Wednesday, July 4, 2012

"Stop All Trains at Caliente"


(My email account was briefly high-jacked a couple of weeks ago, and an errant posting to this blog was one of the unhappy byproducts. My apologies to my readers. )

My fascination with the railroad history of the R Street corridor tends to concentrate my attention on the micro level, a part of a single switching district (albeit one with two class one railroads in it). Every once in a while though it’s good to look at a somewhat larger picture. Something of a regional scale would be nice… Something that takes me from the world of the switch list to the world of timetable and train order (TT&TO)…

Model railroad operations embracing TT&TO rules need a large layout, preferably with a terminal on each end and some decent room to run in between. It needs enough willing and knowledgeable operators, dispatchers and train crews to make it believable. But if there is a group that is willing to do the work needed to setup and crew such an operation, and they have a layout large enough and configured correctly, then there is no better simulation on earth that can better replicate the teamwork and strategic thinking that was needed to move trains across the country in the era before locomotive equipped radios and GPS.

On the weekend of June 9-10 2012, I was given the opportunity to take part in such a simulation. It was a two-day operations session at the La Mesa Club in the San Diego Model Railroad Museum.
Earthquake damage near Bealville.
The La Mesa club is famous for reproducing in HO scale the territory between Mojave and Bakersfield including the dramatic Tehachapi Loop. La Mesa's layout is set in 1952, and the club is meticulous about the details that make that date ring true. For instance, there was a 7.3 magnitude earthquake in July of 1952 in Kern county, and the La Mesa club has faithfully modeled some of the earthquake damage to one of the tunnels between Cliff and Bealville.

Every quarter or so, the club hosts a weekend TT&TO ops session which can only be described as ‘hardcore”. They run trains from 8 am to 8pm on both Saturday and Sunday. The two twelve-hour sessions taken together represent a full 24 hour day in 1952. Not the same day over and over; time keeps advancing. I don’t know how many sessions they’ve done, but I believe they started their clock sometime in November of 1952, and when we finished for the weekend when I was there, it was December 4th, 1952.

They keep track of everything. At the end of the weekend, the location of each train is recorded and then re-staged at that location at the start of the next session to finish its run, three months later.

The setup obviously requires a tremendous amount of effort and organization, which includes not only the trains but the paperwork as well. Any orders left outstanding are retained and given to the new crew who will pick up the action next time around. My friend, Robert from San Jose (who ‘scored’ me the invitation and was my roommate for the weekend) and I saw a bit of this effort on Friday night after we got into town. Getting an advanced peek allowed us to get a little more familiar with the layout and its maze of duck-unders and hidden track work.

The map from the La Mesa Timetable.
My experience with TT&TO operations is limited, and certainly nothing could prepare me for operations on this scale. Fortunately they sent a ‘pilot’ with me on my first two jobs who was very knowledgeable and walked me through the thought process a train crew has to go through to figure out whether it’s safe to venture out on the railroad (and how far). Our first job was a westward extra SP freight train that was at Woodford at the end of the previous session. We were given the clearance form (can’t go on the main without it) and the two original orders, numbers 58 and 60. As an extra we didn’t have rights over any scheduled train in the timetable, but the orders gave us some meets with some of the later sections of second class train 806.

Order number 58 gave us our mission and gave us some meets with those 806 sections I mentioned and an eastward extra:
ENG 6386 RUN EXTRA MOJAVE TO KERN JCT AND MEET FOURTH 806 ENG ATSF 3900 AT WOODFORD FIFTH 806 ENG ATSF 225L AT CLIFF EXTRA 3259 EAST AT CALIENTE AND HAS RIGHT OVER SIXTH 806 MOJAVE TO BENA
Bena is the end of single track on the layout when going westward and if you have rights over a train to Bena you don’t worry about them at all. Kern Jct. is essentially Bakersfield, the end of the line.
Order 60 was addressed to extra 3259 which amended our and another westward extra’s meet locations with him and allowed him to advance against us past Caliente:
EXTRA 3259 EAST MEET EXTRA 6245 WEST AT ALLARD INSTEAD OF CALIENTE AND MEET EXTRA 6386 WEST AT WOODFORD INSTEAD OF CALIENTE
When we picked up the train at Woodford, my friend Robert was playing the part of the Woodford operator and he handed us an additional order. Order 66:
THREE EXTRAS 6150 WEST 6386 WEST AND 4230 WEST HAVE RIGHT OVER NO 808 MOJAVE TO BENA.
This helped some. It was just after 8 pm ( a little after 8 am on Saturday morning in reality). Our extra had originally been called up around 6 pm. The two hour delay now put us on 808’s time. He was due to leave Bakersfield at 8 pm if he was on time (and we had to assume that unless given an order to the contrary), and we would have to calculate where we would have to duck in to a siding to let him past, but this order relieved us of that chore.

After a couple of runs with my pilot, I was running trains on my own and having to make these calculations by myself (sometimes with the help of passing TT&TO veterans… they were very kind to me down in San Diego).

At the end of the day on Saturday I had just finished up a long slog with a slow extra that had made it through the territory without incident. I was tired and looking forward to knocking off, but then there was word of an accident near Caliente. One of a second class freight train’s helper engines derailed somehow in one of the tunnels, actually hitting the abutment and ‘clothes-lined’ a string of eight PFE reefers off the track, four of which tumbled into the river at milepost 334.8.

Just part of the wreck.
This wasn’t staged; it was a real and spectacular derailment. Instead of just re-railing and continuing on, the folks running the session decided to try to “game it out”. They ruled that the crew of that helper locomotive was killed and the locomotive itself would need to be towed. The Caliente operator told me the dispatchers were consulting the rulebook (the La Mesa club has their own rule book based closely on the 1952 SP rulebook) on how to write up orders for this sort of thing. First they sent a simple but dramatic order to the Caliente operator:
HOLD ALL TRAINS AT CALIENTE

This was order no 17 (note the lower order number since we were into a new day and the order numbers start over at 1 with the new day). There was probably a similar order given to Bakersfield at some point, but I never saw it.

The plan was to send wreck trains from both ends of the layout and clear the line. I was offered to run the wreck train from Bakersfield, and even though I was pretty beat, I couldn't refuse.

I picked up my clearance at Kern Jct. with order number 18:
ENG 2850 WORKS EXTRA 655 AM UNTIL 900 AM BETWEEN BENA AND M.P. 334.8 NOT PROTECTING AGAINST EASTWARD TRAINS
I wouldn’t have to worry about trains coming up behind me during that time window.

My work train at the wreck location.
Both wreck trains had to rearrange their things to get the cranes on the respective points. I did my reshuffling at Ilmon. When we both arrived we simulated clearing the line and then the recovery of each reefer. When the cranes were positioned on either side of a wrecked reefer we could 0-5-0 it back to the track. The other work train pulled each reefer back to Caliente separately which was the only way to keep the crane on the point. In reality, most of the reefers would not have been anywhere close to road worthy after that tumble, some probably smashed to bits (fresh, but rapidly wilting, produce as far as the eye could see…). Regardless, it was a fun, if long, exercise. Just about everybody had a camera out. 

Work Trains at Caliente
After we cleared the line, both work trains reported to Caliente and that ended the Saturday session. Saturdays session was actually about 14 hours. We went a little long because of the ‘incident’. So about 10 PM on Saturday, the crew settled down for a well deserved pizza feeding frenzy there in the museum. I was beat, but it was a good kind of tired. It sorta felt like I earned overtime pay!  

On Sunday we picked up the action with both work trains taking the ‘damaged’ reefers from Caliente and the ‘damaged’ helper locomotive that was left set out at Ilmon to Bakersfield so the repair crews could get to work on the equipment. After that, the run session could continue normally.

I was able to run many trains over the course of the weekend from hotshot passenger trains to lowly extra freights. I made more than a few mistakes, but I learned a lot while committing them. At various times, I was offered yard assignments and a switching job- all of which I turned down. I’ll more than likely accept next time, but I was simply enjoying myself too much on the hill.

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