All Photos © 1999 by David Crammer and may not be reproduced without permission
It's 6 AM in the BNSF yard in Bakersfield, California.
Already, with the sun still hidden behind the mountains to the
east, there are indications that this will be another scorcher of a
day. Crews are arriving via the white Renzenberger vans to man the
trains that will be heading west/north up the valley and east/south
across the Tehachapi's getting onto the SP/UP tracks at Kern
Junction. They arrive in various western gear with jeans and
Stetsons mixing with overalls and large silver belt buckles
depicting everything from steam locomotives to bucking broncos. A
westbound with a red and silver warbonnet GE on the point is just
east of the "F" Street crossing next to the Amtrak office and begins
to creep forward as the gates go down. It passes the office with
#625 (red 9-44CW), #5843 (yellow SD45-2U), #209 (red SD75M), and
#200 (red SD75M) and crosses over onto the yard tracks with a mile
of box cars, gondolas, tank cars, and lumber.
In the office, looking out of the tinted window at the passing
cars, the computer screen on the upper right gives the lineup headed
our way with EAST/NORTH on the top and WEST/SOUTH below. Currently
there are 6 coming from the east and 9 from the west. Each
computerized notation gives the train symbol, lead unit number,
number of cars, tonnage, length, mph (top speed allowed for the
train based on the consist), location, time (the location and time
are taken automatically from the AEI Automatic Equipment
Identification tag on the units that are scanned at various
locations along the route and automatically fed to the system wide
computer system), and the track they are on (north or south). On the
screen the 199 (Chicago to Richmond) train is showing that #682 (RED
9-44CW) is the lead unit. It has 60 cars, is listed as 3,981 tons,
5,737 length, restricted to 70 mph, was by Hinkley at 0643 and is on
the main track.
Paul Shaver is the Assistant Trainmaster this morning with 24
years experience in railroading having started out as a janitor then
relief train agent and relief trainmaster. There are between 24 to
28 trains per day through Bakersfield and Paul will be on duty for
his shift of 12 hours with a slight overlap to facilitate a turnover
On the other computer is Chris Young who is the ATM going
off duty and is busy logging on items. As those cars from the
eastbound are passing he has to look out over the various hats of
the crew members seated on the bench with "SANTA FE" spelled out in
fading paint across the top backing board. With the train going
into the yard cleared another train with bell ringing pulls up on
the track next to the bench with yellow #5149 (SD40-2U which sports
an "MKM" under the number). Having received the instructions over
the radio "Everything through but you" the crew emerges from the cab
an with various coolers and grips in hand climbs down the steps
while their relief prepares the take over and in less than 5 minutes
the QALRI-10 is rolling west with a line of double stacks reading JB
Hunt, Santa Fe, and then the pigs. Of course not every train going
through leaves with all of the power it came in with. Bakersfield
is a major power utilization point since those going east require a
4.0 power ratio and the westbounds that made it down the hill a 3.5
ratio to continue up the flat valley with the reduction being done
As this exchange is taking place on the bulletin board in the
office are various notices such as the number for the BNSF
Employment Information number for Arizona and Southern and Northern
California of 909-386-4152 which is updated as positions become
available. There is also the information that from Mojave to
Bakersfield the distance is 67.1 miles with a time estimate of 3
hours and 10 minutes and from Tehachapi (47 miles) the time estimate
is 2 hours 10 minutes. This of course depends on the SP/UP
dispatcher not holding them at KERN JUNCTION or at various sidings on the hill.
That hill to the east is of course a major consideration for
every aspect of the job. The fact that BNSF trains are limited to
7,000 feet means that blocking done in Fresno is being updated with
new construction that will allow a 7,000 foot train to sit as one
piece rather than to have as is currently done backing up against a
portion, pulling it out and then backing against the rest of the
train. Making the trip over Tehachapi means that the trains must
comply with both BNSF and UP rules.
Listed as additional instructions for eastward trains in the
rules book are:
WHEN TRAIN TONNAGE EXCEEDS 3,000 TONS, MINIMUM TONNAGE
RESTRICTIONS WILL APPLY TO HEAD END PORTION OF TRAIN BY CAR COUNT AS
3001-3199 TONS* FIRST 10 CARS OF TRAIN
3200-3399 TONS* FIRST 11 CARS OF TRAIN
3400-3599 TONS* FIRST 12 CARS OF TRAIN
3600-3799 TONS* FIRST 13 CARS OF TRAIN
3800-3999 TONS* FIRST 14 CARS OF TRAIN
4000 TONS AND OVER FIRST 15 CARS OF TRAIN
CARS IN RESTRICTED HEAD PORTION OF TRAIN MUST CONFORM TO THE
FOLLOWING MINIMUM WEIGHT RESTRICTIONS:
TWO AXLE CARS 35 TONS
ARTICULATED DOUBLE STACK (COUNTED AS 3 CARS) 150 TONS
ARTICULATED 5-PACK CARS (COUNTED AS 3 CARS) 150 TONS
ARTICULATED 10-PACK CARS (COUNTED AS 5 CARS) 275 TONS
ALL OTHER CARS 50 TONS
*IN ADDITION, SINGLE-LOADED 89-FOOT OR LONGER FLATCARS MUST NOT BE
ENTRAINED WITHIN THE RESTRICTED HEAD PORTION OF THE TRAINS.
For helper placement the rules state:
ALL TRAINS HEAVIER THAN 4,600 TONS WILL HAVE HELPERS POSITIONED OR
ENTRAINED ACCORDING TO THE FOLLOWING TABLE:
TRAIN TONNAGE CUT-IN AHEAD OF MAXIMUM AXLES
4500-5499 1800 TONS 12
5500-6299 2700 TONS 18
6300-8000 GREATER OF 3600 TONS 24
OR 1/2 OF TRAILING
These of course are just some of the rules designed to make the
passage east as safe as possible and govern how the trains leaving
Bakersfield will be made up. The man in charge in Bakersfield who
is responsible for these items is Terminal Manager Mike Long. Mike
has been the terminal manager for two years. Above him is Division
Superintendent Gary Allen who came off of the BN's Yellowstone
Division. Passing the window to the left of Mike's desk are the
pigs from yet another westbound with JB Hunt, Schneider, Roadway,
and UPS. He is going over the computer printouts with various
colored "Hi-Liners" using green for cars destined for San Bernardino
while talking on the phone that seems to be a permanent attachment
to his shoulder and accessing the computer to his right. With his
third hand he takes a gulp of coffee from his cup that reads on one
side "CHARGE" and on the other "COME ON YOU SONS OF BITCHES - DO
YOU WANT TO LIVE FOREVER?" Which were the words of gunnery Sgt
Daniel Daily USMC at Belleau Wood.
With the cars now passed, outside of the window flocks of birds
wheel and veer over the tracks searching for dropped grain or other
edible items. The yard they are looking down on is busy fulfilling
those printout sheets on Mike's desk busy building what are called
"Bypass trains" to take the pressure off of Barstow. While the
Barstow hump can easily handle 1,600 cars a day the increase in
business has raised the load to 2,000 a day and Bakersfield helps
relieve the pressure by setting up blocks that can the be sent on
east to Argentine Yard in Kansas.
Setting up the trains that will be routed all over the country
means coordination and communication. This is the purpose of the
first conference call of the morning at 0730.
"Please enter your pass code now."
First on the agenda is the list from crew management as to how
many crew members are available to cover the trains since the
locomotives are not yet capable of driving themselves. Crew members
consist of conductors, engineers, switchmen/brakemen and they need
to know how many are marked up and rested as well as how many were
held over, how many were deadheaded and how many are on vacation.
All of the little items that need to be handled as well as the
major ones that need to be anticipated are handled on the conference
call. This may include the need for a tanker truck at Richmond to
provide water for the locomotives since work there requires that the
water main be temporarily be cut. The customer's needs are also
brought up as to blocks of cars, valley traffic, and the disposition
of cars. These may consist of a "MINE RUN" which picks up cars from
every dog town with no rhyme, reason or order to what is considered
the most important train in the valley, the MOSR (pronounced "Moser"
when being discussed). The MOSR is the Modesto to Streator with can
goods, perishables, oranges, potatoes, and wine from Gallo. On a
typical 7,000 ton train 4,000 tons of it may be wine. Getting that
wine to New York makes the MOSR the highest priority manifest on
the Santa Fe as it is shotgunned down and then blocked at
Bakersfield. The block for Conrail, which will take it on to New
York is the hottest, and it will reach New York in about 5 days.
Setting up trains also means knowing the location and direction of
cars headed Mike's way. Richmond may give a report that they have
10 cars bound for Birmingham (31 added), and 11 for St Louis. They
also report that they have on hand 300 empty flats and need to run
some out along with 20 empty double stacks. Fresno reports that
34 Chicago Repo's
14 cars for Q-Rail
and are "Fine for flats."
Finally it is Bakersfield's turn with a discussion of on
relaying power to Barstow on shooters and the news that the 991 will
reduce power and may add fueled power. Bakersfield has 400 cars on
hand to switch and is busy making up two trains.
"What time would you like for a departure time?" While the
conference call is going on the computer screen shows the location
of trains under discussion. "Well, until we can get rid of the coal
train we can't take anything."
"We'll have to find some place to park it." So it goes on the
conference calls that allow management to anticipate the type of day
they will have to face. Meanwhile another Renzenberger is pulling
up to take the crew from the latest train to a motel. Across from
the depot is a sign with red letters on white to remind "LOOK LISTEN
AND LIVE" a wise admonition when working on the railroad. The
temperature is continuing to climb and an orange wind sock across
the track dangling from a pole at first motionless starts to rise
then swings to the west.
Walking past the depot now are Amtrak passengers who will be
boarding the California cars with their blue, yellow, black, and
silver paint scheme. Some of them have arrived from LA by bus while
others are local headed north. Ice is being loaded on the dining
car "COACHELLA VALLEY" which has on its side the universal fork and
knife sign. Next in line is "DRAKES BAY" #8204, followed by #8013
"KLAMATH RIVER", and #8312 "MOUNT INYO". As the lead unit #2001
faces a double red signal the passengers for train #713 are in the
ticket office where the schedule gives the information:
#711 5:00 AM #712 1:45 AM
#713 9:30 AM #714 4:32 PM
#715 12:25 PM #716 8:22 PM
#717 3:55 PM #718 11:45 PM
By 10:30 the thermometer is reading 95 in the shade and the
wind sock is almost motionless. "Burlington Northern Western Fruit
Express" cars, with their refrigeration motors running, are being
set out for the MOSR with #5857 and #848 kicking back the cars into
the yard. Inside the office though the air conditioning system is
keeping all of the computer equipment as well as the crews cool. The
headlight of a blue and white northbound San Joaquin Valley sits
below F Street and then pulls forward into the yard with more
"Western Fruit Express" cars and a one of the car department crew
follows it on a red ATV to make his inspection.
Conductor Billy Baldwin arrives for the 199 train only to learn
that it has been delayed because of a derailment on the hill. Billy
has been working for BNSF for a year and before that was in the navy
as a jet engine mechanic. After 20 years of jet engines he came to
the realization that it just wasn't fun anymore. He decided to work
for the railroad because he always liked trains and enjoys having
the responsibility for all of the tonnage and different aspects
involved. Today he will be responsible for a 6.013 foot train
(including power), weighing 4,397 tons with 64 cars all of which are
loads. He is also responsible for his 15 year old daughter, Tiffany,
who is on a college bound girls basketball team where academics is
considered as important as making baskets.
This will be a two man crew an D. R. (Rob) Brechmann Jr will
be the engineer. Pulling out his rules book Rob checks to see if the
lead unit is computerized. Because he will be driving the train
north this afternoon it means that his 12 year old son, who is into
midget racing, will have to forego this particular pleasure. His
13 year old daughter, who helps work on the cars and is also a color
guard at school will also have to wait.
Plans call to pull off two of the four units it is arriving
with to be used for a return up the hill and to continue on with the
remaining two. They walk down to F Street with the train halted
just to the east so as not to interrupt traffic and make the crew
change entering the cab of lead unit #803 (8-40CW).
"803 ready to depart in about 5 minutes." Rob calls this to the
dispatcher even while we are working to get rid of the trailing
units so that there is as little delay as possible. The signal for
our track displays a yellow over red and then a flashing yellow over
Gear stowed Billy goes back to cut off the two rear units from
the train so that we can pull forward and let them be taken by the
hostler over to one of the yard tracks. We watch as #511 (8-40BW)
and #7414 (yellow B40-8) pass to our left and then we back against
the first car.
"OK, back down gradual." From Billy and we back past the
lowered crossing gate. Once we are re-connected Rob pumps up the
air for our 6,000 feet of train. Since we are stopped the gate
sensor brings it back to the raised position but we do have
permission from the dispatcher (DS-26 Bakersfield Dispatcher) to
proceed when we are ready since the signal to the west of the depot
now shows green over red meaning that we will proceed straight down
the north track rather than crossing over and there is a gap in the
rails at the switch giving us a further confirmation of our route.
Air test complete we creep forward with our two units showing a
slight hesitation in overcoming the tendency of those 4000-plus tons
to remain at rest. The horn is blowing and the bell ringing as the
train pulls past the Amtrak station and then the BNSF depot.
"Out at 1412."
We pass an eastbound with JB Hunt containers parked and waiting
for either permission or a crew and there is a slight rocking
sensation approaching the Oak Street Bridge at 20 mph. As we
crossed F Street Rob hit the digital counter to let him know when
the rear was clear and as he passes under the bridge it reads 5092'.
"High Ball the rollby 199." This from Paul who has stepped out
of the depot to watch us leave and calls over his hand held radio.
Normally in the yard he would be using the Bakersfield channel of
161.370 but since we are now under the command of the dispatcher he
is using the road channel of 160.935. Rob brings the throttle up
through the notches all the way to 8 and our two units overcome
inertia enough to bring us to 30 mph and then to 40 as we cross the
Kern River Bridge and an Amtrak San Joaquin parked off to our right.
"Clear block." Our signal ahead is green and both the
conductor and engineer call it off as we pass the oil refinery west
"Clear block...green over...straight ahead." By now we are at
50 mph on the flat straightaway and then with another green merge to
single track at WEST JASTRO. A few more miles and we are at 54 mph
according to the speedometer. With the straight level track the
locomotive does its thing making sure it has an awake engineer and
at periodic intervals the alerter flashes a light on the upper right
of the console over the amp meter and then sounds a buzzer which Rob
must react to by pushing the yellow button to his left on the
console to avoid having the unit shut itself down. To our right are
fields of brown grass and on the left irrigation has kept everything
an emerald green. This is because without water supplied from the
northern half of the state the valley would revert to its natural
desert state rather than acting as a breadbasket for the country.
Ahead we spot a military train headed east eventually to Yermo
but at the moment parked on a siding with a crew member down on the
ground to give us a rollby. W e pass its flatcars loaded with tank,
jeeps, and other vehicles and by Milepost #899 have orchards on both
sides of the track.
Billy and Rob take advantage of the so far uneventful trip to
go over the slow orders and restrictions they will be facing up
"Should be able to 'High-Ball' now. Let's head home." By now
notch 8 has everything moving at 60 mph.
"Clear block." Gates go down on either side of the track as we
exit the orchards and now there is bare earth on both sides and
water in the ditches next to the road bed. At SHAFTER (MP 905.4) we
pass between sidings with green "Pacific Fruit Express" cars.
Because of the volume of produce in the valley there are two sidings
at SHAFTER, one on either side of the main with the West siding at
5,963 feet and the East one 4,833 feet.
"Clear block." and with a "W" sign on a post ahead of a
crossing Rob punches the horn but in the comfort cab the sounds from
outside are completely blocked. At CP ROSE (MP 914.8) the track
curves to the right as we pass a rainbow of different colored roses
lined out in the field beside us.
"Clear block." With a green over red we keep to the main
passing empty coal cars. Ahead the single signal is green and a
ribbon rail train is on the siding to our right after which it is
back to single track that is banked above rows of more flowers on
the right and orchards to the left. We are rocking and rolling
through farm country with tractors working in the fields and a
"Green over red." ahead.
Rob takes a swig from the new BNSF "Niagara" clear water
bottles, that replaced the old "Adam's Ale" which always tasted of
plastic, and after emptying it places the bottle in the trash bag
behind him. At MP 921 we curve to the left at 65 mph and the red
"alerter" flashes and then sounds its alarm and Rob hits the button
to silence it. We get a "No defects" from the detector and a "Clear
block" from the signal. The road goes ever on and on and at MP 927 a
flock of birds that had been sitting on the right-of-way scatters at
our approach. We are now approaching more numerous crossings and
Rob works the buttons on the console that sit to the left of the
throttle. From the bottom to the top they are:
Blue-Front Axle Sand
Intellectually we know that it is hot out there even though the
air-conditioned cab us very comfortable and over to are right is a
band of cumulus clouds where the mountains sit on the eastern edge
of the valley. Black-eyed Susans are growing in the ditch beside us
providing a touch of color and then to our left a series of ponds
complete with palm trees as in a miniature oasis. By now we are on
a slight upgrade with our speed dropping to 6mph. Bakersfield is at
400 feet and Fresno 200 feet. Between them is a bowl so that there
is a slight down grade, then level track and then another slight
"Clear." We pass the grain elevator at ANGIOLA (MP 942.1) and
keep getting those emerald "Come on ahead" signals. We pass
Corcoran State prison home of both Charlie Manson and Sirhan Sirhan
and keep on going.
"Hope it goes green before we get there."
"Headlight ahead." The headlight is an Amtrak waiting in the
siding for us to pass. Since it is running ahead of schedule it
waits for us before proceeding on down to CORCORAN which has it due
to arrive at 3:21.
"Good rollby." From the Amtrak over the radio.
"Clear block." Crossing a small mossy stream a flock of birds
skims along the water as we pass over the bridge. Irrigation
ditches on both sides reflect the blue sky and then come to an end
at a cattle ranch. The track curves to the right at notch 8 still
has us at 60. As long as we have clear signals ahead Rob's main job
is react to the alerter and look for signal changes along with
"Detector Milepost 962 no defects."
"30 coming up." Billy announces a speed restriction ahead.
"30 coming up." Rob puts the throttle forward into dynamics
and begins to bring the speed down. The colored lights on the
speedometer start to wink out in a counter clockwise motion and he
hits the horn which echoes as we pass under a highway bridge and
then the depot at HANFORD (MP 967.9). As we pass the depot he hits
the counter and begins to bring the speed back up again. We still
have a 25 mph restriction for the siding at SHIRLEY (MP 973.2) and
40 on the main at CONEJO (MP 982.2).
"Yellow board for the siding."
"Yellow board for the siding." We pass the golf course to our
right which takes advantage of the irrigation water and then emerge
from the green woods to more open fields. To the right a tractor is
leaving a cloud of dust in its wake indicating that the wind
direction is now out of the west. Since we are now on the upgrade
for Fresno notch 8 has us at 50 mph by MP 978.
"Clear." Grape vines are now on both sides and as we pass over
a road crossing the gates are down and red lights blinking and
almost immediately which has Rob reacting appropriately with bells
"We have a 40 on the main coming up." This is the street
crossing at Conejo.
"Yellow board 40 and clear on the main." The yellow board
means we have two miles to bring the speed down to 40 mph. As we
pass over the crossing Rob hits the counter again.
"Last known restriction." From Billy and we have more grape
vines beside us and a farmer driving his tractor along the service
road to our right. As the counter shows that the rear of the train
has cleared the crossing Rob eases on the throttle again taking us
back up to 55.
Billy gets on the radio to the dispatcher to check on it.
"What are you going?" From the dispatcher.
"55....we're going in anyway." This last part to Rob who
reduces the throttle while Billy is talking over the radio to the
yard ahead. The dynamics have us at 45 mph and we pass herds of
cattle and green fields.
"Clear ahead." At THORPE (MP 993) we are at 50 and Billy and
Rob get prepared to turn over their train at CALWA (the yard gets
its name from the California Wine Association and is usually
pronounced Cal Way on the railroad) Yard in Fresno and we enter at
1615 having made the 107 mile trip in just over 2 hours. A new crew
will continue on with it to Richmond as they make the usual switch
of grips and coolers.
As the 199 train continues on north with units #803 and #222
(SD75M) Engineer Peter Page and Conductor John Apperson prepare to
take a southbound down to Bakersfield. Getting a lift from
Renzenberger driver Jim Huber they are dropped off at their two
units red and silver Dash 8-40 BW #502 and green and white BN #7878
(SD40-2). This will be the power for the PRIBH (Richmond to
Birmingham) with 32 loads, no empties, 1,894 tons and a length of
Pete watches for John's hand signals as he backs
against the first part of his train checking the side mirror and
then for more hand signals as John cuts in the air. He pulls
forward stopping at the east end of the yard allowing John to
dismount and set the switch while we face a yellow signal and Peter
Peter has worked for the railroad for 26 years back to
a time when the water that now comes in those clear plastic bottles
was in jugs that developed green mold and had to be cleaned out and
iced down. The two of them will make the run down, get some sleep
at the motel and come back tomorrow.
"502 about 5 pigs..over" (1 pig=90 feet).
"3 pigs 502."
"That'll do 502."
"Back em up 502 about 15 pigs over."
"About 9 more pigs 502 over." We again pass MP 994 as we back
into the yard.
"502 about 4 pigs over."
"2 pigs 502."
"Easy 502 1 pig."
"That'll do 502."
"Cutting in the air 502."
"Cutting in the air." There is the hiss of the air being
pumped up to release the brakes.
"OK stretch em Pete."
"OK back em up 502."
"Back em up." Pete confirms.
"Clear of the 13 switch 502." As we back over CALWA CROSSING
(MP 994.3) the signal is red and the gates down. Pete keeps an eye
on the side mirror as he backs over the switches against the last of
his cars. As we back the gates go down in front of us and a train
with a mix of UP and SP power crosses in front of us. As it blocks
us we are doing the mandatory yard brake test. It finishes its
traverse and as the gates rise again Pete reads the leakage test at
less than 1/2 pound per minute and he waits for John to finish his
inspection. Ahead the gates flash again and lower and another SP
train passes but even as it finishes the signal ahead remains red.
To the east the cumulus clouds have now gotten higher and
thicker with the heat and humidity indication a possibility of
thunder storms in the Fresno area this evening.
"Santa Fe railroad milepost 987.0 no defects." We hear a
detector go off in front of us and Pete points out that this is
probably a northbound Amtrak. Sure enough it passes in front of us
on the main as John is still out inspecting the train. Tonight
should be an easy trip down because of the clear weather. Terrain
wise the run between Fresno and Bakersfield makes it an easy passage
but the fog that can come up the valley does create a problem. If
he does have to make the run in fog Pete prefers the night since in
daylight the signals tend to wash out which makes it with train
speed at 70 mph even more important to know their location along the
line. He used to work the northern part between Richmond and Fresno
and reminisces about times coming across the water with the fog up
to the nose hiding the track. "When the blanket of fog is nose high
you can't see the rail or the water but you can see the islands and
structures like floating on gossamer."
"502 See if you can call the yard to give us a rollby?"
"Santa Fe 502 east...wer'e ready to leave...trying to call the
yardmaster for a rollby." Actually this is preparatory since the
dispatcher has informed us that we will be waiting for another
Amtrak and two Westbound "Q" trains. For radio purposes #502 is a
Santa Fe unit others may be BN or BNSF depending on the lettering on
their sides and nose.
"Santa Fe railroad milepost 987.0 no defects." This will be the
QWSST1-15 with #613 (9-44CW) as the lead unit. John gets down to
give it a rollby standing in the shade of our units to avoid some of
the heat. As he gives the rollby he is listening as well as
looking. His ears are trying to detect any strange sounds from the
wheels which may indicate sticking brakes and his eyes watch for
leaning vans which may be caused by loads shifting inside. The rule
is if you can see any air between the 5th wheel table there may be a
After its passage another SP passes in front of us. On a
longer route this waiting may cause a crew to "Die on the law" but
with only 107 miles to our destination there is not to much chance
of that. Finally the dispatcher is on the radio to us to let us
know he has a train at BOWLES (MP 988.3) and when it passes he will
advance us to BOWLES to wait for the next one. Chess pieces moving
on the board.
As the "Q" train passes we get our green and Pete eases on the
throttle to pull us forward over the ladder of tracks before the
crossing. The trainmaster is out in his blue car at the crossing to
give us our rollby and at 6:50 in the evening we pass him as well as
the white security truck. Ahead of us far down the track is
another green signal and Pete hits the counter as we cross the SP
track. Over the radio we overhear another crew switching in the
yard we are leaving.
"One pig 615."
"OK that'll do 615." As for us notch 2 has us at 10 mph which
Pete advances to 3. Beyond the first green signal we can see a
second farther down the straight track. As this is now early
evening the sun is below the cloud bank to our right and the signals
which were a little washed out in the bright sun stand out in the
ambient light. We pass the first at THORPE and Pete takes the
throttle up to notch 7 as our speed climbs to 20. We get an "All
black." from the trainmaster on the rollby which is an old term
meaning that there are no sparks or fire from the wheels.
"502 East out of CALWA."
John checks in with the dispatcher as we raise our speed
towards 40 and the lights on the speedometer climb in a clockwise
direction. As we approach BOWLES the signal gives us a green over
red since the 1-899-16 train is already occupying the siding and
waiting for us to clear and gives us a good rollby.
"Detector MP 987.0 no defects." This time the message is for
us and we race past irrigation ditches where the water that earlier
reflected blue sky now shows as silver. The little river we crossed
earlier now has ripples where fish are leaping to catch a dinner of
flying insects and in the side mirror the signals from both the
siding and the main we have just passed are both showing as red.
Pete hits the horn as we pass the house of signal maintainer
Roy Stingley who is out watering his lawn on this Saturday evening
and he replies with a friendly wave. A group of kids dash across
the track at Lacy Blvd in Hanford making it safely to the other side
while the sun peeks out from the bottom of the cloud bank to our
left with a sudden dazzling unexpected burst.
Signal 9662 is giving us a flashing yellow and beyond that we
see a hard yellow and Pete puts on the dynamics in anticipation of
the next one that may put us into the siding as we can see it as
yellow over red but then changes to green over red. We keep the
main and Pete is back onto the throttle. Ahead we now spot a
headlight with double stacks behind it holding JB Hunt containers.
This is the QALRI-1 with warbonnet units 850 (8-40CW) and 817 (8-
40CW) and eventually this long siding (9,951 feet) will be changed
to double track. Behind it we see another green signal and keep on
moving. The sun is now in its final stages and ahead a headlight
beyond the green signal. By the time we are at MP 956 we have a
flashing yellow and the headlight ahead of us dims. Pete is
bringing our speed down and we can see that the other train is
sitting on the siding and we pass it at 35 mph. The sun is now
completely below the horizon, more green signals are ahead of us and
we have a new dispatcher sitting halfway across the continent
watching over our progress. As we pass BLANCO (MP 945.9) at 50 mph
we hear Colleen Judge talking to another train ahead of us and get
the impression that we will probably end up in the hole for awhile.
At the moment though our signals continue to stay green and we watch
as insects rising from out of the fields impact on our headlights.
Our earlier palm oasis now shows as black bushes and silver water
while the prison and other lights show up as fire flys in the
distance an a highway sign beside the tracks gives the distance to
Bakersfield as 49 miles. However Colleen has finally gotten around
to us and tells us we will be going into the siding. The signals
are no longer our emerald road but now a flashing yellow and then
red over flashing yellow and then at the end of the siding the red
signal reflects off of the rails. In the clear desert air the
signals seem closer than they actually are which means that
experience on the route is a must. Pete brings us to a gradual
halt, turns off the headlight, two red signals stare balefully at us
with the one on the left guarding the east end of the siding and the
one on the right the main. Colleen's plan of the moment is to allow
three trains to pass us by and then advance us to another siding to
wait for a fourth train. The question for the dispatcher is which
makes the railroad run smoother? To hold one train for over an hour
and keep three or four others moving or to move each train and only
delay them for 10 minutes each. Tonight the formula works out so
that we will sit and wait. Out in the darkness the air is still
warm and on the highway to our left an occasional car headlight
passes us with those coming north almost giving the impression of a
northbound locomotive. John climbs down with his electric lantern
to give a rollby while a moth flys in the open door and begins to
buzz the light on Pete's console. While John's has two from above
to aid with his paperwork the engineer's consists of one light from
above and one from the side.
Out at his place of vigil John stands with his lantern under
the light of a half moon plus that of the truck lights and number
board of #502. To the east he begins to see the approaching
headlights causing the poles along the track to stand out and then
the westbound dims its lights showing a number board of #902 (8-
40CW). John briefly shines his lantern against his chest to let the
crew know he is standing safely off to the side to make his
inspection and then as they pass the lead unit Pete in the cab puts
his lights on to illuminate the passing cars. As they pass the gaps
between them allow the light to pass and have the appearance of an
early Kinescope projector until finally they are past trailing the
blinking red ETD.
From up in the cab Pete watches the next train approach and
#7417 (B40-8) with its headlights and ditch lights which again are
dimmed. As this short local passes the parked units sway as they
are buffeted by the air compressed ahead of it and then almost in an
instant it flashes past. Like most dispatchers Colleen has her
cliche lines. The crews know that most questions regarding when
they will be able to depart will be greeted by a terse, "Watch for
the signal Santa Fe Bakersfield sub out." With the next train not
due for awhile John returns to the cab and in front the signals are
still at red so here we will sit until Colleen gives us "permission
to pass go."
Finally the headlight of the third train in the series lead by
#8259 (SD75M) approaches between the red signals, dims it lights,
and glides quickly towards us pushing wind and dust. Our headlights
come jarring on to catch the corrugated contours of box cars in
linear shadows and then it to is past and now the ball is in
Colleen's court. Over the radio we here the detector report on the
just passed train, "Santa Fe railroad milepost 921.0 no defects."
which matches the opinion of our own rollby . We settle back into
the waiting mode while making bets as to whether she will use her
standard line as she works her way down the list of other trains
between us and Fresno. Finally it is our turn.
"Santa Fe Bakersfield sub to Santa Fe 502 west."
"Santa Fe 502 west."
"As soon as the next westbound is by you I'll work you down to
From the distance another set of headlights splits the signals
and then dims. This is led by #7435 (B40-8) with a load of box and
tank cars which rockets by and as it clears we are again staring at
the double signals. Without waiting to deliver her line Colleen has
us on a green and Pete is immediately on the throttle and we inch
forward curving to the right off of the siding and back onto the
main. The crossing gates go down in front of us with Pete hitting
the horn and stretched out before us in the night we see a line of
emeralds with the closest one reflecting off of the well shine
In the afternoon's trip up the area here seemed rather sparsely
populated but with the setting of the sun lights now mark houses,
businesses, and streets. We keep moving and on a double yellow go
into a siding and around a train holding the main but we keep
moving. Out the other side is that friendly green indicator and as
we near Bakersfield John gets on the radio to the yard to find out
where they want to put us for the crew change. Bakersfield provides
almost a solid sea of lights and we pass the refinery at JASTROW and
back to single track crossing the bridge over the Kern River. As we
enter the yard limits Pete dims the lights and has us down to a
stately 10 mph crossing from the main onto yard tracks and
eventually onto track #404.
Our track route shows up as a pair of golden rails reflecting
the yard lights and they curve a bit before passing under the Oak
Street bridge meandering through a wall of cars with odd angles and
the occasional block of darkened locomotives waiting to depart. At
night viewed from our moving perch they are all clumped together.
Finally we pull to a stop across from the office with the light
shining out onto that "Santa Fe" marked bench. A westbound double
stack is already pulling through headed for the main line we have
just vacated proving that as long as there are customers to be
serviced there will be rumbling in the night from moving trains.
Whither goest thou O'little blinking ETD?
Out on the bench sit the carry on bags of the new crews that
will take our train and others to their next station. It is 11:30
at night in Bakersfield and the thermometer stands at 83 degrees.
I want to thank John Hearndon, Mike Long, Chris Young, D.R.
(Rob) Brechman, Billy Baldwin, Paul Shaver, John Apperson, Pete
Page, and Mike Martin for allowing me to find out how the BNSF works
its trains between Bakersfield and Fresno in the Central Valley.