Once Upon A Railroad

Stationmaster Frank Gergley delivers “strict orders” to a trainman aboard locomotive #1776 running as common manifest train #78 as it passes through Ft. Collins, Colorado, in the summer of 1976. This Burlington Northern owned locomotive was painted in patriotic colors in celebration of the nation’s bicentennial. The trainman holds his arm out so that it will pass through a loop of string upon which the train orders are tied. The string is looped around a “train order wye stick” being held by Mr. Gergley. If you click on the picture to see a larger image you will notice that Mr. Gergley is holding another wye stick in his right hand. This is so that he can deliver orders to the conductor when the caboose goes by.

It seems that everything to do with railroading is dangerous in some way or other. Surely the occupations of locomotive engineers, brakemen, track-men, or any of the other lines of work having to do with the rolling stock or maintenance of the rails upon which trains run are among the most dangerous of all occupations.

All of the dangers trainmen are daily exposed to occur inside a corridor only 4′-81/2” wide. In the United States such is the width between the inside edges of a set of “standard gauge” railroad tracks. Everything, it seems, is made of big pieces of heavy steel, and because of the heaviness, everything that is moving is moving with an almost unstoppable inertia. Everything, it seems, will hurt you bad or even kill you if you are not on your guard all the time. It is a very dangerous business.

Few are the locomotive engineers with time in service of more than just a few years that have not suffered the misfortune of staring helplessly through the front window of their cab as their train plowed straight into the side of a vehicle of some type, almost always seriously injuring or even killing everyone inside the thing.

Having had the experience of riding in the cab of a locomotive at different times, observing engineers at work, I can tell you it is not an occupation for the faint of heart. Seeing vehicles stopped on the track or attempting to beat the train at a crossing is as common a sight to an engineer as the sight of dirt is to a farmer. Almost without fail, on every run over a mainline track an engineer will be faced at least once with a decision about whether to attempt an emergency stop in order to keep from striking a vehicle at a crossing, or to leave the throttle set as it is and continue. There is no in-between. They do not throttle back in an effort to give a crossing vehicle an extra quarter or half second. They are always far too close to the endangered object for such an action to make one iota of difference, there is too much inertia, with few exceptions such a thing is not done. They either soldier on and hope for the best or they “dynamite” the thing, and still hope for the best.

“Dynamite” is a term used by some railroaders to say that a train has been placed in an emergency stop condition. One would say: “He dynamited the thing but …”  The word “but” is often followed by the words “it was too late” or, “it didn’t do any good.”

So that you can have sufficient knowledge to fully understand events I will tell you about later in this story I will briefly digress to explain in general terms how a train is propelled along a track, as well as how one is placed in an emergency stop condition.

A modern locomotive is powered by a diesel engine that drives an electrical generator which in turn provides current to electrically driven “traction” motors located down near the very bottom of the unit that, through a geared mechanism, turn the locomotive driving wheels. The amount of power applied is controlled by a horizontally positioned lever that is moved forward by the engineer through notches that are numbered from one through eight. Eight is the fastest setting. When an engineer has the throttle in number eight he is said to be “highballin’ it.”

When a train is placed in an emergency stop condition by an engineer the following chain of events is set into motion nearly simultaneously:

1) The polarity of electrical current being fed to the traction motors is reversed, thereby turning them into power generators that make energy instead of use it. The electrical current, and resulting heat, thus produced by the traction motors on account of the momentum of the slowing, but still moving, train is dissipated through a series of mesh grids. The grids are cooled by giant fans that suck air through them to expel the heat through the top of the locomotive housing. Think of them as giant hair driers on steroids. This process is called “dynamic braking.” A train utilizing dynamic braking will emit a very loud humming sound. It is a very distinctive sound. Dynamic braking is used to slow the train in the ordinary course of train operations as well. You will often hear it when a train runs along a downgrade.

2) The “air” is released in one sudden gush. You may have heard the term “he set the air” and might have thought that meant the engineer was applying the brakes by the use of air that he controls through a running compressor. That is not the case. It is just the opposite. Here I will digress a second time to better explain how air-brakes operate:

A train, before it can move, has to literally be “pumped up.” You may have noticed the heavy rubber hoses hanging off each end of train cars, one connected to another on the next car in line and so on. These hoses and associated piping under the train cars are in place to provide high pressure air to dual action pneumatic piston/cylinder and linkage assemblies on each truck on each car in the train to provide braking action when needed. It is a “fail safe” system that operates just exactly opposite to what most people would think the process should be. In short, as long as air pressure is maintained throughout the length of the train the brake shoes are held off of the wheels and it will roll freely. When air pressure is lost by a failure in the system or is intentionally released by the engineer the brakes shoes will set against the wheels and the train will come to a stop. Eventually. This ingenious system is called the “Westinghouse Air-brake System” and has been in use on trains in the United States since the 1870s. The next time you hear a sudden very loud gush of air coming from a train you will know that the air brakes have been “set” – most likely full on.

Now, continuing with another item in the chain of events:

3) Though the main (white) headlight is always illuminated when a locomotive engine is moving, during an emergency stop procedure a red spotlight that is located just below the main headlight will illuminate. The red light is aptly named an “emergency light.”  You should not be standing in the middle of a railroad track or sitting in a vehicle astride one at a crossing in the first place, but if you happen to be so situated, and you see that red light, there is a pretty good chance it is the last thing you will ever see. Remember that.

4) The engineer actuates the trains air horn and allows it to run continuously until the danger is past or … Remember that too.

Returning to my narrative, though to date at least, a red train emergency light has not been the last view I have witnessed, or the sound of a train horn the last thing I have heard, I have in fact had the unpleasant experience of seeing and hearing them in operation.

Sometime during the late autumn of 1976 I was employed by the Colorado & Southern Railroad as one of eight track supervisors responsible for inspecting a considerable portion of the companies rails and other roadbed equipment to insure the components fell within specifications set forth by the Federal Railroad Administration.

Though my total area of responsibility also included auxiliary tracks running to Leadville, Golden, and Greeley, Colorado, my main responsibility lay with continuously inspecting the mainline running from Denver, Colorado, to Cheyenne, Wyoming. At the time I lived in Ft. Collins, Colorado, which is a little north of halfway between Denver and Cheyenne. During the regular course of a work week my partner, Manual Garcia, and I would carry out our inspection duties by traveling southbound in a hi-rail truck over the line from Ft. Collins to Denver and return via I-25. On the following day we would run the line to Cheyenne and return south to Ft. Collins by the same interstate.

During our inspection tour we would watch for things developing that needed ordinary maintenance, such as sagging rails through habitually soggy areas, cross-ties that had deteriorated to the point of needing to be replaced, too many loose spikes in too small of a stretch of track, and a myriad of other maintenance items. Our main concern however was to watch for items that posed an immediate danger to the rolling stock; things that could lead to a derailment; such as broken rails, sun kinks, washouts, broken angle bars or bars that had worked loose and fallen off, and a host of other things that could cause trouble.

At the time the Colorado & Southern ran two regularly scheduled common manifest freight trains over the mainline. Train #77 ran from Houston Texas to Seattle Washington, and Train #78 ran the opposite direction from the same cities. Though they ran northbound and southbound through the region Manuel and I were responsible for, they were considered westbound and eastbound trains. Train #77 was considered westbound, Train #78 was considered eastbound.

Having only recently been promoted to the position of track supervisor, it may have been that my eagerness to learn all about my new job by asking questions of Manual about this numbering and direction system at the wrong place and time, led to confusion that helped to setup a chain of events that resulted in a near disaster for us, a train crew, and a bright green hi-rail truck. An account of the event follows.

We were on the mainline traveling out of Ft. Collins bound for Cheyenne running about fifteen miles per hour, and just as as we descended a slight downgrade a little north of the community of Wellington, Colorado, there, in a curved section of the track Manuel spotted a couple of bolts lying in the center of the roadbed that had worked loose from a set of angle bars. This was a common occurrence that we often saw as many as three or four times a day. Sometimes we would stop and re-insert the bolts and tighten them up ourselves, or at other times we would call out a track gang to take care of it. It all depended on how far away the track gang was, what they might be doing that day, when the next train was due through the area and so on.

In this case, on this day, we knew we had a train due out of Ft. Collins sometime during the morning so we stopped to re-insert the bolts. As it happened I had been driving the hi-rail and Manuel had been attempting to communicate with the train by radio. It was well beyond the “call time” for the train and Manuel had already expressed some concern to me about not being able to raise it in spite of several attempts. He was well familiar with how well the radio worked at different places throughout the entire span from Denver to Cheyenne and knew that he should have been able to reach them if they were, in fact, underway.

Train #77 that is. That is if he were actually calling for Train #77. He wasn’t. He was calling for Train #78, a train that was not even “called” at that point and most likely wouldn’t be until sometime in the late afternoon, after the one he should have been calling, Train #77, had arrived in Cheyenne.

Bolts missing from an angle bar just such as this one prompted Manual to tell me to stop our hi-rail vehicle so that we could replace them. Notice that the bolts alternate directions so that two of them are always facing a different direction for each end of the ends of the rails they connect. This is done to insure that only two bolts stand a chance of being clipped off in the event a set of trucks derails causing the wheels to run alongside the rail rather than on it. If the angle bars were not bolted on in this pattern there is some chance the derailed wheels could clip off the nut end of all four bolts rather than just two. Though not desirable, one bolt in each rail end will hold the rail string together.

Though Manuel had reservations and felt sure something was wrong he instructed me to stop so that we could insert the bolts, tighten them, and be on our way. In this case I had driven past the rail section that we needed to repair, stopped the truck, left the motor running, got out, leaving my door open as we always did, and stepped around to the back of the truck. Manuel, for his part retrieved a long handle “speed wrench” from the back of the truck and met me where I was standing so that we could re-insert the bolts and tighten them up.

Just as we set to work Manuel said, “I sure wish I could raise that train, I just don’t understand it.” Those words were immediately interrupted by a loud hum, the sound of a huge gush of air, a train horn blowing continuously, a view of dust and rocks being blown out from under a fast moving train with a bright red emergency light illuminated, not more than two or possibly three hundred feet away. During the course of all of those sights and sounds I managed to shout, “Never mind, there it is!”

I have no idea what Manuel said or did in the next instant because I was already well on my way to the truck. In the next instant I had clambered in, put the thing in gear and had begun feathering the accelerator to get the thing up to speed. This is a touchy thing to do given that most of the weight of the truck is on the hi-rail wheels rather than on the regular driving wheels. If I had tromped on the accelerator too hard the wheels would have simply spun and I would have just sat there. That was not what I had in mind at that moment in my life. Fortunately the truck began to move right away so I continued to nurse the accelerator as far down as I could get it without risking any slippage. All the while I  sat slightly crosswise in the seat holding the door open while looking back at the approaching train.

The human brain is a marvelous thing. It is downright uncanny how well we humans can discern the slightest change in the velocity of a moving object, or perhaps better said, the velocities of moving objects. I don’t know how many things we can track and analyze at once but I know for sure than we can do a pretty good job of tracking at least two of them for that is exactly what I was doing as I accelerated the hi-rail up to speed.

I had made up my mind the instant I headed for the truck that I would try to save the thing by running it up the track out of reach of the train, but I wasn’t going to risk bodily injury if I had to bail out. I knew that if I didn’t let the train get too – too close to me before bailing out, and if I hadn’t gotten to going too fast in the hi-rail, I would be okay because the train would just knock the truck up-track from me. It would have probably derailed and gotten all torn up, but I would just tumble along the ditch a little ways and be fine. All the crashing would be up-track of me so to speak.

Over the course of a few seconds I accelerated the truck while watching the train get closer and closer. I don’t know what speed I got up to, all I know is that I felt like I was within reasonably safe jumping speed, probably no more than twelve or maybe as much as fifteen miles per hour. The train, slowing all the time but still going faster than I was, edged up to within about eight or ten feet of me, which by the way, was just about exactly all I felt like I should tolerate. I was set to jump. Then! I detected the slightest widening of the gap between us and knew I had him beat! Life is good.

I never did see the train stop, I simply motored on up the track a mile or so to a road crossing, stopped, got out and raised the hi-rail wheels up, got back in and drove the truck off of the track and onto the intersecting road. In a little while the train came along at ten miles per hour or so, and the engineer leaned out of the cab and made a swiping motion across his forehead with the palm of his hand. It continued slowly on until the caboose which Manuel had caught a ride on came by. Just as it passed over the road crossing he stepped off, and the conductor riding in the cupola of the caboose leaned out the side window, smiled real big, and threw a roll of toilet paper out to me.


On the surface one might say the action I took was a foolish thing to do. Maybe, maybe not; in some ways it was just another day on the railroad. During the three years I worked for the Colorado & Southern I experienced a number of close calls. On one occasion, while working a big train wreck in the middle of a blizzard, in the middle of the night, a wrecked flat car stacked up in a pyramid with another wrecked car fell to the ground not five feet from me. In the same night, while walking down the track checking the gage of the rails I was nearly run over by a car that was being “dropped” downhill into Loveland, Colorado. “Dropped” means to be let go to run freely along the track. Train crews are familiar enough with their territory to know where a dropped car will come to a stop. It would be a good idea for them to let someone know when they are going to do such a thing. Incidentally, for those of you that like to walk along a track on a hike or some such activity like that, DON’T DO IT.  A train will slip up on you before you know it.

On another occasion I barely made a siding and got the switch thrown back to the mainline before a fast freight came barreling by. If that thing had run in on me you wouldn’t be reading this story. That one was all my fault.

There were a couple of other incidents along the way; the excitement those events provided was all about the same so there’s no need to dwell upon it and write out separate reports; you pretty much get the idea, railroading is a very dangerous business!