Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Coal: Part 1 - A Reporter At Large

An earlier Blog referenced this article; it is of interest to those who wish to know more about how Coal Trains are operated.
Part 2 will be printed tomorrow.

By John McPhee
The New Yorker. New York: Oct 3, 2005, Vol. 1, Iss. 30; pg. 72
“C” was for coal train, “TS” for power in the Tennessee Valley, and “BT” for Black Thunder Mine. CTSBT was the proper name of the train, in the way that Broadway Limited, Burlington Zephyr, Super Chief, and Florida East Coast Tamiami Champion were once the names of other trains. Five Florida East Coast Tamiami Champions could not have filled a track beside CTSBT, which was seven thousand four hundred and eighty-five feet long, on this January morning in Marysville, Kansas, and was actually running shorter than most coal trains. There were a hundred and thirty-three aluminum gondolas (hoppers) and five diesel-electric locomotives -- three in the rear, two of them deadhead. Replacing another crew, Paul Fitzpatrick and Scott Davis climbed into the lead unit, after sending me up the ladder before them. We had slept at the Oak Tree Inn, a motel under contract with Union Pacific, in rooms that Paul Fitzpatrick described as “darker than the inside of a football.” The rooms had been quiet, too, heavily armored against sound and light so that train crews could sleep during any part of a day. For us, the protection had not much mattered. The company’s call from Omaha -- as always, ninety minutes before reporting time -- had come at 5:05 a.m.
Heading north and northwest, we were soon going up the grade to cross the divide between the Big Blue and Little Blue rivers. Overnight, heavy ground fog had frozen in the trees, had frozen on every weed, wire, and bush, so that -- two weeks after Christmas -- Kansas appeared to have been sprayed white for Christmas. From horizon to horizon, the raking light of the sun shot forth through the ice. Fields were confectionery with thin snow. Our eyes were fifteen feet above the tracks and more than that above the surrounding country. We got up to forty miles per hour ascending the grade.
The train could go that fast because it was so light. It was empty. The five locomotives and the mile-and-a-half length notwithstanding, the entire rig weighed less than three thousand tons. And now Scott Davis, the engineer, said, “I’m going to air ‘em out, Paul.”
And Paul Fitzpatrick, the conductor, looked through his track warrants to see what restrictions may have been set up ahead. Then he said, “O.K., buddy, blow the dust out of ‘em.” Not that there was much coal dust left in those empties as we topped out at sixty going down to the Little Blue.
Winds that a train stirs up are not in the conversation with winds that can stir up a train. “If you’re pulling empties, a north wind can take you from fifty miles per hour to eighteen,” Scott said. In places like Kansas, Nebraska, and Wyoming, stiff winds have stalled trains. To wreck a train, you don’t need a tornado. In Utah, between Salt Lake City and Ogden, winds coming out of the Wasatch canyons and crossing the tracks of the Union Pacific have knocked down empty ballast trains, empty coal trains, and double- stacked-container “intermodal” trains -- events known collectively as “blowovers.” In the Laramie Range, the Wyoming wind will shoot up a slope and lift a train from below.
“Tailwind, you get a little better speed, a side wind will slow you down,” Scott said. From behind the cab windows of a diesel- electric locomotive, wind is difficult to assess. It can be blowing hard and you don’t really see it, let alone feel it. “You’re making fifty, then you’re struggling to make forty- seven. You think, What’s the reason? Wind? Or some problem with the train. Your curiosity is wondering why.” Passing through towns, Scott looks for flags. He looks for wind socks at airports. But mainly he looks for the sweep of weeds in the ditches, for the legible motions in trees, and, if the weather is dry, for the speed of moving dust. We came to the state line and left Kansas for Nebraska.
Paul said, “Your intelligence goes up ten points when you cross that line. Back there, you go barefoot, screw your cousin, and try to steal something.”
Paul and Scott are from North Platte, Nebraska, where Paul was born. Scott was born in Ogallala, fifty miles west. In the language of the railroad, their “turn” is North Platte to Marysville and back. They make the run at least ninety times a year -- now and again, but randomly, together. They know every siding, every crossing, every movable- point frog, every rising and descending grade. Train crews don’t just go off in all distances and directions, like the pilots of corporate jets. Train crews work locally on memorized track and terrain. To get a coal train from, say, northeast Wyoming to central Georgia, you would need at least eleven different crews. The central figure in such an odyssey is not an engineer, a conductor, a dispatcher, a trainmaster -- the multiple, replaceable, and redundant human beings -- but the coal train itself, which, power and payload, end to end, will be integral all the way from mine to destination, no matter who is in or around it, or whose tracks it is running on.
Paul’s thumbnail sketch of Kansans was in a category with his profile of ranchers in Wyoming, another of the six states that frame Nebraska. He described a public hearing at which a Wyoming official outlined a proposed program for the sterilization of coyotes. A rancher lifted his hand, and said, “We don’t want to fuck the coyotes, we want to get rid of them.”
We heard the screech of wheels slipping on the morning frost. The sand light came on in front of Scott. He depressed a plunger, releasing sand. We saw an eagle where Paul had seen a bobcat in summer. We ate smoked trout, the result of a fishing trip that Paul and Scott had made together. We ate an excellent piquant meat loaf that Scott had brought from home. And we ate reconstructed turkey breast in Subway sandwiches, sheepishly contributed by me. They mentioned approaching landmarks as we entered the blocks in which the landmarks would appear: an Indian burial mound, other humps that had covered ammunition during the Second World War, an immense cottonwood at Mile 188 (a redtail was sitting in it), Rosie’s Crossing (an unprotected farm crossing). “She raises hell if you block it.”
All through the morning, we met loaded coal trains -- on Track 2, coming the other way. Five in the first two hours. Seven miles of coal. In the loaded coal train CNAMR, we had come down the day before from North Platte to Marysville, two hundred and fifty miles. CNAMR was on its way from North Antelope Mine, in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, to a power plant on the Meramec River, a Mississippi tributary close to St. Louis. In Union Pacific hieroglyphs, the destination always comes last. Our CTSBT would fill up at Black Thunder Mine and emerge as CBTTS.
In the cab of a coal train, imagine the difference if the coal is there behind you. Trains that carry automobiles, mixed-cargo “manifest” trains, and intermodal container trains can weigh as little as four thousand tons. CNAMR weighed nineteen thousand tons. When loaded coal trains lengthen out to a mile and three quarters, they can weigh as much as twenty-three thousand tons. Nothing heavier rolls on rails. Diesel power on its own could scarcely budge that kind of weight. The diesel engines inside locomotives are there to generate electrical power. Separate electric motors turn each of the six axles. To move the throttle to Notch 1 and start up such a thing is to wait for perceptible motion. Soon after Notch 2, the pressure of acceleration comes into your chair and begins to run up your back. Move the throttle to Notch 3, and you may feel that you are driving the North American Plate.
Paul said, “It’s a touch.”
Scott said, “You feel the train in the seat of your pants.”
After Notch 4, even your underwear can feel the train attenuate. By Notch 5, you are beginning to develop an interest in whatever might be happening a couple of miles ahead. Notch 8 and you are flat out -- minding the loaded speed limit, fifty miles an hour -- and thinking ahead at least one county. Below Notch 1 are two neutral stages -- called Set Up and Idle -- and below them are the eight notches of the dynamic brakes. Across the dynamics, you can feel the coal pressing on your back, feel the train condense. There could be an off-the-wall analogy to a twenty- speed bicycle but it does not immediately come to mind. Beside the track from time to time, you see a small post with a black X on it -- seemingly no larger than a playing card. It signifies your proximity to a grade crossing -- any kind of grade crossing. A farm crossing with no signs. A signed crossing from the era of Stop Look & Listen. A crossing armed with blinking lights. A crossing armed with blinking lights and automatic gates. A whistle-guard crossing that plays a recording that sounds like a train. In the two hundred and fifty miles of the North Platte-Marysville turn, there are a hundred and forty-one X’s beside the track, a hundred and forty-one grade crossings. If you are driving a train past them, at each X you depress on the console before you a metal mushroom that would not be out of place in a pinball machine. As it sinks into the console under the butt of your hand, the locomotive produces its classic sound. Or, as the clarinetist Skip Livingston e-mailed the tubist Tom Spain, “I’ve been listening carefully. The trains differ -- different locomotives have different pitches to their horns. But I did hear one while I was moving snow on Sunday morning, and I was able to get to the piano before I lost the notes. They were A sharp, E, and F sharp below middle C, which made it sound like an F-sharp-7 chord (minus the C sharp). The instruments that would come closest to the sound would probably be trombones.”
Passing an X, you first play one long chord on the mushroom. Then you repeat it. Then you tap a short toot. Then, if you are virtuoso, you play a final long chord that begins to fade exactly when you nose over the crossing. With so much to do, your hands are almost always touching something on the console. But if you let fifteen seconds go by while you do nothing at all, the alerter will let out a full-scale pentatonic scream. The alerter is the modern version of the “dead man’s pedal.” The old engineers had to keep down that pedal or their trains would screech to a halt. Now the alerter screeches, and goes on screeching like a smoke detector, until you come to and force it to shut up. The alerter has its own mushroom.
Paul sat on the left -- conducting. He had his own speedometer, his own mushroom for the horn. He had his thick sheaf of papers full of orders and warrants. He wore a beige baseball cap with red lettering that said “Cornhuskers.” Lanky and limber, spectacled and scholarly, he was fifty-seven, and under the cap he hadn’t much hair. Scott, far right, looked down into computer screens and up at cab signals, which reproduce inside the locomotive the signals outside, along the track, and are more than helpful in mist and fog. He was fifty-four -- and, as it happened, five feet four -- and under his red University of Nebraska ball cap was a receding brush cut. Their two seats were like upholstered thrones, as was a third, between and behind them. They had refrigeration, bottled water, and -- a few steps forward and down toward the front door -- a hand-cranked toilet of the type that is found on private vessels. No toilet paper in the toilet. No sink. No mirror. This was not the yacht Britannia. Toilet paper is in individual crew kits supplied at terminals by the company.
The space that contained us was as warm as an office. For Scott and Paul, it hadn’t always been so. In older locomotives on days like these -- fifteen degrees below freezing -- Paul had soaked paper towels in water and lined the door jamb with them so they would stiffen up and prevent the gelid atmosphere from taking over the cab. Paul and Scott had had much to do with the conditions of the workplace, and the pay, the hours, the rotations of the pool. In this district, Paul was the chairman of the United Transportation Union and, until recently, Scott had been the chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. Crews are paid by the trip. After you finish a trip and “tie up” on a computer, your place in the rotation starts at the bottom and rises through the pool, the collective term for turns in the district. The smaller the pool, the readier the work, clearly -- but perhaps so ready that you are not adequately rested before your next company call. So there is paradox in the pool, augmenting the heavy tensions between labor and management that date from the nineteenth century. Scott’s brotherhood of engineers is the oldest union in the country. “Management’s strategy is divide and conquer,” Paul remarked, and changed the subject to plan their next fishing trip. Scott has a twenty-foot Crestliner 202 Tournament, with two live wells, a 175-horse Evinrude, a 15-horse Evinrude kicker, and an electric motor as well. In Kansas City two years back, Paul bought Scott a T-shirt that said “Union fish strike more.”
Scott took a dip of Levi Garrett. Paul said, “I’ve only got one bad habit, and that’s working on the U.P.”
Paul’s grandfathers were engineers. One went west from North Platte. The other went east from North Platte. Paul’s father was a conductor. After two years in college, Paul “hired out on the railroad,” but was soon drafted and sent to Vietnam. Later, he was a switchman, then a yardmaster, and then “came out on the road as a brakeman,” and was promoted to conductor in 1976. Scott Davis’s great-grandfather was a fireman who “got hurt and became a physician.” Scott’s father was a building contractor who moved where work required. As a result, Scott went to three high schools -- in Ogallala, Stapleton, and Hyannis.
Paul: “He was voted the most popular sophomore three years in a row.”
Scott joined the Union Pacific when he was twenty-three. He dug ditches on a signal gang, climbed poles, and “became a fireman just when the coal thing was starting.” As an engineer, he took his first train by himself to Scottsbluff, on Thanksgiving, 1976. He “waited all day for B.N.S.F. to bring coal.” For Thanksgiving dinner, he ate day-old rolls.
The coal thing would change their lives -- their workplace, their leisure time, their relative prosperity. From mines near the center of America, the coal thing would revolutionize American railroads, slow the spread of creeping desuetude, reverse -- to a large extent -- their antiquation. Before the end of the twentieth century, it would all but jam solid the busiest trackage. It was the direct economic result of the Clean Air Act of 1970. The immense coal reserves of northeastern Wyoming had been no secret to anybody, of course, least of all to geologists. While a good coal seam in Pennsylvania might be seven feet thick, drill cores and seismology had long shown coal beds a hundred feet thick in the Fort Union formation of Wyoming. There was a small mine from the era of steam locomotives, but on a larger scale no one was interested in this vast domain of coal, because there was comparatively little heat in it. In British thermal units, it was thirty per cent poorer than Appalachian bituminous coal. So the open range above the Powder River coal was not further opened. Ranchland ran to the horizon in an absence of artificial light. That part of Wyoming -- in its vegetation, wildlife, and vacant beauty -- had been well characterized in 1960 by the establishment there of a national grassland.
Beyond the detriments of Powder River Basin coal was the signal fact that it was as much as five times lower in sulfur than Appalachian coal. With the Clean Air Act, power plants were required to scrub sulfur out or burn low- sulfur coal. The five hundred power plants that use coal to light, heat, cool, and compute fifty-two per cent of just about everything in the United States were suddenly swiveling their attention to Powder River coal. A combination of companies built the Orin Line -- the longest new rail line in the United States since the nineteen-thirties. At various sites along the Orin Line, large machines removed a hundred feet of overburden to begin an invasion of the planet unprecedented in scale. Belle Ayr, Black Thunder, North Antelope, Jacobs Ranch -- in fewer than twenty years, mines of the Powder River Basin were the largest coal mines in the history of the world.
Coal trains go into the Powder River Basin like tent caterpillars up a tree. The Orin Line is not much more than a hundred miles long, but sixty-five loaded coal trains -- collectively, a hundred miles of rolling coal -- come down it on an average day. Sixty-five empties go into the mines, and sixty-five loads emerge. They go to Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia; they go to Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and everywhere between. They are unit trains -- each a so-called “set,” each on its way (with few exceptions) to one specific power plant.
CTSBT, having come up through Alexandria, Belvidere, Carleton, Davenport, Edgar, Fairfield, Glenvil, and Hastings -- alphabetical Nebraskan railroad towns -- was now descending among the farms of Hayland Hill, nearing the Platte River. Paul said, “In Nebraska, they bury a farmer only three feet under .”
I said, “O.K., why?”
With an air of stating the obvious, Paul said, “So he can still get a hand out.”
Scott said, “A wealthy farmer has two mailboxes.”
Beyond the broad and braided Platte was Gibbon Junction, where the two-track line from Marysville met the U.P.’s Triple-Track Main. Like the on-ramp of a freeway, the lesser tracks went through a long curve to make an acute angle with the main. Reading signals, Scott had gone down from notch to notch through the dynamics, and was now drifting, as he put it -- creeping slowly around the curve until his nose was in the angle, where he stopped. Parked there was a Dodge Grand Caravan -- Texas S53ZNT -- with a man in it who was taking pictures. The Triple- Track Main -- Gibbon Junction through North Platte to O’Fallons, Nebraska -- is the most heavily used freight line in the world. Gibbon Junction joins southern traffic to central traffic running east and west. Since the blending of tracks there occurs in fewer than six acres, it is the sort of place where espionage leading to sabotage could be particularly effective. This apparently trespassing man, on a bitter-cold January morning, had left a grade crossing, driven on ballast beside the tracks, and squeezed his Grand Caravan into the narrowest part of the junction V, where his lens was on us. While we sat and waited for an eastbound coal train to go by on its way to Council Bluffs, the van backed across the double tracks and into virgin snow, where the camera returned to action.
Since the eleventh of September, 2001, scenes like that have made certain people extremely nervous, but not Paul or Scott. “These train buffs, they’ll do anything,” Paul said. “I’ve had them driving down the highway taking pictures of the train.” Throwbacks to the nineteenth century, train watchers, known in England as train spotters, are people who go on planned outings to look at trains. They are sometimes described as a dying breed, but the Reaper evidently is not impatient. In the United States currently, there are well over a hundred thousand train watchers, a national subculture whose antique passion is accompanied by a knowledge of railroading that often has greater breadth and depth than the sophistication of most people who work for railroads. Where tracks are, they are; but they tend to cluster. At Tower 55, in Fort Worth, where the Union Pacific crosses the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, a guy was seen making notes. In no time, the F.B.I. showed up and confiscated his notebook. Never mind that he was only a train watcher taking time off from his job as a police dispatcher.
A Wyoming-coal train is not a common sight in New England. Run one into New Hampshire for a test burn at Bow, on the Merrimack River, and word of its coming will quickly spread. Think of it. Three B.N.S.F. diesel- electrics in distributed power coming through the mending wall. A mile and a half of Powder River coal. Train watchers will meet it in western New York and follow it all the way in like bait fish escorting a whale. My cousin John, in Northern California, is a train watcher. He says he’s “going training” and he disappears. When he gets out there, he knows what he is looking at.
Some years ago, I was at a kitchen party in the home of Willy Bemis, in Amherst, Massachusetts. The room was full of biologists, full of shoptalk, beer, wine, the shouts of children, the contributions of a barking dog. Willy is a world-renowned anatomist of living and fossil fishes, and these were his graduate students and colleagues at the University of Massachusetts, chatting fish, while off in a corner where a source of incidental music might have been was a TV monitor with a video in it showing nothing but slowly moving trains -- whole trains, coal trains, intermodal, manifest, autorack American trains. When seven thousand feet of train had lumbered across the screen, the screen was entered by another train. I thought I was looking at a screen saver, but it was a quantum less lively. If Andy Warhol had rotated the Empire State Building ninety degrees, he could have approached the mesmerism of those endless trains. Willy, who has since taken up a distinguished professorship at Cornell, knows almost as much about trains as he does about fish.
The Andy Warhol of those trains in Willy’s kitchen was Dick Eisfeller, of Greenland, New Hampshire, a train watcher who long ago turned pro and has made nearly two hundred videos, many of them longer than Hollywood feature films. Beside selected tracks, he films, without sleep, every train that moves past him for twenty-four consecutive hours. Completing his editing at home, he dims the rumbling sound track from time to time and tells you in a soft monotone what is going by, what its destination is, and how it relates to the national plexus of rail freight. He is not without competition, but while others show two locomotives, four boxcars, and six giddy gorges, Eisfeller is uninterested in scenery, and he alone consistently shows whole trains on one stretch of track across twenty-four hours and comments on every train. “Others sell thousands, I sell hundreds” is the way in which he summarizes his market niche. Willy Bemis says that among the train videomakers Dick Eisfeller is “probably the most knowledgeable, the most interested in railroad operations. He has an almost scientific approach, a mission to document things. He’s interested in the business of the railroad. He knows where a train is coming from and where it is going, and whether it is daily or weekly, and whether it is on time. He knows what is in the cars. He knows the context of other trains on the same tracks.”
In me, there was nothing of the train watcher, train spotter, train buff, or rail fan until there came a day when Willy Bemis (about to move, and cleaning out his house) sent me his collection of Eisfeller films. In twenty-one hours of stupefied absorption, I watched whole trains in the “Kansas funnel,” whole trains on the Orin Line, whole trains in Nebraska on the Triple-Track Main. A very large percentage were coal trains, half a light-year of coal trains, bright aluminum coal trains, the coal convex in each car, like rounded tablespoons of black sugar. The title of one of Eisfeller’s films was “24 Hours at Gibbon Junction.”
Eisfeller is a chemist with patents on coatings that make your car look metallic where it is actually plastic. “The key ingredient is indium. If you evaporate it in a vacuum on a plastic surface, it forms little islands, so if you coat it with clear plastic it doesn’t corrode.” He worked for Textron until 1994, when he was downsized for being, in his word, outspoken. He had sold his first video a year earlier, and decided to go into the field full time. He had been a rail fan since childhood. In Chadwick, Illinois, Burlington Zephyrs went through his grandparents’ farm. In his twenties, he “started chasing trains” and “collecting paper” -- timetables, schedules, dispatcher sheets, consists. (Accented on the first syllable, “consists” is a railroad term for what a train is carrying.) Eisfeller goes into railroad yards, opens Dumpsters, and rummages through them for consists. He knows people in railroad companies who give him lineups -- lists of trains expected at a given point within a specified number of hours. In his laptop, he has a topographic atlas. He has grade profiles. He has a scanner, on which he listens to engineers and conductors talking to dispatchers. He generally knows when he has time to move from one site to another. When he is beside a track and a train is coming, he often knows what train it is.
When he happened to be filming in Pennsylvania not long ago, I went out near Hershey to watch. Across twenty-four hours, he set up his tripod at ten places in seven communities, mainly in Myerstown, where, with a lumberyard’s permission, he spent the night. He had awakened at 4 A.M. to drive down from New Hampshire, and now, in a typical working moment long after dark, Norfolk Southern No. 500 was approaching eastbound with “a hundred and fifteen tons of coal.” A hundred yards east of Eisfeller, a horse-drawn Amish buggy clattered across the tracks on Railroad Street just before the gates went down. Like a fisherman starting his outboard motor, Eisfeller yanked a cord, turning on his generator. Suddenly, three thousand watts of halogen light sent a ball of day across the tracks. Eisfeller ran to his digital camcorder with dual mikes and nineteen-power zoom.
Consider the engineer, approaching this unexpected nova. Already, he was pushing on his horn, the grade crossing fewer than twenty seconds away. And now his locomotive was about to go up in a cloud of halogen light. Eisfeller shined a flashlight on the camcorder by way of explanation. “Let’s face it,” he said. “I’m doing a weird thing out here.”
He never acquaints railroads with his plans or asks them for permission to do what he does, preferring not to defy their denials. He sometimes calls on local police and lets them know what he is up to. He shoots from public parking lots and state and municipal parks, as well as from private land. Engineers now and again report him to their dispatchers. On western trips, he has been confronted four times by dicks of Union Pacific.
The air was shivering cold, but he was wearing a cotton shirt and an open windbreaker, with no apparent interest in its function. Bald, bluejeaned, wearing white running shoes, he had a round face, an amiable mustache, a significant corporation. He drives everywhere, even to Wyoming. With his theatrical lights, his camcorder, and that hundred-and-thirty-pound generator, he is not rich in alternatives. His 1999 Windstar had a hundred and sixty thousand miles on it, a malfunctioning heater, and failed interior lighting. Camcording, he has stayed awake as long as three days and two nights. On interstates between filmings, he goes into rest stops and sleeps in the Windstar sitting up. “I’d be a good case study in sleep deprivation,” he told me. “I’ve had people knock on my car thinking I’m dead. One of the times when I was most dead was on the U.P. Triple-Track. I try not to push myself.”
Gibbon was another kind of junction for me. Arriving there, CTSBT crossed the Platte River just about where -- years earlier -- I had collected a bagful of stream-rounded pebbles whose bedrock sources turned out to be in the Rocky Mountains, as much as five hundred miles from Gibbon. The pebbles set me off on a project in forensic geology, which led to Ronald Rawalt, a mineralogist and paleontologist who is also a special agent with the F.B.I. He met with me in Omaha and described some of the cases in which his geological sense of what came from where had led him to the solution of heinous crimes, including the murder of a policeman in Pennsylvania and the murder of a D.E.A. agent in Mexico. Rawalt’s home was, as it still is, in North Platte -- the ne-plus-ultra railroad town, site of the largest railroad yard in the world -- and Rawalt, unsurprisingly, knows almost as much about trains as he does about rocks. Now, long after I collected the pebbles, my base in Nebraska was in Rawalt’s home. I had tried for some time to find a way to travel in coal trains, but the quest had not gone well. After what seemed like fifty-five dozen unreturned messages, I made the breakthrough discovery that Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific were not in competition with New Jersey Transit. I thought of Ron Rawalt, in North Platte, and sent him a note about the situation, saying, in effect, that I was in a kind of maze, walking back and forth, and getting no help from the hedge leaves. A few days later, Rawalt and I were in downtown North Platte having breakfast with Scott Davis, Paul Fitzpatrick, and John Hasenauer, the local secretary- treasurer of the United Transportation Union.
Rawalt’s F.B.I. work rarely involves rail traffic, but instances have come up when he has had to stop trains. Near Scottsbluff once, he came upon a tractor-trailer stalled on a grade crossing with two coal trains approaching from opposite directions. The truck driver was desperately trying to pry open a signal box. Rawalt called Union Pacific’s Harriman Dispatching Center, in Omaha, and Harriman stopped both trains. If this had occurred where cell phones were nonfunctional, Rawalt might have effected certain connections on his own that would “red-board the whole system,” shutting down the Union Pacific for tens if not hundreds of miles. But a simpler way to stop a train, he said, is “to strap a torpedo to the ball of a rail.” A torpedo is an explosive briquette.
Acting on a tipoff one morning, he drove down Route 30, the highway beside the Triple-Track Main, looking over a manifest train for signs of a “top-ten fugitive” who was a serial murderer known to ride freights. The engine number was the one he had been given. He saw a figure in a boxcar. He called the Harriman Dispatching Center and was advised that if he wanted the train to pull up right beside him the train would heed “emergency vehicle instructions.” To wit: “Place a fireball on top of the car and stick your thumb down outside the window.” A fireball is a red dome light. Rawalt had one and he turned it on. He stuck his hand out the window, thumb down. The train sounded suddenly like an orchestra warming up. Rawalt took the fugitive off the train. “He was armed with a knife, not a gun. He was not the fugitive murderer. But we ran him, and he was wanted out of Texas. There was a felony warrant for his arrest.”
Felons are few among the transients on rolling trains, who travel from freight yard to freight yard, lily pad to lily pad. “They get off as the train slows down. Then they move to the other end of the yard. These guys carry schedules. There are more of them than there were in the nineteen-thirties.”
Because of transients, freight cars that carry automobiles have become even more shuttered than freight cars that carry cattle and hogs. Railroads transfer two-thirds of new automobiles, and today’s autorack cars appear to be made of steel venetian blinds. Somehow hoboes squeeze into them nonetheless. They like to ride the trains inside the automobiles. Each one has a couple of gallons of gas in it, because automobiles are driven on and off trains under their own power. Transients, settling in for a trip, turn on the automobiles’ air-conditioners in summer, heaters in winter. When an automobile runs out of gas, the transient moves to another. If the railroad responds by removing the keys and shipping them in tamper-proof bundles, the hoboes respond by defecating and urinating in the automobiles, breaking windshields, and knifing upholstery. In winter, hoboes seeking warmth on coal trains bury themselves in coal.
Railroad police are “commissioned,” and they have arrest powers. When they are not busting autorack squatters, they are sometimes in pursuit of the people they describe as graffiti vandals, and whom others regard as Renaissance artists. The billowing cumulus of graffiti color reaches only partway up the sides of boxcars, hoppers, and gondolas, because that is as far as the artists effectively can reach. They are careful to mask out or otherwise avoid the reporting marks on the sides of freight cars (letters and numbers of identification), because they know that the reporting marks will quickly be restencilled if graffiti paint obscures them, and the art will not survive. They are proud of what they do. They stand admiring it as they are arrested. While I was in a rail-yard office one day, a company bulletin scrolled across a screen announcing that railroad police in Sacramento had at last arrested a graffiti vandal named Crooks.
On CNAMR and CTSBT, when we went through speed-restricted zones -- bumping and rocking if there were problems in the track -- we came eventually to a green metal flag. It marked the end of the zone but not of the speed restriction. The engineer had reached the green flag but his last car had a mile and a half to go. Scott set a counter at seventy- five hundred, to count down in feet. When it reached zero, it went off like a microwave. The counter was once a human being riding in a caboose. The human being had a walkie- talkie, and he would say to the engineer, “We’ve got the green flag!” Those were his last words. While graffiti bloom and hoboes persevere, the caboose has been replaced on the end of the train by a small red box full of wires and chips. Working cabooses do exist. If you set up a tent at Gibbon Junction and spend the summer, you might see one. Typically, they had a conductor, an assistant conductor, and several brakemen in them -- the conductors handling paper waybills, the brakemen now and again walking beside the train to look for hot bearings or equipment that was dragging. The older cabooses were made of wood and had coal-burning stoves, which were wonderfully warm. Advanced technology came in the form of oil stoves, which were not wonderfully warm, and crews threw baggies full of diesel fuel into the burning oil, hastening the demise of the caboose. A pair of trains would give each other “roll bys” -- crewmen in each caboose inspecting the other train. If a train had a problem, it stopped. Crewmen walked forward and fixed the problem. The engineer then pulled the caboose up to the crewmen. Now, in addition to Scott, the entire crew is Paul. If there is trouble, Paul walks back to it, and then back from it, as much as three miles, maybe in deep snow, while Scott waits, while stockholders wait, while Alan Greenspan waits, and Sisyphus is working on the railroad. Yet the electronic detectors that have replaced the crews in the cabooses see, hear, and feel more than the crews could. Ten, fifteen miles apart, the detectors are everywhere along the tracks. They enter the cabs of locomotives as cavernous virtual voices reporting what they find, reporting what they do not find, and offering reassurance. They look and listen for dragging equipment, out-of-round wheels, hot journal bearings, excessively high or shifting loads. The presence of flat spots will show up quickly on the wheel-impact load detector. An electronic-evaluation car with lasers and ultrasonics can inspect the track itself at fifty miles per hour. Collectively, railroads promote these features as “health monitoring.”
William C. Vantuono, the editor of Railway Age, says that a unit train, such as a coal train, with no local switching work, could run without a conductor. So long, Paul. Scott becomes a crew of one, and even one-man crews may soon be a fading custom. In some rail yards, you find working locomotives with no one in them. Ron Rawalt casually predicts that “trains will before long be going coast to coast under remote control with no crewmen at all on board.” Needless to say, these foreshadowings have not gone unnoticed by the United Transportation Union and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. Just step into a yard office among the gathered engineers and conductors and you will soon hear something like this: “Kids barely know how to throw a switch and pull a pin and make a train up, and they’re running these R.C.L.s. We lost fifty engineers’ jobs when they went to remote control. A guy with two years’ experience is running remote control, replacing an engineer with twenty years’ experience.” Scott Davis, reviewing the subject, did not show much alarm. He said, “The railroad wants to go on one-man-only. They’re not going to get that.”
Meanwhile, the multiplication of coal trains and the accompanying rise of the intermodal stack train have brought congestion to the rail network and slowed down traffic in ways that robots might to some extent relieve. By federal law, train crews work a maximum of twelve hours. If their time runs out, they are “dead on the law,” and they must absolutely stop the train and get off, the difference notwithstanding if they are out in the middle of the Great Salt Lake Desert or two miles from home. While more and more trains compete for track space, the crews’ hours are a constant in equations full of variables. When time runs out and the result is a “dead train,” trains behind it are affected, and trains behind them, until -- as Dick Eisfeller once found -- ”U.P. eastbounds trying to get into Chicago are backed up halfway across Iowa.” He once referred to Burlington Northern Santa Fe as “the land of the standing coal train,” and, employing a phrase of wide use in the industry, said of Union Pacific, “U.P. stands for Unlimited Parking. Parked trains are almost anywhere, waiting for new crews. The situation can go on for days or weeks.” When train crews die, they are usually near a highway, and vans go out to get them. In Nebraska, they are picked up by armadillos. Armadillo Express is the name of an independent service company that has achieved prosperity picking crews off stranded trains. Nationwide, there are a dozen such companies. Not infrequently, they carry fresh crews as little as a mile from railroad yards to bring in dead trains. Those fresh crews are called dogcatchers.
The most hyperactive dogcatchers are in North Platte, because North Platte’s Bailey Yard, at nearly three thousand acres, is not only the largest railroad yard in the world but also among the most crowded. Trains waiting for admission to Bailey die where they wait. When Paul and Scott pulled CTSBT into North Platte to tie up from their turn, eighteen miles of coal trains (twelve units) were already inside the yard, and half a dozen eastbounds were lined up waiting to come in. Crewless locomotives were rearranging autorack trains and varied blocks of manifest trains. The wye was busy, and the balloon track -- places where cars and locomotives are turned around. Two tank cars, poised on top of the East Hump, in silhouette looked like carpenter ants. Coyotes live in Bailey Yard. Wild geese overwinter at its water- table lakes. When you get down from your train, a van picks you up and drives you, say, two miles to the yard office, where your own car is waiting, sometimes covered with snow. Annually, about three hundred million gross tons of freight pass through Bailey Yard, where public grade crossings were eliminated years ago. Five streets of North Platte are on elevated causeways over the yard. Train watchers from many parts of the world make pilgrimages to the elevated causeways. If their skin is dark, they were obviously sent by Osama bin Laden. Informants call the F.B.I.
The main purpose of the yard is to classify freight cars in the way that UPS and FedEx sort packages in Louisville and Memphis. The robot locomotives shove manifest trains up small parabolic hills -- the East Hump, the West Hump -- where single cars or small groups of cars are set free at the summits to roll downhill into groupings of parallel tracks which are called bowls but in plan view resemble the strings of harps. The West Bowl has fifty tracks, the East Bowl sixty-four. Each gravity-powered “cut” of cars rolls into the bowl below and stops on a track where other cars with a similar destination are assembling as a new train. This may not represent a frontier of technology, but it is a distinct advance over “flat switching,” the traditional technique of pulling the pin from a coupling, then shoving the whole train until it reaches a certain speed, then slamming on the brakes so that whatever has been uncoupled leaps free, rolls on overland, and is switched onto a designated track.
The yardmasters of Bailey work in glassy polygonal structures that look like airport control towers. Scott Davis took me into the West Hump Tower, where his yardmaster brother, Marty, was nearing the end of a shift. On the top deck, Marty sat alone in a very spacious room with a panoptic view, while two others worked in a similar space one flight down. Outside on the hump, a pinner was pulling pins and simultaneously operating, from an electronic device slung on his chest, the robot locomotive that was pushing trains up the hump. Inside the tower, one of the men on the lower floor sat before a computer screen and talked to the pinner through outdoor loudspeakers. On his screen, he could read the destinies of the cars on the hump, and he was telling the pinner where to pull pins to make cuts. As cars rolled off downhill, the computer was throwing switches all over the West Bowl, but if the computer were to overlook something it could be upstaged manually by the other man on the lower floor, who sat before a desklike surface covered with levers that operate switches. Marty Davis, yardmaster, alone on the floor above, seemed watchful, like a coach observing the calls of his offensive and defensive coordinators. At the shift change, Marty was replaced by Gib Larsen, who closely resembled King Lear. His hair was a sort of robe -- a floor-length white robe. As we left the tower, Scott said, “He’s into mountain-man stuff. He has buckskin pants, buckskin shirts. He goes to Rendezvous days in Ogallala, where he throws axes.”
In the crew room in the yard office, computers were lined up as if it were a public library. Arriving for work, engineers and conductors log in for orders there; and after their turns they tie up on the computers before they go home. When Paul and Scott had picked up their printouts for CNAMR, the crew room was jammed with dogcatchers. Trains were dying left and right, in part as a result of the freezing weather. Mary Hanna and Carol Townsend were not there. They and two hundred and fifty men were the District 2 engineers. The district’s conductors were all men. There were not a few speckled beards, and mustaches large enough to resemble the lower halves of crossing signs. Most of the crewmen were clean-shaven guys in ball caps. Everyone wore hard-toed six-inch boots. While the crew room was actually a management-driven processing pen, it had the hubbub of a union hall.
As Scott’s and Paul’s time ticked, we waited three hours before we were driven to CNAMR, which was parked in a fuelling pit. What an ambitious word -- ”pit” -- for a place to put something seventy-five hundred feet long. There were loaded coal trains on either side of CNAMR. We climbed into the lead locomotive, and waited for the completion of air tests, fuelling, mechanical inspection. A hundred yards ahead were a blue flag and a device on the track that would derail the train if it were to move forward while the flag was present and authorization was not.
Finally, a radioed voice came into the cab: “Five-eight-six-four east to the east run. Through yardmaster. Over.”
Scott said, “Five-eight-six-four east out.”
He also said, “We got a lunar, Paul,” referring to a signal that at last had something positive to suggest. The releasing of the air brakes began at the two ends, and moved toward the middle. The train’s very long integral air tube was like the air sac of a rope fish. At 12:54 P.M., we were actually moving -- five miles per hour -- and Scott set the counter, saying, “So I’ll know I’m off that pit and can get up to yard speed.” He was up to twelve when a yellow light put him down. He set the dynamic brakes. Bumpily, the hoppers compressed. We stopped.
An hour later, we had not moved an additional inch. Beside us was a Z train -- an intermodal meant for fast travel, but its status for the moment was no higher than it would have been had its name begun with C. Eventually, the towering double-stacked boxes stirred, and Paul said, “This shooter’s starting to pull.” In time, we followed the shooter, slowly, through the east end of the yard. Over a fence to our left was Central Nebraska Packing, where horses, until recently, were prepared for human consumption, and are now processed for zoos. Over a fence on our right, some healthy- looking palominos were grazing through snow, enchanted surely that a coal train lay between them and the house across the way. So far, it had not done us a lot of good to be drawn by thirteen thousand horses. An hour and a half after we began to move out of the fuel pit, we were still in Bailey Yard. But now we got a flashing green. We swung right over a movable-point frog and onto the Triple- Track Main. Scott said, “14:20. We’re out!”
(This is the first part of a two-part article.)