Freight Car Friday – The Wreck Train

9 03 2012

It is an unfortunate but very real part of railroading – the derailment. Most derailments are very minor and- can be corrected with minimal equipment. Often a few blocks of wood or a rerail frog are enough to pull an errant wheel back up onto the rails. But when things go wrong in a big way, it’s time to bring in the “Big Hook.”

The Wreck Crane

NYC crane

The wreck crane was an incredibly versatile and important tool, kept ready to go at a moment's notice.

The muscle of any wreck train is the crane. Cranes used in wreck clean-up came in several sizes. 125 and 250 ton capacities were the most common. Earlier cranes were steam powered. Boilers needed to be maintained in ready order to be used at a moments notice. Later, cranes were diesel powered. The crane and the rest of the train which supported it were kept on a special track in the yard, usually near the engine or car shops. The crane could also be used for other assignments besides wreck clean up of course. They were often used within their assigned yards for correcting small derailments or work around the shops.

Conrail crane

A former Conrail 250 ton crane is preserved and operable at the Railroaders Memorial Museum in Altoona.

Although many cranes had powered axles that could be used to position the machine at the lifting site, another locomotive was used to get the train there. Since an emergency took priority over everything else, railroads grabbed the first locomotive available to power the train. The wreck train would also likely have running priority over any other train on the mainline. The crane itself was usually considered a restricted load and had to travel at certain speeds. Greater speed was safely possible with the boom of the crane trailing, so whenever possible, the train would be turned at the yard to travel in that orientation.

Once on site, the crane and other cars would be positioned so that the crane could best approach the wreck. It was not uncommon for multiple wreck trains to approach the site from different directions. Outriggers on the frame of the crane were deployed for stability as the crane boom swiveled off of center. A skilled crew used the cranes many hooks and attachments lift and move errant railcars and locomotives. No two wrecks are the same, so the knowledge of the crew was critical in making the situation better, not worse.

CP Rail crane

Lionel's TMCC equipped crane adds lots of action to your layout. In addition to the crane, an idler or crane tender carried supplies and tools.

Safety always came first on the wreck site. Getting the railroad open for traffic was next on the priority list. Often, the crane would be used to clear cars and debris away from the track quickly. While doing its work, a track gang would be busy laying new rail. The crane could then gradually work in towards the center of the wreck. Once the railroad was open, the wreck train would retreat to a siding until the traffic backlog passed. Then cleanup and right-of-way improvements could continue at a more moderate pace with minor disruptions to service schedules. Of course through all of this, inspectors would be working to determine what went wrong in hopes of preventing a future occurance.

Support Cars

The wreck crane was the star of the show, but it couldn’t do its work without a strong supporting cast.  A wreck train is usually equipped with many additional cars to carry the needed tools and parts to do the job. Empty cars to haul away damaged equipment or scrap may also be included, or could arrive later in the clean up process.

wheel load

Support cars with replacement wheels, trucks and other supplies got trains moving again quickly.

The first car in the lineup, positioned next to the crane, was the crane tender. This car performed many functions. First, it was an idler car to provide clearance beneath the crane boom. This tender also carried additional blocking, hoists, heavy cables and tools needed within reach of the crane. Some had enclosed compartments as well that carried more tools and work space. The tender was usually an older piece of equipment readapted for this use. Flat cars and gondolas were common, but box cars and even baggage cars have been used. In the days of steam-powered derecks, an actual tender was also often carried to fuel the crane. These were usually recycled from retired locomotives.

Additional flatcars would accompany the train carrying spare trucks and wheels as well as rail and ties and even pre-made panel track sections. A tool car also came along with smaller parts along with tools and equipment. Older box and baggage cars were common conversions.

Crew Quarters

bunk car

Crew quarters were often made from older cars and offered very basic accomodations.

In addition to transporting the equipment and supplies, the wreck train also had to have a place for the workers. On short trips, an old coach might suffice. For longer projects, bunk cars would be brought to the site along with kitchen, dining, office and sometimes even a recreational car to support the men. Like the other cars in a wreck train, recycled revenue equipment was often used. We’ll take a closer look at these in another blog. These mobile quarters were usually spotted on a nearby siding, preferably with access to a fresh water and food supplies.

A wreck train can be an exciting addition to any model railroad. Lionel and American Flyer cranes are a natural start. And almost anything goes for supporting cars. It’s a great way to use some equipment from an older era.

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