Thursday, January 9, 2014

A Morning on the Track Car

Story and photos by Tyler Trahan

Twice a week, a pickup truck drives the Naugatuck Railroad. It's fitted with railroad wheels to run on rails and is driven by a museum volunteer tasked with inspecting the tracks.

October 20, 2013

Today I’m riding along with track inspector Dave on Track Car 35 (working as a photographer, not as a member of the operating crew).

We leave the shop at 8:30 AM, driving on asphalt. TC 35’s high-rail railroad wheels are folded up as we make our way through Thomaston to the 1881-vintage station where we’ll mount the rails.

Another volunteer, Howard, is already at the station and guides Dave as he lines up the truck on the crossing in front of the depot. The truck’s cornering leaves much to be desired over a standard automobile but these railroaders have clearly done this before; in thirty seconds flat the 1980s GMC is ready to become a train.

One wheel at a time, the four railroad wheels are lowered onto the rails and the truck is jacked up. The flanged rail wheels hold enough weight to keep the truck on the tracks, yet without making the rubber-tired wheels useless for propulsion.

Dave locks the steering wheel straight, flicks the headlights to bright, and turns on the roof-mounted strobe. Backup beeper chirping incessantly, we slowly reverse northbound towards Thomaston Dam.

It’s a cool morning wet with condensation, as the sun has yet to peek into the Naugatuck Valley. The windows are rolled down so Dave can listen to the tracks, and every so often through the chilly breeze I get an tantalizing whiff of his coffee.

As we roll along at 10 mph, Dave explains what he’s looking and listening for. Railroad tracks, as sturdy as they seem, can require a lot of ongoing maintenance. In particular, he’s looking and listening for loose track bolts and rail joints that are out of alignment. Both are problems that take weeks or months to manifest to the point where could cause a derailment, but a railroad must stay on top of track inspection.

A rattle or clank as we roll over a joint indicates a loose bolt on that joint bar, and we also have excellent visibility at this time. The morning sun is low and we’re facing south, towards the autumn sun. This silhouettes the bolts from the ties and ballast, making them quite easy to see. If the sun were behind us the track would be illuminated evenly and inspection would be virtually impossible. A good track inspector varies the direction and time of travel to catch things that might go unnoticed if they were to always run the same schedule.

As we pass through the curving cut just south of Thomaston Dam, Dave points out how the jointed rail has started to "square off," straightening slightly and causing kinks at the joints. FL9 #2019 and her lumbering three-axle rear truck wreak havoc on curves, and this one in particular has taken a beating. This is an area that the Naugatuck’s track crews are watching closely and one that they’re working hard to maintain.

We rumble over the spillway bridge and venture forth onto the dam. The sun hits us and compared to the shade of the valley, it’s rather blinding. After venturing to DAM, the point where our movement authority ends and today’s Pumpkin Patch Trains will operate to, we run forward to the midpoint of the dam and stop to check the curve.

Ballast crunching beneath his feet, Dave uses a heavy yellow track gauge to check each joint. They’re staggered so that each joint aligns roughly with the midpoint of the opposite rail, providing a smoother ride than parallel joints.

Back in the truck, we head south. We’re both looking and listening for bolts, and Dave pointing out various long-term problems that have been flagged for future repair. Nothing on this trip needs to be fixed right now. In fact, the Naugatuck’s track is quite good for an all-volunteer tourist operation. It officially meets Federal Railroad Administration standards for Class 2, which allows passenger trains to operate at up to 30mph. Curvature and a couple temporary slow orders means that some parts of the railroad are slower, of course, but the Naugy’s track is in good shape.

Dave tells me that the railroad’s goal is to maintain track one level higher than it needs to be. If the railroad desired, they could have Class 3 track -- good for 60 mph on passenger trains. That is, if there were any track straight enough. The winding course of the line along the Naugatuck River precludes that, and 30 mph is plenty of speed for a train that people ride for fun.

Before the days of the high-rail truck, track inspectors were assigned shorter sections of line and often walked or used human-powered handcars to patrol the line. You’ve probably seen them in cartoons or old movies where the protagonist is frantically pumping to stay ahead of an oncoming train.

That situation, of a track car occupying the same track as a full-size train, was possible although uncommon. The old traffic control method of Timetable and Train Orders used time to separate trains, and as Casey Jones illustrated, the method was not flawless.

Today we have no risk of that. Dave holds sole authority over the Naugatuck Railroad’s main line from DAM south past Thomaston Station to CHASE, the end of main line trackage near Waterbury. Since we’ll conclude our run well before today’s train leaves the yard, the line is officially taken out of service using a NORAC Form D, Line 4. Dave officially controls the entire line and can authorize other moves over the railroad with minimal paperwork. Railroads running multiple trains simultaneously typically use standard movement authority without taking the line out of service.

We continue south into the most scenic part of the Naugy, following the flow of the river down to the sea through forests ablaze with autumnal color. We leap over the water on a gracefully curving steel bridge just wide enough to support the tracks. One moment there’s gravel ballast out my window, the next a twenty-foot drop into the rapids below. We stop at a curve along the riverbank and Dave gets out to check the gauge again. I scale a bluff and photograph the high-rail as Dave does a run-by for me (lead photo).

Too quickly, the hour-long ride is over as we cross the river once again and arrive at CHASE. Dave gently lowers the truck’s full weight back onto rubber tires, and we drive back to the yard as the train crew is preparing the day’s train. They’ll get to work the length of the line twice, but I feel privileged. There’s no better way to see a railroad than at 10 mph in a high-rail truck.