Running #420, the Upbound Freight, on the Daylight Pass Railroad
October 20 1954: 14:53
“As far as operating the Alco, in some ways the controls, that
are mostly clustered together on this thing called a control stand that sits
right were the boiler backhead and firedoors should be, are similar to those of
a steamer, but in others they are quite different and take some getting used
“For instance, unlike a big Johnson-Bar sticking up from the
foot-plate, the reverser (14) sticks out the side of the control stand and only
has three positions, forward, neutral, and reverse. It actually looks like nothing
more than an overgrown light-switch sticking out there.
“Since there’s no valve cutoff to worry about you control
train-speed with only the throttle, (17) also sticking out the side of the
control stand, which has 9 positions. All the way forward is idle which keeps
the diesel running at about 350 RPM but puts no power to the traction motors.
After that there’s Run 1 through Run-8 and you can tell where the lever is by the
number showing in a little indicator window (16). The higher the number the
faster the diesel runs and the more power the traction motors get.
“And also unlike a steamer, these Alco’s could pull a
building off its foundation from a dead stop! You just pull the throttle back
as far as you need to, all the way to run-8 if necessary, and in a few seconds
the engine revs up and juice starts flowing into these things called traction
motors, four of them, one on each axle.”
“Juice?” Jake askes. “You mean like electricity?”
“Yea, electricity and lots of it! With the train at a dead
stop you can rev that big 12 cylinder diesel engine all the way up to about
1000 RPM and put all 1600 HP into the generator that drives the traction
motors. These things have so much starting power most the time you can start a
train with the slack already stretched out. But you have to make sure the train starts
moving right away because stuffing all that electricity through the motors when
they aren’t turning is bad for them. That’s called a stall condition, when
electricity is flowing but the motors aren’t turning. The guys tell me that if
you do that too long the wires in the motors start heating up and they can
actually catch fire! But once the motors are turning they can suck the juice
right up no problem. So you have to make double-sure the brakes are off before
you pull throttle like that, and that you start moving pretty quick.”
“So why risk burning the motors up?” Jake asks. “Why not
just start the train easy and not have to worry about burning things up?”
“I asked the same thing. What they said is that putting a
little bit of juice into the motors, too little to get them turning, is still a
stall condition and can burn the motors up too. In fact the operating manual
says the way to start a train with an Alco is to pull as much throttle as you
can without pulling drawbars, busting knuckles, or slipping the wheels and get
it moving and up to speed as quick as you can. By the way, you can’t tell if
the wheels are slipping by the exhaust, since there isn’t any, not like on a
steamer anyway, so there’s a warning light (26) to tell you if the wheels are
To make sure you don’t cook the motors you kinda have to
watch something called a load-meter (25) and make sure it comes down out of the
red pretty quick. And you have to
remember to notch the throttle back in to keep from going too fast once you do
get moving. They tell me these things could do 65 if we had good enough track
to keep it from flying off!
“But to complicate things a bit more these engines also have
something called transition.”
“A transmission?” Otis asks incredulously.
“No, no, not a transmission, though it’s kind of the same in
a way. This is called transition, which means you’re changing how the
electricity from the generator flows through the traction motors, something
about parallel and series but don’t ask me any details because trying to figure
out that electricity stuff was still making my head hurt even after three
“So, what?” Jake chimed in. “You have a clutch and shifter
“No, it’s actually simpler than that, though it does bring
up a whole new control called the selector lever (13). It’s kinda in the same
slot as the throttle but on the back of the control stand instead of the side.
“When this lever is pointing straight back it’s in the off position
– you can tell by another indicator window, (15) and no matter what you do with
the throttle when the selector is in off, no electricity can get to the
traction motors. In fact this is one more step when safeing these engines for
the trainmen. You put the throttle in idle, the reverser in neutral, and the
selector in off.
“But anyway, when you start one of these engines from a stop,
in either direction, you first put the selector lever one notch to the left, or
towards the fireman’s side. That’s
transition 1 and it feeds electricity to the traction motors one way. Then when
you have a little speed on, about 17 MPH, you have to move the selector one
more notch to the left to position 2, which changes how the electricity runs
through the motors. There’s also transition 3 (23 MPH) & 4 (49 MPH) too,
but fortunately the Ore never gets going fast enough to need them, and rarely
fast enough to need transition 2. But if you do have it in transition 2 you
have to remember to pull it back to transition 1 when you slow down below 17
“There’s little white marks on the speedometer (4) that tell
you what transition you should be in. And speaking of speedometer, I’ll be
using that a lot because sitting so close to the front the tracks look like
they’re coming at you much faster than they actually are, and, unlike listening
to the exhaust chuffs of a steamer, it’s impossible to judge from the sound of
the Alco’s diesel just how fast you’re going.
“Why’s that?” Otis was about to ask but Jake beat him to it.
“Well, because the speed the diesel engine is running sorta
has nothing to do with the speed the train is moving.”
Tom could see that this confused his fellow crew members.
“OK, for instance, climbing the grade just out of Goat
Crossing with a bunch of empties, it might only take run-4 on the throttle to keep
moving at 20 MPH, so the diesel is running at about 700 RPM. But when pulling
East Pass Grade out of Three Creeks with a string of loads behind you will have
to be in run-8 with the diesel spinning at 1000 RPM, but just barely making 8
MPH over the ground. So that’s why the sound of the diesel is no help in
judging your speed.”
Otis and Jake sat and tried to wrap their heads around that
while Tom got up, gathered their mugs, and went over to the bar for refills.
“So what’s with this dynamic brake stuff?” Otis asked after
“Oh that’s probably the part I like about the Alco’s best!”
“First off, these engines still have both service and
independent brakes just like 1428 out there, but they also have these things
called dynamic brakes that somehow use the traction motors to slow the train. Remember
that selector lever? The one used to select the transition level? Well if you
pull it to the right instead of the left you go into dynamic braking.
“First you idle the throttle then put the selector into off,
then you pull it to the right into what’s called the big B. From there you ease
the lever just a little bit more towards you. This gives you a little bit of
dynamic braking to gather up the slack, then you move the lever further. This
adds more braking and you’ll hear the fans in the short hood just in front of
you start speeding up. That’s where all the electricity the traction motors are
now generating goes, into something called a braking grid, though I’m not
exactly sure what that is even though they showed it to me. The grid gets hot
and the fans cool it down. They tell me that if you use too much dynamic, –
there’s a green and a red zone on the load meter and if you are in the red zone
that’s too much – or the cooling fans fail,
you can actually melt that braking grid thing.
“To reduce the amount of dynamic braking and get it back
into the green you just pull the selector lever back a little bit.
“And the best part is that as long as you keep the needle in
the green zone on the load meter you can use the dynamics all you want without
heating up wheels or using up air.
“Of course you can also use the automatic brakes at the same
time but you have to remember to bail off the independent when you do or else
the combination of dynamic and air brakes can lock-up the wheels on the engine
and flatten them.”
“Sounds complicated,” Jake said.
“Well, yes, I suppose it is, especially at first, especially
since the slower you go the less dynamic braking is available, but at anything
above 10 MPH the dynamics are strong enough that you can come down the easier
grades without touching the automatics at all, and even when coming down West
Pass or Mesa Hill you only need about half as much automatic brake as you would
need on old 1428 out there, except when you slow down for Wild Woman Loop. Then
there isn’t much dynamic braking at all and you need the automatics to make up
for it. But truth is, once I got used to it, it was really sweet coming down the
grades without having to worry so much about how much air I had left.”
“No, not just the brakes. The whole thing,” Jake replied.
“Sound like running these new engines is really complicated.”
“At first sure, and I won’t lie to you, I’m not sure three
qualifying runs is enough, but then again if you’ve never been on a foot-plate
before a steamer is a pretty dang complicated piece of machinery too.
“And on the plus side, the Alco cab is completely closed in,
no drafty canvas curtains constantly letting the cold and rain or snow in, and
no fire cooking you. And speaking of rain, there’s honest-to-God window wipers
on the Alco’s! Four air-powered wipers, each controlled with its own
needle-valve, though for some strange reason the main valve that feeds air to
the wipers is located under the cab floor and can only be reached from outside.
“And compared to the kidney-scrambling slamming around of
the Consolidations, the Alco’s ride like a magic carpet. OK, maybe not that
smooth, but a heck of a lot smoother than most steamers I’ve been on. Why, if a
guy wanted to, he could sit there and drink coffee from a china cup while the
thing is going down the road!”
There is a pause in the conversation as the three
railroaders contemplate, with varying degrees of uneasiness, life without
“Oh yeah,” Tom says, plucking at the front of his coveralls,
suddenly aware of the faint stink of oil, both fresh and burned, and sweat wafting
up from them. “Another thing about operating the Alco’s is how clean they are.
No need for coveralls, not even gloves.”
“Might as well be sittin’ in an office,” Jake grouses.
“Maybe so,” Tom fires back, becoming a little frustrated
with Jake’s attitude. “But come February you’re going to be nursing frostbite
on your ears, burns on your hands, cussing those drafty curtains and the cold
water dripping down your neck,* wishing for a nice snug place away from the
cold. Besides, I don’t know any office that rolls on through places like Wild
heavy curtains closed the steam that is constantly leaking into the cab
condenses on the inside of the roof and tends to rain down on the occupants.
‘On the other hand,’ Tom thinks to himself while looking
pensively out at 1428 sitting there patiently waiting to get moving again and
mentally apologizing to her for his disloyalty, ‘I sure am going to miss the
steamers. They are as close to a living thing as any machine can be. Right now
she’s out there panting and murmuring and gurgling, sucking in air and
breathing out her hot breath. She asks only to be fed and watered and cared for
just like any other beast of burden, and in return she’ll work her guts out for
With a furtive glance to make sure the others haven’t caught
him in these almost poetic but maudlin thoughts, he mentally shakes himself
back to the real world of the twentieth century working man.
By now it is getting on towards 5 o’clock, the after-work
crowd is starting to filter into Hap’s, and the backless wood benches they are
sitting on, even though they are stationary and not pounding down the rails,
are getting uncomfortable, so the three men, after buying a slice of gummy
looking apple pie to feed Ronald’s sweet-tooth, wander on out the door.
Having missed their window in the schedule because the track
gang is holding the track, they still have a lot of time to wait yet before the
Downbound Express clears Downhill, even assuming the track is repaired on time,
so after dropping a slice of fresh pie off for Ronald all three of them step
across the tracks and go into the depot.
“That track-gang happen to come back while we were away?”
Otis asks Ed, somewhat hopefully.
“No, and if doze guys don’ show up soon da Express is goin’
ta be ‘eld up and I’ll be here ‘alf da night writing up TO’s ta sort da mess
out and reports ta ‘slpain ta da bosses wat ‘appened.”
“I thought you went off shift at 6,” Jake says.
“Normally, but dat Robert (The night shift agent) went down
ta T’ree Creek on the morning Express so til the Downbound come back trough wit
‘im on it I’m stuck ‘ere.”
The new depot, built with paying customers in mind, has a
good view of the track, is bright, has a decent stove, and the benches, despite
being wood, are contoured and comfortable, so the three railroaders decide to
wait there for whatever is coming.
They have just barely settled when Ed, from the vantage point
of his desk in the bay on the front of the depot that lets him look up and down
the track from his seat, calls out that he can see the speeder coming back up
They get back up to see for themselves, a phenomenon closely
related to the need to push the elevator button or ring the bell on the desk
even though someone else has already done it.
The speeder is running forward so the crew obviously picked
it up and turned it around at some point. The trailers, which are now loaded
with two short pieces of rail with ragged ends on them are tagging along behind.
As it passes the depot one man jumps off and walks in. Tom doesn’t know him by
name but recognizes him as the track-gang supervisor.
“OK Ed, you can call down to dispatch and let them know the
track is fixed and they can release the Express on schedule. I’ll write it up
in my report but it looks to me like someone was taking pot-shots at the rail with
some sort of heavy hunting rifle and managed to crack the web with one or two of
them. Must have been a while ago since the cracks, at least around the divots
the bullets made, are rusty. There was also some depressed ties right
underneath that spot so I expect that the rail has been flexing under load for
some time and extending the cracks. Today one of those heavy ore jennys probably
finally snapped the rail right through. We brought both pieces back and the
boys are sticking them in the old depot in case someone from down below wants
to inspect them.”
“I wonder ‘ow dat train didn’t end up on da ground.” Ed
“Well it was near the center of the rail so both pieces were
held somewhat in place by tie-plates back away from the break. Which means it
wasn’t a bit of rail that hit the house-car, but there were some loose
tie-plates just flapping in the breeze under the busted ends of the rail and we
found one of them way on down the tracks. Maybe that was what flew up and rang old
While Ed gets on the phone to dispatch and the supervisor
heads down to where his gang is wrestling the broken rail off the trailers, Otis
pulls out his watch. “Well if it’s on time the Express will be here in in about
35 minutes.* I can heat up the pot (He’s talking about the indispensable coffee
pot he keeps on the stove in the house-car) if anyone’s interested.”
isn’t scheduled to leave Three Rivers for another 15 minutes yet, but at the
speeds it reaches, even up grades, it will take less than 20 minutes to reach
“Not me,” Jake says. “I shut the blower down earlier so I
think I’ll just go turn the fire up a little so we’re ready to go when the time
“Me either,” Tom kicks in. “I’ve had about all the coffee I
need for the day.”*
*As a consequence
of the crazy hours, infrequent, and often less than ideal, meals, and endless
pots of coffee, old railroaders often end up with dicy stomachs, now that his
hours, and many of his meals, are more predictable Tom has been feeling better,
but the down side of that is that he now really notices it when he overdoes the
coffee. Not that he’s
going to cut it out altogether though!
“Alright guys. See you at the other end then,” Otis says to
his crew and Ed alike. “Oh, and Tom, if Dean isn’t back by the time we leave do
me a favor and skip calling in the flag.”*
5-longs on the whistle that would signal the rear flagman to return to the
“You’re the boss Otis. No signals until I whistle-off. “
Some railroaders are notorious pranksters. Otis isn’t one of
them. But he makes no secret of the fact that he doesn’t approve of Dean’s
promiscuous, partying ways. If Dean is not back by the time they start rolling,
those two blasts as Tom whistles-off will put the fear of God into him since
missing your train will have you ‘dancing on the carpet’ as you get called in
for an official investigation which will result in brownies,* or, if you
already have too many brownies, could get you struck off the board for a while,
if not forever.
are called brownies on the railroad because in 1885 George Brown, general
superintendent of the Fall Brook Railway thought the summary suspensions common
back then put undue hardships on the families.
Under his system you were given a number of demerits for an infraction.
After one year the demerits expire, but if you collect 90 or more ‘brownies’ at
any given time you will be shown the sidewalk, at least for a while. Most
railroads have adopted this system or a variant of it.
Not to be
confused with ‘brownie points’ which has the opposite meaning and seems to have
originated with the Girl Scout Brownies that got badges or points as rewards
for good work or deeds, or possibly it came from war-time rationing where
people were issued various colored ‘points’ each month, the most coveted being
brown points which were used to obtain meat.
“I wonder if that guy is ever going to settle down,” Jake
“The only way that’s going to happen,” Otis comes back. “Is
if a woman latches onto him so tight she has to loosen her grip so he can pee.”
There is a brief moment of shock as Tom and Jake process the
words that just came out of the mouth of the grandfatherly Otis, before they
both burst out laughing. Not only because it is Otis that said it, but because
With a sly little grin Otis turns and heads for his end of
“Damn! That was a good one Otis,” Tom calls out when he
“Hey Tom,” Jake says, his seriousness in sharp contrast to
the reaction to Otis’ statement. “You think it’ll be alright if I take the
right seat down to Three Creeks?”
“Well sure Jake. I’ll take the left side right now and get
the fire going.”
“OK then,” Jake says, excited but nervous at the same time.
“I’ll do the oiling and set up the retainer on that box car.”
Personally Tom would set the retainer on the house-car
instead to get them down the 1% grade into Three Creeks, that would give Otis
the smoothest ride, but he understands Jake’s thinking. The boxcar is certainly
the heavier of the two and will provide better braking power, so he says
nothing that might make Jake second-guess himself.
The sun has set and twilight is deepening when, right on
time, the Express, the third to go by them today, drifts up almost silently as
it slows for the depot.
Since they still can’t move until the Express finishes it’s
5 minute stop and rolls on out again, Ronald, who went up to line the east
switch for their departure once the Express passed, has plenty of time to walk
back and climb on the engine where he can get away from the increasing chill and
warm himself next to the backhead.
Unfortunately for Dean, the little horn on the Express, that
already isn’t all that loud, is muffled even more by the short freight train
sitting on the track between it and the north-side buildings.