Disassembling the planet for Powder River coal.

JOHN MCPHEE – The New Yorker

(This excerpt is a bit of glorious writing about trains by John McPhee in the Oct. 3, 2005 issue of the New Yorker, and part one of a two part series. Highly recommended.)
Copyright The New Yorker
“C” was for coal train, “TS” for power in the Tennessee Valley, and “BT” for Black Thunder Mine. CTSBT was the proper name of the train, in the way that Broadway Limited, Burlington Zephyr, Super Chief, and Florida East Coast Tamiami Champion were once the names of other trains. Five Florida East Coast Tamiami Champions could not have filled a track beside CTSBT, which was seven thousand four hundred and eighty-five feet long, on this January morning in Marysville, Kansas, and was actually running shorter than most coal trains. There were a hundred and thirty-three aluminum gondolas (hoppers) and five diesel-electric locomotives-three in the rear, two of them deadhead. Replacing another crew, Paul Fitzpatrick and Scott Davis climbed into the lead unit, after sending me up the ladder before them. We had slept at the Oak Tree Inn, a motel under contract with Union Pacific, in rooms that Paul Fitzpatrick described as “darker than the inside of a football.” The rooms had been quiet, too, heavily armored against sound and light so that train crews could sleep during any part of a day. For us, the protection had not much mattered. The company’s call from Omaha-as always, ninety minutes before reporting time-had come at 5:05 a.m.
Heading north and northwest, we were soon going up the grade to cross the divide between the Big Blue and Little Blue rivers. Overnight, heavy ground fog had frozen in the trees, had frozen on every weed, wire, and bush, so that-two weeks after Christmas-Kansas appeared to have been sprayed white for Christmas. From horizon to horizon, the raking light of the sun shot forth through the ice. Fields were confectionery with thin snow. Our eyes were fifteen feet above the tracks and more than that above the surrounding country. We got up to forty miles per hour ascending the grade.
The train could go that fast because it was so light. It was empty. The five locomotives and the mile-and-a-half length notwithstanding, the entire rig weighed less than three thousand tons. And now Scott Davis, the engineer, said, “I’m going to air ’em out, Paul.”
And Paul Fitzpatrick, the conductor, looked through his track warrants to see what restrictions may have been set up ahead. Then he said, “O.K., buddy, blow the dust out of ’em.” Not that there was much coal dust left in those empties as we topped out at sixty going down to the Little Blue.
Winds that a train stirs up are not in the conversation with winds that can stir up a train. “If you’re pulling empties, a north wind can take you from fifty miles per hour to eighteen,” Scott said. In places like Kansas, Nebraska, and Wyoming, stiff winds have stalled trains. To wreck a train, you don’t need a tornado. In Utah, between Salt Lake City and Ogden, winds coming out of the Wasatch canyons and crossing the tracks of the Union Pacific have knocked down empty ballast trains, empty coal trains, and double-stacked-container “intermodal” trains-events known collectively as “blowovers.” In the Laramie Range, the Wyoming wind will shoot up a slope and lift a train from below.
“Tailwind, you get a little better speed, a side wind will slow you down,” Scott said. From behind the cab windows of a diesel-electric locomotive, wind is difficult to assess. It can be blowing hard and you don’t really see it, let alone feel it. “You’re making fifty, then you’re struggling to make forty-seven. You think, What’s the reason? Wind? Or some problem with the train. Your curiosity is wondering why.” Passing through towns, Scott looks for flags. He looks for wind socks at airports. But mainly he looks for the sweep of weeds in the ditches, for the legible motions in trees, and, if the weather is dry, for the speed of moving dust. We came to the state line and left Kansas for Nebraska.
Paul said, “Your intelligence goes up ten points when you cross that line. Back there, you go barefoot, screw your cousin, and try to steal something.”
Paul and Scott are from North Platte, Nebraska, where Paul was born. Scott was born in Ogallala, fifty miles west. In the language of the railroad, their “turn” is North Platte to Marysville and back. They make the run at least ninety times a year-now and again, but randomly, together. They know every siding, every crossing, every movable-point frog, every rising and descending grade. Train crews don’t just go off in all distances and directions, like the pilots of corporate jets. Train crews work locally on memorized track and terrain. To get a coal train from, say, northeast Wyoming to central Georgia, you would need at least eleven different crews. The central figure in such an odyssey is not an engineer, a conductor, a dispatcher, a trainmaster-the multiple, replaceable, and redundant human beings-but the coal train itself, which, power and payload, end to end, will be integral all the way from mine to destination, no matter who is in or around it, or whose tracks it is running on.
Paul’s thumbnail sketch of Kansans was in a category with his profile of ranchers in Wyoming, another of the six states that frame Nebraska. He described a public hearing at which a Wyoming official outlined a proposed program for the sterilization of coyotes. A rancher lifted his hand, and said, “We don’t want to fuck the coyotes, we want to get rid of them.”
We heard the screech of wheels slipping on the morning frost. The sand light came on in front of Scott. He depressed a plunger, releasing sand. We saw an eagle where Paul had seen a bobcat in summer. We ate smoked trout, the result of a fishing trip that Paul and Scott had made together. We ate an excellent piquant meat loaf that Scott had brought from home. And we ate reconstructed turkey breast in Subway sandwiches, sheepishly contributed by me. They mentioned approaching landmarks as we entered the blocks in which the landmarks would appear: an Indian burial mound, other humps that had covered ammunition during the Second World War, an immense cottonwood at Mile 188 (a redtail was sitting in it), Rosie’s Crossing (an unprotected farm crossing). “She raises hell if you block it.”
All through the morning, we met loaded coal trains-on Track 2, coming the other way. Five in the first two hours. Seven miles of coal. In the loaded coal train CNAMR, we had come down the day before from North Platte to Marysville, two hundred and fifty miles. CNAMR was on its way from North Antelope Mine, in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, to a power plant on the Meramec River, a Mississippi tributary close to St. Louis. In Union Pacific hieroglyphs, the destination always comes last. Our CTSBT would fill up at Black Thunder Mine and emerge as CBTTS.
In the cab of a coal train, imagine the difference if the coal is there behind you. Trains that carry automobiles, mixed-cargo “manifest” trains, and intermodal container trains can weigh as little as four thousand tons. CNAMR weighed nineteen thousand tons. When loaded coal trains lengthen out to a mile and three quarters, they can weigh as much as twenty-three thousand tons. Nothing heavier rolls on rails. Diesel power on its own could scarcely budge that kind of weight. The diesel engines inside locomotives are there to generate electrical power. Separate electric motors turn each of the six axles. To move the throttle to Notch 1 and start up such a thing is to wait for perceptible motion. Soon after Notch 2, the pressure of acceleration comes into your chair and begins to run up your back. Move the throttle to Notch 3, and you may feel that you are driving the North American Plate.
Paul said, “It’s a touch.”
Scott said, “You feel the train in the seat of your pants.”
After Notch 4, even your underwear can feel the train attenuate. By Notch 5, you are beginning to develop an interest in whatever might be happening a couple of miles ahead. Notch 8 and you are flat out-minding the loaded speed limit, fifty miles an hour-and thinking ahead at least one county. Below Notch 1 are two neutral stages-called Set Up and Idle-and below them are the eight notches of the dynamic brakes. Across the dynamics, you can feel the coal pressing on your back, feel the train condense. There could be an off-the-wall analogy to a twenty-speed bicycle but it does not immediately come to mind. Beside the track from time to time, you see a small post with a black X on it-seemingly no larger than a playing card. It signifies your proximity to a grade crossing-any kind of grade crossing. A farm crossing with no signs. A signed crossing from the era of Stop Look & Listen. A crossing armed with blinking lights. A crossing armed with blinking lights and automatic gates. A whistle-guard crossing that plays a recording that sounds like a train. In the two hundred and fifty miles of the North Platte-Marysville turn, there are a hundred and forty-one X’s beside the track, a hundred and forty-one grade crossings. If you are driving a train past them, at each X you depress on the console before you a metal mushroom that would not be out of place in a pinball machine. As it sinks into the console under the butt of your hand, the locomotive produces its classic sound. Or, as the clarinettist Skip Livingston e-mailed the tubist Tom Spain, “I’ve been listening carefully. The trains differ-different locomotives have different pitches to their horns. But I did hear one while I was moving snow on Sunday morning, and I was able to get to the piano before I lost the notes. They were A sharp, E, and F sharp below middle C, which made it sound like an F-sharp-7 chord (minus the C sharp). The instruments that would come closest to the sound would probably be trombones.”
Passing an X, you first play one long chord on the mushroom. Then you repeat it. Then you tap a short toot. Then, if you are virtuoso, you play a final long chord that begins to fade exactly when you nose over the crossing. With so much to do, your hands are almost always touching something on the console. But if you let fifteen seconds go by while you do nothing at all, the alerter will let out a full-scale pentatonic scream. The alerter is the modern version of the “dead man’s pedal.” The old engineers had to keep down that pedal or their trains would screech to a halt. Now the alerter screeches, and goes on screeching like a smoke detector, until you come to and force it to shut up. The alerter has its own mushroom.
Paul sat on the left-conducting. He had his own speedometer, his own mushroom for the horn. He had his thick sheaf of papers full of orders and warrants. He wore a beige baseball cap with red lettering that said “Cornhuskers.” Lanky and limber, spectacled and scholarly, he was fifty-seven, and under the cap he hadn’t much hair. Scott, far right, looked down into computer screens and up at cab signals, which reproduce inside the locomotive the signals outside, along the track, and are more than helpful in mist and fog. He was fifty-four-and, as it happened, five feet four-and under his red University of Nebraska ball cap was a receding brush cut. Their two seats were like upholstered thrones, as was a third, between and behind them. They had refrigeration, bottled water, and-a few steps forward and down toward the front door-a hand-cranked toilet of the type that is found on private vessels. No toilet paper in the toilet. No sink. No mirror. This was not the yacht Britannia. Toilet paper is in individual crew kits supplied at terminals by the company.

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