There is a saying up here in the Appalachians, ‘If you don’t like the weather, just wait a few minutes!’ Usually, like now, it will turn to something worse.
It had been the wettest autumn in southwest Virginia that anyone could remember. We’d had rain virtually non-stop for the last two weeks up here in the Blue Ridge Highlands and the nearby Appalachian Plateau just to our west. My boss back at the knowledge house was getting reports of mudslides and track washouts faster than my maintenance team could even conduct inspections, let alone start making repairs. Now, it was raining even harder! The last failed would-be hurricane of the season, a mass of low-pressure rain clouds, had just passed over us, flooding these already supersaturated mountains with water that had nowhere else to go except straight downhill.
Already there were reports of entire sections of our mainline becoming submerged under water and up here in the mountains bridges and creek trestles were already under visible strain and some were in clear danger of being washed away.
Worse still, that northern-heading moisture-loaded low pressure front was now colliding directly with a massive Canadian cold front moving southeast over West Virginia, barely a hundred miles from here. A perfect Christmas winter storm that was going to turn this flooding into impassible ice in just a few more hours. If it was possible for things to get worse, this front would dump at least eight feet of snow over all of Appalachia and western Virginia throughout the next three days in a holiday blizzard that would rival anything seen down here in decades!
My boss was already describing this approaching legendary conflagration of rival weather fronts as ‘the first great storm of this century’, and he was probably right. Ryan could predict the weather by his arthritic knees and shoulders and he was bitching to me that he’d never felt worse in his entire lifetime!
I’m Clive Jackson, by the way. Senior Track Maintenance Supervisor for the Norfolk Southern railroad. Thirty-one years on the job as of last April and shooting for fifty! I’ve been a gandy dancer my whole career, first as a snipe repairing rails and digging ballast, and then I became the King Snipe (crew boss), and I like what I do and want to keep doing it! My boss likes me and so does his boss, and they give my crew some of the tougher nastier jobs up here in the mountains of southwest Virginia because they know that we’ll do it right.
More importantly, our most senior union boss likes me ... and not just because I’m an offshoot of the Wilder railroad family, but that doesn’t hurt either. The Wilder extended family originates from Missouri and they and their kin can be found in positions of management and authority on all six U.S. remaining Class-A railroads. Seven, if you count Canadian National. Steam, and now diesel, seems to run in their blood! Mine included.
My RIP boss Ryan had sent me out from our field depot in Christiansburg to priority inspect, and then probably repair an old length of rarely used siding up in the mountains near Bristol, spitting distance from Tennessee. NS owned those tracks but we allowed CSX to use them for siding on regular occasions. I wouldn’t classify the arrangement as a partnership, but the few remaining Class-A’s work together more in these days than they ever used to and everyone tends to have comprehensive rail sharing agreements. Tonight, CSX wanted to park at least one long northbound intermodal freight in this hole, but they first wanted to make sure the mountain pass northward from Bristol was clear ... and it wasn’t.
I’d been out here on that stretch of precariously perched mountain track since first light and it had looked ugly right from the start! The heavy noontime down-pouring of near frozen rain didn’t help at all, either.
Out in front, my inspection train, an old EMD SD38-2, a reflagged Union Pacific #899(we kept the road number) was pulling our usual two car Research and Inspection consist with a Track Geometry car (my #23) and a crew car. That’s where I do most of my work. ‘23-Skidoo’ started life as an SD35 (high hood model) around late 1964. In the 1970’s, it was converted into a road slug. Another couple of decades later, it was turned into geometry car Research #23 used for testing and analyzing railroad track. While it was built on the original locomotive frame, there is no engine under the hood and it needs a tow now to go anywhere. Inside, everything has been gutted and in place of traction motors, it carries different rail sensors mounted on the trucks, lasers for tracking the profile of the rail, and even cameras for visual inspection of the rail and ties. With roof mounted antennas recording GPS data, we can exactly match the collected data and the physical location it corresponds to and transmit it all in real-time back to our track maintenance depot, or even straight to corporate, in Norfolk. My ‘23-Skidoo’ also has a small generator to power all of the computer equipment in the geometry train that my crew of two fairly junior technicians use, and a good working heater for winter work!
Our usual EMD ‘Dash-Two’ motive power that pulled along our test unit was built in the 1970’s and will probably still be running in the 2070’s as well. Virtually every Dash-2 ever built still remains in service even now due to their ease of maintenance and exceptional reliability. Ours was no exception. Today we had our usual crew hauling us about, Miles was our Big-C and an old head of a conductor, now past his fortieth year on the road, and a mileage hog of the old school, who liked the quiet of taking us out on RIP runs and used his seniority to ensure that he got the job the most often. Jaime was also our usual Big-E diesel driver as well, and he has his whiskers too, having more than twenty years’ experience, but he was no Casey Jones or rapper. Alone of any engineer I’ve ever worked with, he supposedly had zero brownies on his record for speeding! If the orders for a track block were to keep to thirty, then Jaime would do twenty-seven. Their job was to take me and ‘23-Skidoo’ anywhere I needed to be.
Behind us about two miles, tucked into a siding on the other side of Little Raccoon Creek (every county in every state seems to have a Raccoon Creek), I had my track repair consist of another engine pulling about twenty track repair cars, with all of the usual crew and automated track removal and replacement, ballasting and tie replacement equipment, complete with a few odd Cat’s for moving a mountainside of earth ... and right from the start, we needed them!
All along this particular hillside, several mountain slides of fresh mud had blocked the track in at least three places and water discharge had washed out still more sections of track in between. We were running a losing battle against the weather and after replacing yet a third complete sections of ancient railroad tracks before noontime, I discovered that beyond the next block of tracks, which slowly descended to Abington and then the Virginia side of Bristol, were also half buried in mud and that many of the ancient wood ties had broken in the stress, shifting the rails hopelessly apart. We had the stuff to tear up this entire length of track and relay it, smooth as a baby’s bottom, new and neat ... but it would take a lot of time to clear and then rip out the old ties and track and create some fresh clearance to the mountainside. Time we really didn’t have now.
To make things worse, the air was getting colder by the minute and the downpour of rain was turning to sleet. The snow was on its way! Working outside, you learn if you have half of a brain, not to argue with Mother Nature ... she’ll always win in the end.
“Twenty-Three Skidoo to base, can you read me?” I spoke loudly into our radio, inside my track geometry car. With the storm, even our satellite based radio was getting a bit staticy.
“Ryan here, go ahead Twenty-Three. You’re a bit broken up but it’s snowing like a bitch over here already and we’ve got a foot of ice already hanging off of our main dishes.” That was my boss and he sounded worried already.
“No go!” I told him, “No go for the CSX. Blockages and damaged tracks on blocks DH264-87 and 88 for sure. Probably also 89 and 90 too, but I can’t get there. Too many washed out sections of old, old track. Looks like old original Virginian track or vintage Norfolk & Western stuff. Ties are all rotted out and half of the spikes are rusted out or just loose. It was dicey just taking two-three over it ... anything bigger like a heavy freight would just derail or worse. Also with this storm, it’s all going to be under feet of snow in a few hours. No chance of getting a plow up here, I don’t think.”
“No plows available anyway. They’re going to run all night up the mainlines so that the last priority trains can get through, but corporate is already sidelining or shutting down most other traffic. Mansky’s calling for a complete shutdown of the entire road as of midnight tonight, and probably the next forty-eight hours until that slow arctic front pushes through the tropical storm mass where we are. So ... stop what’s you’re doing and get back to the barn and out of the storm, as soon as you can.”
Damn good advice ... and I should have taken it!
.... There is more of this story ...