On Brakes and Derails and Apprentices

When young seniority Milwaukee Road yardmen went out on the road for the first time, they were quickly learned the basics of their craft: air brakes and hand brakes. Their instructors were their conductor, engineer, and swing brakeman, all of whom made this point crystal clear: "if we are on the mountain and the air dynamites, you will run, not walk, and tie hand brakes on every car from the power on until you are told otherwise." Thus I was to find myself at all hours in all weather, climbing up to the top of one boxcar after another until the hoghead sounded the "all clear." This was basic in the Milwaukee Road family, air brakes bleed, and sometimes they bleed fast. Milwaukee brakemen were of the old mode, their job was all about brakes.

But if someone didn't do their job, there was the failsafe, the derail. If you set out a bad order at someplace like Boylston, a siding on a mountain grade; or even at some place more tame such as Othello itself; the siding was equipped with a derail at the downhill end (perhaps both ends at Othello, I don't know, maybe the yardmen needed protection from hard kicks). Thus we see in these slides an Ellensburg-bound boxcar in the derail at the west end of Boylston. Better derailed than a "cornfield meet."

On the old time railroads, the Milwaukee Road, the Northern Pacific, the Great Northern, the Union Pacific, and all the others, one learned one's craft on the job. The youngest man on a train, yard, or engine crew, was effectively an apprentice. No training course, no lessons, no formal instruction. One learned in the real world, from experience. But when I hired out on the Burlington Northern, I entered a world in flux, where the old ways were out, and the new world of bureaucratic education was in. Being "an experienced rail" I was not required to attend formal instruction. But my colleagues were, and it showed. It is true that we had all green crews in Milwaukee Road Seattle Yard, their only experience being two weeks formal instruction (the new way) at the Poodle Dog conference room in Fife, Wash. But the hoghead was there, and the yard ma! ster was always hovering, even pulling pins if necessary. On the B.N., the green crews just sort of aimlessly wandered around. Management seemed green as well. They kept changing operating practices, sometimes on a daily basis. When a cut of cars was left on the mainline at Ferndale, Wash. with not one hand brake tied, with disastrous results (the air bled off, a cut of several cars, I don't know how many, rolled into a downhill spur, and smashed into the Pacific Northwest Bell telephone exchange facility at the end of track, ending phone service for much of Whatcom County for several weeks), Burlington Northern management issued a system-wide change in procedure as to how cars with air were to be cut off on mainlines. We were to stop the movement, bottle the air, make the cut, bleed off the air on the cut off cars by holding the air hose and slowly opening the angle cock so as not to dump the air. Befor! e that, we always just dumped the air. Maybe this procedure was easier on the equipment, but it did not obviate the necessity to tie hand brakes, about which nothing was said.

Then there was the 1981 incident at Scenic, in which startled hippies driving westbound on U.S. 2 were heard to exclaim "Far Out Dude!" The Seattle Times reported that this Volkswagen Microbus on the Steven's Pass highway was almost intercepted by a flying Burlington Northern locomotive that landed on the highway right in front of it. The lack of apprenticeship in this case resulted in the failure of a green hoghead, and a green head brakeman, to tie a hand brake on their separated head unit when their westbound train dynamited at Berne, right at the east portal of the 7.9 mile Cascade Tunnel. When the brand new front unit separated, its diesel engine shut down, and its air brakes bled off immediately. Meanwhile hoghead and brakie were on the ground scratching their heads. Then the hoghead notice! d the unit starting to creep towards the tunnel and climbed back on board to set the hand brake. That brake, only on one wheel, was insufficient to stop the unit once it started moving on the downhill mountain grade. As the unit entered the tunnel and began to accelerate, the hoghead abandoned ship. B.N. train dispatcher Bob Stewart told me later that they had clocked that unit at 100 mph before it became airborne at the 25 mph curve west of Scenic siding. Far out indeed. Maybe the B.N. needs derails on the mainline.

pix: BeverlyBridge caption: "View West, Columbia River Bridge at Beverly" pix: BeverlyBridgemerge no caption pix: BoystonTunnelmerge caption: "View West, Boylston Tunnel - Summit of the Saddle Range, 17 miles west of Beverly" pix: Boystonsidingmerge caption: "Boxcar derailed at west switch Boyston (west of the Summit)" pix: Renslowmerge caption: "View East, Renslow Trestle over Interstate 90 (west of Boyston)




© 1976-2007 John Crosby. Photos may not be used without permission. All rights reserved.