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.


Linda said...

And then what happened?!!!

Trailer Park Cyclist said...

Dude! Who do you think will play YOU in Wayward Home, The Movie? As a TPC dementia side note: every time you mention the big boogie-woogies I get a visual of Robert Vaughn, and your cool-headed conductor as Ringo Starr.

Keep it coming!