Today’s blog is a little different from the normal Freight Car Friday. We won’t be looking at one type of car, or even one class of cars, but just one car. Canadian National 137405 is a nondescript gondola, but on June 21, 2008 it made for an exciting morning to be watching trains on CSX’s Sand Patch grade. I hope you’ll enjoy this story of the challenges of a mountain railroad.
You know it’s going to get interesting when you arrive at your favorite train watching spot, switch on the scanner, and jump into the middle of a conversation like this,
“CSX AV Dispatcher to Q374. Over.”
“What is your current location?”
“Stopped west of Falls Cut.”
“Car inspectors are coming on the rails at Fairhope Crossing on track one. Once they give us the report, you’ll be ok to proceed at restricted speed to Fairhope Road. They’ll follow you down to the crossing. Hyndman Fire Company will meet you there.”
This grade crossing at the small community of Fairhope, PA was the only road access to the railroad between Hyndman and the train’s location about 3 miles to the west.
Every year, several friends and I traveled to this beautiful stretch of railroad for a few days surrounding the Summer Solstice (taking advantage of the extra hours of sunlight) and CSX seldom disappointed. We were just a few hours into our longest day of railfanning, based out of the lovely rental lodge located just adjacent to this crossing.
While the exact details of what was transpiring up the mountain weren’t yet clear, the situation certainly seemed serious, but under control. Fortunately our location afforded us a safe view well out of the way of all the action.
Moments later a CSX hi-rail truck had arrived and was copying his track permission from the dispatcher. Soon he was on the rails and headed west.
Very shortly thereafter, equipment from the Hyndman Volunteer Fire Company and several volunteer fire police showed up at the scene from the town at the base of the slope.
Now all any of us could do was wait for the train’s arrival.
Subsequent radio chatter revealed the nature of the problem. A westbound train had spotted smoke rising from the corner of a gondola on Q374. Overheated journals or a sticking brake shoe are common problems on a train descending this steep mountain grade. But when the conductor walked the train, he found something much more challenging.
The floor of the gondola, loaded at least to its limit, was pressing down on the flange of the wheel. The resulting friction and heat sparked a fire in the car itself, which was now smoldering.
In that remote location, there was no way to get help in and no place to quickly set the car out. The only option was to continue to move the car to the closest point where the fire could be safely extinguished.
Quite a while later, the train finally came into view around the S-curve at Fairhope. As an added railfan bonus, the train had quite the lash-up of six units which included a BNSF engine, an aging B30-7 and a slug set. About 30 cars back from the power, the problematic gondola came into view. With the car inspector riding beside it on the neighboring mainline, a whiff of white smoke could be seen coming out of the rear corner of the gondola.
The crew spotted the train with the car in the middle of the crossing. The fire company proceeded to douse the car in water and foam for several minutes. Water could be seen pouring out of a hole in the side of the car – whether caused by the fire or a pre-existing condition.
After the fire had been successfully extinguished, the train was given permission to proceed at restricted speed the rest of the way to Cumberland, MD. Fortunately this major CSX facility and car shop was only a few more miles downhill.
Then the dispatcher got back to work, moving all of the trains that were stacking up around Q374 on either side. Amtrak’s Capitol Limited was the first by the scene, passing on track two before the freight had even cleared the road.
Sand Patch has had its share of disasters since the days of the B&O. Thankfully, this story ended without any major catastrophe. The response of all involved made it look like just another day at the office. (Which thankfully, it is not!)
It is just that sort of preparation and professionalism that keeps the railroad moving safely despite all of the obstacles the mountains can throw at it. From the keen eye of a conductor on a passing train, to a quick thinking dispatcher, to volunteer first-responders ready to go at a moment’s notice – this problem was contained before any more serious damage could be done and without injury.
Keep them in mind the next time you’re trackside. Safety needs to be everyone’s first priority around the railroad. And watch how much scrap you load in those gondolas!