True And Humorous Stories From The Railroad

Most of you have never worked on a railroad but those of you that have will completely understand what I'm going to say. I've worked a lot of different jobs over the years but I never worked with a more diverse group of characters than those that I worked with on the railroad. You may think that you have the "lock" on weird coworkers where you work but take my word for are not even close. Please enjoy this collection of humorous moments on the railroad.

The Bridge

I was bringing a train into the main yard about 2 am in the morning and the radio was unusually quiet. I overheard this conversation between a local transfer engine talking to a bridge operator on a branch line very close by.

"Engine 303 calling bridge 728, come in," the engineer called on the radio. "Bridge," replied the operator. Engine 303 answered, "Ya, engine 303 is on the approach to the bridge and we have a red signal." The bridge operator replied, "Engine 303 come down to the red signal and stop, then give me a call." This is required by the rule book.

After arriving at the signal engine 303 called, "Bridge, this is engine 303, we are stopped at the red signal." The bridge operator then instructed, "Engine 303 you have permission passed the red absolute signal displaying stop, check the route as you go." At this point engine 303 is supposed to repeat these instructions so there can be no misunderstandings. It's all rule book protocol.

I'm listening for engine 303 to reply but he isn't saying anything. All the trainmasters and dispatchers are listening on the radio as well, so if this guy doesn't repeat the instructions he is in for a butt chewing. Then after what seemed like an eternity but was less then a minute, a voice from engine 303 came on the radio and said, "WOULD IT BE BETTER IF THE BRIDGE WAS DOWN?"

So, in effect, the bridge operator flagged engine 303 by radio off into the canal but the 303 didn't bite. You couldn't hear them but you knew phones were ringing somewhere and a trainmaster was hustled out to the bridge to sniff the operator to see if he was incapacitated in some manner.


Following at restricted speed

This story was related to me by a retired railroad conductor. We were following another train that was in the block ahead but because of track curvature we couldn't see his last car. We had red blocks but by rule we can follow this train at "restricted speed," meaning that we operate at 15 mph or less and stop within half or our range of vision when we do see the train ahead.

We were chatting and moving real slow so we weren't paying enough attention ahead. Our train came around a curve and the last car of the train ahead was sitting right there. My engineer hit the emergency valve but it was too late. We hit the rear end of the train ahead at about 8 mph. There was no caboose because we were using the flashing RED's or rear end devices back then.

Luckily no cars derailed and there was no other damage. However, our engine coupled perfectly onto the last car in the other train. When this happens our train stops and the other train is shoved ahead a few feet. It puts the couplers in a stretched position. When they are stretched tight you cannot pull the pin to separate the two couplers. We cannot move our train at all until the engine pumps the air back up in our entire train. This could take several minutes.

In the mean time, I hear the other train get a high ball from his conductor. They are leaving....ut oh. There is nothing we can do but wait for the jolt from the other train leaving. The jolt wasn't much but we did hear the other train go into "emergency" as he lost his air. He called the dispatcher and reported that he would have to walk his train to fix the air leak.

We got the air pumped up on our train and tippy toed back about two hundred feet from rear of the train we hit. Then I came up with a plan. I called the dispatcher and said, "If you want me to I'll step out and see if I can see anything on the other train." (Our work rules clearly stated I didn't have to and the dispatcher could not force me to). He was delighted and said, "Yes, please do, that would be a big help." So I started walking and made a discovery.

I called the dispatcher and said, "I found it, 15 cars from the rear end there is a drawbar pulled out." This is major damage but when the leaving train could not move because we were tied on, it found the weakest link. Then I offered, "If you want me to I can take the power from my train and set this car out on the siding here." (In effect, I'll clean up all the evidence so you won't know we did it). A bit confused but sounding very thankful the dispatcher said, "Sure, go ahead and do that so we can move these trains." (Again, we didn't have to do this).

Thirty days later my entire crew got letters from the railroad company praising us for our cooperation and help expediting the situation. You and I both know they should have fired all of us. 

Tags=> True railroad stories, humorous railroad stories, railroad crews, railroad conductor and engineer, funny railroad stories



1996 Track Washout On The Elgin Joliet & Eastern Railroad

A major flood struck the Aurora / Eola, Illinois area on July 17-18, 1996. Over a 24 hour period it rained 16.9 inches which was an Illinois state record and the second highest ever nationally. I was the engineer on JSW3, a switcher that originated in Joliet, Illinios that worked to Spaulding then returned to Joliet. It was just a conductor, brakeman and engineer job. We would switch all the industries between those points and then fill, (pick up empty cars), then return to Joliet.

It was raining when I reported to work at 730 PM for the 8 PM start time. Not a hard rain but good and steady. It rained the same way all night. We got our train together, did the air test and went to a station named Walker. We did 2 hours work there switching the industries then left for West Chicago, setting out cars for the BNSF, Eola along the way.

We got to West Chicago about 1130 PM and set out cars for the UP. Then we left for Spaulding and set out cars there. We also picked up about 10 cars and left for West Chicago. We picked up about 15 cars at West Chicago and added them to our train, did the air test and left for another fill at Eola. It has rained steadily the entire time.



It was about 130 AM and I approached Diehl Road. It was a road crossing that had flashers only. It was still raining and visiblily was poor but I was looking for the flashers to come on, as I knew I was on the circuit. There is a peep hole about 1 1/2 inches across on the sides of the flasher heads that the engineer can see to indicate that the crossing protection is activated. They were not flashing.

I was running at about 40 MPH at the time with my train and no matter what I did at that point, my train will be on the crossing in ten more seconds. I quickly looked both directions down the road and luckily there was no traffic. I had just been over this road a few hours earlier with no problems. On top of that, all railroad crossings are fail safe but this one failed completely.

I immediately called the EJ&E dispatcher on the radio to report the incident. It went like this, "EJ&E 664 calling the dispatcher's office Gary, Indiana." He answered, "EJ&E dispatcher's office Gary, Indiana answering EJ&E 664, over." It was dispatcher Bill L. I said, "Bill, I just crossed over Diehl Road and had a complete crossing failure, no flashers at all." He replied, "Okay." Then I said something I had never said before and never said after that. "Bill, track conditions are poor, it's been raining all night so I'm not going to operate this train at track speed." I had the reputation of getting a train over the road so he believed me. He said, "664, operate your train at a safe speed."   


 We arrived at the BNSF, Eola yard a few minutes later, cut off from our train and went down the wye to pick up more cars. The Eola yard is quite a bit lower than the EJ&E main line but when we got down there it was unbelievable. All we could see was the tops of the rails. Picture an 80 acre farm all flat with rails and water. That was a lot of flood water.

We managed to get about 20 cars and took them back to our train for an air test. By this time my ground crew was totally soaked. Rain gear is good but not that good. So our air test was complete and the crew was on the engine. I put down the crossword puzzle I was working and looked up at the window, then lightning flashed, lighting up the track ahead. I wasn't sure what I saw but before I could turn on the headlight lightning flashed again and I didn't believe my eyes. About 100 yards ahead of my engine the main line was submerged. What was so unbelieveable about it all was the entire area in question is ON A HILL. There was an over pass that was just wide enough for the train tracks funneling the water into a narrower channel.



It was 3 AM in the morning and I immediately called the EJ&E dispatcher. "EJ&E 664 calling EJ&E dispatcher Gary, Indiana." He replied, "EJ&E dispatcher's office Gary, Indiana answering 664." I said, "Bill, the main line is submerged in front of my train." He said, "Standby 664." There was a train behind me and Bill called it immediately. He said, "Number 21 what is your location?" Number 21 replied, "We are leaving West Chicago now." The J dispatcher Bill said, "Number 21, DO NOT leave West Chicago."



We have rules in the timetable covering water over the rails. It states that no locomotive can operate on track with water more than 3 inches over the top of the rail. This water was well beyond that mark.  Unknown to the crews, the decision to shut down the western subdivision was not a popular one. Bill got a reaming from the superior on call when he reported what he had done. He wanted both trains parked at Eola but it was too late to change the shut down. Our crew and the crew of Number 21 got a cab ride home.

The next day I got the report. No suprise to me that the main line was washed out in front of my train and it was washed out in several other places south of my location. The track report from West Chicago was deadly. Just 1/2 mile out of West Chicago a creek washed out a hole under the main line that measured 40 foot across and 40 foot deep.

The superior that wanted to run Number 21 off into that hole quickly took the credit for stopping all trains. Bill was told by the Superintendant that he knew the real story and congradulated Bill on a job well done.



 Dispatcher Bill L. was reading between the lines from my radio conversations. His office was 125 miles from Eola and it wasn't raining a drop in Gary, Indiana. He would tell you that he was just doing his job but I can tell you that it takes a man with many years of experience to make that call. The 3 man crew of Number 21 would have run off into that washout and died. Some guys tried to credit me with the heroics but I told them that all I did was report the conditions. Either way you want to interpret the situation, we were all lucky with the timing of it all.



We Are Too Early

There was fast locals and slow locals. This was also a time when trains operated from terminal to terminal and then layed over until they were rested. During my time there Number 5 & 6 was the "hotshot" that took all the loads towards Waukegan. They rarely did any station work because they would receive extra pay for doing that, plus they had to have those loaded coil cars delivered at Rondout by a specific time or lose the per diem on them and the J would be back charged $50 per car. They would deliver anywhere from 15 to 30 of those cars all going to AO Smith.


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So when the "lined train" came in from Kirk Yard, Gary, Indiana, Number 5 would run those cars to Waukegan, "quick like bunny." They would return the next day as number 6. The cars on the rear end of the line train were for the local Number 9 to Waukegan which became Number 10 on the return trip. Cars from Kirk Yard and sometimes storage cars from the Joliet Yard made up their train. Number 9 & 10 was the opposite of Number 5 & 6. This train would work 12 hours in both directions regardless of how many cars they had in their train. Now for the punch line. Harold was the engineer and he had a fireman on the job. On the way to Waukegan engineer Harold brought the train to a stop out amongest the cornfields. Curious, the fireman asked Harold, "There is no industry here, why did we stop?" Harold said, "We are too early." So in times prior to black boxes relating everything the engineer did, this crew was sure to make that 12 hour day. This job was nicknamed, "The mortgage lifter."



How's the Air?

A crew was working a regular freight train and it was super cold. They had been instructed to stop and pick up 20 additional cars. They weren't to keen on making this stop but did as instructed. They knew that the cold air makes it difficult to get the air up on a train. So they picked up the cars and the engine started pumping.

After about a 1/2 hour a trainmaster called the engineer on the radio and asked him, "Will your train be moving soon?" The engineer replied, "The air is coming up real slow because of the cold." The trainmaster replied, "Okay." Another 30 minutes went by and the same conversation ensued with the same reply that the air was too cold.

Then the trainmaster showed up on the engine and asked the engineer, "How's the air?" The engineer pointed to the gauges and said, "Look for yourself, the air is coming up but the cold is making it real slow." The trainmaster looked and said, "I see what you mean, let me know when this train is on the move."

After the trainmaster left the fireman got up and looked at the air gauges just being curious. Then he said, "There's nothing wrong with the air." Then the engineer said, "Well, I know it and you know it but that dumb___ that wanted us to pick up these cars  in the cold doesn't know it." Moral of the story: It's never good to make an engineer mad.



The Efficiency Test

I was working Number 21 and if you wanted to get back to Joliet you needed to hustle right along. This job worked on mileage and you couldn't make overtime until you were on the job for 10 1/2 hours. I'll not explain that, just trust me. So I go out to the pit to check out the locomotives and immediately I smell a rat. In my engine consist I have my two SD38's and the 703 which is a GP, or "Jeep" for short. It has 4 wheel trucks instead of 6 wheel trucks and they use it to switch the sharp curve industries around Waukegan. It was in our train to be transported to Waukegan.

So I climb up the steps and put my grip (a bag that has my lunch and timetable in it) by the engineer's seat. Then I see the blue light on the dash. This means that workmen are working around the locomotive and it is not to be moved. Well, there are no workmen to be seen so it is more likely an "efficiency" test.

I called the dispatcher's office inquiring about the blue light and of course got nowhere. Then our chief train dispatcher came from out of the woodwork and proceeded to go over the rules I was ignoring, that wasn't involved with the blue light he placed there.

So after he delayed our train by 20 useless minutes of butt chewing, I began my MU (multiple unit) inspection. The two SD38's were good to go as usual but I knew what to expect when I checked the 703. This engine leaked so much oil into the engine sump you would need to own an oil well to keep up with filling it. I opened the doors and there was the oil, everywhere. On the walls and there was 2 inches of oil on the floor.

So I called the dispatcher's office and "Bad ordered" the 703 as an FRA fire hazard. They needed this engine in Waukegan and I knew that. So we had to wait 45 additional minutes for a 300 class yard engine to turn in so it could be serviced and taken to Waukegan as a replacement. Had he not come out there and chewed me out I would have left with the 703 and my train would have been on time. The 703 is always like that, who cares?

That night the cab picked us up at Rondout, nowhere close to making it home. Two days later the same guy that chewed my butt congradulated me on finding the oil problem on the 703. He never did figure it out that I was intentionally finding the oil that I already knew was there. Moral of the story: Never make the engineer mad.



Working Number 21 and Air Trouble

I was the first engineer to work Number 21 when the EJ&E Railroad first created it out of thin air. It was an historic event because no former job on the J had ever held the same work description. While it was a regular job it did things differently then all previous jobs like it. The number "21" came from the chief train dispatcher's birthday then add to that the fact that the job number 21 stayed the same running east or west. Other like jobs ran west bound as odd numbers then returned east bound as an even number.

On to the story. It was just another night of running to Waukegan, doing a little switching and delivering cars to stations on the way running west bound. We got to Waukegan that night pretty fast as the work load running from Joliet was lite. I was never known to let any rail get rusty while operating the locomotive but I always worked within the rules.

The crew could smell the barn and were hustling to get back home. We arrived in Waukegan and pulled our train into the north yard then returned to the east end of the yard and tied onto the train we would be taking back to Joliet. At this point the engineer "changes over" the engines so he can operate the train from the engine in front. It's a matter of changing some air valves in each engine which is by no means complicated.



The crew was in hustle mode and was wanting to leave Waukegan quickly. I had completed the change over, the conductor was at my window looking up at me and he suggested that we skip the engine air brake test to save time. I thought about it for a second because it's important that crews work together in all things. Then I vetoed the idea and said we have to do the test. This test is to make sure that both engines are working together when the engineer moves the air valves in the lead engine.

During this test it is determined that the engine independent brakes are working in concert and that they can be released while the train brakes are activated. It only takes a few minutes to do the test but the conductor has to be outside visually checking the pistons on the air brake cylinders.

This test has to be performed without the air cut in between the engine and the train we are to leave with. We started the test and the independent brakes were working correctly. The next part of the test is with the independent brake in release and the automatic or train line brake is set. He said, "Set'em up." I did but nothing happened. The brakes on the locomotives did not apply. I then did an inspection on both locomotives to make sure that all air valves are in their correct positions. There was no error in the valve set up.

Then I moved the automatic valve into the emergency position. This would be the "last resort" brake application an engineer has when running a train that needed to stop. Again, nothing happened, as no pistons moved on the locomotives to bring the brake shoes up to the wheels.



This meant that I would have had no control over stopping this train had I left with it. Imagine approaching a red signal and using the air brakes to stop and you get no braking. This was before the RED, or rear end device, was outfitted with an emergency setting that was controlled by radio on the lead engine. Everyone hedges on the rules a little bit, even me, but the engine air brake test is not a good one to ignore.

To add a little more weight to the story I can tell you that I've done several thousand air brake tests during my 27 years behind the throttle and this was the only failure I ever experienced. It wasn't just luck that prevented a possible disaster, it was because I operated by the rules. We had to switch out the engines and run backwards to Joliet with the engine we had run to Waukegan with. This time the air brake test came out okay.

Operating by the rules can be a pain in the butt. Early in my locomotive engineer career I was looking at the rules one day and I asked an "old head" engineer why we had over 1,000 rules in the book. He looked back at me and said, "Because with a few exceptions, every rule in the book is a train wreck." All through railroad history there have been train wrecks and when they would discover the cause, they would put in a rule to prevent a crew from repeating the same actions. You will note that train wrecks still happen today and 90% of the time its because the train crew did not follow the rules.



Switching with Steam Engines 

Steam power was the motive power that did the yard switching from the time steam engines came in to being until the late 1940's and early 1950's. Diesel engines took over at that time because they were more cost effective to operate.

Most people are acquainted with the huge steam road locomotives with 6 or 8 drivers. Smaller steam engines that had only 4 drivers had plenty of power to pull out a cut or rail cars and switch them out. Usually 10 to 20 cars at a time.

My dad, O.C. Stringer, started working on the railroad in 1948 which was very near the end of the steam switching era on the Elgin Joliet & Eastern Railroad. He switched railroad cars with a steam engine. There were no radios so ground crews would use hand signals by day and lanterns at night.

It is common practice, even today, on a railroad for the switching crew to "kick" cars into the track they needed to go to. The switchman would give the engineer the kick sign and pull the pin between cars so that one car or cars could free roll into the track. Other switchmen would be down the switching lead lining switches each time a car was released as each one had a different destination.

The release speed of each rail car depended on how far it had to roll. If you didn't kick the car hard enough then you had to go down and rekick it. If you kicked it too hard then you could cause damage to the car and its contents.

Here is where an old switchman's trick comes in. Steam engines make a lot of noise exhausting steam when they start moving. So a switchman would pull the pin then give the steam engineer the kick sign. Then the switchman would count the exhausts, chug chug chug ie, then give the engineer a stop sign. Kick harder more chugs, kick slower less chugs.

My great uncle M.J. Stringer had worked for years with steam engines before my dad started working there. He said, "I'm glad those steam switchers are gone because I'm tired of combing the cinders out of my hair."

Steam engines are smoky and dirty to operate. When doing the chug chug hot cinders would sometimes blow out the smoke stack right onto the swithman. In case you are wondering, the engineer could do that on purpose if he wanted to. In fact, if the engineer hated the fireman, it was impossible to shovel enough coal to keep the fire hot. He could waste the steam and blow the hot burning coal right out the stack.



Tags=> True railroad stories, humorous railroad stories, railroad crews, railroad conductor and engineer, funny railroad stories, 1996 track washout EJ&E, record flooding Aurora, Illinois,

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