Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Sleepless in the Saddle

How does one operate on a near total lack of rest?  I'm doing semi-formal research into the possible outcomes of not actually sleeping for a couple of days in a row...not because it's a particularly smart thing to do but mostly because I've got too much going on to stuff it all into the waking 'real world'.  This entry is a product of that decidedly non-scientific study.

My latest experiment in sleep deprivation began last evening when I was departing my away-from-home-terminal (which by the way, the railroad abbreviates in the military/industrial fashion as the AFHT).  I can't decide if it should be spelled phonetically to be correct or maybe pronounced AFF-HAT, A-FAT or AH-F**K-THAT but the point is, it's a location where I spend a fair amount of time.  Sometimes an unfair amount of time as well but that's another story.  It's easiest to think of the one I stay at most frequently as a large, industrial storage shed where the carrier shelves the warm bodies it may use someday to crew a train.  It's a great place to see in the rear-view mirror.

Remember, I'm really tired so bear with me while I wander...

The usual pre-trip gyrations of a van ride to the office, assorted phone calls, computer and paperwork etc. eventually led us to a waiting train parked just outside the terminal sometime earlier that afternoon.  A relatively small and light piece of work as these things go, it idled quietly in the sun tempting me to think of other days when "run it like ya stole it" actually meant something.  The old and tattered lead engine got the evil eye of suspicion from both my conductor and myself but unfortunately you don't get to pick 'em, you just get to run 'em.  Nothing seemed obviously wrong except the crummy paint job and a strong scent of hot chemicals from the old toilet down in the nose.  It would be dark soon so the paint would look better and open windows at track speed would blow the reek of 'eau-de-blue-stuff' out in a mile or two.  Bad feelings aside, up go the grips and within minutes, off we go.

A short while later, a call from our seldom-heard but invariably-breathless dispatcher told of an opposing train out of the north with a crew on short-time in danger of running out of working hours at an inconvenient location.  He inquired as to our ability to make "a good run" of about 25 miles to a siding to allow the southbound to pass without slowing it down.  Do I hear opportunity knocking?  This bodes well for our trip because many dispatchers won't take the chance of letting you out in front of a short-timer.  It's easier and safer to just hold you were you sit and let the hot one come to you.  The bad side of that is that sitting a little too much can and often does lead to yet another crew (mine) running out of time somewhere ugly later on.  The fact that we might die on our hours is irrelevant for the moment however because by the time we do, the current button-pusher will be drinking beer on the deck and we'll be the next guy's problem.  C'est la vie.

But back to the story..."A good run" as I learned long ago is railroad vernacular for "haul ass" and the implication is that nobody will say much as long as you don't break anything expensive or do anything that involves lawyers.  This feat must be accomplished without speeding at any time of course lest much time be spent mowing the lawn and pestering a union rep. to get your job back.  It's really not about going fast anyway, it's more about not going slow.  Doing it right requires paying close attention to running 'on the numbers' and not spending any excess time taking in the scenery.  I allowed to the voice on the radio that if he lit the lights and lined us up, I'd give it the old college try.  Before he finished chatting on the radio, the throttle was all the way back and the amp meter on the way up.  Let the good times roll.

When handed a rare chance to run hot, it's almost like a flashback to the way I was originally taught way back when.  Some of the old-head engineers from whom learned this craft were veterans of passenger service or mail trains and they wanted you on the dot or above all the time.  I learned to slide into speed restrictions on the air brakes and yank back out as the marker crossed the line lest I receive a hide-peeling for sloppy train handling.  That speedometer hand was always in the corner of my eye because if the man said 50, he meant 50, not 49 and not 51.  It was good training.

I also learned a thing or two about stopping as well as going.  I found that a planned stop more than half a car-length from a selected target was grounds for humiliation or outright abuse.  To make the conductor step sideways to reach the grab irons was characterized as being cruelly negligent to the offended ground-pounder.  One guy was embarrassed enough to actually apologize to the waiting outbound crew when I blew a 'station stop' and the handrails failed to come to rest directly in front of the engineer's shoes.  Times have changed but I still have nightmares of those days.

Remembering my upbringing, I got my eyes inside the cab and on the gauges to give it a run for the roses.  It was actually kind of fun.  The train handled like a string of coaches and we were eating up miles.  The fly in the ointment came when I kicked off the brakes and got the throttle all the way back coming out of a curve.  I saw the amp meter start climbing as it followed the throttle but suddenly it quivered to a stop at about 300.  This is bad.  It should be nearly 800 or more at this speed and we're not accelerating one bit.  Visions of those grouchy old Erie men flashed before my eyes.  A glance in the mirror was even less encouraging.  The train behind the first two cars was completely obscured by a wall of greasy looking black smoke drooling out of the exhaust stack where there should only be heat-ripples blasting straight up.  It's always something but the timing was exceedingly poor on this occasion.

I begin trying to think of what I'll say to the DS while I run through all the options of what-in-the-hell could be wrong now?  When everything runs on software, the options are pretty limited.  The rat-trap of a leader has betrayed me when I needed it most and was about to make a liar out of me.  My vocabulary across the cab degenerated into that of the legendary drunken sailor or worse, a henpecked trainmaster at his fourth derailment of the week.

Fortunately for the remainder of the trip, I had two units but the second was shut down to save fuel and to start it now would require a complete stop and lost time while I get it fired up.  Decisions, decisions.  Keep going at what now looks like a slow crawl at best or come to a standstill long enough to boot up the computer and light the fires in engine number two?  Either one will blow any currency I had with the Second Trick Dispatcher when his southbound outlaws because I stuck a cork in the bottle right in his face.  Bad things may come of this.

In the background, questions are racing.  Who's idea was it to build engines you have to go outside to start anyway?  Why can't I do this from all the gee-whiz computers these things have?  Do pilots climb out on the wing to crank up another engine or check the power output?  Nooo...they have switches and meters INSIDE for such things.  They don't even risk sending the co-pilot out on such a mission once wheels are turning and engines are burning.  But not us...we have to chance sending the left-seater on a wobbly dance down the walkway to the other cab to push the buttons.  That's if the guy knows how to set up all the breakers and switches in the first place.  Some do, some don't, some do but won't.  Or, you just hang out the anchor and stop long enough to crank it over yourself.  Like I said, it's always something.

By sheerest dumb luck, just as the last poke at the computer screen behind my seat yielded no results and the radio call that would ruin the afternoon for at least five guys and banish me to sidings for months was taking shape in my head, the choice was made for me.  The red-hot coal man got whacked by a defect detector, had to slow to 30 mph and that was all she wrote.  His fate now sealed no matter what I did or didn't do, the pressure was off.  The dispatcher gave me an atta-boy for the effort (without knowing how close it was to working out somewhat differently) and so all was well.  We stumbled to a stop as the loads of soon-to-be-outlawed coal passed into the siding next to us to wait for another crew and another try.  The second unit of our train dutifully lit off on my request and after a minor tussle with it's Windows Embedded operating system, announced itself ready for the rest of the evening's labors.  Sometimes I miss engines with controls that would respond to a tap with a vice-grip or reset with a little prodding from a flag-stick but then I suppose re-booting is really about the same thing.  Somehow though, it's less gratifying even when it occasionally works.

Let's leave this little adventure by saying the ride the rest of the way home was something less than a picnic but then, sometimes that's the way of things.  Trains are usually tiring even on a good day and this one was only more so.  I arrived at the new Wayward Home about daybreak and loaded the coffee machine.  This at least did not require a re-boot to accomplish.  I had plans for a Tour de Cure scouting expedition in the morning so what do I do?  Stay up and keep on pushing.

Thus my experiment is still in full swing.  It's now been a tad over 24 hours and my fingers are starting to have a hard time finding the keys on the laptop.  Luckily, I'm not on-call and have a couple of days to recover while I get Son the First graduated from high school.  That's the Next Big Thing and I'm looking forward to seeing the big lug do the walk.  I'll probably have slept by then and with any luck, will be able to function like a human again.  Hope so because my inlaws are coming over.

Until then, let the path of science go forward!  Nothing is gained without sacrifice!  Blah, blah, blah, etc.

The hell with sleeping...I'm going for a ride.

1 comment:

Tim Joe said...

Awesome Post, Wayward. Stress and mishap seems to be the spice that keeps it interesting.

Please give #1 Son congratulations from the TPC.

And congratulations to you for getting him there. It ain't easy.