Sunday, July 13, 2008

Switch

I don't regret not taking the job as a Conductor at the KCS.

The more I think about it the more I realise that it's a tremendous amount of hard work and a fair span of years ahead of me before I get to any sort of position of pay and responsibility, much less off the bottom of the totem pole. No, that job is for a young man, for me perhaps some twenty years ago had I known, but not now.

I've been reminded of that decision here of late. One of my favourite places to trainspot is right across the river in Pineville, good ole' Control Point Mallin at UP milepost 595. It's got more traffic than anywhere but the yards and it's easily accessible, plus there's always something to learn there.

For instance, switches.

The diamond is currently having some troubles, you see. There's something wrong with the mechanism that controls the signal lights between KCS and UP, and so it makes for interesting times for the train crews passing through on the UP. Currently the procedure is thus:

Train approaches the diamond. From their approach across the Red River Junction bridge they see a red over red signal, which means a complete stop for traffic, which in most every case isn't usually THERE, but they have to stop nonetheless. KCS is a 'black area' there, no central control so if there's a KCS setup anywhere within a few miles of the diamond it'll automatically lock the system down. So, the UP engineer will slowly draw the train to a stop, giving himself enough space that he can still see the signal lights from the cab. Here the conductor detrains.

The conductor then walks the fifty or so yards up to the signal control box, unlocks it, verifies there's no traffic coming from either direction and manually switches the signal lights to give the UP a go-ahead and to give the KCS line in both directions a red over red. Then they all wait.

Fifteen minutes to be exact, the time required by the operations guidelines for a train approaching from either direction to have ample opportunity to see a signal change and stop in time. After that quarter hour has passed in the boiling humidity and summer sun of Louisiana the conductor looks both ways again and manually waves (literally waves) his train forward.

This is the fun part. Watching a 6,000 ton train come inching forward. There's no sense in pouring on the power, you've only got 50 yards to go before you stop again, so they come creeping up like some monstrous snake, exhaust fumes making everything shimmery and strange until just the frontmost pair of wheels crosses the split between solid rail and the diamond, making a tremendous metallic clang.

Conductor


Then, they stop again, so the conductor can reboard, his duties complete.

Conductor Reboarding


That is, complete until they make it the three or four miles into Tioga, where the same problem exists at another nearly identical crossing, where they'll do the same thing over again.

Exhaust


I overhead one conductor there griping, which is the soldier's duty, naturally. He'd come onto his shift at the Alexandria yard at 2pm. He'd managed to get his train across the river and into Pineville by 6pm. They were supposed to be in Monroe that evening, and he was afraid he'd not make it in his twelve hour shift.

Yeah, there's times I'm glad I didn't take that job.

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