Kevin Standlee (kevin_standlee) wrote,
Kevin Standlee

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I've Been Working on The Railroad

[Composed 24 April 2006]

I spent much of today at the Oregon Electric Railway Museum in Brooks. It was a wonderful bright, sunny, cloudless day, and Lisa and I were not going to spend time indoors if we could help it. Originally, we only went over there to drop off our dues check, but we found a bunch of the museum volunteers working on a project that could use a lot of spare hands, and we ended up spending much of the afternoon there. Unfortunately, not having planned for this, I hadn't taken my hat or put on sunscreen, and ended up with a sunburn on my face and head for my trouble, but I had a great time anyway.

Here's the setup: the museum has a four-track carbarn in which the more fragile or valuable pieces (or those currently undergoing renovation) live. In a few weeks, the museum plans to move the Blackpool tram from the Willamette Shore Trolley where it currently lives to the OERM in Brooks. They need to make room for it in the carbarn. Located in the barn are a pair of PCC Muni Streetcars, one of which operates and the other of which is a parts source for it. The parts-source car was located at the far end of track 4, so they needed to pull everything out of that track, put the parts-source on a track outside, and put the rest back in the barn. In front of the two Muni cars was Sydney Open Car #1187, which is often used in revenue service. (Lisa has driven it with me aboard, for instance.)

The initial plan was to use a drawbar to connect the Sydney car to the first of the two PCCs, then use the Sydney car to pull it out and put it temporarily on another track, then go back and get the junk car. Someone else suggested using the electric freight motor, but the Sydney car apparently had better slow-speed control, and they wanted to move this stuff very slowly, it being a little fragile and the track not being in great condition.

Stage 1 (pulling the first car out) seemed to go okay. My job was to watch a particular switch as the wheels rode over it and sing out if there was any problem. They pulled the car out and over the switch without a problem.

"Are y'all aware that the top of that switch frog has a cracked rail?" I said.

They told me, "Yes, but it's been like that for six years now. We're afraid that if we weld it, we'll make cars more susceptible to derailments." I shrugged. No wonder they wanted to pull things out dead slow.

So they threw the switch over and started to back the Sydney car up, when the first problem arose. Those drawbars were never designed for pushing, only pulling. We had to stop and loop a bunch of chains over the drawbar connection on the Sydney car to prevent the drawbar from swinging out. This seemed to work, and so the motorman eased the PCC into its temporary new home.

As the Sydney car went through one of the switches, the person watching it yelled "stop!" The right forward wheel on the front truck of the car had "split the switch" (that is, the left wheel had tried to go one way while the right wheel went the other) and derailed, dropping the wheel into a gap between the switch rails. The other three wheels of the truck were still on the track.

First things first: the PCC was on the track we wanted, so we undid the drawbar. It wasn't really as far down the track as they wanted, so we were told to try pushing the car. Three or four of us put our backs into it, and the car began rolling down the shop track.

This is when the flaw in the plan became more obvious. Nobody had thought of how to stop the car once we got it rolling, and the track is just slightly downhill here. There was nobody on board to hit the brakes. Everyone else ran for the front of the car to try and stop it, while I grabbed a bracket on the rear and dug in, leaning back like I was water skiing as the car dragged me down the track, leaving two furrows in the ballast. (In retrospect, this probably was not a smart thing to do, as I could easily have fallen under the car, and had it decided to roll backwards, I wouldn't be writing this right now.) By tossing blocks of wood under the leading wheels, they got the car to stop about ten feet away from running into the next car parked on that track. Whew!

Now back to the first problem: the derailed wheel looked to all of us as if it would just ride back up onto the rail if he backed the car up the way it had come. The motorman put the car in "notch 1," and nothing happened. Or rather, the wrong thing happened. "Smoke! Smoke!" yelled one of the lookouts at the other end of the car. Smoke was coming out of one of the two working traction motors on the car. They shut the car off, and for safety, Lisa grabbed the rope connected to the trolley pole and pulled it off the wire. (The only thing on the car that uses electricity is the motor and lights; the brakes are manually operated, as they've never gotten the compressor fixed for the air brakes.) The smoke stopped.

Okay, so that didn't work. That wheel was well wedged between the rails. So there was nothing to do but go get the hydraulic jack and a bunch of wooden cribbing, which they keep around for days like this. First we had to jack the car up part-way, then use tie-plates and wooden cribbing to hold it there, then remove the jack and put it up on more cribbing so we could jack it higher. Once we got the wheel completely clear of the rail, we could throw the switch underneath it and lower the car back onto the rail. Problem solved.

(Note that I say "we" when mostly what I did was watch and carry blocks of cribbing and metal plates back and forth.)

Lisa re-energized the Sydney car, but when the motorman tried to move it, he discovered that notch 1 wouldn't work. When he went to notch 2, the car lurched forward, but this is like operating an automobile that is missing first gear -- not a good idea. It appears on first reading that we've burnt out something on the motor, which will now need to be worked on. How much work, and how difficult it will be -- the museum does not have a drop-pit, so pulling motors for work is a pain -- remains to be seen.

So he lurched the Sydney car down the line to get it out of the way and pulled out the freight motor out to do the rest of the switching, which in retrospect was probably what we should have done in the first place, but never mind. Lisa climbed aboard to ride on whichever end the motorman wasn't, as a lookout, and also because due to the wires in the yard getting saggy, the trolley pole (normally, you use the trailing pole) tends to go down the wrong wire when going through switches. When this happens, you have to stop and pull the pole over to the correct wire, and it's much faster to have a lookout on the rear platform doing this than for the motorman to keep coming out and dealing with it.

The motor eased into the barn toward the derelict PCC. Because we're using a drawbar (these old streetcars don't have the "knuckle" couplers of standard North American heavy rail equipment), you have to get the equipment exactly aligned, so that the pins will fit into the holes in the drawbars. And nobody (thank goodness) was willing to act the part of a ground man in the bad old "link and pin" days, standing between cars to drop a pin in at the precise moment, when a minor mistake could cost you a finger at best. This meant slowly easing the motor forward, measuring with the drawbar, and repeating several times. We got it within an inch or so, and several of us went and pushed on the PCC to try and nudge it that last inch. (This time we had cribbing under the wheels where we wanted it to stop.) This car was harder to budge, probably because it's sat there for months, but we eventually got it connected.

The freight motor sparked a couple of times -- but this is apparently normal behavior -- and began to pull. Nothing. Then someone noticed that one of the wheel chocks was still in place and yelled "stop!" We knocked all of the wheel chocks out and tried again, and this time things went much better. The motor slowly towed the old car out, and we set it over.

Then we went back for the working PCC (the one that almost got away from us), repeated the process, and pushed it back into the carbarn. My job was to stand near the end of the track and make sure we didn't go too far. Although there was little chance of it happening, had they pushed the car too hard and the drawbar come loose, the car could have run off the end of the rails and through the back wall, which would have been messy to say the least.

After much prodding and yelling of "one more foot!" we finally got the PCC where we wanted it, took the motor back out onto the "main," and moved the Sydney tram back into the barn. Putting the derelict where they wanted it proved more difficult, as there are just too many cars in the yard. At first they thought they could just couple on to a flatcar holding rails and push it along, but we observed that if we'd tried it, the motor would have impaled itself onto the rails, which were hanging off the end of the car. They worked out a temporary solution, but what they really need is more track.

Closing up the barn, we headed over to the backshop to cool off and talk for a while, but Lisa and I couldn't really stay much longer, as it was well past my lunch time, and I felt bad about straying from my meal time. We made our goodbyes and headed back to town, where we stopped for lunch and did some of the shopping that was our original goal.

It's clear to me that I could easily get involved in this sort of volunteer work as much as I have SF fandom. I would like to do so, and can think of several things in which I'd be interested in working, like improving signage or developing a formal safety training program. Lisa would like me to do so, too -- we do have a "family" membership in the museum -- but there are only so many volunteer hours I can spare in my life.
Tags: trains

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