Saturday, November 26, 2011

The OCS Third

Day three of the project started early.  Much before dawn, my alarm and the wake-up call I'd set the night before woke me out of an often-interrupted sleep to saddle up and get underway.  Even the breakfast buffet in the lobby was still hours away so we made a stop at a convenient store to load up my coffee thermos and grab something to munch.  This had a familiar ring to it.  If we hadn't been riding in a manager's Jeep, it would have been just like the thousands of other wee-hour expeditions to get on trains over the years.  Zero-dark-thirty is well known to train crews.

The sun was a faint smudge over the hills when we got to the yard but the railroad police and a pack of officials were already patrolling up and down the sleeper cars.  We got a wave from a well-armed special agent past what looked very much like a checkpoint to get to the train.  I was expecting someone to bark, "Papers!" but I guess the hi-viz vests and goofy-looking safety glasses gave us away as T and E.  Nobody else in the world would wear the things. 
In truth, I actually had a brand new vest for the occasion as my everyday working one is only yellow about halfway up the front from too many brushes against greasy engines.  The bosses thought we should at least try to keep up appearances for the big show so a couple of fresh ones suddenly became available and we went well-dressed if not wildly enthusiastic.

With the actual crack of dawn, the System Road Foreman (who would ride the head-end with us) came along to get the party started.  This guy is the one I ultimately answer to on all things engineering and so I was somewhat nervous about his presence.  Here was another of the reputed evil career-killers who as it turns out, isn't anything like the hype.  He's younger than I am and soon proved to be basically a pleasant guy to work with.  I have no illusions that he could in fact probably be a hard-ass should the occasion warrant or he wouldn't be wearing the title but for now, he seemed mostly interested in getting the circus on the road with a minimum of uproar and finding more coffee.  I voiced a couple of concerns and questions about handling the train but he seemed relatively unconcerned.  His advice was to just do what I know and not worry about it.  He did mention that we'd undoubtedly be the first to catch hell if anything was unsatisfactory back in the coaches but waved it off as unlikely.  He inspected the units for me and signed the daily cards before drifting off to fill his coffee cup while my conductor and I chewed over the bulletins and tried to think positively.

Other official-types were about including my division superintendent who I'd met on other occasions so at least I recognized him when he strolled up and said good morning.  His first question for me was to ask how many times I'd run the business train in the past, to which my answer was of course, "Zip" except for the unoccupied deadhead move two days prior.  They don't exactly let you borrow their zillion-dollar, pimped-out, rock-star train-set just for practice so the opportunity had never presented itself.  You go locked and loaded the first time you step up to the plate and hope for the best.  I allowed as how I was pretty familiar with the territory having run it for years but had never actually pulled a passenger gig before.
He looked a little surprised by that revelation and casually mentioned that a little run-in of slack on the head-end translates to taking people off their feet on the rear.  Like I needed to know that.  He advised caution, wished me well and then was off leaving me to wonder what my next career would possibly be after today.  No stress.

Shortly before we launched for the run home, the CEO came by once again with a grin and encouragement.  As before, he was easy to chat with and seemed completely at ease.  Whatever business they might be pursuing back in those cars is so far beyond my ken that it's unlikely I could comprehend any of it and I'm sure the pressure was up there in his world just as it was in mine.  Different scales of pressure I'm sure but for the moment, all of that was put aside and I could have been talking to some guy at the bike shop about my next set of tires.  He also wished me luck and went on his way.  A day at the office for him I suppose but that camper of his I was going to drive was giving me the jitters.  It's probably a stock line since he does this all the time but it was kind of fun to hear him comment, "Don't worry.  If anything goes wrong, we just fire the Road Foreman."  I know better but as was intended, it took the edge off a little.

With all the formalities finished and everyone aboard, it was finally time to earn my keep.  The jump seats were occupied by Road Foremen from two railroads and my conductor and I took up our long-accustomed positions left and right.  A final check on the radio to the train to make sure we had all the VIPs and suddenly it was showtime.

Now in full daylight and miraculously on schedule, the signal in front of us turned green for our track and the curtain went up.  With a honk of the horn and the bell ringing, I took one last gulp, snipped back the throttle, eased out the slack and tiptoed out of the siding and onto the main.  How did I ever get myself into this?  Hordes of photographers were festooned on every vantage point until we got out of town.  You could almost hear the whir of motor-drives over the racket in the cab.  Such dedication.

Determined to give it a good shot or at least go down fighting, I dragged the brakes through the first couple of sags, feeling it out once again.  A steep, nasty little dip went by and we were now on an uphill without killing anyone as of yet.  As I said, these are freight brakes on passenger equipment so if you release them at all, you have to release them all the way.  You can ease off the throttle but not the brakes.  This complicates things when also trying to maintain a constant speed and learning it as you go.  Think of it as taking your foot all the way off the brake pedal of your car and then having to wait a couple of minutes before you can use it again.  It takes a little planning or at least dumb luck to make it work.  Luck was with me so far and the RFs looked relieved.  I, on the other hand was already sweating in the air-conditioning with a hundred plus miles still to go. 

The fact that my side window was riveted shut (which I'd noted the night before but hadn't thought much about) started to make a difference when I realized I couldn't look back and see the train.  I have a long-established practice of sticking my head out the window and watching for things like sparks or smoke from the cars and have been rewarded by actually finding them a few times.  With the window closed beside me and a full-width locomotive body at my back, I felt like I was half blind.  Trying to turn around to look out the non-existent rear window gave me a great view of a blank door and a grin from the RF.  He allowed as how everybody does that, the only difference being how many times in one trip.  I managed to get the side mirror where I wanted it and promptly swivelled my seat to gaze at the back wall once again.  Old habits die hard.  It wasn't a big deal in the grand scheme of things but you fall back on what you know when the pressure's on.  Like rubbing a rabbits foot, I needed the familiar.  Not finding it, I resigned myself to seeing a lot of that wall and soldiered on.

I do know there was some chit-chat among my three cab-mates as the day went along but I really can't remember much of it.  I had my eyes constantly jumping between the speedo, air gauges, rear wall and out the windshield looking for the next low spot that would require a stretch to keep the slack tight.  I found that the train handled nicely even when loaded but also learned it's reaction time is very fast.  It would jump over the speed limit in a second if I looked away from the speed indicator too long or was a tad late getting the air set for a downhill.  My boss seemed content to study a track chart and if he was watching the proceedings with a critical eye, he didn't let on.  So far so good.

A snag developed when we rolled over our first wayside defect detector.  I wondered if it would behave since I was dragging the train against the brakes and had been for a while to keep it slowed down.  A hit on the hotbox detector would really be less than ideal so I hoped the wheels were cool enough for the detector to let us slide.  It did but it's radio message included "Detector Malfunction".  Crap.  The CPRR gods couldn't even get us by this thing the one time when it really mattered.  A call to the dispatcher couldn't get us an office indication of what was wrong so it was 30 mph until we could get a roll-by inspection of both sides.  Our shadowing local Road Foreman caught us at a couple of crossings in the next few miles to give us a twice-over and luckily got us back up to speed.

From there, it's kind of a blur of brakes, throttle, horn and worry.  I expected to see nothing but green on the signals for a move like this and that's exactly what we got.  I'm sure the CP wanted nothing more than to have this thing off their property and out of their hair as quickly as possible.  Every other train went in the hole for us and I got my first taste of running the hottest thing on the railroad.  I don't think I've ever been so focused on getting it right.  I know there was times when I went too deep on the brakes and had to yank pretty hard but all I cared about was making sure I never felt that little bump the superintendent was talking about.  I had visions of vice-presidents plastered against the bulkheads and various department heads draped over the tables with lunch pressed firmly into their ties.  It must have worked.  The halfway point came and went without a hint of my imminent dismissal.  The sun was still shining and I was still employed...miracles never cease.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Second Bite of OCS

Day Two

After doing our best to demolish the free breakfast buffet at the hotel, we left on a hike about the neighborhood to settle down the muffins and kill time.  We were scheduled to re-assemble the train when it came in from New England late that afternoon so until the appointed hour, we wandered around the streets like mall-rats peering in store windows. Since we were only going to switch around in the yard and not hit the road till the following day, I wasn't worried about getting caught short on sleep for a change.  Not that I could have napped after 8 gallons of coffee anyway...

Later on, as I was just rummaging around in the hotel room getting ready to head to the train, I suddenly felt the building moving under my feet. This is most unusual behavior for the majority of buildings I'm familiar with, especially large and substantially built hotels. My first thought was high winds but a glance out at the sunny sky and stationary trees cancelled that.  The fancy mirrored closet doors were banging open and closed and the water in the toilet bowl was trying to leap over the rim. I wondered for a moment if it was possible to hallucinate on a coffee overdose.  The gyrations went on just long enough for me to wonder what the hell just happened, paused a moment then did it all again.  So now I've had my first experience with an honest-to-west-coast earthquake. It was the weirdest sensation I've ever known without a concussion. The shaking was enough to make it hard to walk and I can't even begin to imagine what it would be like to experience a really damaging quake. It only lasted a few seconds and I later found out the epicenter was actually several hundred miles away in central Virginia.  A long ways away from us to be sure but it was enough to send track patrols out to check for shifted rails and bridges all over the northeast. When I said the earth would move before I'd take a special train I guess I wasn't kidding.  The TV was still breathlessly running the story when I left to meet the Road Foreman for a ride to the yard. 

As advertised, the now-occupied-with-big-names train showed up and the three railroads involved once again tried to out-order each other on how the moves were going to occur.  When everyone is nervous, nothing ever works out.  Just as the day before, the orders changed repeatedly and I finally retreated to a locomotive cab where at least no one was actively pacing or waving their arms.  Our mission was to get the sleeper cars back on the train and stitch the four units back together for the run home in the morning.  Simple and only slightly complicated by the fact that while we were switching, dinner would also be served in the dining car.  The RFE repeatedly reminded me (in case I didn't get it the first time) that I had to make the hitch on the cars like they were glass or I'd wipe everything off the tables and into well-tailored VIP laps, thereby lowering my (and likely his) career expectations considerably.  No stress.

As these things seem to do somehow, the whole affair eventually sorted itself out and a finished product started taking shape.  At one point though, I noticed flashing lights out on the street and looked up long enough to realize that the whole roadside running along the yard was jammed with people.  The police had the block closed off and onlookers, photographers, kids and what looked like half the local populace was lined up watching us do what we do.  I've seen the rail buffs before but this was over the top.  Who'da thunk it?  It is a shiny train and all but really?  There was camera lenses out there that cost more than my truck.  I figured they could see what color eyes I have if they focused on the windshield.  I wondered if I'd scratched myself inappropriately in the last hour and if it was already on YouTube.

After some further minor confusion, I wound up heading back to make that all-important hitch on the dining car.  We took a momentary pause in there for some reason that I can't even remember and as I sat waiting for the next call on the radio, I was surprised to see a set of hands coming up on the door frame followed by a neatly fitted-out gentleman in over-large safety glasses.  This was the CEO of the carrier.

Before I could get out of the seat, he shook my hand and introduced himself.  My conductor radioed the next move at the same moment but I called a quick stand-by and had a couple minutes with the boss of the bosses.  He was extremely pleasant and chatty but what tickled me the most was his interest in our Tour de Cure team.  He knew I was the captain and that was pretty much what we talked about.  He rides in the Tour every year in Virginia on the huge home-office team but still wanted to hear about our little show.  It was the high note of the day to know he noticed us.  Too soon, his phone rang and he took a call but the noise in the engine made it impossible for him to hear so with an apology, he slid out the door and was gone.  In the meantime, the conductor told me the RFE (who didn't know about my cab guest) was almost having a seizure because I wasn't moving.  Oh well, when the guy that owns the train wants to stop in and say hello, he gets to do just that.  Rank hath it's privilege.

Back to work, I tried to make that lousy hitch on the diner so easy that an egg on the knuckle would never jiggle.  Repeated efforts however failed to make the pin on the coupler drop.  Our intrepid road foreman was beside himself.  By now, all the worry about hitting it gently went out the window as it finally took a good old boxcar smack to get a good hook.  I hoped nobody needed extra napkins.

With that, the train was built and ready for the ride the following morning.  It felt like I'd been running the thing all day even though it was only a couple of hours.  The pucker-factor had been a little higher on the scale than I typically like but we managed to get through it with our careers intact.

I was thinking as we headed back to the hotel that evening that I was relieved to have met some of the people who'd be on the trip as we'd been backing and forthing during the afternoon.  In between moves, a few of my multi-titled passengers had stopped by and I'd found them to be nothing but courteous.  Some of my friends said later that when you have that kind of pull, you can afford to be nice to the peasantry but I prefer to think they were being genuine and let it go at that.  The pre-supposition I'd had of hauling a train-load of high-powered people with attitudes faded with the daylight and actually started to think I might survive this.  We piled our bags in the back of the manager's truck and went for dinner on the carrier.  That adventure will be for another tale.

We'd be on the train again at about dawn for the big show so I set my alarm and put in a wake-up call just to be sure.  Like I was going to sleep much anyway....

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Bite Sized Post...The OCS

I'm still here gang.  Really.  I've been tapping away at a little memoir from this past summer but it keeps getting longer and longer without coming to a Happily Ever After quite yet.  To spare you the tedious slog through a ridiculously long post, I've decided to chop it up into bite-sized chunks that will hopefully be a little more palatable.  My first attempt at a serial I guess.  It still may take a while but at least it'll look like I'm doing more than getting distracted by YouTube every time I light up my computer.  The summer has gone to frost but I promised railroad stories...

I planned on doing this post right after the fact but the fact is, too many other misadventures cropped up around the Wayward Home in the mean (really mean) time. Let's just say it's been an eventful couple of months and get on with it.
The old blog finds itself getting pushed to the back burner more than I like between working all the time and...well, working all the time. That being said, I'm finally putting fingers to keys and getting it done before the facts fade into fiction and this becomes just another well-embellished rail tale.

Here then, after much delay is the story of the OCS.

Day One

In early August, my local Road Foreman of Engines approached me to run the Office Car Special, the infamous OCS train.  For those less connected with the railroad world, this train is sort of a hotel/conference center/restaurant on rails.  It's used by the carrier to haul officials touring the realm or on other assorted corporate gigs stratospherically above my pay grade.  The Kentucky Derby comes to mind...  It's actually a rolling resort with its own chefs, stewards, security detail and mechanical forces. They don't call it 'varnish' for nothing as a trip on the thing can hardly be classified as 'roughing it'.  On this outing, it would come into my charge equipped with four spiffy "F" engines, sleeper cars, a diner, observation cars etc. but more importantly it would also contain the CEO of our company and a long list of notables viewing the railroad and politicking.  No one on the passenger manifest had less than three initials after their name, most beginning with VP of something or Chief Officer of something else.  Tacked on the head end is a boxcar loaded to the doors with stress for the crew.  No pressure.

Having heard more than a few horror stories about what a nightmare this train can be, I was somewhat reluctant to take the bait even though I was intrigued by the idea of running the old "F" units at least once in my career. Challenge of something new aside, I remembered that it is commonly known as "The Punisher" because almost everyone who runs it gets punished in one form or another.  It also has other less-than-inspiring nicknames such as "The CEO"...short for Career Ending Opportunity.  What had I gotten myself into?

Adding to my indecision was the fact that I know almost nothing about passenger train operations except what I've picked up from various rumors and hearsay. I'd never pulled anything behind me in 14 years that could outright fire me if it didn't like the ride.  Flatcars rarely complain if I run the slack in and out too much. This was another ball game. The train is not equipped with dynamic brakes so everything has to be done the old fashioned way...put on the air and drag it.  At least the brakes are a standard freight setup, not passenger so at least it looked familiar. Something else to think about.

The deal was done when I came to the conclusion that the only way they were going to give me my requested time off for the Tour de Cure was to cave in and take the train. Something about one hand washing the other...

As is my usual mode of operation, I fretted about it and called everybody I could think of for advice or at least a heads-up on possible career moves if I got my silly self fired off the thing. I hoped I could figure it out well enough to avoid the worst but with so many big names aboard, the odds seemed less than ideal. I bought a lottery ticket just in case.

The whole event was scheduled to take three days so I took a midnight call and kissed my wife goodbye until Wednesday.  I got a glimpse of coaches and idling engines as I drove in the parking lot, hoping it wouldn't be the last train I ever ran.  The first order of business on our arrival was to deadhead the train without the officials aboard to get it in position for the big show. A couple of guys minding the store would be our only passengers for the first leg.  Walking out with my grip to load up I found it waiting, looking shiny and intimidating. I fired up another 'B' unit for the climb over the first hill and tried to settle in. It really isn't that much different than any other train from the right seat. Same old familiar EMD control stand, everyday radio and head-end box but that sure is a funny shaped windshield out there. So far, so good.

A fly landed in the ointment about a mile into the trip. The CP dispatcher dropped the bomb on us that one of their freights was stalled on the back side of the hill and it would be 'a while' before they could rescue it. "A while" in railroad parlance could be anything from an hour to a week. The hours indeed started to pass as our time on duty inexorably ticked away. The RFE paced and worked his phone. Eventually, a monstrous bag of junk freight and intermodals in the charge of a relief crew slid past us clearing a path over the hill. Shortly thereafter, we finally got the ok for launch from Minneapolis to leave town. Hurdle number one.

The trip up wasn't actually too bad. I spent some time getting acquainted with how the thing handled and feeling out the brakes.  Nothing was smoking much at the bottom of the hill so I guess it was ok. The sun came up in our eyes just like it has a million other times heading up north and I almost relaxed a little. I know the ups and downs pretty well so it was just a matter of getting the timing right.

The real fun began again once we got to our crew-change point to hand off to the Pan Am guys taking it on to Massachussetts. We were scheduled to chop up the train so our new compadres from New England could put their own set of fancy power in the lead along with an office car or two. No big deal except we were now short on time, the dispatcher was on her first day solo and there were officials from three railroads trying to give orders and look official.  On top of it all, I was starting to fizzle out from the all nighter. I finally retreated to the cab while the assorted bosses tried to out-boss each other and come up with a workable plan of attack. I was too tired to argue.

After a suitable interval of snorting and hoof-pawing among the leadership, orders reached my radio and the move got underway. Of course, it immediately changed and confusion reigned. I guess the job briefing was a little too brief but my conductor had it figured out anyway.  I had an idea what we were trying to accomplish so I just went slow while the mess sorted itself out. Patience as they say, is a virtue.  With time on our hours-of-service now down to almost zip, we set out to turn two of the four engines and all the sleeper cars and get it parked before we blew up. It was almost a photo-finish but as the clock ran out, we shut it down and tied it up where we were supposed to be almost like we planned it. Hurdle number two.

We were dropped off after the festivities at a pretty high-zoot (for a train crew anyway) hotel and then abandoned to fend for ourselves until the following afternoon.  Airline crews would probably consider the place slumming but it was a couple notches above our usual digs.  I'm not used to a hotel room with a couch, a coffee table and more than two towels in the bathroom but it was nearby and the carrier was paying so who am I to nitpick? I collapsed for a while but the bright sunshine was too much to allow for any serious sleep so I eventually wandered out to find my conductor and locate some dinner. We hooked up with a band of CP officials that happened to be stationed in the same hotel and wound up having a pretty good time chatting and yukking it up at the expense of our employers (figuratively speaking...we don't rate a corporate credit card). The CP road foreman who would be riding with us on the train was most reassuring in that he figured he'd get fired just as quickly as I would if anything went wrong so at least I'd have company filing for unemployment. I finally realized that I was about running on empty from lack of meaningful sleep so I called it a day. I don't even remember turning out the light.  Tomorrow we'd do it again.