Workin’ on the Railroad

My husband has worked on the railroad for thirty-three years. I have known him for thirty-one of those years. He is a third generation railroader, so it is in his blood. Three of his four brothers worked for the railroad. One died in the performance of his duty there.

There’s a lot of romance associated with the railroad, particularly among men. They will stop my husband when they see his truck because they want to know if he rides or drives train. His truck is a big four-wheel drive that has both tires for the road and rail wheels for the track. The technical name for it is a high railer. I have never figured this fascination out, really. Is it the power of the trains that intrigues them, or is it the freedom?

Railroads move a lot of goods through this country. Recently, FEMA trains have traveled down my husband’s territory hauling thousands of trailers for the people in the South that have been displaced by hurricanes. Trains are an economical means of transportation since they operate on track beds that have been established for a long time. They don’t tear up the roads like trucks do, and they can carry hundreds of trucks worth of stuff at a time. Everyone, even me, gets annoyed when they have to stop at a railroad crossing and wait for a long train, but I don’t think the general public appreciates the way the railroad gets them what they need.

Anyway,over the years, I have found out some pretty interesting things about the railroad, particularly since my husband came here to Indiana and works on a single track main. He is in the maintenance of way department, which means that he maintains the track on which the trains run. Much of the rail in his territory was made pre-1950. It is open-hearth cooled. Since the cooling of this rail was not controlled, it sometimes has internal defects, sort of like air bubbles. Those defects obviously weaken it, so when something heavy like a 450,000 pound engine runs over it, sometimes it cracks. Those broken rails always seem to break in the dark, partially because they are more susceptible to breaking when it is cold outside, and it is colder when it is dark. Such was the case this morning. This time the call came at 4 AM. Just like Sunday night and Thursday night, he had to go investigate.

The way people know there is trouble is that a track light comes on in the dispatcher’s office, which is sometimes hundreds of miles away. The dispatcher can tell that the problem is most likely within a certain “block,? but he or she cannot really pinpoint it more than that. My husband’s territory is over a hundred miles long, and a single block can be miles long as well. That’s a lot of track to check!

A track light’s remaining on after a train goes by can indicate a problem with either the track or the signals, so a signal maintainer is called out as well as the track supervisor. If the problem is determined to be signal-caused, my husband gets to go home. If it is caused by a defect in the track, he has to see that it gets fixed. The maintainer has to stay either way to see that the signals work safely. Track signals work sort of like traffic signals work on the highway, and you know what happens when a traffic signal doesn’t work at a major intersection!

Anyway, when he left this morning, all my husband knew was that the problem was north. Railroads go through a lot of little towns. The towns grew up when the railroad was booming, and a lot of them haven’t grown since, but they are quaint and sort of nice. In the first town north, my husband saw that crossing flashers and gates were activated when there was no train. He thought that might indicate the source of problem, and he called the maintainer. The maintainer thought so too, but of course that would have made life easy. No such luck.

The maintainer checked power at signal boxes while my husband set on the rail and rode over it, hoping to see or feel a break. Then the maintainer isolated the problem a little more. He (the signal maintainer) set on the track to see if the problem was the signals or the rail. He had some weak electrical current. Usually there is no current if the rail is broken, but you never know.

My husband heard a train go into emergency, which means they have to stop until they detect a problem. He went on into town to help them, partially to be a nice guy and partially to make sure that they hadn’t gone into emergency because they derailed. A train has air brakes, so it goes into emergency if its air supply is interrupted. Somebody has to get off the head end of the train and walk along until he finds a problem. Trains can be quite long. It was cold this morning, and dark, of course. The walking can be quite a chore.

My husband found the conductor and helped by bringing him the tools he needed to fix a broken air hose. Then he gave the man a ride back up to the train’s engine. This helped everyone out because the railroad makes its money when the trains move. If they are delayed, it costs them. Sometimes such delay is inevitable, but you don’t want any more than is necessary.

During the time my husband was helping the train, the maintainer found the broken rail. Now he has talked about broken rails a lot, but I have never seen one. Obviously, since broken rails delay trains, the railroad takes major steps to avoid them. They have a Sperry car that comes out and sort of X-rays the rail, looking for internal defects. There is actually a job for a rail inspector. He looks for defects that can be seen with the naked eye.

You have to understand a tiny bit of physics to get why rail moves in the first place. I mean, it is obviously heavy and also some of the best quality steel there is. But when it gets hot it expands, as things do, and sometimes loses the alignment it needs to keep the trains moving they way they should. They don’t really steer like a car because they are on a fixed track. And when it gets cold, the rail contracts. If there is a defect, it often occurs at a stress point, and the cold is enough to make the rail actually pull apart.

This morning’s broken rail was because of an engine burn. You wouldn’t think about an engine’s burning something as heavy as rail, but locomotives weigh 450,000 pounds, so there is a lot of friction between them and the rail. The engine burn was enough of a defect that, coupled with the cold temperatures, the age of the rail and the stress of a train’s weight, the rail broke. In addition to that, this was an “A? rail, which means it was cast from the steel on the top of the ingot at the steel company. Of course the refiners skim impurities from the top, but you can never get them all. Couldn’t have been that impure though. This particular rail was made in 1946. That makes the piece of rail that broke this morning fifty-nine years old. I’d say that’s a highly efficient piece of equipment!

The break in the rail pulled apart about two inches. In addition, the rail was offset. My husband had to watch a train over it; like I said, the trains must move. For fear of derailing, the train started over the break at walking speed.  The work wasn’t done even then. My husband had to call three people out to change the rail before the maintainer could make sure that the signals were working properly. At least it wasn’t dark by then,though. This all started around four. It took two hours to replace the broken rail, but twice that time to find it.

The railroads are a sort of romantic job in that there is a lot of literature and music associated with them. Everyone has heard of the trans-continental railroad. Everyone knows the stories about Casey Jones and John Henry. Children even read about The Little Engine That Could. In reality though, working on the railroad is hard work. It requires long hours. You have to be willing to travel. And you have to be physically fit. For many jobs, you have to be able to lift fifty pounds. You also have to be willing to study. There are rules about operating on the track, and you have to know them.
My point is this: despite the problems our nation’s economy may have, despite the lack of manufacturing jobs available, there are still some traditional time-tested jobs out there. Working on the railroad is one of them.

Just thought you might appreciate the insight.


1 Response to “Workin’ on the Railroad”

  1. 1 salcodray November 26, 2005 at 7:10 am

    Hey there nice blog!

    I’m a rookie gumshoe for the CN up in Michigan. Found your information about the railroad very interesting.

    The railroad is definately a very dangerous place to work, as a police officer I find the trains to be more terrifying then making traffic stops in Detroit!

    I already had a close call once while some trains were switching in a yard.

    Feel free to check out my blog anytime at

    Tell your husband to stay safe out there and if he’s ever in the Port Huron area to look me up. Once again Great info on the rail, it’s so interesting the history out there.

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