It's another dark and rainy day at the Wayward Home. And I mean pouring-straight-down, all-day-soaker, enough-is-enough-already rainy. It's the last gasp of tropical storm Lee blowing itself out and dumping half the Gulf of Mexico into my swimming pool. There's flooding all over the area and travel is getting a bit tricky even for vehicles. The first day of school in my district is closing early due to high water and closed roads. There's no bicycle weather in sight. It's a great day for ducks and bloggers.
Looking out the back door at my overflowing pool I've reached a conclusion. Since I'm old and have certain prerogatives befitting a man of my advanced age, I've chosen to stay mostly dry, ignore my good intentions and decline the semi-planned, celebrate-my-birthday-late-Century bike ride that I had in the works for today. As is common in my line of work, I missed the actual day of my birth and noted it's passing from the right-hand seat of a locomotive. I did fully intend to make up for it by putting another hundred miles on the Trek as soon as I got home however. Then along came the rain and washed the spider out...
I had it in my head this morning to go anyway despite the downpour but there's not much incentive to drown myself pedaling through a monsoon just to prove I can. Younger hammerheads who haven't been beaten half to death riding a Harley in the rain are welcome to earn their stripes today but I think I'll take a pass. There's dedicated and then there's lunacy.
And man is it raining hard. This next catastrophe courtesy of the weather will undoubtedly lead to track closures due to washouts and downed trees for days if not weeks. The lines have only been reopened for about a week now after Hurricane Irene took out sizable chunks of roadbed and dropped about a thousand trees across the ROW. I guess I shouldn't have asked after the earthquake and hurricane what was next.
It was pouring the whole way home on my last trip back from Harrisburg so the ground is already saturated and rain rates of inches-per-hour is certain to bring down the hillsides and take out the culverts yet again. I hate working when this kind of crap is going on.
Long stretches of my route are 'dark territory' meaning trains run on paper 'Warrants' that grant authority to occupy the track instead of signals on the wayside. The 'dark' part is means more than just that there's no signal lights along the way. It also means there's no way the dispatcher or a train can tell anything about what's out there until somebody gets eyes on it and reports in. This has led to some pretty awful events in the past and the potential is still there. Moving water is a powerful thing and since most my run follows river grades for miles, I get a little bit uneasy when conditions get like they are today. Mudslides studded with stumps and rocks are a real possibility and fallen trees are almost a certainty. Darkness and fog only make it worse as you can't see far enough ahead to even slow down before you hit something large and leafy or drop into a hole full of fast-flowing water.
My first brush with a washout taught me quite a bit about what heavy rain can do. A homeward trip in flash-flood weather brought us down to Restricted Speed along the river that the track parallelled. Restricted Speed means that you have to run slow enough to be able to stop in half the distance you can clearly see. When it's pitch dark and raining in sheets, that's not very far or very fast. Good thing.
I tiptoed along for many miles until at one point something out in the headlights didn't quite seem right. It almost looked like the track was moving. Track is not normally supposed to move. I stopped and the conductor and I walked ahead to take a peek at what I was pretty sure was an optical illusion brought on by staring intently into the dark too long. Again, good thing.
What we found was water rushing down a steep bank like Niagara, then using the rails as a guide to change direction and shoot along about a hundred yards straight at us before diving under the ties and taking the roadbed with it. While we stood there, the hole got visibly bigger and the washout moved appreciably closer to the front of the engine. This is certainly not a good thing.
I happened to have two brand-spanking new Canadian National engines on the train that night and it was shaping up like they might find them and us in a Pennsylvania river along with half the cars by morning. I was pretty sure the CN would be most unhappy if I destroyed a pair of engines that still smelled of fresh paint by sinking them in a flood. A quick try on the radio found that the relay towers were down which left us unable to contact anyone with our predicament. I started thinking about how much I hate swimming in cold water.
We were out of options so the conductor suited up and started hoofing it for the rear end of the train to protect road crossings behind us so hopefully, I could shove the thing back. He didn't get far before he found more knee-deep, fast-moving water swirling toward the river blocking the way. He resorted to hanging onto the cars and trying to work his way along without getting washed downstream. It was slow going and we really didn't have all that much time. I left the headlights on and watched the hole in front of me eat it's way under the rails, steadily getting larger and closer. I could hear rocks rolling down the newly formed rapids in front of the engine and the rain just kept on coming. Finally, as the ballast stones started dropping away about twenty feet in front of the snowplow, I called my half-drowned CO and told him to get up on a car and stay there while I backed up and away from the abyss. A few more minutes and those shiny units would be in the drink and that new-car smell in the cab would be only a memory. I could only hope the track was still intact behind us or we'd be pushing cars into the river. The rails in front of me were visibly drooping lower as the support under them disappeared so the choices were pretty limited. There's times when you just have to do what you can and hope for the best. I pushed the train slowly back about 50 yards or so until it looked like the ground was solid again and the water wasn't over the top of the railheads. Safe for now.
For some reason, the radio towers came back to life and we were eventually able to reach the dispatcher just about the time the conductor got to the last car. We got permission to back up a mile or so to clear the road crossings of a town and that was all she wrote for that trip except for a van ride home. A MOW foreman came out to assess the damage sometime after we got safely parked. He set his pickup on in front of us and hi-railed to the washout for a peek. He must have made some quick phone calls because while we waited for our taxi, a string of dump trucks loaded with big chunks of rip-rap stone and gravel started to arrive and soon a mountain of fill was growing beside the track. The dispatcher came up on the radio and asked the foreman how long he thought it would be until he could run trains again. You could almost hear the track man shake his head when he answered, "I've been dumping rocks into the hole since I got here and we still can't find the bottom. It's gonna be a while." And so it was.
I found out I should have a bit of respect for high water that night. We kind of get used to thinking of trains as the biggest and baddest things going but something as simple as a couple days of no-kidding rain can bring the tough guys to their knees. Lesson learned.
I already know I'll have burning eyeballs from staring into the rain when I go back out again. Maybe next week I can do that Century unless...I won't even ask this time what could be next.