COAL TRAIN -- PART 2 A REPORTER AT LARGE
By John McPhee
The New Yorker. New York: Oct 10, 2005. ol.81, Iss. 31; pg. 62
(An armadillo is a van sent out on highways to replace train crews whose regulated hours of service have run out. Dick Eisfeller makes and sells Warholian movies of freight trains. Scott Davis is an engineer, Paul Fitzpatrick a conductor. Their routine “turn” is between North Platte, Nebraska, and Marysville, Kansas, on the Union Pacific Railroad. A manifest train has varied types of cars and cargoes. An intermodal train carries containers, often double-stacked. “Consist” is a railroad term for what a train is carrying. Bailey Yard, in North Platte, is the largest railroad yard in the world. On a January morning, Davis and Fitzpatrick are about to leave Bailey Yard in CNAMR, a nineteen- thousand-ton coal train, on its way east from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, locus of the largest coal mines on earth.)
Over the hundred and eight miles between Bailey Yard and Gibbon Junction, Nebraska, more than two hundred miles of freight trains are in motion every day. While the advent of the Powder River coal trains has doubled the volume, it has more or less quadrupled the viscosity. The hot intermodals, the high- priority perishable services -- the shooters -- are not what they used to be. Commonly, they average eighteen miles an hour on the Triple- Track Main.
We met coal trains, Q trains (“westbound hot shots”), coal trains, autotrains, rock trains, grain trains, coal trains, Z trains, manifest trains. A sixty-sixhundred-foot stack train coming almost straight at you seems like a city about to collapse. At least a third of the trains were empty, not only the westbound coal trains returning to the Powder River Basin but autotrains, rock trains, grain trains, and ballast trains -- all going back to somewhere for more. We went by twenty miles of motionless trains, waiting to get into North Platte, queued up on a plain so open and vast that we went over farm grade crossings that had no lights or gates, just the big wooden X of Stop Look & Listen. We passed lone grain elevators that resembled the United Nations building and were so large that they had their own switch engines.
From North Platte to Gibbon Junction, we descended seven hundred and forty feet, an average grade of .113 per cent -- a slope much too subtle to be seen by the human eye. The descent continued at the same average rate all the way to Marysville, which is fifteen hundred and ninety-nine feet lower than North Platte. The significant grades along the way -- Hayland Hill, Hastings Hill, the divide between the Big Blue and Little Blue -- reminded me of fish in a river. I couldn’t see them. Scott could. I would not have known they were there had Scott not made remarks from time to time about “coming up into these hills” or “pulling a pretty good grade.” I could feel grades, surely -- feel the uphill deceleration of nineteen thousand tons, feel the release when they were over a summit and rolling free -- but even on the named hills the track looked, to me, essentially level. If you ride a bicycle, you know when you are going uphill, even where the gradient is so slight that your eye doesn’t pick it up. In a nineteen-thousand-ton train, your physical perception of grade is much the same as it would be if you were on a twenty- pound bicycle -- especially if your name is Scott Davis.
Run a coal train out of the Powder River Basin and down to Kansas and Arkansas and across the South into Georgia. The steepest grade you encounter is 1.5 per cent, on track that to the eye seems close to level. You can discern that it is going up or down, but it will not remind you of Crested Butte. It will seem less steep than the East Pacific Rise. Yet a loaded coal train running wide open in Notch 8 can attack a 1.5-per-cent grade and soon be beaten down under ten miles an hour. The steepest mainline railroad grade in the United States is Saluda Hill, coming off the Blue Ridge of North Carolina at five per cent -- a thousand vertical feet in four miles. It is not presently used. To get up it, trains were cut into thirds. To get down it, Dick Eisfeller says, “they were extremely careful, put it that way.” The base of the hill is called Slaughter Pen Cut. In the Hudson Highlands, of New York, the Mt. Beacon Incline Railway, also out of service now, went up a grade of sixty-five per cent, lifting passengers fifteen hundred feet to views of the Hudson River. I rode up the Mt. Beacon Incline Railway once and was able to discern the angle. In a litany of comparative grades, Mt. Beacon doesn’t really count. The locomotive was made by the Otis Elevator Company. The steepest surviving mainline grade is near four per cent -- at Raton Pass, in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, between Colorado and New Mexico. Glorieta Pass, near Santa Fe, is 3.0. In California, the steepest grades in the Sierra Nevada reach 2.4 -- a grade that can be expressed as a one-mile ramp to the roof of a twelve-story building, nothing more. In the so-called Punch Bowl below Cajon Pass, in the San Bernardino Mountains -- entrance to the Los Angeles Basin and once the route of the Super Chief -- there are three tracks, with grades, respectively, of 2.2, 2.2, and 3.0. The routes of the heavy coal trains rarely include grades much over one per cent. The roadbeds may look flat, but the difference in steepness between 1.2 and 1.5 can be prohibitive.
Whatever the route, somewhere between origin and destination there is going to be a ruling grade -- the one that is more challenging than any other. Trains are made up to meet ruling grades -- barely. If you need thirteen hundred horsepower to get up your ruling grade, you’ll be given three AC4400 locomotives. Many summits are marked by metallic yellow flags with black triangles on them. If something slips, or you lose an engine and you don’t make it past a yellow flag, call an armadillo.
Direct-current diesel-electric locomotives are fine for hauling autotrains, intermodal containers, and sugar beets, but alternating current is the better way to move the weight of coal. A.C. traction motors -- the result of a newer technology -- can handle more current and pull more loaded coal cars. In the D.C. days of the twentieth century, railroads ran trains with as many as five locomotives. Now, with A.C. traction motors, trains of the same gross tonnage and on the same routes can be driven by three. A coal train is so heavy that it should be limited to a hundred cars if the locomotives are only on the front end, because with greater length and added tonnage the couplers between cars will start to break; the train literally tears itself apart. In the middle nineteen-nineties, slave locomotives under computer-coordinated radio control were added in the middle or at the rear of trains, to push in synchronization with the pull from the front, taking pressure off the couplers. That is when coal trains grew in length to a mile and a half. The pull-and-push method, integrally operated by the engineer, is known as distributed power. A few exceptional coal trains are two miles long.
When something linear is draped across a great deal of landscape, it will be required to go uphill and downhill simultaneously if it tries to move at all. It crosses a summit, and its front begins descending while the rest is still climbing. If it is a coal train and there is a restricted-speed zone down ahead, many thousands of tons will strain the dynamic brakes while many thousands of other tons still need a great deal of applied power. Between North Platte, Nebraska, and Marysville, Kansas, a scene exactly fitting that description was a two-mile eastbound rise that led to an overpass where Union Pacific crossed the Burlington Northern Santa Fe in Hastings, Nebraska. The restricted-speed zone was half a mile down the far side. Scott had to deal with the antithetical stresses of the “train action” by continuing to apply positive power and simultaneously introducing what manuals call “brake propagation.” This was possible only with distributed power, and he had long since “thrown the fence,” desynchronizing the locomotives at the two ends of the train. The computer screen in front of him that related to power was now split by a vertical bar between the data of the front locomotives and the data from the rear unit, which was still pushing while the lead units were down in the dynamic brakes.
This was a place where a train could “get knuckles” (break couplers), and U.P. trains, in fact, had got six knuckles on Hastings Hill since Christmas. This is Scott’s description of what was happening now: “You have to be within one throttle notch up or down with head -- for example, two dynamic on the head end would allow throttle 1, 2, or 3 on the DP. It is not against the rules to be in dynamic brake 8 on the DP and 2 on the head end, but common sense will tell you that there is a possibility of pulling your train in two. There’s a twenty-five-mile-an-hour slow order at Kicks Road, which is only about half a mile from the top of this hill. In order to get a hundred-and- thirty-three-car loaded coal train -- nineteen thousand tons, DPU -- over the hill without breaking in two, what you need to do is you need to have the rear DP unit shoving in about Notch 1, and you need to control the slack with the lead two DPs in dynamic, and you’ll have to hold that train back at fifty-mile- an-hour until you reach the bottom, and then you need to be shoving with the DP in the eighth run to push the slack against the head end in order to come over that hill at twenty- five-mile-an-hour and keep the slack bunched in so it doesn’t break in two.”
By 7 p.m., with our headlight drilling darkness, CNAMR was going fast enough to explode a rooster, feathers everywhere, like a shower of sparks. A “rooster” in this context was a cock pheasant, which flew nose-to- nose into a thirty-eight-million-pound coal train. Minutes later, on the microwave radio, we heard a westbound train report to the dispatcher that the train in front of us, an eastbound manifest, was throwing real sparks from its twenty-seventh car from the rear. Signals flashed yellow. The train in front of us was ten miles down the track, and to Paul and Scott its situation brought a single thought: If we get stuck behind this manifest, our time will run out and our own train will die. Scott began moving the throttle down through the notches and into the dynamics. Within twenty-five hundred yards, he had brought CNAMR to a complete stop. If he had crept along, drifting, as he could have under the flashing yellow signals, he might have crept into a block so close to the stricken train that the dispatcher would not be able to get him around it. So Scott was preserving distance. The dispatcher was in Omaha -- a hundred and twelve miles away, measured with a string -- but he was in charge of all signals, all switches, and all movement of trains in many tens of miles before and behind us.
The signal structures over the tracks loomed black and nearly invisible now, but their lights had taken on a planetary brilliance -- green, flashing yellow, yellow, red, and lunar (the high white that tells you you can creep past red). These same colors, stretched into long horizontal lines, were lighting up a wall in Omaha as if it were the wall of a disco. Trains in Arizona, California, Missouri, and Colorado were also running in patterns expressed on this wall, and on the wall opposite -- the two sides of a narrow, tunnel-like room three hundred feet long. Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah -- in all, about nineteen thousand miles of the Union Pacific were under control from within these walls, in the space known to the company as the Harriman Dispatching Center and to the people who work there as “the bunker.”
It looks like one -- theatrically dark, below grade, the caverned core of a two-story building, and reinforced with such redundant masonry that it is rated to withstand “the force of a telephone pole hitting it at a hundred and eighty miles per hour,” an assertion that in this part of the country is not immune from testing. The bunker calls to mind Mission Control in Houston, but even louder is the echo of those old films about the Strategic Air Command zapping the hell out of the Soviet Union from a deeply inhumed command center in Omaha. Four hundred dispatchers work at Harriman, about sixty at any given time. They wear ball caps that say things like “Dad to the Bone.” Fingers on keyboards, feet on radio pedals, earphones under the caps, they sit at consoles in partitioned cubicles looking down into as many as eight computer screens and up at the colored lines -- the sometimes flashing bands -- on the walls. The lines are tracks, and some of the colors are rolling trains. If a paid inmate or a college student were to be brought here to undergo clinical psychological testing, he’d be babbling in the street in thirty minutes. Dispatchers have left Harriman to go into air- traffic control, imagining a simpler life. In the words of John Reininger, a supervisor in the bunker, “Air-traffic controllers have the great luxury of another dimension. Air-traffic controllers find this more complicated. We’d like to have a train change its altitude to get over another train -- it won’t work.”
A raised axial platform, supervisory in nature, is flanked on either side by a hundred yards of dispatchers, sitting in their cubicles, about five feet lower. Each is separated by clear partitions from neighbors left and right, whose territories are adjacent and average three hundred miles. Crew-change points will often coincide with the edges of dispatchers’ territories. In rear projection, the polychromatic representation of the railroad on the wall directly ahead of each dispatcher depicts what is going on in the dispatcher’s territory, and a glance to the left or the right shows the traffic that is approaching. If something is flashing, it needs attention; and something is generally a train, for which the dispatcher is clearing the way. In Reininger’s words, “He owns the track, so to speak.”
The multiple lines of color representing trains and tracks are not everywhere parallel. Where tracks converge, as at Gibbon Junction, the lines assume swastika patterns and the wall resembles a Navajo blanket. Where a stretch of track is occupied by a train, it is lighted bright red. Where a stretch of track has nothing on it and will not have for a while, it is white. A computer is thinking about it. Green track is clear for imminent use. Brown is for manual mode, computer uninvited. A computer has planned a train’s experiences two or three hours ahead of the train. The dispatcher watches the plan as it unfolds, and overrides it if necessary, whereupon the relevant stretch of track on the wall turns brown. Malfunctioning switches appear as vertical blue rectangles, like small postage stamps. Specific symbols represent specific trains. Small arrows show plotted directions. Small “H”s represent switch heaters. Such is the detail that on the axial platform a supervisor lifts a pair of binoculars to look over a dispatcher’s shoulder and scan the rear-projection wall fifteen feet in front of her. Dispatchers at Harriman have spent entire careers on one stretch of track. If a coal train is making a very long trip from mine to plant, as many as a dozen dispatchers will see it through. Dispatchers have in their hands the safety not only of train crews but also of track workers, not to mention the surrounding public. After twelve weeks of classes, they are trained on the job for about three months. It takes them five years to become really efficient. Above each dispatcher’s cubicle is a red strobe light set on a shaft like a torch. If a crisis develops in a dispatcher’s territory, the red light begins to flash so that everyone in the general area will see it if the dispatcher is off peeing.
Some television directors look at fewer monitors than dispatchers do. Dispatchers’ screens in the bunker can display data from trackside sensors and scanners. They chart winds and flash floods. Any emergency situation will cause a window describing it to pop up on a screen. As snow falls anywhere in Harriman’s nineteen thousand miles, switch heaters are turned on from Harriman.
Under Centralized Traffic Control, you can run a train on any track in any direction. You can run three trains side by side all headed west on the Triple-Track Main. Where the trackage is wired for C.T.C., signals are all two-sided. I remember riding in a Metroliner in Maryland and standing in the front of the front car, where -- through two windows -- I could see the track ahead. Over the engineer’s shoulder, I could see, lit up, a digital readout of the train’s speed. The engineer was wearing a tie. There were four tracks. Gradually, the Metroliner had drifted to its left and now it was flying south at the left-hand extreme, on what is customarily a northbound track, at a hundred and eleven miles an hour. A pickup in front of us ran a gated crossing. We missed the pickup. On down the far-left track, we were soon looking directly into the headlight of a locomotive. We kept going. Somewhat shy of the headlight, the Metroliner slipped over to the next track, and shot past the other train. Centralized Traffic Control.
Under C.T.C., the dispatcher at his console controls all movement, and can set all signals and throw all switches. The system involves microwave towers, satellites, and fibre optics (strung along the tracks like the nineteenth century’s telegraph wires). Train orders and track warrants used to be presented on actual paper given to the crew. Where they needed to, they stopped the train, walked ahead, threw switches by hand, and made signals with their arms in varied configurations, like football referees. A fist to the forehead was trainspeak for headlight. If you cupped both hands over your breasts, you were talking about a tank car. As with hand- swung red lanterns, all that was replaced by the block-signal system, which remains in operation in a lot of terrain. Blocks average two miles. If something is stalled four blocks ahead of you, you go from green to flashing yellow to yellow to red. Under block signals, a fast train coming up behind a slow train has no alternative but to slow up and follow. Under C.T.C., a fast train can go around a slow train. Trackage still exists that has neither C.T.C. nor a block-signal system. The term for it is “dark territory.” In dark territory, all instructions -- even train orders -- are verbal via microwave radio. Coal trains on the old Rock Island branch between Fairbury and Hallam, Nebraska, are in dark territory. They must receive a track warrant by radio from the bunker, and must give the track warrant back to the dispatcher when they leave dark territory. The town of Hallam not long ago was utterly destroyed by a tornado. All that was left was the power plant, at the dead end of dark territory.
In 1969, I went to Campbell County, Wyoming, with Floyd Elgin Dominy, who -- decades earlier -- had started his career there as a county agent advising ranchers, who were fighting severe and sustained drought, to build small dams and impound water in stock ponds. Dominy had risen to become U.S. Commissioner of Reclamation, the agency in the Department of the Interior which impounds water for as much as two hundred miles behind such constructions as Glen Canyon Dam, Grand Coulee Dam, Flaming Gorge Dam, Hoover Dam. Proudly, he drove the swelling grasslands of the high, dry range, while I scribbled airy notes about the “wide, expansive landscape, the beguiling patterns of perspective, the unending buttes, flat or nippled, spaced out to the horizon like stone chessmen.” The grasses stirred under the wind and the range seemed uninhabited farther than the eye could see, but the ranchers in 1969 were still tucked into the draws, and their cattle were drinking from a thousand ponds. Dominy had lived in a stone dugout with his wife and infant daughter. For heat and cooking, they had a coal-burning stove. Dominy dug the coal himself out of a hillside.
The Orin Line, known locally as the Coal Line, is in Campbell and Converse counties, Wyoming. It was cut through Thunder Basin National Grassland and now includes among its branches the branch to Black Thunder Mine. Where people like Dominy dug, by hand, coal that no one else much wanted, draglines the size of naval ships are exposing it now. On CTSBT, I mentioned that I meant to revisit Campbell County some day soon, to go where CTSBT goes, and to see the Powder River Basin (of which Thunder Basin is a part) as it has come to appear in the twenty-first century. Scott, who drives more than a million tons of coal from North Platte to Marysville per year, said he had never seen the source of the coal and had long been curious to go there. What was I doing “the day after tomorrow?” We could drive up to the Coal Line in his car and maybe catch a train into a mine. The mine turns in the southern Powder River Basin begin and end at Bill, Wyoming, and that was no big deal or distance from North Platte -- not much over three hundred miles.
In his Suburban, we were barely nine miles from his home when we approached the tracks at Birdwood, the west end of Bailey Yard. Lights flashed, gates dropped in front of us, and we watched the arriving headlight of a coal train. “Son of a bitch!” Scott complained. In no great hurry, the mile and a half of train went by, then a second son of a bitch came along before the first one cleared.
We went northwest on roads that were almost always close to tracks. Scott never looked at a map or paid much attention to road signs, but -- to see where he was -- he looked routinely at railroad mileposts. At another grade crossing, another coal train stopped us. We entered Wyoming in a freezing rain. In the B.N.S.F. yard at Guernsey were ten parallel coal trains. Through the rain, we saw sunlight on snow of the Laramie Range. Before long, the rain against our windshield turned into snow. North of Lightning Creek, the pump jacks of oil fields dotted the range. Bill had a regional school in a double-wide trailer, four kids in the school. As if Bill were pretending that it was not the only town in four thousand square miles, the school, the post office, the general store, and Dry Creek Community Hall were closely clustered. The post office, 82631, was boarded up, the Zip Code defunct. The town’s resident population was one -- the storekeeper. Sitting in Bill’s railroad yard as we arrived were eight miles of coal trains.
Scott arranged for us to deadhead on CCTBT, coming from St. Clair, Michigan, and going to Black Thunder Mine. The train was scheduled to leave Bill at seven-forty in the morning, with David L. Morgan, conductor, and Eric M. Renstrom, engineer. At seven-forty in the morning, we had all been waiting in the crew locker room for upward of an hour, but no call was forthcoming for CCTBT. An hour later, there had still been no call for CCTBT, or for any other train. About a dozen crewmen were waiting, gathering the minutes of their twelve hours. The dialogue might have been coming off a circular tape:
“Fucking CRZ -- can’t remember shit.”
“Today is National Pick-on-Tom Day.” “Shit. I can take it.”
“Fucking CRZ -- can’t remember shit.”
There was writing over a urinal in the grouting of a cinder-block wall: “Republicans Like to Cornhole Each Others + Wives + Chickens.” Some of the guys wore chains on their boots to deal with winter. There was a lot of Mephistophelian facial hair -- the caterpillar sideburns, the full beard, the mustache as bilateral semaphore.
Dave Morgan said, “Welcome to the Coal Line. Meaning you wait, and wait. Daytime dispatchers are a pain in the ass.” And he laughed. Then, referring to the day’s traffic, he added, “We’ve got about a hundred trains in here as we speak.” And he laughed. Dave was a big guy, handsome -- six-three -- with a cavernous voice; and the laugh was explosive, like a chain saw starting up. The saw had a problem in its fuel line, always choking out as abruptly as it started, as if he threw a switch in mid-yok. He wore jeans, a jean jacket. His thick brown hair was parted near the middle. He said he had waited in the locker room as much as eleven hours and thirty minutes to be called to a train.
Mary Ellen Sherwin, an engineer, came into the room. She had waited from 9:50 p.m. until 1:50 a.m. the night before, and had then driven a train to and from Belle Ayr Mine. Sixty- six years old with long white hair, she wore jeans, a jean jacket, and under her jacket a V- neck cotton sweater with horizontal grays and whites like the broadened stripes of a railroad hat from the days of steam. Addressing Dave Morgan, she remarked, “You asshole.”
Dave replied, “That’s Mister Asshole to you.” She said, “Where are you going?”
He said, “Thunder.”
He said, “Thunder.”
She had grown up on a ranch northeast of Bill, and now lived in Douglas, thirty-five miles south. She left for home.
When she had gone, Dave said, “They don’t make enough jeweller’s rouge to polish off her edges.”
After four hours, a crewman spoke of “waiting on the railroad, all the livelong day.” At ten-fifty- seven, the address system finally mentioned Dave’s and Eric’s train. Three minutes later, we were in the cab. At eleven-fifteen, we moved, into a whiteout fog.
If you would like to torture someone, either drip water on him for thirty-six hours or take him up the Coal Line. Eric stopped at a red signal where the yard tracks of Bill met the main roadbed. On a turn of ninety miles, we had travelled a train-length, a mile and a half. The dispatchers who were controlling the movements of every train on the line were in B.N.S.F.’s dispatching center in Fort Worth, Texas. Ours spoke often and even hopefully to Eric and Dave, but there was nothing she could do. The line belonged jointly to the two largest railroads in America, and so many coal trains from so many places were there to collect the coal that the congestion had gone critical and the line was arteriosclerotic. Not that we could see the other trains. For ninety minutes, we stared forward at two red dots in fog.
Dave Morgan said, “As long as we don’t see something going by us going into Thunder, we’re O.K.” Each train is a “slot.” Mine to mine on the Orin Line, railroads work out loading slots, like airlines sharing an airport. At twelve-fifty-eight, a light turned yellow and we moved. Looking up at the signal, Dave said, “You got to have faith that that son of a bitch ain’t lying to you, ha-haha-h . . .” and we slid onto the main, heading north up the leftmost of the three tracks under Centralized Traffic Control. And soon we were flying, or so it seemed, crossing the Dry Fork of the Cheyenne at twenty miles an hour.
The virtual voice of a trackside scanner addressed the interior of the cab, saying, “No dee fex. Temm purr ah choor fiff teen duh grees.” The fog densened. A headlight suddenly appeared in it and we were meeting a coal train coming down from Caballo, a small mine by Powder River standards, yet larger than every mine in the East. The train had made fifty-seven miles in ten and a half hours, but it was speeding up some and went by us in nine minutes.
The roadbed was visible enough, and Scott Davis remarked that we were looking at a state-of-the-art railroad -- triple track with crossovers, concrete ties, the ballast so neatly bevelled that it looked like a new driveway. Wood ties are still in use elsewhere, and are more flexible, but concrete ties are what you want if you are annually running over them four hundred million gross tons of coal trains. (Not readily visible was the great quantity of coal dust that had filled in the ballast and, in months to come, would cause a couple of derailments by impeding the drainage of unusual rains.)
At one-thirty, we were stopped again, for what turned out to be ninety minutes. We had gone seven miles. “Fluidity” is perhaps the most hallowed word in railroad operations. The Santa Monica Freeway between Sepulveda and La Cienega is more fluid than the Orin Line between Bill and Belle Ayr. Think of Bay Bridge traffic backed up to Sacramento, think bumper-to-bumper backward from the New Jersey Palisades to the Mississippi River. Dave and Eric, sitting back, had their legs draped across their consoles. I had to look over their toes to stare, and stare, and stare at the red signals, in every moment wanting and expecting them to turn. With C.T.C., the fog was only a symbolic factor. Dave said, “It feels like we’re all alone out here but we’ve probably got sixty to seventy trains on the tracks up ahead. This is what it’s like on the Coal Line. At least they didn’t fix you up with nothing bogus. Ha-ha-ha-h . . .”
Eric went out the rear door of the cab and along the catwalk to the second unit, where he picked up a TV dinner he was cooking in the heat between the turbo and the main engine block. Until recently a conductor, Eric was a new engineer. With a full helmet of light-brown hair, fine features, alert eyes, he resembled the film idol Robert Redford but was better-looking. As he ate, he said, slowly and quietly, “I still have to learn how to get a handle on the stress side of it, trying to find a happy medium between caring too much and too little.”
“We’re parked,” Dave said, his voice less optimistic than the trackside scanner’s. Turning to the economics of the situation, he added, “We’re really nothing. We’re pretty much the plankton of the whole picture. Ha- ha.”
An empty beaner drifted by -- EMHKBTM -- on its way from Tennessee to Black Thunder Mine. In other words, something was going by us going into Thunder. A beaner is a B.N.S.F. train. “E” for empty, in its B.N.S.F. seven-letter name. Beaners kept appearing: CCAMSLP, on its way from Caballo Mine to Smithers Lake, in Texas; ECEBATM, returning to Antelope Mine from a plant in southern Illinois that no longer uses Illinois coal. B.N.S.F. is made up of the collective remains of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, the Great Northern Railway, and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. A fallen flag is a railroad that no longer exists. In the eye of the beholder is whether B.N.S.F. is a streamlined modern enterprise or a bouquet of fallen flags. Either way, it is America’s second- longest railroad, and its recumbent flags also include Spokane, Portland and Seattle; Northern Pacific; and St. Louis-San Francisco, the old Frisco line.
If you develop a monopoly on the railroads in Monopoly, you are holding four fallen flags. Since the breakup of Conrail, in 1999, most of the old Eastern railroads are parts of Norfolk Southern or parts of CSX. Illinois Central is a fallen flag. It is part of Canadian National. These train mergers are like bluefish wars. Southern Pacific, which nearly merged with the Santa Fe, was consumed by Union Pacific in 1996. The modern Union Pacific is actually a consolidation of eight or ten railroads -- a network, and more like a communications grid than a straight-line railroad. Its antiquarium of fallen flags also includes the Missouri Pacific, the Western Pacific, the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad (Katy line), and the Chicago & North Western, which was struggling to build the Orin Line when U.P. came along with its mouth wide open. As Paul Fitzpatrick had summarized all this, “The U.P. went from a family-type company to a military-type company with the mergers, but we finally got them to think a little bit like what we think they should.”
Around 3 p.m., a loaded U.P. coal train, coming down from the Antelope Mine, went by us on the middle track. Of the two red dots we were staring at, one above the other, the upper one related to the track we were on. The lower one was there to indicate a diversion route. The lower one turned yellow but resembled gold. After Eric put the throttle in Notch 1, we actually moved, crossing over from Track 3 to Track 2.
Traced from a map, the Coal Line has the raceme structure of a bluebell or a lily of the valley, as dainty an image as nature can provide for a stem whose flowers are coal mines. Black Thunder Junction, 5:45 p.m., nineteen degrees, dark, snowing.
Eight miles into Black Thunder, the branch line ended in a great loop, where the long train would pass through a loading silo while swinging around to go back the other way. Going into Thunder, we approached a switch that was closed but should have been open. What to do? Leaving the cab, Dave said, “I go over and flop the switch. This is known as a one-eyed crossover.”
Crossed over, we soon stopped, as ordered, near a footbridge, before going over a scale. The snow was heavy now, like bugs filling up our headlight beam, but through the swarm we could see the silo, as large as a twenty- five-story office building, sheathed in light. Eric took the lead locomotive over the scale at 1.5 miles per hour, then went up to 3.5 for the rest of the train. Reading the tare weights on a screen in the cab, Dave said, “This is a pretty consistent consist.” While the hoppers behind us were crossing the scale, we went under a conveyor belt that was carrying coal from a remote pit into the silo complex. The belt was three miles long. From nearer pits, coal was being brought in by haul trucks too large to share the name with anything else called a truck. Their tires looked the way bagels would look to a virus. Black Thunder was working four pits, and the whole spread of it was far too extensive to be comprehended from a train, but Scott Davis and I had driven around the basin after we arrived.
The mines were mapped in blocks: “West Overburden. Middle Overburden. East Overburden. Coal.” The pits were excavated canyons. They were a couple of hundred feet deep and two and three miles long. The walking draglines gnawing at the overburden needed tall rigid masts to help support their four-chord booms. They were eight stories tall and weighed four hundred tons. Their booms were hundreds of feet long. Like the locomotives that would haul the coal away, the walking draglines required electric power. Their walk was a saurian heave, an exponential lurch, friction smoke rising from the ground around them. As they walked-dug- walked-dug their way up the coal seams, their tails dragged along behind them. The tails were cables six inches thick delivering electrical power made with coal to draglines digging coal. We saw three D11 bulldozers shoving overburden to the edge of a canyon and over the side, going back for more overburden, and returning to the lip, always stopping a foot or two short of a two-hundred- foot plunge.
Scott said, “I thought railroads were dangerous, but, man, these coal mines are really dangerous.” In the presence of nineteen-thousand-ton trains, three-hundred- ton haul trucks, and hundred-ton bulldozers moving on unstable ground, blasts are routine and rocks fall like bombs.
“Those big trucks could back over a pickup and not even know it,” Scott said. The pickups knew it. They carried whip antennas twenty feet high with bright-red lights at the top.
The faces of the canyon walls were for the most part jet black -- beds of coal eight to ten stories thick. With distance westward toward the Bighorns, the seams go deeper under the overburden. In fifty more years of westward digging and filling, the seams may be too deep to mine, at least in the way that they are mined now. At that point, the Powder River Basin will still contain -- at the rate of sixty loaded coal trains a day -- enough coal for two hundred years. It began as peat in Paleocene bogs about sixty million years before the present.
We had seen old ranch buildings falling into the ground, and a few cattle standing up. A sign: “Livestock at Large.” Windmills were still pumping water for cattle. To the horizons, there were no trees. Deer and antelope were everywhere at play, much too young to care what had happened to the range.
About six months before the present, I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Red Mars,” a heralded work of science fiction that describes the colonization and mineral exploitation of the fourth planet. Robinson’s characters excavate Mars with backhoes, front-end loaders, tractors, graders, and “one John Deere/Volvo Martian bulldozer, hydrazine-powered, thermally protected, semiautonomous, fully programmable.” There are “giant dump trucks . . . full of black boulders.”
“ ‘Monsters like this are all over the planet,’ he said to Nadia. . . . ‘Cutting, scraping, digging, filling . . .’ “
The monsters are “equipped to be teleoperated from indoor stations, their decision algorithms handling the details,” while human operators peer at screens.
“ ‘Watch your screens, you lazy bastards!’ “
Colonials from “rich northern countries” mine the Great Escarpment and “the island mesas of Nilosyrtis.” One of their pits is “a kilometer in diameter, seven kilometers deep.” They use the “Allied hydraulic impact hammer,” and they “drill cased holes through large boulders” with the Sandvik Tubex boring machine.
“The train to Burroughs carried mostly freight, thirty narrow cars of it . . . running over a superconducting magnetic piste.” Between Earth and Mars, strings of orbiting vehicles, also called trains, come and go in “a continuous procession” run by “a large force of local traffic controllers.”
And now CCTBT was about to turn into CBTCT. Its nose was close to the silo. It was moving steadily at .4 miles per hour. Scott Davis and I went out of the cab and back along the catwalk in the noise and the snow, stepping over to the second unit, and continuing along its catwalk to the far end, because the second unit was facing backward. We got into the cab there and watched. Next to us was the first of a hundred and thirty-four empty hoppers. The looming silo was something like a grain elevator, reaching out with great arms to the crushers that supplied it. Moving inside, the lead locomotives passed three control booths, whose bay windows were not entirely black with dust. As the first hopper drew abreast of a booth, a pair of steel sheets was lowered from above, coffering the interior of the car in the way that a dentist places baffles around a tooth he’s about to fill. Then coal dropped, explosively, between the sheets. A hundred and fifteen measured tons fell into the gondola in one second. A six-kiloton cloud shot up into the silo’s black interior. Under the crash of coal, the aluminum gondola staggered, wrenched downward, and looked as if it might flatten. From above, the baffles were lifted. The coal in the hopper was maybe five feet above the rims, a calculated fluff that would settle down. At .4 miles per hour, the second gondola was now in position. The baffles came down, and the coal fell. Crunch, cloud, and the next car was in position. Emerging from the silo on a slight curve, we watched twenty cars totter in the dust under the weight of falling coal before the interior of the silo passed out of sight, with more than a mile of gondolas to follow.
We were scarcely eastbound off the loop when Dave’s and Eric’s time, under the hours-of-service law, ran out. Eric stopped the loaded coal train. We all descended. A fresh crew got on, and the van that had brought them carried us away, past a very large sign that said:
THUNDER BASIN COAL COMPANY Welcome to BLACK THUNDER MINE Don’t get caught in the web of unsafe acts
In the Powder River Basin, a congestion of trains may be tedious while you’re in it, the railroading seemingly inefficient, but that is just an illusion lit up in red signals. The place is not as organized as an anthill, no; but it is something like one. From the mines along the Orin Line, twenty-three thousand coal trains annually emerge -- that is, about thirty- four thousand miles of rolling coal, going off as units to become carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, water, ash, and heat, and to air-condition a population so needful of comfort that the demand for the coal is greater in summer than in winter.
Here is one example chosen not at random but for its distance and size: Coming and going, loaded and empty, thirty-five sets -- thirty-five dedicated unit coal trains -- are in almost perpetual motion between the Powder River Basin and Georgia’s Plant Scherer, twenty miles from Macon. There is a loop at each end, eighteen hundred miles between. Owned by a consortium led by Georgia Power, Plant Scherer, in megawatts produced, is the largest coal-fired power plant in the Western Hemisphere. It pays more than anyone else for the transportation of Powder River coal, and not long ago B.N.S.F. snatched the contract from Union Pacific.
Trains with names like CBTMMHS go down to Guernsey and then cross Nebraska and drop through Missouri to the Ozarks, where they
test tonnage versus horsepower on 1.5-per- cent grades. B.N.S.F. had to lengthen its sidings and fix up its track for the coal trains, as did Norfolk Southern, which absorbs the trains at Memphis. New crews take their turns from Memphis to Sheffield, and Sheffield to Chattanooga, and Chattanooga to Atlanta’s Inman Yard. The run from Inman and back to Inman via Lamar County is known inside the trains as the Scherer turn.
By the grade crossing in Juliette, Georgia, a fried-green-tomato sandwich is as good as it is famous at the Whistle Stop Cafe. On a freezing winter day, when the temperatures in Georgia were not much milder than they were in Wyoming, I had a fried-green-tomato sandwich for lunch with my longtime friend Sam Candler, of Sharpsburg, Georgia, and Joe Fulford, a Norfolk Southern trainmaster, and Adam Crate, whose title was Road Foreman of Engines.
Close to the Ocmulgee River, Juliette is a hamlet in the pinewoods -- a cluster of houses near the grade crossing by the trackside cafe. In the early nineteen-nineties, the town flashed with borrowed vividness after Hollywood used it as an on-location set for a memoir that included a steam locomotive coming through the pines and killing a young man whose foot had been caught and wedged in the rails near the Whistle Stop Cafe, which looks to this day as it did in the movie.
I was still enjoying my fried-green species of BLT when the nose of a locomotive appeared in a window and stopped. Its presence in this place was no less incongruous than the appearance of Chief Red Cloud at New York’s Cooper Union to deliver an address in Sioux. Instead of a modest Norfolk Southern locomotive, there from the mountain West on this antebellum single track sat Burlington Northern Santa Fe 5639, color of reddish wheat, with seven thousand feet of coal behind it in the trees. Lee Stuckey was the engineer, Brian Nix the conductor -- Inman to Inman, the Scherer turn. On a yellow slip above Lee Stuckey’s head were the initials of Black Thunder Mine.
Over wooden ties, we went down through the loblollies in a narrow series of S curves, the trees so tight to the train that on this clear day visibility from the cab did not extend much farther than it had in the fog in Wyoming. More forest curves eventually led to a long left where we could look back at the beginnings of CBTMMHS’s hundred and twenty-four cars. Then, to our left, we passed a long yard with five parallel tracks, where five coal trains could, if necessary, be parked, or “staged,” waiting to advance and drop their coal at Plant Scherer. That should have suggested the dimensions of the scene to follow, but the significance of the yard did not really register with me, and the surprise was near total when we bent around a long curve and the dense curtain of pines seemed to open theatrically from left to right, revealing a loop of track at least a mile in circumference around an infield filled with a million tons of coal (earthmovers and bulldozers crawling like insects on the coal), and, on the far side of the loop, a trestle forty feet in the air and eight hundred feet long, and behind the trestle a pair of rectangular buildings a quarter of a mile over the ground and close to three hundred feet high but dwarfed beneath the overbearing immensity of four hyperbolic cooling towers that came into view one at a time, their broad flared rims five hundred feet above the ground, and two smokestacks a thousand feet high, reaching above the scene like minarets. It was an electrical Xanadu in homage to a craven need, its battlements emitting cumuli of steam.
After being switched to the right at the top of the loop, we started around it counterclockwise. Coal trains are so heavy that they are routed through the loop in alternate directions, to distribute the assault on the track. In the infield to our left were five hundred acres of Campbell County, Wyoming, fifty feet deep -- the million-ton reserve known at Plant Scherer as the “pile.” CBTMMHS circumscribed the pile until -- close by Plant Scherer -- it stopped at the head of the unloading trestle, which extended before it between rows of bright lights. This train had left Wyoming five days ago. Plant Scherer would burn everything in it in less than eight hours.
Sam and I descended from the cab, the better to watch the unloading. Like the New Jersey Turnpike high over the Meadowlands, the trestle was supported on concrete croquet wickets that divided the space below it into twenty-one bays. Between yellow railings, the red-orange locomotive began to move onto the trestle, followed by stainless hoppers heaped with coal. Bin doors opened in the bottom of the first car, and, in three or four seconds, down through the trestle fell a hundred and fifteen tons of coal. The sound was nearly as explosive as the sound of the filling had been in Wyoming. At some plants, coal cars are rolled over -- literally flipped on swivel couplings -- but such rotary dumping, spectacular as it may be, is too slow for a place like Plant Scherer, which Jeremy Taylor, an authority on coal trains, has called “the most efficient unloading operation in the country,” with its trestle, its electric contact points, its compressed-air opening of the hopper doors. The train was moving at three miles an hour, and the cars were unloading like sticks of bombs. The coal was mounding in the bays. As each load began to drop, a geyser of dust shot upward from the car. Down in the bays, the dust coming off the fallen coal spread out in a thick black cloud. There were sprayers to diminish the dust but the sprayers were frozen. Sam had radically changed. His face had blackened. His beard was much younger. Now the locomotive stopped hard to shake up frozen coal. In the bays of the trestle, mountains quickly grew, and big yellow Cats did what they could to smooth them. As coal floods the bays, it can fill them high enough to derail the train. After the locomotive had gone far past the end of the trestle, the cars kept coming and the geysers kept rising. The uncontrollable dust far below had the look of an occurring disaster, the spreading clouds dark and flat as if they were derived from incendiary bombs.
Plant Scherer can unload a coal train in thirty minutes but seldom does. If Plant Scherer takes more than four hours to unload a coal train, it pays Norfolk Southern a demurrage fee. Norfolk Southern, for its part, has seventy hours to get the train from the Mississippi River to Plant Scherer and back, or Norfolk Southern pays a demurrage fee. Cars may have to be set out because of freezing -- hopper doors frozen, the coal in solid blocks like frozen peas.
Coal under the trestle in forty-foot dunes soon filled all twenty-one bays. Sprinklers were finally thawed. A rainbow hung in a drifting black cloud. Like a chambered nautilus, the train had come back upon itself and was now completely annular. At the far side of the great loop, the lead locomotive was all but touching the hoppers that were still arriving.
Under the trestle, a chute was carrying the coal off to be crushed and then pulverized and then mixed with air for immediate burning, in the way that an automobile engine mixes air with gasoline and explodes the vapor. Pulverization helps make it possible to burn the coal at a temperature low enough to limit nitrous oxide, and the fireballs don’t get much hotter than three thousand degrees. The heat, of course, boils water -- eighty-one million gallons of Ocmulgee River water a day -- in boilers twenty-five stories tall. Steam from the boiling water turns four generators lined up in a single room a quarter of a mile long.
Damon Woodson, a mechanical engineer at Plant Scherer who had worked in a nuclear power plant, said, “I never really understood nuclear until I came here.” That million-ton pile on reserve in the train loop was equivalent to one truckful of mined uranium, he said. “The way to go is nuclear if you want to have power. To get a million BTUs, fuel oil costs nine dollars, natural gas six dollars, coal a dollar-eighty-five, nuclear fifty cents. We’ll see how it all turns out.”
Plant Scherer burns nearly thirteen hundred coal trains a year -- two thousand miles of coal cars, twelve million tons of the bedrock of Wyoming. It unloads, on average, three and a half coal trains a day. On a wall inside the plant are pictures of yellow finches, turkey vultures, and other local wildlife on Plant Scherer’s twelve thousand acres of land. Asked why Plant Scherer needs twelve thousand acres (six miles by three miles), Woodson answered readily, “Because we are thinking of expanding.”
(This is the second part of a two-part article.)