It is a minute shy of the noon hour on a gorgeous, cool January Sunday morning in Kingsbury, Texas, and already the patrons are arriving across the tracks at The Derailment Saloon, quite possibly to imbibe of the ‘hair-of-the-dog” treatment as a remedy for Saturday night’s over-indulgence.
At the stroke of 12 o’clock high the barkeep will turn the key and open the doors to the soothing flow of spiritual tonic.
But for the next few moments at least, the throbbing of high-horsepower diesel motors and the blaring of horns and the pounding of flanged steel wheels across the west switch of Kingsbury siding only adds to the misery of those seeking liquid absolution.
Positioned at this very moment at 18 degrees south, 86 degrees west, and at its zenith 1044 nautical miles west of La Paz, Bolivia, the sun casts its long winter shadows as the noontime quiet is broken by AC4400CW 6567 and her stablemates storming through town with a westbound manifest freight rolling along the historic Sunset Route on January 28th, 2018.
Simply put, the job is tough.
Anything that has to do with transporting the commerce of a nation is not for the faint of heart nor the weak of spirit.
Although there are manpower shortages across the board, the thin-skinned need not apply.
The applicant should possess the ability to absorb a goodly amount of bullshit AND the equal ability to hand it right back in short order.
The fallacy of a 9-to-5, Monday-through-Friday, all-Holidays-off schedule is just that: Smoke from that last bong hit you took, which there will be no more of because you’re going to have to pee in a cup for the DOT or the FRA. After all, who doesn’t remember 1987 at Gunpowder interlocking.
You have no schedule: Day becomes night, night becomes day and Tuesday is the new Friday---at least until the dispatcher calls and says he’s got a hot load and you’re the one to get it to L.A. by Friday morning, or the callboy buzzes you and says the 2AEGLI-10 is YOUR train and it’s going to leave Kirby yard in two hours bound for Englewood in Houston, and he thinks it’s best if you be on it.
Weather is never a factor: You work in it whether you like it or not. You’re down crunching the ballast in Flatonia as you stop to cut-in that string of empty hoppers that the local dragged in from the brewery down in Shiner as the Mother-of-all-Texas-thunderstorms opens up and the heavens dump cats and dogs and the kitchen sink down on you with such ferocity that not even the rain slicker can keep you dry---
It’s 18 degrees outside and you’ve got more layers on than the Michelin Man at 5 am when you arrive at the well site to pickup your first load of crude and your loading hose is stiffer than a board and it’s hell trying to get her hooked up to the loading header. The steps up to the tank are coated with ice, so you use your pipe wrench to bust it off so you can get up there and work the oil, and the wind is blowing like a hawk and sends your hardhat sailing across the cow pasture and you have snot icicles hanging from your mustache. You come back down to start loading only to find all the *&$@%!! trailer valves are frozen and it REALLY sucks to be you.
Just another day in Paradise.
But you still have the best job in the company, riding on twin ribbons of steel with forty-four hundred horses just on the other side of the bulkhead and 6,652 tons of an 85-car train stretched out over 6,154 feet behind you.
Your hogger is good. He gets her rolling smartly out of the hole at Kingsbury after that fast Z-train flew past going west, and before you get to Sullivan’s he’s got the ears pinned back on her.
Used to be, when you’re riding in the cab of that Peterbilt 8 feet above everybody else on the highway, dragging that load out to Shaky Town, you got to enjoy some awesome ‘scenery.’
But the pretty girls don’t pull up their tops and let you enjoy their ‘Twin Peaks’ anymore, and the kids in the back seat are too engrossed in their phones to pump their arms and get you to blow the air horns.
And now most people wave at you with just one finger.
But it still sucks to be a dispatcher. That’s a thankless job that’s only for the Machiavellian glutton-for-punishment types, I don’t care if it’s over-the-road or rail transport.
You’d rather be out in the field.
We chase trains for a hobby.
We know the specs of every locomotive out there, and if we don’t know them by heart we can always Google them.
We can listen to scanners and know when the ZGBLFART-something-or-other has passed the hotbox detector at the Air Force Academy on its way up Monument Hill, and we can be ready to shoot it from the grassy knoll across from Palmer Lake, or hurry on up to Larkspur and catch it there.
We simply find trains fascinating, and the place we love most to be is anywhere that promises maximum exposure to their comings and goings.
But there is a human aspect of this that often gets overlooked. For every GE or EMD or ALCO dragging tonnage across the national rail network there’s a guy sitting in the right-hand seat with his hand on the throttle or the brake, skillfully controlling 7000 tons of goods on the drawbar, a camera recording his every move in case he screws up.
Across the cab there’s the conductor, waybills stuffed into the pocket of his blue jeans, calling out the signals as they approach, ready to grab his modern-day brake club and crunch the ballast to make a joint.
For every Peterbilt rolling a tanker laden with 170 barrels of 39-gravity sour crude towards the pipeline station, or a reefer filled with California strawberries towards the hellhole at Hunt’s Point, NY, there’s somebody with their hands on the wheel and eyes deftly scanning ahead for any signs of trouble, sipping on 40-weight grease slick coffee and fighting off the Z-monster at 4 am.
The job is not glamorous by any means. Any glitter that it might have had started to tarnish not too long after you stepped into it.
It’s gritty, it’s dirty, it’s hot, it’s cold, the hours are beyond long, the food sucks and you’re always tired.
But you signed up for it anyway, and you’re still doing it---
Because it’s still the best job in the damned company.
Next time you’re down trackside and you’re wondering what’s in those boxcars or double-stacked containers, or you pass up that slow-assed 18-wheeler that’s been holding you up on that 2-lane blacktop for the past 5 miles and you’re tempted to wave that middle finger at him, stop for a minute and think about your house and everything in it: Clothes in the closet, shoes in the rack, food in the fridge and on the table, toilet paper on the roll, gas in the tank of the SUV you’re driving as you get ready to flip-off that damned truck driver.
You’ve got your answer.
While you’re out livin’ the dream, they’re out there making sure you’ve got all the stuff you need to do it.
It ain’t glamorous; it’s just real.
At 12:18 pm on Friday, August 10th, 2018 here’s C44AC number 7244 on the head end of the 2AEGLI-10 eastbound manifest freight as the hogger heads her out of the siding at Kingsbury, Texas and onto the main. A fast, westbound double-stack train had them in the hole, but now with a green board the hogger brings ‘em across Gander Slough road and out towards Houston.
There are some pretty good shots to be had as she splits the signals, and then the left side window slides back and, much to my delight my good friend Chris Dotterman gives a hearty wave.
Yep, a special catch for me indeed.
And thanks, Chris, for using more than one finger to wave with.
That’s much appreciated by this ol’ truck driver.
I’m the shooter on the grassy knoll.
But there’s no trench coat concealing a take-down sniper rifle, nor fedora and dark glasses to hide my identity…
Just black Wranglers and cowboy boots and a bright yellow Hawaiian shirt with naked ladies on it and a Canon strapped around his neck.
I’m here to record the scene as the hogger onboard the 7244 brings the 85 cars and 6,652 tons of the eastbound 2AEGLI-10 blasting upgrade past the tail-end of the holed westbound ASMKB in the siding at Luling, Texas.
It’s 12:32 pm on August 10th, 2018 and Chris Dotterman is riding the left-hand cushions in 7244, having crewed the unit since being called for it earlier in the day at Kirby yard on the east side of San Antonio, his home base.
They’ll deliver their tonnage to Houston and see where Uncle Pete will send them next; perhaps north to Hearne on a fast stack train and then south down to Smithville and the Lockhart Sub with a loaded grain block heading back towards San Antonio.
They’re at the mercy of the dispatcher, and with more trains than crews on an already-busy system, you can bet that once they have met the 10-hour rest requirements set forth in the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 49, Subtitle V, Part A, Chapter 211, they’ll be called back on duty.
It might be a few days before they get back home.
Such is the life of a railroader.
But Chris won’t complain:
He’s livin’ The Dream.
It’s the waning days of summer, but central Texas is still firmly in the clutches of the season as a high pressure system lies stationary over the region, funneling in warm, moist salt-laden air off of the Gulf of Mexico, making conditions right for suffocating temperatures and the formation of cumulus clouds at the lower reaches of the atmosphere. The southerly breezes gently sway the Johnson grasses at ground level, but at altitude the brisk winds aloft tear at the clouds, feathering them into thin and delicate wisps.
It is under these skies that, at 11:08 am on September 17th, 2017, Union Pacific’s C45AH number 2554 pilots a heavy westbound train of frac sand-laden AOKX 2-bay hoppers downgrade at the Valley Way road crossing near Reedville, Texas.
Later in the day, after the temperature has reach close to 95 degrees, this train will roll into Halliburton’s facility located inside Rail Logix’ sprawling Alamo Junction complex at Elmendorf, south of San Antonio, TX.
But here and now the two head-end units, plus the rear DPU utilize their dynamic braking as they ease the heavy train down into the Blanco River valley.
Photo by Rick Malo.