As I mount the footplate to my Santa Fe steam engine hissing seven boxcars up from the caboose at the end of this mile-long (or so it feels) freight train, I reflect how nice it is when everyone agrees.
The crew had met over the register book in the ATSF yard office, discussing our coming eastbound run from Bakersfield to Mojave. Long trains (such as ours) give me an antacid attack – we can’t really fit anywhere, not without a lot of flagging and sawing and stuff, so I’m not happy about that. To make matters worse, we’ve got an SP passenger train running twenty minute behind us. That means we’ve got to hold our long train to track speed, with few places to duck in if we need to let him ’round.
But conductor John and helper Steve all agree – let’s edge our cut down to Kern Jct – slowly – and swing in behind the varnish, riding his lights as best able until we get to Woodford where we’ll take water.
So everything goes according to plan – the slow slide toward Kern, the flash of the eastbound passenger windows as he accelerates out, no surprises from the Kern operator – the order board drops as if bowing to royalty. And out onto the main we go, the passenger lights far down the tracks, our our freight rumbling up to 20mph, outbound.
We’re rounding the long corner out of the yard, everyone seating their hands on their throttles, ready to pick up the pace once our caboose clears the limits. Then it’s 40mph, and nothing is funner than 50+ cars rattling along at brisk walking speed along 100 real-world feet of arrow-straight track. So I’m hanging into the turn, head out the window, and I see a billow of steam from the mid-train engine. I tootle emergency, as does he (hell, he’s sitting atop it). We drop air and grind to a stop, just along the Magunden groves. I send a rear-end flag out and walk up to see what’s happened.
The drive rods, those complected pistons you see over the wheels of steam engines? They’ve come off. Looks like they broke free and were wailing about. What to do?
This is La Mesa of course. No picking up the engines. No running, crying, to the club members. It’s 1950s and we’re in the middle of nowhere. The only thing to do is to cut the mid unit out and ease him, slowly, into the Magunden siding. While we’re doing that, another eastbound freight eases up behind us, the engineer walking up to join the discussion.
“You’re going to have to drop some cars,” he notes. Out come our rulebooks and over we flip to engine tonnage, where cars/engine ratings are listed. And sure enough, adding our engines up, we’re eleven cars over. So into the siding these go, tucked up against our disabled steamer. We reassemble our train, bring in our brakeman and prepare to leave. Steve, our dethroned engineer, is last seen walking down the road, looking for a pay phone to advise the dispatcher where he fetched up.
I’m standing much closer to John now, what with a chunk of our train out. We signal we’re ready to go and start easing up to 40mph.
John looks back and smiles. “Glad we weren’t in front of the varnish.” A momentary thought. “We’ll fit in just about anywhere now, though.”
I have to agree – it’s much easier after that.