Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Optimist's Weekend

If I was the gambling sort, I'd never go to Vegas again. I just used up my lifetime supply of good luck.

Dear Wife and I were in San Diego this weekend, she for classes and me for tagging along. While she was in classes on Saturday, I ran off into the mountains to visit the San Diego Railroad Museum in Campo, about an hour and a half east of town. I'd always meant to visit the SDRM, but had never gotten around to it when we lived in San Diego. Among other things, they have two pieces of equipment I really wanted to see because they're common locomotives on my layout: a restored SP T-31 steam locomotive and an ex-San Diego and Arizona Eastern / Southern Pacific C-8 Consolidation. I've never seen a real version of either locomotive, and really wanted a sense of what these locomotives were like in real life.

I also saw they were having train rides Saturday afternoon from Campo down to the Mexican border, and that sounded fun. Better yet, for $35, they'd give a cab ride in the little diesel switcher they use on the excursions.

Unfortunately, when I got to Campo, I found out the little switcher wasn't working, and they'd had to delay the morning ride. They did have another working locomotive - their big GP-9 diesel locomotive - but it was buried behind a couple of other non-running locomotives, so they'd have to do a bit of shuffling to get the locomotive free, then transfer diesel fuel to the new locomotive.

And they did, though it took a lot of work on the part of the volunteer crew. So, around 2:30, I got up on the Geep, sat in the fireman's seat, and watched the world go by from the engine. It was a lot smoother than I thought, and I got to hear the radio chatter between the conductor and engineer as they confirmed speed restrictions, worked the air brakes and dynamic brakes on the downhill ride, and pushed the engine up the hill on the uphill ride. The two memorable parts were looking down from the locomotive as we crossed the high bridge just in front of the tunnel to Mexico (what keeps the locomotive on that narrow bridge?!), and seeing real railroading as the company officer doing a check ride questioned the engineer on the rule book.

That's how I got to spend Saturday afternoon cruising through the desert.

But that's only half the lucky break.

Now, there's the joke that once you've gone through college, you'll continue to have nightmares where you show up to a random class and find out to your surprise that a final's being given... and you're not prepared. Whoops!

Christine and I went over to Balboa Park on Sunday to check out the art museums. I also wanted to see the model railroad museum and the La Mesa Model Railroad Club's famous Tehachapi Loop layout. The La Mesa club's fame comes from a layout that accurately models a major bit of mainline railroad, with wide curves, long trains, and realistic scenery. Since I was last there in the 1990's, they'd built a second level on the layout and built a model of the Tehachapi Loop itself.

So we go to the museum, and I point out the Bakersfield yard area to Christine, show the realistic scene at Ilmon, and the sidings and horseshoe curve at Caliente. While we're there, we see a fair number of operators around on the layout; they're from another model railroad club, and visiting today as part of one of La Mesa's operating sessions where they use 1950's railroad practices to control the layout and run a realistic set of trains. The operators probably spent the last couple days reading the rule books to make sure they could run the train in a prototypical manner. The crew I'm talking to are stuck up on the hill waiting for a meet so they can finish their trip down to Bakersfield.

As we're talking, someone comes out of the staff area - a friend from the National Convention in Sacramento in July. "Robert! Great to see you, we could use some more crew. Can you stay til 8 p.m.?" Turns out they're a couple crew short for this operating session, and it's keeping them from getting realistic traffic levels. I can't do 8 p.m. thanks to a flight out, but I can make it til 6:30, and when he suggests running a train, I suggest, "well, I could even take one of the operator positions", knowing that most folks like to run trains and the operator positions usually aren't sought-after.

He likes that, and leads me upstairs to Woodford to relieve the current train order operator who'd love a chance to run trains today.

Now, on the real railroad, the train order operator at Woodford sits in the depot at a siding about two-thirds of the way up the mountain, transcribes phone messages from the dispatcher exactly, and hands them as expected to the train crews as they go by. The operator also controls the train order signals to stop oncoming trains for which orders exist.

On the model, the operator sits at a desk in front of one of the few remaining unscenicked areas of the layout, hidden from the public by an air duct. He has a pad of train order sheets, a pile of carbon paper for making copies, and a headset and microphone for communicating with the dispatcher.

And then comes that "today's the final" image. The previous operator sits me down, gives me the headset, and shows me the paperwork and starts to lead me through the job. But the buzzer buzzes, and I step on the talk button and respond "Woodford!"

"Woodford, prepare to copy one train order, Mojave prepare to copy one train order... Mojave: To extra 4280, Woodford to First 806..." Ooops. I figure out that they direct the order to each train separately, but I figure that out only as the dispatcher starts rattling along.

"Engine E-N-G forty-two-thirty FOUR-TWO-THREE-NOUGHT run extra E-X-T-R-A Mojave M-O-J-A-V-E to Kern Junction K-E-R-N-J-C-T..."

And I get half the words, and catch the rest as the Mojave operator reads back his copy as a test of accuracy. I mess up mine, the dispatcher re-reads, I correct my copy, and my instructor explains what I'd missed, and how I'd better set up another pair of train orders with the carbon paper so I'm ready for next call from the dispatcher.

And that's how the next six hours ran, with some moments of terror as I made sure I set the train order signal (masonite flags on a 2x2 with string to set - works well, even if they're not pretty) and learned how to write up a clearance card and check with the dispatcher for correctness, and wrote another ten train orders. I also had a bunch of idle time in between to look at the nearby layout, because the story of the railroad is "hurry up and wait."

But I survived, and even got some compliments for a not-horrible first day as an operator. And I'd even go back and do it again.

And those nightmares about the unexpected final don't seem so scary any more.

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