Take a Broom to Work

My first ride in the cab of a train in North America was on Saturday 17th August 1963.  I had just completed my schooling and spent ten weeks in the USA before returning to take up a position with British Railways.  I was in Wenatchee, Washington, in the Pacific North West. Wenatchee lies to the east of the Cascade mountains in very dry country which suffers from summer drought. The town is served by the single track main line of the Great Northern Railway, now part of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. Wenatchee has a fruit growing industry and in the picking season the large refrigerator cars are very much in evidence.

Engineer Williams was in charge of train 88. He had seven units, a total of 13,500 horse power, weighing 871 tons.  The locomotives for this train comprised three F9s, three GP20s and one of the then new GP30s and had a total length of 350 feet. Climbing into the cab of the leading F9, which was painted a pleasing livery of green and orange, the first thing that caught my eye was the water cooler. In contrast to the British steam locomotives I had worked on, the engineer had a comfortable seat, so comfor­table, that there was a painted sign:

"Do not place feet on windshield”

Although he had a padded seat, the engineer had to exhibit a great deal of skill in the handling of his 5,300 ton train of 118 cars which, together with the locomotive was one and a quarter miles long. The radio crackled into life:

"Highball eastbound train eighty-eight"

The message was repeated and with a hiss the independent brake was released, the bell started to ring and the throttle was advanced into the first notch. No attempt was made to exceed three miles per hour until all of the coupler slack had been taken out of the train. After what seemed an age, the conductor in the caboose radioed that the end was at last moving and we speeded up, winding our way along the Columbia River valley past the Fruit Growers Express de­pot with its many rows of orange cars. With the controller opened full, we rapidly accelerated to 46 mph across the river and past the Rock Island Dam with its distinctive fish ladders by which the fish ascend the dam. Riding in the cab was very comfortable at this speed, but there was some harder work ahead. The sides of the valley began to close in around us and we could see the beginning of a formidable one per cent grade. A yellow signal for permanent way work spoilt any chances of a run at the climb of almost 700 feet in 15 miles and, although the throttle was opened full, speed fell steadily to 25 mph. We held this speed all the way around Horseshoe Curve, where the train reversed direction and we could see the back of the train going the opposite way. Outside the temperature was in the upper nineties in this dry, arid land where very little will grow except with the aid of irrigation. 

ll too soon we heard the air brake being applied to slow the train to a walking pace so that I could drop off with Joe Gaynor, the Assistant Master Mechanic, whose wife was waiting to take us back to Wenatchee.  I stood on the platform at Quincy and watched the cars roll by.  The land was perfectly flat and at one time the train seemed to stretch from horizon to horizon.  So this was North American rail­roading. No loose coupled trains here relying upon the locomotive and van brakes (and a good deal of luck). Everything was bigger - locomo­tives, freight cars and train lengths. This one short trip was to whet my appetite for North American railroading. I suppose that after this it was inevitable that I should one day come back

On the way back to Wenatchee, I learned that railroad life does have its lighter side. One day an engineer was taking a drag freight through the Cascade Tunnel which, at that time, was electrified. After some time, he realized that the end of the tunnel was not getting any closer and he realized that he had stalled.  However, the throttle was still full open, and when assistance arrived it was found that the wheels had ground them­selves into the rails so that the locomotive was stuck fast.  From that day on, the engineer carried a broom with him which he would periodical­ly stick out of the cab against the tunnel wall to assure himself that he was in fact still moving

Ottawa Valley Associated Railroaders, The Interchange May 2009.

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