Distributed Problems
Saturday, May 22


5:30 a.m. - On the scanner by the bed I hear, "I can't budge them, Phil. I'm going to set the brakes..." The transmission, on the channel used by the BNSF between Creston and Albia, is scratchy but readable. The crew rings up the dispatcher and explains the predicament. The radio signal fades in and out, but I'm able to learn that this is a distributed power train, with BNSF 8817 on the point, that's broken in two just east of Osceola. The head end power can't back the front half of the train toward the rear. I figure they must be on the downgrade into Woodburn. The dispatcher decides to consult higher powers.

The next transmission is from "Chief Dispatcher, Fort Worth". This gentleman opens the conversation with a helpful, "...we move trains over 1.5 percent grades there with two units all the time. What's the problem?" The loco's radio is barely readable now, but I catch, "...rear traction motor cut out..." in the middle of a long explanation. The Chief is surprised to learn that they've broken in two, "...d'you get a knuckle? She didn't tell me that. We've got a lot of eastbounds behind you." He decides to seek consultation, too.

I get up and head downstairs. On the kitchen radio, I hear a trainmaster come on and call 8817. He wants to talk to the "am-jo mentor" (sounded like that, anyway). He says they'll probably cut off some power from a following train to help them move the rear of the train. (Do you M.U. with the remote loco, I wonder? This problem leads to some discussion later in the day.) Mr. Trainmaster says, "After you get the train back together, they can help you get it started." This makes me wonder if anyone out there trying to help actually knows the track profile.

I'd not planned on train-chasing today, but the weather's great and the situation on the BNSF is interesting. I'd heard that it was being used but not yet seen DP here in Iowa. When I get back from my morning walk, the railroad's still trying to figure out how to handle the problem. Seems the knuckle pin's bent and they've called for help to come out with a torch. Instead of cutting power off of a following train, they're talking about bringing the pushers over from Albia to work the rear of the train, and using a strap to set out the car with the broken knuckle. Obviously this situation is going to take some time to resolve itself. Aaron and Christy are here for a Sunday family pot-luck, so I get Jan to wake Aaron. Would he like to go train-watching with Dad today? Sure!

We roll around 8:30 and hurry straight south to Lucas and the crossovers the railroad calls "Shannon" at the base of Whitebreast Hill. By the time we get there, the pusher power has almost reached Chariton, running west on the eastbound main. Another train is coming down the hill normal to wait clear of the crossovers for the pushers to go to the westbound and run around the disabled train.

At 9:20, the westbound, a coal empty with EMD 9048 and BNSF 7097 stops at the bottom of the hill. They've picked up fuel at Maxon and have a string of tank cars behind the engines. About this time, the DP train calls in to announce that they've solved the pin problem, replaced the knuckle, have their train back together and are proceeding. Dispatcher "SLY" has come on duty in the meantime. Always cool and friendly, he just laughs on the air when he learns that the helpers, now through Chariton and heading down the hill, aren't even be needed. Amtrak No. 6 is right over SLY's shoulder, expected at Creston at 9:30, and several loads are already occupying Main 2 between Creston and Osceola. I think I'd have put the helpers in the yard at Chariton for Amtrak, or even run them all the way back to Albia, but after a couple of minutes, they decide to take them on west and put them on the rear of the DP train, "Just in case."

Shortly, the pushers appear on the eastbound grade. BN 5097 and EMD 9094, with Conductor Crawford and Engineer Podrovich, whom we met at Halpin the other day, stop, line the crossover, pull onto the westbound main, put the crossover switches back to the main, and move on to meet the DP train at Woodburn. Aaron and I decide not to wait at Shannon, but to run east to Albia for what promises to be a busy day on the hill.

On the way into Albia, Aaron and I drive by the spot on the south hill where the pile driver's been working. The track is obviously in need of alignment, but everything else about the project appears to be completed. At the Albia yard we find the ballast train Jan and I'd seen at Melrose a few days ago. BN 1413 and a few cars are tucked away on the elevator track at the southwest corner of the yard.

Aaron and I head out to Maxon, but on the way hear the detector east of Maxon announce a westbound, so we stop at a grade crossing to catch it. This turns out to be OGSX cars behind BN 9497 and BNSF 9795. They're in Albia at 10:40. At Old Maxon we find another railfan, a friendly fellow from Centerville. Before there's time to talk, another westbound empty comes by. This time it's FSTX hoppers with BN 6822 and 7117.

If the 9:30 at Creston figure is correct, we figure Amtrak will be getting here any minute. No telling how long they might have been delayed by the DP fiasco over by Osceola, however. By 11:20 we learn that they're on their way up the south hill. Before we see Amtrak however, 663's train rolls in from the east with SF 6381, BN 2362, and a few syrup tanks. At 11:28, the CZ crests the hill and roars by us. On the point are GEnesis units 37 and 81, followed by aging 328. The engineer leans out of the window and screams "Yeeee-Haaaa" as he passes our lineup of three photographers. With no one else in the cab, the train is then brought to an abrupt stop while he copies a warrant to continue out of the CTC into track warrant territory.

With the local knocking corn syrup cars around on Main 1, the next westbound crosses over and heads down the south hill. It is by us at 11:41 with BNSF 9970, BNSF 8839 and BN/BNSF cars. Aaron's now out of film so we make a quick tour of Albia's square, but can't find any of the "Advanced Photo System" stuff he needs.

The ill-fated DP train is the first up the hill behind No. 6, arriving at 12:40. There are two units on the head end, BNSF 8817 and BN 9554. They stop so the pushers can cut off, but the 5097 goes into emergency and won't reset. After a few minutes of work they get things moving, and at 1:00 p.m. the train's rear end comes by with BNSF 9827 pushing - not a soul aboard. Aaron counts the JE hoppers and comes up with 121 cars - later verified by the detector's axle count of 502. Later in the afternoon we will hear that they went into emergency due to a separated air hose near Fairfield - jinxed train, I guess.

J.P. Cottrell's gang has been waiting to get some time on the south hill to finish things up near MP 307 where the pile driver's been working. They get 45 minutes and the helpers are dispatched back down the hill to pick up the next load and bring it up the north way. From radio conversations, we know that there are at least four more trains waiting or approaching from the west. There's also a westbound waiting at Maxon. Knowing that it will be awhile before the next train moves through the area, Aaron and I go out to Pamida for his film and get some take-out to eat back at the yard.

At 1:50 we hear the helpers start up from Halpin. By 2:00, the load arrives at the yard. This train has CEPX and WFAX gondolas and BN 9629 and 9583 on the point. It takes about 8 more minutes before the pushers appear. Knowing that Cottrell and company will soon clear the south hill, making room for simultaneous east and west traffic, we move on out to Maxon where both mains are visible. At 2:18, 9629 has its EOT back in place and moves east through the crossover at Maxon and away toward Ottumwa on Main 2.

The parade begins.

2:30 Maxon, WB UCEX hoppers - BN 9773 and BNSF 9990
2:56 Maxon, EB AEPX gons - BN 9442 and BNSF 9784
We move down the hill.
3:06 First crossing west of Maxon, EB BN cars - BN 7833, 5009, EMD 9029. Scowling conductor studiously ignores our wave.
We move down the hill again.
3:25 Packing House crossing, EB BN, FSTX hoppers - BNSF 9778, 9962

We get on Hwy. 34 and head toward home. We hear an eastbound, BN 9714, clear at Halpin just after we leave. We spot another near Russell, two orange and one cream and green in charge. A westbound, 9668, clears at Maxon at 4:20. 4721 East clears at Halpin one minute later - probably the orange one seen at Russell.

The helper crew is released, apparently for good now that the piling project is done.

We make a pit stop in Chariton and catch another eastbound at 4:30 at the Roland Street crossing. JE hoppers with BNSF 9866 and 8874. For reasons known only to its programmers, the Olympus won't let me take a picture until it's too late and I get a closeup of the first big orange thing. Blankety-blank computers!

More trains are on the way - it's one of those days when you have trouble deciding when to go home, but homemade pizza and a visit with the grandkids (the niece and nephew in Aaron's case) are calling.

That's It!