Sunday, January 09, 2011

Tales From the Bunker: The Rock Train at McNeil

Ever dug snow and ice out of switches? I have. And tonight they're doing it on the old Cotton Belt in Arkansas.

It was snowing in Omaha when I sat down to work second trick on position 418, which controls the old Cotton Belt single-track main line from Hunter, Ark. through Pine Bluff and down to Maud, Tex., just beyond Texarkana. It was snowing there too, and we weren't sorting trains. Block the switches and run west. Z train behind a rock train? Too bad - without switch heaters, and with only limited maintenance crews to dig 'em out, we weren't going to bend any more switches than we had to.

Too bad, in particular, for one Z train.

West of Stephens, Ark., the RNLOL, 13,000 tons of rock from the Granite Mountain quarry in Little Rock destined for an Olin Corp. plant near Shreveport, was grinding westbound up the seven miles of 1% grade headed for the summit at McNeil, milepost 367 on Union Pacific's Pine Bluff Sub. That doesn't sound like much of a hill, but 13,000 tons is a lot of train for three engines, and as the train neared the top alarm bells started ringing in the lead unit. The No.5 traction motor pinion gear had locked up. The crew cut out the traction motor, but they needed every bit of power they had to get up the hill. On slick rail, with ice and snow falling on the old Cotton Belt, the RNLOL stalled.

They had made it past the east switch at McNeil, but they could go no further. Even if the train could get over the hill at McNeil, they weren't sure if they could make it over the next hill, at Waldo. We discussed our options: we could double the hill and put the RNLOL away in the siding at McNeil and get another engine later, or we could have the next train shove them over the summit and try to get a run at Waldo.

In the wintry conditions to which railroaders in Arkansas are not accustomed, we decided to go with the latter option. A Pine Bluff-Fort Worth manifest, the MPBFW, was ten miles behind the RNLOL. The ZYCHOB - UPS traffic from Chicago to Houston, at that point six hours ahead of schedule - was twenty miles behind him. He'd have to hold at Stephens until this was all over. I told the MPBFW to come up and shove the rock train over the hill - if necessary, he'd shove the rock train over Waldo, too. When we got to Lewisville, milepost 390, where the Lufkin Sub breaks off toward Shreveport, and where we had maintenance crews keeping the switches at this key point operational, we'd have the MPBFW donate one of his four engines to the cause.

So the MPBFW tied his train down on the side of the hill, came up behind the rock train light engine, and leaned into it. With seven engines, those 13,000 tons of rock went right on up with no problems. The MPBFW power cut off and headed back down the hill - and that's when I got the next call.

"Dispatcher, we got another problem...we got continuous wheel slip and a locked axle warning."

The problem with the No.5 traction motor had just gotten a lot more serious. With the traction motor cut out, the axle should be rolling freely, but it wasn't. If the locomotive moved very far, or very fast, the locked axle would inevitably cause a derailment. We'd have to set it out. But without that engine, the RNLOL would never make Waldo, and his second unit couldn't be used as a leader. We'd have to make the engine swap right there at McNeil.

Fortunately, the rock train had stopped between the switches. There's a siding and a small yard there, where UP interchanges with short line Louisiana & North West, but we couldn't put the engine in the yard - the old track there can't handle the weight of a big six-axle engine. We'd have to leave it in the siding. That complicated the move. And then there was the snow.

We got lucky - from my desk in Omaha, I was able to line and lock the west switch at McNeil for the siding. But the east switch wouldn't cooperate, so the crew on the MPBFW (who hadn't gotten back to their train yet) had to excavate it. Fortunately, they had a broom with a pick on one end, and they were able to clear it in good time and head into the siding.

The engine the MPBFW was giving up was third in their consist of four, so they tied down the fourth unit and went through the siding around the rock train. They cut off their third unit and handed it over to the rock train crew; I flagged them back down the main against their train and the MPBFW consist went back through the siding and flagged back against their train. Meanwhile, instead of setting out their bad-order engine immediately, the rock train crew, for whatever reason, decided to pull their whole train up to the west end of McNeil before setting out the engine. Not that it would have made much difference in what came next.

Rock trains, because they are so heavy, especially relative to their length, suffer from severe in-train forces. The strain exerted on couplers is massive, and inevitably the weak points in the draft gear will be found. Casting flaws turn into small cracks. Small cracks turn into big ones. Big cracks turn into breaks. Cold temperatures such as we were experiencing that day make it worse, and even the best engineers occasionally get a knuckle.

Stretched over the crest of the hill at McNeil, the RNLOL engineer started to pull on 'em...and the train promptly went into emergency. The crew called it in. None of us said what we thought it was - we're superstitious that way, we don't want to jinx it - but of course we knew what it had to be. Later they told me it was a knuckle pin with an old crack in it - you can tell by how far into the face of the break it's rusted.

The Hours of Service law limits train crews to a 12-hour work day, and by now the rock train crew had less than three hours left. They'd never make Shreveport, and with no guarantees that they wouldn't get another knuckle in a less convenient location or be able to get into another siding down the line, we decided to leave them right there. The MPBFW went into the siding, stopped to help the rock train crew make repairs, and went on toward Big Sandy. The ZYCHOB, released from Stephens, went through the siding and on toward Shreveport. He'd lost three hours but was still three hours ahead of schedule, and if all went well he'd make it to Houston. After one final blow in this four-hour drama - the rock train was blocking crossings and had to pull down to the west end of McNeil to clear them, making it difficult for a relief crew to reach the train later on - the RNLOL tied down on the main at McNeil. With roads throughout the area impassable, the rock train crew boarded another train bound for Shreveport and settled in for the ride.

The rock train is still at McNeil, ice and snow settling on its 13,000 tons of stone while trains pass through the siding to get around it. Some time in the next day or two, when the roads are passable and the ice melts away from the switches, a relief crew will go get the RNLOL. They may have to walk a mile to reach it, cursing the crew that put it west of the crossings and the dispatcher that let them do it, not knowing what happened on the side of the hill at McNeil - that four trainmen and a dispatcher seven hundred miles away struggled against the snow on the old Cotton Belt for an afternoon and thought themselves lucky, at the end of it, to call it a draw.

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