand from the box by the front-sheet of the tender* up to the porthole above the firedoors.

*In addition to holding sand used for clearing the flues, or as a seat for an extra rider, this box serves, arguably, an even more important function. Unlike the house-car which has a proper toilet, even if it does drop its ‘business’ straight down a pipe onto the tracks, up in the engine the sandbox is the engine-crew’s only available ‘convenience’. (Not only is standing above the ladder at the rear of the cab and peeing over the side a good way to get yourself thrown off the train by its motion, but because you generally end up peeing all over the handrails below in the process it’s also a good way to get yourself thrown off by a fellow crew member!)

 Because the engine is working hard the dry sand (‘Wet’ sand is immediately scooped up by the wetter and tossed over the side.) is drawn off the scoop by the strong draft and sucked through the flues, scouring at any soot that might have collected in them. Much of this sand blows blackly out the stack, (This is a good time for the engine crew to pull their bandanas up over noses, snug their Kromer* down over their head and make sure their goggles are on as the sooty sand ejected out the stack falls out of the sky.) but some of it simply falls to the bottom of the smoke-box where condensation turns it into a gummy black sludge that the lowest man on the roundhouse totem-pole has to climb in and shovel out. Though this isn’t the worst job the usually young and still skinny machinist apprentice has to deal with. That’s wriggling through the small opening concealed behind the firebox doors to chip away at the carbon and tarry sludge that gathers on and around the fuel delivery pipe at the forward end of the firing pan. This usually has to be done, according to the roundhouse foreman anyway, while the firebricks are still radiating enough heat to slow-roast a turkey.  

*Around the turn of the century railroader George Kromer decided the traditional baseball cap could be improved on to better suit the needs of the railroader. He and his wife Ida, an accomplished seamstress, designed a soft, flexible cap that would stay on the head in the winds of railroading with an equally soft visor that would shield the eyes yet flex rather than lift the hat off the head. In addition to an absorbent sweatband on the inside, Ida also added an outside band that can be pulled down over the ears. She sewed up this hat out of what she had on hand, some inexpensive blue and white pinstriped pillow ticking. The hat was so popular that it wasn’t long before George left railroading to help his wife run their hat company which still exists today.

Sanding the flues improves the heat-transfer into the boiler water which helps Jake keep the pressure up. And right now Jake's goal is to hold that pressure just under ‘popping the poppets’ so they have maximum oomph available for clawing up the hill.

Not long after they go through the damp and dripping Ellison Tunnel where Jake turns the blower on full to counteract the backpressure in the stack because of the low ceiling, Tom has the Johnson Bar in the corner and the throttle wide open. He also has the steam jets, a feature that, as far as he knows, is unique to the DP, blowing leaves, debris, and any oil residue off the tracks before the drivers can roll over it.

Just behind the forward-facing steam jets the rearward-facing sander tubes are dribbling a thin, steady stream of the traction-improving grit just a couple inches in front of the drivers that are ponderously clawing at the rail.*

*It takes a delicate touch to sand properly. A little bit of sand improves traction but too much is like coating the rail with marbles. On newer engines the sand is ejected out of duck-mouthed pipes and into the narrow gap between wheel and rail by steam, but on the old steamers the DP runs the sand simply falls down the tube and onto the rail a few inches in front of the wheel. Depending on conditions this gives time for some of the sand to be blown off the rail before the wheel gets there. Since Tom can’t see what’s happening down there just in front of the wheels he has to rely on feel and experience to determine just how much sand he should be dropping.

But despite their efforts Tom can feel a stall coming anyway in the way the engine is shuddering, but before that happens she ‘gets light on her feet’ as the drivers slip instead, suddenly spinning on the rail, shaking the engine like a dog shakes a rag-doll, and blowing steam and smoke high into the sky as the slow chuff out the stack suddenly becomes a rapid tat-tat-tat. Tom snaps the throttle closed then quickly opens it most the way again, allowing the drivers to get their feet back but also trying to catch the momentum and get them pulling again. But it doesn’t matter how he finesses the throttle or the sand, the drivers can’t keep their grip and what little momentum the train has bleeds off until he is forced to set the brakes.

He dumps the full 20 pounds to set them hard. It would not be a good thing to start rolling back down the hill until they are ready!

Once the smoke, and their nerves, settle the crew executes the plan Otis had gone over with them in case this happened. To make it up the grade they will have to "double the hill". This means leaving some of the cars behind, dragging the lightened train up the final miles to Rockhouse, then come back and collect the remaining cars.

They are, of course, clinging to the steepest grade on the railroad and this is no place to leave cars sitting. If they start rolling backwards here, which is a strong possibility, they are guaranteed to become an uncontrollable runaway and eventually go flying off the track. What they need to do right now is back the train, under control, down to a flatter part of the track. But backing a train down a grade, especially a steep, twisting grade, is not like backing a car down the driveway. It is a tricky job and must be done carefully.

That’s why Dean and Ronald scramble along the cars and set the retainers on cars number 1, 3 and 5, counting backwards from the engine, to SD, which, since the retainer valves are located adjacent to the handbrake wheels, requires climbing up the ladder on each car.

Retainers are valves on the brake cylinder’s exhaust line and in the normal, or ‘direct exhaust’ (EX), position they are wide open, allowing air to exhaust normally from the cylinder to release the brakes as if there was no retainer at all. But there are two other settings for the retainer, a ‘Hold Pressure’ (HP) that holds the pressure in the brake cylinder even after the brakes have been released, kind of the opposite of the cutout valve, and a ‘Slow Discharge’ (SD). This position allows air to exhaust from the brake cylinder when the brakes are released, but very slowly, holding the brakes for a while after a release.

Now, with retainers set to SD on three of the train’s 6 cars, when Tom releases the brakes the train won’t immediately shoot backwards. Instead the retained cars will hold the train for a bit, then once the train does start to slip backwards the retained cars will initially help control train speed because the brakes are still engaged, though gradually backing off. This gives the train-line added time to recharge the auxiliary reservoirs before the next brake application is needed.  

With Ronald back aboard and sitting on top of the tender where he can watch the cars to make sure they behave, Tom looks back down his side of the train to confirm that Otis is on the rear platform of the house-car where he can guide Tom down track which he can’t see. Jake calls out to confirm that Dean has made it back to the house-car and is on the front platform watching out for the cars from his end.

Not until then does Tom tap out three shorts and release the brakes. Over the sudden clatter of the compressor working to recharge the train-line, he hears the clunking of brakes releasing on the un-retained cars being echoed off the sheer rock wall just a few feet from their left side.

For a while nothing happens, except that the engine and tender, their brakes also released, nudge back into the still stopped train. But after a bit there is a groan as the retained brakes start to slip and the train slowly starts to roll backwards. At this point Tom ‘drifts’ the cylinders by pulling the Johnson-Bar back by one notch and cracking the throttle, not to push the train, (Which certainly doesn’t need any pushing right now!) but to keep the cylinders from sucking in dusty air through packing-glands by feeding them a little steam to prevent a vacuum.

As they slip back down the mountain the retained brakes ease off more and more and their speed starts climbing until Tom adds more brake by dumping 8 pounds. This seems to stop their acceleration, but isn’t noticeably slowing the train and the cars are rocking and the backwards-running engine is hunting from side to side. On top of that the brakes are heating up, making them less effective. Tom dumps another 4 pounds and the train finally starts to slow, though it isn’t long before the brakes are grinding and squealing and the cab is filling with the stink of burning shoes.

 Here’s the part where the pucker-factor gets real.

If Tom reacts too soon it will add significantly to the time it’s going to take to get them down the mountain, time during which any number of things can go wrong. If he waits too long, the brakes and wheels will overheat and - well, that doesn’t bear thinking about.

On his feet now Tom is leaning far out his window, watching, smelling, and feeling his train as it fights gravity. At a point well beyond where most of the crew would have done it, he finally drops the train-line pressure enough to dump the full 50 pounds into the brake cylinders.

With heart pounding despite his confidence, he watches the ground below his window carefully. With the smell of cooking brakes wafting into the cab and the shrieking grind of metal on metal assaulting his ears, he eyes the leaf-covered ballast as it slips by his window slower and slower, his hand on the whistle-cord ready to initiate his last-ditch option if it starts speeding up again. (Pull a series of shorts on the whistle to signal Otis to use his dump-valve to, hopefully, trigger the emergency reservoirs on the three AB equipped cars in the consist in the hope that just might slow them enough to improve the crew’s chances of survival when they jump off the train, signaled by Tom tying the whistle-cord down into one long wailing cry.)

With a final squealing groan from stressed metal and sigh of relief from stressed crew, the ground finally stops moving past his window. They will sit here and let the brakes and wheels, which have heated to the point where they are blue, cool down.

In the meantime Dean and Ronald climb down and walk through the smoke of hot brakes, carefully since the roadbed here, clinging to a blasted shelf, isn’t much wider than the train itself, setting all the retainers to HP. That way the brakes will stay set hard when Tom pulls the brake lever back to the release position and closely watches the train-line pressure gauge as he charges the reservoirs back up as quickly as possible.

By the time the needle creeps up close to 70 pounds and Tom shifts the brake lever to run to let the regulator finish topping up the pressure the brakes aren’t smoking near as bad as they were, but are still pretty hot. Too hot to rely on but, as soon as the train-line is showing a solid 70 pounds Tom sets the brakes with a 20 pound reduction.

Because the retainers are all set to HP the brakes are already set so this actually uses very little air from the auxiliaries. Now Dean and Ronald can walk the train once more, climbing each car’s ladder to release the retainers on cars 1, 3, and 5 who’s brakes and wheels are the most stressed, and setting those on cars 2, 4, and the house-car to SP.

When Tom judges the brakes to be cooled down enough, about another 10 minutes, he whistles off and releases them again. This time, since virtually no air was used from the reservoirs during the last set, the air-compressor settles back down again before the retained brakes back off enough to let the train resume slipping down the mountain.

Again, using his judgment to determine just when, Tom resets the brakes to control their speed, first with 8 pounds, then an additional 4.

When the track is about to level out some, or at least get less steep, and with the train slowing to a crawl on the 12 pound set, Tom releases the brakes and lets the three retained cars hold it while the trainline pressure is pumped back up. With the speed climbing but the reservoirs charged back up he resets the brakes, but with only an 8 pound reduction as they have made it safely off the steepest part of the track.

Soon after that they are easing backwards through Ellison Tunnel on that 8 pound set, and when they start around Parson’s Nose he drops the train-line a couple more pounds and eases them to a final stop at a spot where the tracks are as flat as they’re going to get here in Wild Woman Canyon, and just as important, almost straight.*

*While there is some side-to-side play in the couplers to accommodate curves, it’s a lot safer and easier to couple and uncouple when sitting on straight track where the trainmen don’t have to climb between the cars and shove a couple hundred pounds of coupler sideways so they line up.

Getting down the hill is a slow process at any time, and even more so when backing, and is always stressful regardless of the direction the train is going.

To be continued

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