Monday, June 24, 2019

Downhill: 14:53 – 17:51 (Part 2)

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

October 20 1954: 14:53 – 17:51

“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 to.


“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 slipping.

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 trips.”

“So, what?” Jake chimed in. “You have a clutch and shifter or something?”

“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 MPH.

“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 he returned.

“Oh that’s probably the part I like about the Alco’s best!” Tom replied.

“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 steamers.

“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 Woman Canyon!”

*With the 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 me.’

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 the track.

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 mussed.

“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 Griff’s bell.”

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.”

*The Express 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 Downhill.

“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 comes.”

“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.”*

*Pulling the 5-longs on the whistle that would signal the rear flagman to return to the train.

“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.

*Demerits 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 muses.

“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 it’s true.

With a sly little grin Otis turns and heads for his end of the train.

“Damn! That was a good one Otis,” Tom calls out when he stops laughing.

“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.

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