Trouble on the Hill

Wednesday, April 13


Wednesday was "Campus Day" at Simpson College.  This event used to be an unscheduled collection community service projects done on some fine Spring morning.  Recently those who favored the impromptu approach (myself included) have been out-shouted by the retentive, and the day is now known well in advance.  With advance knowledge comes planning, and my plan was to get trackside.

After a rainy start to the week, the weather cooperated on Wednesday and we had a clearing sky and 46 degrees when I left home and headed south at 6:15.  I just missed a northbound grain empty at 6:40 as I passed through Melcher - it was a little dark for pictures of a moving train anyway.  I drove on down to Chariton and called "Julie" to check on No. 6.  The Zephyr was a couple of hours down, but expected to reach Osceola at 9:24.

Things were very quiet on the BNSF radio this morning.  I decided to drive over to Albia and see what I could find there today.  I was nearing town when I heard the helpers, led by BNSF 5733, get a warrant to go east to Ottumwa and push a train (9632) that had stalled on Agency Hill.  I also learned that Main 2 (the "South" hill, a gentler grade taken by eastbounds) was out of service due to a broken rail and several broken concrete ties.  I learned later that the signal maintainer and others had been at work on this since about 5:30 this morning.

Around 8:30 the Ottumwa desk dispatcher called an eastbound (BNSF 9649) and asked how many cars they had.  The reply was "119".  He then asked, "Do you think you could make the north way with your three units?"  They answered that they thought they could.  I drove out to Old Maxon, near the east end of the CTC and where the mains come together at the top of the grade, to watch them come by.  I heard them clear their warrant with the KC desk at 8:40.  By this time a westbound (BNSF 8911) was on its way over from Ottumwa.

I waited at the top of the hill, finally hearing 9649's horns a little after 9:00.  I walked out to where I could see their headlight to the west and waited.  And waited...  It looked like they weren't moving.  I went back to the Jeep to listen to the scanner and learned that their rear unit (they had 2 in front and a DP unit behind) had given up just as the head end reached the top of the hill and they had stalled.

There followed all sorts of discussion about how to get them moving again.  The crew on 9649 nixed adding power, either the helpers whenever they returned, or from westbound 8911, to pull them up, fearing that a knuckle would break somewhere down on the hill.  Consideration was given to waiting for repair, even a temporary one, of Main 2 and using it to run around the coal load as well as to get the approaching passenger train through.

While all of these options were being considered, I drove to the west end of the yard where the stalled train sat, at 9:20, with its nose just into a grade crossing.  The conductor was out raising the crossing gate for a steady parade of ready-mix trucks from the plant just north of the yard.  He told me that they were doing fine, making 9 mph, when the rear unit went off-line and they came to a quick stop.  The second unit on the head end of the JHMX hopper train was BNSF 5616.

Discussion of a solution to the problem concluded with a decision to not make a temporary repair of the south track, and to stop the next eastbound, the DENGAL, short of the west end of the CTC to clear a train.  The DENGAL power would then cut off, go up the north main, couple to the rear of the stalled load and lead it back down the hill, across to Main 1 and into the clear on the KC side.

I drove down the hill on a gravel road that goes between the mains and spotted the track work on a curve just short of a bridge over the gravel, around milepost 307.   The crossover switches were lined and the signals at Halpin, the west end of the CTC, were cleared for the DENGAL power.  When they came by me at 10:10, it looked like the BNSF had been to a diesel flea market when choosing a consist for their eastbound Denver to Galesburg freight.

After the DENGAL power went up the hill, there was a very long wait while the two crews worked out the details of connecting the two trains, getting the airbrakes to work, and setting retainers on a number of cars so that 12,000 tons of coal didn't end up propelling them all back down the hill.  While I waited, the Zephyr arrived and pulled up to Halpin at about 11:25, having been talked by a distant signal by the KC dispatcher, who was careful to deny any knowledge of what "they" were doing on the Ottumwa side.  (It's not my delay!)

At 11:36 the DENGAL power reappeared and led the coal load through the crossover onto Main 1.  From the rear, the six units were, BNSF 6323, FURX 3003, BNSF 552, CSX 8159, GCFX 3080 and BNSF 7883.  The rear unit on the stalled load turned out to be BNSF 8834.  The load came onto Main 1 through the crossover and backed past the waiting passenger train, with the head ends of the two trains parallel at 11:43.  Engineer Denise whistled off at 11:45 and headed her train up the hill on Main 1.  In the California Zephyr today:
AMTK 197 and 148
Baggage 1242
Sleepers 32085, 32009 and 32041
Diner 38055
Sightseer Lounge 33000
Coaches 34038, 31520 and 34074
I knew that by now there were several westbounds waiting and that it would still be a while before Main 2 opened, so I got some takeout and drove out to "old" Maxon at the top of the hill.  At 12:10 BNSF 8911, that had been waiting since about 9:00, went through with a set of DEEX empties and just one unit.  A speedswing with a bucket full of ballast came down Main 2 heading for the repair work just a few minutes later.

Next in line was another empty, BNSF 9946, COEH tub gons with BNSF 5439 on the rear.  I drove to the yard to catch the helper power, BNSF 5733 and 9735, now returned from Ottumwa and tucked in on the Des Moines branch to clear Main 1 at 12:38.  In less than 10 minutes, the headlight of another westbound appeared.  This turned out to be three units, BNSF 8937, 5716 and 9860 going down the hill with JHMX cars.

I again headed down the hill on the gravel between the mains and found the trucks leaving the repair work at about 1:15.  At the same spot I caught yet another empty coming down Main 1, BNSF 9743 with CSX 7506, hurrying down hill with almost new (03-05) PNJX tubs.

Back at Halpin with Main 2 open and a 25 mph speed restriction for "unstable subgrade" in place, 9649 pulled again.  They went by with the lead two units and accelerated for the climb with the now-operational the rear unit at 1:30.  Twenty minutes later the DENGAL came around the corner and waited for a signal to follow the load up the hill.  I was joined at this point by BNSF Ottumwa Sub. dispatcher Kevin Schelen, who, in response to my prompt, announced that he certainly would not have sent that load up Main 1 this morning!  KRS's motto is, "If Amtrak's in the state, you will get to wait."  After the DENGAL departed, so did I.

That's It!