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.