Saturday, December 8, 2007

Where Silence Can Be Fatal

William J. Brotherton: Where silence can be fatal

Nobody likes being awakened at night by a train horn, but there's a good reason for the noise.

Many communities in Minnesota are evaluating the use of "quiet zones," where railroad engineers cannot sound their horns except in emergencies. It sounds good in concept, but quiet zones can be killers. Sadly, that was illustrated recently with the death of 5-year-old Kevin Bradford just outside a railroad quiet zone in Texas.

The Union Pacific freight train had just left a quiet zone before its crew encountered Kevin, his brother and a cousin on the tracks. The boys never heard a train horn until it was too late, because freight trains can take a mile or more to stop, depending upon the number of cars and the speed of the train.

I should know. I'm a former Burlington Northern Railroad brakeman, conductor and trainmaster, and was in the cab of a locomotive on several occasions when we struck automobiles. Thankfully, no one was ever hurt, because on each occasion that we hit a car, we were either going very slowly, had very few cars attached to the locomotive, or both.

Since the advent of railroading, locomotive engineers have been required to sound warnings at crossings -- first with a steam whistle, and later with a diesel horn. Specifically, two long blasts of the horn, one short one, and then another long blast through the crossing, is required by law. It's very noisy, obviously, but necessary, given that trains can kill you.

When I was railroading in Minnesota, a locomotive engineer decided to implement his own quiet zone in the northern part of the state. At 2 in the morning, he was passing through an area with isolated farms and a multitude of rural crossings. He decided as a courtesy not to blow his horn. Bad mistake. His train struck a car with two people inside, killing them. The engineer went to jail.

Quiet zones were first authorized in 1994, but federal regulations for them were not approved until 10 years later. More and more cities are implementing them, because who likes to wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of a long wailing train horn? Never mind that the railroad tracks were there long before houses and businesses were built alongside them, or that many train crews have come to refer to quiet zones as "killing fields."

When I was a child growing up in Atlanta, my friends and I frequently walked the tracks of the Seaboard Air Line Railroad. We liked watching the trains, waving to the conductor in the caboose, and dreaming about all the faraway places that the glistening passenger trains could take us.
One day, though, we got caught in the middle of a single-track trestle of the Seaboard, and the Silver Comet, a crack passenger train, came roaring around a curve at 90 mph. By the time it crossed over the trestle, we had jumped into murky Peachtree Creek, suddenly more worried about water moccasins than about being hit by the train.

What saved us was that the passenger train had blown at a crossing shortly before it got to us. We had a warning that a train was coming and we didn't hesitate to jump, even though it was at least a 50-foot drop. If there had been a quiet zone, we would've been killed. As it was, we only got muddy. And if there were water moccasins in the creek, we scared them away with our hollering as we made the leap.

Let's face it. No one should be out on railroad tracks without a legitimate reason to be there. But people break rules, especially children. And if quiet zones continue to proliferate, we're going to have a lot more injuries and deaths because of train horns that were never heard.

William J. Brotherton, a Texas attorney, is the author of "Burlington Northern Adventures: Railroading in the Days of the Caboose."

Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Race at Crawford Curve

After several weeks in Alliance, Nebraska, sleeping in my van in the parking lot at the Burlington Northern Railroad terminal in the early Spring of 1980, I started getting road trips to Edgemont, South Dakota, Ravenna, Nebraska or Guernsey, Wyoming. There were very few locals, which was good, because I had worked enough locals in Grand Forks. Ninety-five percent of the trains out of Alliance were through freights, usually unit coal or grain trains, and they paid better money than locals.
I was happy to get called one morning in April of 1980 for a 110-car coal train to Edgemont, South Dakota, at the “edge” of the Black Hills. The crew caller had walked out to my van and tapped on the back window. My wife had made curtains for the van so I had a little bit of privacy. After tapping on the window several times because he couldn’t see me, the crew caller hollered out “9:30 coal train to Edgemont.”
I hollered, “okay,” and satisfied he had awakened me, the caller walked back towards the terminal. I looked at my Seiko watch and it was 8:15 a.m. Plenty of time. I opened the side door of the van. It was a beautiful, sunny, spring morning, with a temperature in the low forties. I fixed a bowl of cereal with milk from the ice chest I had brought with me from Grand Forks. I made a couple of baloney and cheese sandwiches to take on my run, and I headed into the terminal with my lunch, lantern, and my grip, packed with my travel kit and change of clothes. I met up with my crew at one of the tables inside the terminal. I grabbed a cup of coffee and we checked our orders and our watches. They seemed like a nice bunch of guys.
The conductor was a big guy, maybe five years older than me. When he shook my hand, I could almost feel my bones crack. “Call me Moose,” he said. Moose introduced me to the rear brakeman, Bill Murray, a guy in his early thirties who had a broad smile.
“Everybody calls me Murray -- there's too many Bills out here,” he said. I laughed knowing what he meant. “Sandy Maloney is our hoghead, you'll enjoy riding up on the front end with him,” Moose piped up, using the old-fashioned term of hoghead for engineer. Alliance did have the feel of an old-fashioned railroad town, unlike Grand Forks. I knew something about the history of Alliance. It was an old Chicago, Burlington & Quincy railroad town that existed only for the railroad. It mushroomed into a major division point when Wyoming low sulfur coal came into such demand after the advent of the Clean Air Act in 1970. The railroads couldn't haul enough Wyoming coal to the Eastern power plants, which needed the lower polluting coal to stay in compliance with the Clean Air Act. That translated into more jobs in Alliance.
“By the way,” Moose continued, Murray is going to ride with you on the head end.
“For a while anyway,” Murray countered. They both laughed and I felt left out of the joke.
“What are you guys talking about?” I asked.
“You'll see,” chuckled Moose, as he picked up his manifest and orders from the table. “Let's get to our train.”
The terminal yard was so big that there were crew haulers who transported the crews to the locomotives and cabooses in bright green Chevrolet Suburbans. I made a mistake of referring to a caboose and I was quickly corrected that the proper term in CB&Q territory was “waycar”, not caboose. It was called a caboose on the Great Northern and the Northern Pacific, but not the CB&Q. Railroaders were particular about things like this.
Murray and I climbed up into the lead SD-40, a monstrous General Motors Electro-Motive Division locomotive. We had seven of them, necessary not only because of the tonnage we were hauling, but because we had to make Crawford Hill, one of the highest points in Nebraska. To climb the hill, the train went through a long horseshoe curve that allowed the train to gradually climb the hill without the use of helper locomotives. Some trains did need helpers, locomotives that would tie on to the rear end of the way car and shove trains up the hill. Helpers were typically used on the other side of Crawford Hill, a much steeper grade.
We received the order to proceed out of the yard. Sandy gently worked the throttle until all the slack had run out of the train. Moose in the back end double-clicked the radio transmitter to let Sandy know the waycar was moving. As soon as Sandy heard the double-click, he moved to throttle seven, and the seven 3000 horsepower diesels roared. It was important to wait until the conductor signaled that the caboose or waycar was moving because if the engineer throttled up too quickly, the conductor and rear brakeman could be thrown against the back of the waycar if they weren't seated. I had seen several fights break out between engineers and conductors at the end of a run because the engineer had been sloppy in his train handling and given the conductor a rough ride.
As we snaked out of the yard, I turned to look back and all I could see was thick black diesel smoke and a long line of black coal cars. We were on our way.
“You gonna do it today?” It was Sandy speaking. I turned towards the engineer, thinking Sandy was asking me a question. I thought for a minute that perhaps he wanted me to call out signal blocks.
“Yep, sure am, and I'm ready, too.” It was Murray that replied to Sandy. Murray pulled out a machete from a sheath. I hadn't noticed him carrying that before. Maybe it was because you normally don't expect a railroad brakeman to carry a machete.
“What the hell are you guys talking about?” I finally blurted out. They both laughed.
“We've got a little bet, Bill,” replied Sandy. “Me and Moose bet Murray $100 that he couldn't cross the Crawford horseshoe in time to catch the waycar. By the way, Murray, there was nothing in the bet about you having a machete.”
“You guys didn't say I couldn't bring one. Without this machete, I may not be able to hack my way through.”
“That's part of the bet.” Sandy didn't want to budge.
“Wait a minute,” I said, “you're talking,” I pointed to Murray, “about jumping off the locomotive at the beginning of the curve and making your way to the other side of the horseshoe in time to catch the caboose, I mean waycar. Is that what you're going to do?”
“I sure am, and I'm gonna take these guys’ money. Do you wanna make a bet too?”
Sandy piped up, “$100 is the bet. Moose and I bet he wouldn't make it.”
This was crazy. “There's a small river down there, and it's overgrown with heavy brush and trees. And it's not just straight across. You’ve got to get in and out of a valley!” That was true. To cross you had to descend into a valley and then climb back up a pretty steep hill. I continued, “It’s gotta be over a mile. You’ll be exhausted before you start climbing the hill to get back on the train. And,” I wasn't finished, and I pointed at Sandy, “what the hell happens if he doesn't make it? Are you gonna stop the train on Crawford Hill and wait for him?”
Sandy scratched his head. “You know, I hadn't really thought about that. I guess we could say he fell off the train if we had to stop. I should be able to start the train again without helpers.”
“Well, Bill, are you gonna bet?” Murray insisted. “I'd put your money on me. Throw in $100 and you'll get your hundred dollars back plus another $100.” He was cocky now.
“No, I don't think so,” I said. “I'll just watch. No offense, Sandy, but I do hope he makes it; we're sure going to have a lot of explaining to do if we show up in Edgemont without him.”
Sandy just chuckled. “Hell, we'll get him on board somehow.”
We made good time across the western plains and grasslands of Nebraska, as we gradually climbed in elevation towards the Pine Ridge, with its hills of Ponderosa pine. After we reached Crawford Hill, we would begin entering the Sand Dunes of Nebraska, considered the largest dune field in the western hemisphere, some 265 miles long and 125 miles across.
As we began approaching Crawford Hill, some 4300 feet in elevation, the locomotives began working harder. Around one o'clock in the afternoon, our train was at the bottom of Crawford Hill, and the train started going slower and slower, as it began climbing the hill. The temperature was about 55 and the sun was still shining. “You know Murray, rattlesnakes will probably be sunning themselves down there.” I said, and pointed down to the valley of the horseshoe.
Murray got up. “I'll be running so fast they won't have time to strike. Plus, I've got my machete.” With that, he passed by me in a hurry out the front door of the cab, with Sandy hollering at him to leave the machete. Murray stepped down the platform on the front of the locomotive, tossed his machete, and lowered himself down onto the embankment. He lost his footing and tumbled, even though the train had slowed to about 15 miles per hour, but he jumped up immediately, grabbed his machete, and took off sprinting towards the other side of the horseshoe. Sandy stood up with his foot on the "dead-man" pedal, the device that the engineer had to keep a foot on to keep the air brakes from applying, and strained to see him. “Did he got off ok?” he asked me.
I watched Murray disappear into a thicket, wildly swinging his machete. “He looks like he’s doing fine so far,” I said to Sandy.
“Good,” Sandy grunted. “I still don’t think he should have that machete, though.”
We made our way through the curve, the flanges of the locomotive wheels squealing loudly as they pressed against the inside of the rails. There were oilers every hundred yards or so on the curve that lubricated the flanges in order to minimize the friction. It was hard to tell whether or not the oilers did any good.
We made it halfway through the curve. There was no sign of Murray. I walked out onto the front end of the locomotive and leaned onto the bonnet (the “hood” in front of the windshield) as I gazed out over the horseshoe valley, straining to see any movement in the brush. There was nothing moving that I could see. We crossed over the river. It looked about 15 to 20 feet wide and maybe 4 or 5 feet deep. Murray was going to get wet. There were probably brambles down there also, so he was probably going to get cut up, too. But, he stood to gain $200 and some bragging rights. That was probably worth it if he made it. I sure could have used an extra $200.
The lead locomotive was now turning into the final part of the curve and I walked back into the cab.
Sandy spoke up, “We should see him pop up any minute, don't you think?
“You sound like you're rooting for him,” I told him.
Sandy laughed, “I guess I am. Boy, don't you know the brass would have our asses if they knew what we were doing?”
“Yeah, they sure would,” I answered. “But you know what, it's kind of fun isn't it?” We both laughed.
We left the curve and began bearing towards the right. We could no longer see the inside of the horseshoe. Sandy reached for the transmitter and then thought better of it. What could he say? Dispatchers and management monitored the radio transmissions. One odd statement over the radio could bring scrutiny. Trainmasters had been known to flag trains down to board them when they suspected monkey business, especially violations of Rule G, which forbade use of drugs and alcohol on or before going on duty.
The locomotives were starting to descend Crawford Hill now. We were picking up speed. Several more minutes and all of us would have some explaining to do. Sandy throttled back the locomotives, anticipating that he would have to stop the train. Murray should've made it to the waycar before we reached the top of the hill.
Then we heard it. The double-click on the radio. Sandy wasn't taking any chances. “Everything OK back there?”
“Yep,” reported Moose.
We got into Edgemont a little after 7 p.m. The relief engineer and brakeman climbed up in the locomotive, and Sandy and I crossed the tracks towards the station. We saw Moose, but there was no sign of Murray. Sandy sidled up to Moose and quietly asked where Murray was.
“Oh, he headed straight to the hotel; he was a little banged up,” Moose said with a wink of his eye.
We met up at the railroad cafe across the street from the station after cleaning up. I ordered an omelet and hash browns. I was starving. Every cafe that served railroaders always offered a 24-hour breakfast menu. It was usually the cheapest thing on the menu, and for me, the most satisfying. Sandy, Moose, and I were halfway through our meal when Murray limped in, a bandage over his left eye that was bruised and swollen. When he sat down, I could see scratches all over his face.
“Pay up boys, I won the bet,” he demanded in a lighthearted tone.
“I still don't think we ought to pay. I never agreed to a machete.” It was Sandy.
Moose got out $100 bill out of his wallet. “Oh pay up Sandy, it was worth the entertainment value.” Sandy got out his wallet.
“Well, it looks like he's got at least $200 worth of medical expenses. I guess I'll pay.” Sandy handed over $100 to Murray. “By the way, how close did we come to leaving you?”
Moose and Murray roared. “I had my hand on the emergency valve ready to dump the air when he sprang out of the bushes bleeding and sopping wet.” Moose continued, “I had to extend my arm, while standing on the bottom step of the waycar, and just barely caught him. If I hadn't pulled him up, he'd still be lying back there by the tracks.
“Well, let's eat and head on over to Whitey's Saloon,” Murray said as the waitress put his dinner order of steak and baked potato in front of him. “I'm awful thirsty after that long run.”

Saturday, February 10, 2007

When I Give The Signal, Run!

Hitchhiking was once a very honorable way to get to where you were going. In the early 1960s, it was very common to see people on the side of the road with their thumbs out. While you might get the occasional derelict, a lot of times it was kids like us, soldiers, or people that just didn't have a car.

We used to hitchhike everywhere in Atlanta before I got my drivers license at 16 and managed to buy a car. Up to that point, though, we hitchhiked everywhere. At 14 and 15, we'd hitchhike down to Florida, or maybe up to Chattanooga. We'd meet all kinds of people, of course, some of them a little strange. I'm still not quite sure why my parents didn't seem to object. Maybe because they probably assumed I would have disregarded their admonition.

One summer Friday morning, my buddy Jerry and I decided to hitchhike to Chattanooga. I had met a girl about a month before who was from Chattanooga, and she casually said one day to come on up and see her sometime. She eagerly gave me her phone number. That was good enough for me. I had recently transferred over to North Fulton High School, and Jerry was a new friend. I don't think he'd ever hitchhiked before, but he was game. He never hitchhiked with me again, because he had forgotten to mention to his parents that he'd be gone that weekend. They were a little upset at him when we got back.

Back in those days, Interstate 75 was still mostly on the drawing board. We started out by hitchhiking up Peachtree Street, then down East Paces Ferry Road, until it intersected with Highway 41. The same Highway 41 that the Allman Brothers sing about. It was a rough little highway that meandered through the Blue Ridge Mountains, crossing over into Tennessee up in to Chattanooga.

We got several rides that took us just outside of Marietta. It was about noon and close to 90° when a beautiful 1959 Chevrolet Impala convertible pulled over onto the shoulder just past us. The driver, a white male, probably about 35 years old, motioned for us to come get it. We ran up to the car and jumped in. Sometimes of course, people would pull over only to race off just when you were about to reach their car. They considered it great sport. But this guy didn't do that. I jumped into the front seat after Jerry climbed into the back. The driver introduced himself as Jasper and we all shook hands quickly before he raced back onto the highway. Sometimes cops would ticket drivers for pulling over to pick up hitchhikers.

Jasper had hair that was slicked back with Brylcreem, and a real Georgia twang. "Where y'all heading?" He asked.

"Chattanooga," I responded. Jerry piped up in the back "we're going to see some girlfriend of his!" We both laughed. Jasper seemed like a good guy and it looked like he was going quite a good ways.

"I'm heading that way myself, just got to stop and make a little money. If you're not in a hurry, I'll get you to Chattanooga around suppertime. That okay?"

We replied that it was.

As we entered the city limits of one of the many little towns that Highway 41 passed through, Jasper casually commented, "keep an eye out for any pool halls."

We went through three towns before I happened to notice a dirty little pool hall in a small downtown. We hadn't even noticed the name of the town when Jasper slowed down for the usual 35 mph speed limit sign, announcing the possibility of another small town speed trap. Speed traps in Georgia were as common as roads named Peachtree in Atlanta.

Jasper doubled back, and drove by the pool hall slowly, peering intently at the dirty plate glass window with the words Pool Hall hand brushed in white paint onto the glass. He drove past several empty parking spaces in front of the pool hall and parked in front of a hardware store a block away. When I looked at him funny, he just said, "you'll see".

He popped the trunk of the candy apple red convertible and took out a polished wooden case. It held his cue sticks. Jerry and I looked at each other. Was Jasper an honest to God pool shark?

"Alright, listen to me. Follow me into the pool hall, but not too close. Don't act like you know me. And when I give you the signal, run to the car." Jasper lit a Camel cigarette, unfiltered of course, and started walking back towards the pool hall.

"What kind of signal?" I asked.

"Fair enough question. When I look at you and nod my head, take off to the car. Get there as fast as you can. I'll be right behind you. Just pay attention." Jerry and I looked at each other again. This was going to be an interesting afternoon.

We followed Jasper into the pool hall. Nobody noticed two fifteen-year-olds in blue jeans and T-shirts because the seven or eight people in the dark pool hall all stopped what they were doing to watch Jasper walk in very casually, holding his cue stick case. Jerry and I found two bar stools to sit on and watch the unfolding drama. It didn't take long.

A big beefy guy sidled up to Jasper. "Looking for a game?"

"I might." Jasper’s case held two sticks. He carefully selected one, and began chalking it. They settled on eight ball for $10. Both of them placed $10 on the side of the pool table.

Jasper lost. Jerry and I were surprised at how poorly Jasper played. He miscued several times, and when it looked like he should have been able to run the table, he'd miss an easy shot. At least, it looked like an easy shot to us.

The beefy guy and his buddies who had watched the match were jubilant as the victor collected his $20. Then Jasper casually said, "how about a rematch?"

Beefy guy asked Jasper how much he wanted to play for. Jasper said, "How's 50 sound?" Beefy guy quickly accepted. I was beginning to wonder if Jasper was going to lose all his money and ask us to help him with the gas to Chattanooga.

My fears were confirmed when Jasper lost again. Beefy guy was jumping up and down with excitement as he pocketed the hundred dollars. Once again, Jasper asked him if he was interested in another rematch. Beefy guy quickly accepted. Then Jasper said, "How's $300 sound?"

All of a sudden, beefy guy looked nervous, but his friends goaded him into accepting. He wasn't about to lose face to some stranger in his pool hall. He pulled $300 out of his wallet and slapped it down on the side of the table. Jasper followed suit and beefy guy broke.

It was all over in just a few minutes. After beefy guy put his first two balls in, he missed the seven ball. Jasper efficiently ran the table, and called the eight ball pocket, and quickly dispatched it. Beefy guy and his friends were stunned, and Jasper, in the most fluid motions I had ever seen, put his cue stick back into the case, latched it, collected his winnings, and turned to me and nodded. I almost missed it. Jerry did, as he was watching the small festering crowd as it dawned on them what had just happened. I grabbed Jerry by the shirtsleeve, and we casually walked out.

We were halfway to the car, when we heard a roar from the pool hall, someone running behind us, and Jasper yelling, "run!"

We didn't even bother opening doors. I jumped over into the back seat and Jerry grabbed the front. Jasper had the keys in his hand and I was sure glad to hear that Chevy crank right up. We roared away just before beefy guy and his friends reached us. Jasper had planned his parking spot well. There was no stoplight nearby that would've allowed the angry mob to storm the car. We made a clean getaway out of town.

Jasper stopped at a truck stop 20 miles down the road, after he was convinced no one was chasing us. He even bought us hamburgers.

After he dropped us off, I found a payphone and eagerly called the girl we had come to see. There was no such number. I had been duped.

We spent the night in a park and hitchhiked back the next morning. Every now and then I wonder if Jasper ever got caught by any of his pigeons!

This is an excerpt from my new book "Atlanta as a Small Town: Stories of Growing Up Southern".
©2007, William J. Brotherton

Saturday, January 6, 2007


As a railroad brakeman working for the Burlington Northern Railway out of Grand Forks, North Dakota in 1979, my normal lot in life was to be called for local freights that ran up long lonely stretches right up to the Canadian border. As a brakeman on locals, you would work 12 hour shifts, usually nights, switching out grain elevators, spud houses, and bean warehouses. Sometimes it felt like you walked the entire route, as you hiked up and down spur lines to spot and pull hoppers and boxcars. And, to add to the misery, I typically worked the most when the weather was at its worst. Days and nights when the temperatures were maybe 30°. Not above Fahrenheit. Below. When the crew caller rang you up and announced to your tired soul “Walhalla local, 3 p.m.”, or “Drayton local, 6 p.m.”, you cringed.

So it was always a pleasant surprise when you were called for something out of the ordinary. A job where you might even be able to sit and enjoy the ride a little bit. The best calls were for coal trains. Just climb up into those swanky SD-40’s, the best locomotives on the system at the time, and do absolutely nothing but sit and watch the signals, maybe periodically look back at the train on curves to make sure nothing was dragging. Compared to the tired F-9’s and GP-9’s we typically operated, locomotives that were built in the 1940s and 50s, the SD-40's were heaven. They even had working bathrooms (well kind of -- the toilets usually didn’t stink)!

The second-best call, after coal trains, was for a dogcatcher. At least for most of the time. Sometimes, though, a dogcatcher was its own special hell.

A dogcatcher was a special crew called to relieve another crew that had gone dead on their hours of service. Twelve hours was the total amount of time a train crew could work. Going dead meant that they had managed to use up their entire 12 hours of service, while either working a local or trying to get a train to its destination or interim stop. What typically made a dogcatcher assignment great was that you knew at least half of the trip would entail just riding in some form of transportation in order to get to the dead crew. And best of all, you typically got round-trip pay for a day trip, something that rarely happened. That meant you would go relieve the dead crew, bring the train back in, sign out, and boom, you were back on the extra board available for another trip after your eight hours rest. Several dogcatch calls during a month usually meant a little fatter paycheck.

The term dogcatcher arrived from a long ago railroad superintendent in the northeast, who, being irritated at his train and switch crews for taking too much time to complete their assignments, accused his crews of “screwing the pooch”. Generally, the term used in North Dakota was “f***ing the dog”. Hence the term dogcatcher.

Now when you were called for a dogcatcher, there were usually several ways the dispatcher could send you. If there was a freight going your way, you would either ride in a trailing locomotive in the consist or you would ride in the caboose. If there was such a train, your first choice would be to try and ride in the caboose, because normally the trailing units were units that were not qualified as a lead unit. The trailing units could be behind the lead unit for a variety of reasons. The unit could simply be dirty inside, the holding tanks for sewage were full (typical), or there was some sort of malfunction such as a non-working speedometer that prevented the unit from being on the front end. So the caboose was always the first choice. Sometimes, however, the conductor would make his dislike clear for having additional crewmembers ride in “his caboose”. In that case, the conductor would fuss enough the whole time you were in his caboose, thereby making it almost preferable to ride in a stinking, trashed out, trailing unit. If you ended up stuck in a malodorous unit, it was usually so cold outside that you couldn’t open the windows to air out the stench. Four or five hours in a locomotive that smells of fecal matter, urine and/or disinfectant chemicals was not my idea of fun. And boy would the wife complain about the smell in my clothes!

On one snowy North Dakota evening, shortly after midnight, I was called for a dogcatching assignment to relieve a crew that had gone dead in Dilworth, Minnesota. What had happened was that the crew had made it about 10 miles out of Dilworth towards Grand Forks when two of their F-9 locomotives broke down. The dispatcher sent out more power from Fargo to replace the dead units, but the relief power malfunctioned also. The crew went dead. So the dispatcher ordered a relief crew and two locomotives from Grand Forks, 75 miles away. That was us.

And so, as we left the Grand Forks yard, the snow was blowing, it was 35 below and we were in command of two tired GP-9's for a hopefully quick turnaround in Dilworth. I was dreaming of a fatter paycheck for the month when we hit the first CTC (centralized traffic control) signal on the main line.

Now in North Dakota, there is always a danger in the wintertime of switches getting filled with snow, and producing a gap between the switch point and the rail. As we were heading down the main line to Fargo, the dispatcher put us into a siding to allow a coal train to get past us on the mainline. This was CTC territory and the dispatcher had control of the siding. Unfortunately, as we proceeded into the siding, we felt the locomotive lurch and we knew we were “on the ground”. The dispatcher was not happy when we reported that we had derailed trying to get into the siding he had lined us up for.

As we stumbled out into the cold, I realized we were in for a long night. The four of us could only stare at the huge locomotive wheels sitting forlornly on the ballast. There was nothing we could do but wait for the carmen, the personnel that would get our locomotives back on the tracks.

We sat in the locomotive, engaged in idle conversation, tried to doze, and ended up waiting for 3½ hours for the carmen to come out. In the meantime, we had completely shut down the single-track main line and trains begin to stack up. When the carmen finally arrived in their big four-door pickup truck, they were all business. Using a device called a frog, we finally got the front trucks of the lead GP-9 back on the tracks. The dispatcher told us to proceed into the siding and stay there, as he tried to clear up the mainline.

The dispatcher finally authorized us to proceed back onto the mainline only to put us back into a siding 20 miles further down, where we spent another hour and a half. By the time we reached Dilworth to pick up our train, we had 1 hour left before we went dead. Both the crew we were sent to relieve and the dogcatching crew (us) were sent to the Silver Spike, a local railroad hotel, to tie up for the night. We wouldn't get back to Grand Forks till late the following evening. It was far from the quick turnaround I had envisioned.

Sometimes you would get called for a dogcatcher and the railroad would have a crew hauler shuttle you to your train. Such was the occasion when I was called for a dogcatcher at 3:00 in the morning on yet another snowy, cold night. We were being sent to relieve a crew that had made it about 30 miles out of Devil’s Lake towards Grand Forks with a mixed freight consist. The crew hauler, a contractor who was on call to pick up train crews when there was no other way to get them to their trains, loaded us up at the yard office. The crew hauler used Chevrolet Suburbans to move people in, and the four of us fit in comfortably. Being the low man on the totem pole seniority wise, I got in the very back seat in an attempt to catch some shut-eye. It would be an interrupted sleep.

We took off from Grand Forks, and as usual in a North Dakota snowstorm, it was slow going because you could not see the centerline and it was a two-lane highway all the way to Devil’s Lake. We were almost 3 hours into our trip, and about half an hour away from our train, when suddenly, the big Suburban swerved violently and we spun around a succession of times. I hung on as best I could, cringing in anticipation for the rollover or crash. It didn’t come. Luckily, we barreled into the snow filled ditch alongside the road and came to a halt.

Everyone sat still for a moment after the vehicle stopped, stunned with disbelief. I quickly felt myself all over to make sure I didn't have any broken bones, and everyone else pretty much did the same thing, all the while beginning to holler questions at the driver. I assumed the driver had fallen asleep.

The driver opened his door and climbed out of the vehicle, and the rest of us followed suit. The Suburban’s left side was tilted up towards a still dark sky, and we all got out on that side and dropped down into the heavy snow. We still didn't know what happened, but the driver started slipping and sliding across the road towards a vehicle on the other side of the highway. The driver turned and hollered to us “that son of a gun nearly killed us! I barely missed him!” It was then that I realized that the vehicle had been on our side of the road, parked as if it was in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Not a light on, and the vehicle wasn’t running. All of us cautiously approached the vehicle, a battered Chevy 4-door sedan, wondering what we'd find.

There were four people inside. They appeared dead. A chill went up my spine, and I immediately assumed that hypothermia had killed the four people. The car stalls, they can’t get it started, and they freeze to death. It happened often in North Dakota. That was why North Dakotans always pull over to check when a car is stopped on the side of the road. But, I wondered, why did they stop on the highway itself? There was room on the shoulder for the car to have pulled over. Why would someone put others at risk? We would find out.

The driver of our Suburban started hammering on the window, getting more and more agitated as he thought about how close we had come to being killed. We tried to open the doors of the sedan but they were locked. No one moved in the car.

“Keep trying to get in the car; I'll call for help on the radio,” our driver hollered as he made his way back to our tilted vehicle. The conductor had brought his lantern and he shined the light inside the decrepit, trash filled vehicle filled with what looked like four corpses, all men. We kept banging on the windows and doors of the Chevy. Our conductor hollered, “let’s break a window”!

Then, like a miracle, someone stirred in the car. We hollered louder, and I saw eyelids flutter of one of the men in the backseat of the car. He opened his eyes, and didn't appear startled in the least to see us. We continued to bang on the window, shouting, “Open the door,” and finally, the one conscious individual in the car pulled up a door lock.

I opened the door, and the smell knocked us all back. It smelled like a distillery. As the colder air rushed into the squalid vehicle, the other three men in the car began to stir. They were dead all right -- dead drunk. They couldn’t even speak, and it became obvious that they had simply decided to park the car and sleep it off. Almost killing us in the process!

“Well boys, it doesn't look like we're going to get to Devils Lake to pick up our train,” the conductor said with a sigh. “Let's see if we can get the Suburban started and wait for someone to come get us.”

He was right. We ended up going dead on the side of the road and Grand Forks had to send out another crew to relieve us. The four drunks ended up going back to sleep after we shoved their car off into the ditch. They didn't even get out to help us. It took several hours for the North Dakota Highway Patrol to get out there after they were informed there were no injuries. It took even longer for the wrecker to come out and pull the Suburban out of the ditch. I was glad my wife had packed a hot thermos of coffee. It was all I had to sustain me for that trip.

Sometimes, the railroad didn't have a train or a crew hauler to take us to our destination. Such was the case one summer morning when I was called for an 8 a.m. dogcatcher to Fargo. At the crew office, we were loaded up into the typical Suburban and I assumed, wrongly it turned out, that he was simply going to drive us the 75 miles down to Fargo. But I was wrong. He dropped us off at the Grand Forks bus station. We were taking the bus to Fargo. But not Greyhound. We were taking the Gray Goose, a Canadian bus line.

Now the last time I had taken a bus was when I was a kid and my mother would pile us kids into a Greyhound bus and we would ride for two straight days to get from Atlanta, Georgia to Underhill, Vermont. Now here I was catching a bus from Grand Forks to Fargo. I felt somewhat nostalgic as I boarded the bus. Apparently, there were a lot of nostalgic people in Grand Forks, because the bus was crowded. I grabbed the only available seat I saw, near the front of the bus, and sat down next to a teenaged mother with a small infant. I prayed that the infant wasn't a screamer.

God must not have heard my prayer.

As soon as the bus pulled out of the terminal, the baby let loose with the loudest screams I had ever heard in my life. “Waaaaaaahh, Waaaaaaahh!” the baby shrieked. The mother sat absolutely still -- she didn't reach for a pacifier, a bottle, anything. She just stared straight ahead. Everyone on the bus started looking at me, apparently thinking that it was my responsibility to get the kid quiet. Maybe they thought I was the father. I shuddered at the thought.

As the bus proceeded down the highway for the next stop in Hillsboro, the bus driver began turning around and staring at me. The kid had screamed incessantly throughout the short journey. I finally said something to the mother. “Do you have a pacifier?”

No response. I might as well have been trying to communicate with one of the drunks passed out in the car outside of Devils Lake. She continued to stare straight ahead and wouldn't even acknowledge me. I pulled my car keys out and tried to get the baby interested in playing with the keys. Somebody hollered from the back of the bus “hey, shut that baby up!” There were murmurs of approval from the rest of the group on the bus. The bus driver looked back at me again and gave me a long cold stare. This was turning bad. No matter what I did, I couldn't get the baby to quit crying and screaming.

Finally, the driver had enough. The bus swerved and then lurched onto the shoulder, coming to an abrupt stop. All of us pitched forward with the slamming of the brakes. The thought came into my head that the driver was going to pitch the mother, her baby, and me off the bus. Fortunately that didn’t happen. But the bus driver did jump out of his seat, and he pointed directly at the young mother and her screaming child. “Lady,” he roared, “if you don't shut that kid up right now, I'm putting you off this bus. Do you understand me?” Everyone in the bus, except me, the mother and the driver, began clapping. Some stood up to give him a standing ovation. I had to laugh.

The mother quickly came out of her catatonic state. Out of nowhere, she instantly produced a pacifier and a pack of crackers. She stuffed the crackers into the kid’s mouth and the baby immediately quit screaming. At the ceasing of the screaming, the driver gave one more “I really mean it!” stare, and sat back down to resume our trip. The rest of the trip was relatively quiet. Every now and then, the baby would start to whimper, the bus driver would turn back to glare, and the mother would spring into action to make sure she and the baby didn’t get put off the bus. It was a long trip to Fargo.

I was worn out by the time we reached Fargo. I was especially glad when I was able to climb into a relatively quiet locomotive cab. Compared to the derailed locomotive and the near death experience outside of Devils Lake, the bus ride was by far the worst experience I ever encountered on a dogcatching trip.

If you liked this story, then you'll enjoy "Burlington Northern Adventures: Railroading in the Days of the Caboose". Click on to order the book.