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NOTHING ELSE LIKE IT IN THE WORLD

by SHKarlson Mon Aug 6th, 2007 at 07:33:10 AM EST

I had perceived an obligation to remind readers what real railroading looks like, and a recent commenter reinforced that perception. Friday offered clear skies, falling humidity, and with the university offices closed to conserve electricity, no guilt in returning to the Burlington Racetrack. If I had an afternoon to explain railroading to a European, this would be one place to go.  All times reflect the time stamp from the digital camera, which is pretty close to accurate, and are expressed using the railroading convention of p.m. in bold.

More train blogging! - afew


2:57. There is a Caribou coffee shop across the street from the station, with outdoor tables and a view of the tracks. A slightly late Train 1235 is in the station. There are heavy passenger loadings midday account a baseball game (the Cubs assumed second place) and Lollapalooza at Grant Park. These loadings mean most of the service is a bit behind schedule.

3:41. Amtrak's Southwest Chief will make its 3:50 Naperville stop on time. I'm offering a selection of trains here rather than illustrate all the dinkies, which have some variation in locomotives and cars, but not enough to go to the trouble of uploading all the pictures. Thus, no pictures of 1237 or 1239.

A three-main-track railroad is particularly useful if there is a principal direction of traffic part of the day. The convention on the racetrack has generally been to use the center track for express services in that direction. But before the Cub game workday ends, the center track can be used for whatever expedited service might be required.

3:59. Here, the eastbound Southwest Chief, about 75 minutes late, overtakes a slightly late 1270. Metra's announcers had been alerting passengers to late running of this train account signal troubles somewhere west of Downer's Grove. Heavy passenger loads rendered the trains later still. Note the trainspotter preparing to capture the Chief on traditional film with a faster shutter speed than I have.

4:17. In the early stages of the evening rush, Downers Grove becomes a terminus for stopping trains out of Chicago as well as the first stop for some of the express services. Here, Train 1241, an all-stopper, and only a minute late, approaches the station. This train will continue to Aurora, turn, and return to Chicago as a Lisle Express, turning again as one of the last westbound expresses of the evening rush. The two diesels are assigned to only a few trains, as mobile protection power. The usual practice is to put a second diesel on the last rush hour trains Chicago-bound in the morning or Aurora-bound in the evening so as to have a protect engine available for the principal direction of travel.

4:22. There's no reason to hold up the time-sensitive traffic, here trailers and containers from several of the express forwarding companies. I dare any European to mix container traffic with passenger trains this way.

The trailers are meeting 1272, here about two minutes late.

4:27. The trailers had a clear run west on the middle track. The third Downers Grove express of the evening, 1243, generally runs on the north track. It leaves Chicago 36 minutes behind 1241 and is due six minutes later.

4:43. The eastbound California Zephyr will only be about three hours late today. Amtrak and Union Pacific have been working on ways to ensure better timekeeping for this train.

I had some plans in Chicago that evening, and boarded 1276. The front window was available for easy viewing of most of the dinky parade, Burlington-speak for the suburban train rush. The view of the West Loop is among the best passenger-eye views a person can get anywhere in the world. There's only one set of empty stock at the Zephyr Pit, and the Amtrak consist at right is probably for the 6:00 Michigan train.

There's always occasion for a new view of the waiting room at Union Station. Here, the view from behind the Jackson Boulevard flag of the "night" and "day" statues from the era when the station never closed. They now lock up around 1:00 am and reopen around 6:00 am.

The Jackson Boulevard exit is available until 8:00 pm.

Cross-posted at Cold Spring Shops.

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I like this diary, thanks for posting. I must admit to not really understanding the term 'railroading' though, even though I know you've tried to illustrate it with the diary. Can you explain that term for me?
by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Sun Aug 5th, 2007 at 04:04:02 AM EST
Trainspotting?

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Sun Aug 5th, 2007 at 07:50:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Ahhhhh.
by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Sun Aug 5th, 2007 at 11:29:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I was wrong. It is the practice of running a railroad. But I did include a question mark ;-)

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Sun Aug 5th, 2007 at 02:53:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]
My guess is that the term means something more like railroad enthusiast. More like DoDo's hobby. To me train or airplane spotting, as used in the UK, always brings to my mind the picture of groups of enthusiasts sitting along side the tracks or at the ends of runways recording airplane/locomotive numbers and times.  I suppose these people may also be enthusiasts on a grander scale as well and maybe the term "spotter" is a bit limiting in description. But, perhaps  SHKarlson will explain.

I can swear there ain't no heaven but I pray there ain't no hell. _ Blood Sweat & Tears
by Gringo (stargazing camel at aoldotcom) on Sun Aug 5th, 2007 at 12:31:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well SHKarlson certainly picks out detail that I am totally oblivious to.  I don't think at all about the context of how trains run on time or don't run on time.

Are there any trainspotters about on ET? I don't really know what they collect the numbers for.  I can just about understand being enthusiastic about trains though!

by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Sun Aug 5th, 2007 at 01:11:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
If we were still in steam days, I'd probably be one. But the paraffin cans and buzz-boxes just don't do it for me.

keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Sun Aug 5th, 2007 at 01:56:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think you should know the truth. I am an ex-trainspotter. (From the days before Trainspotting, the film, I hasten to add.)

The main London-Leicester line went by the bottom of the school yard and cricket nets at the grammar school I went to. About a third of the classroom windows gave a good view of the trains going by. Every boy in every junior class (first and second, third forms, after that it was beneath our dignity) was a crazy trainspotter. We had little books you could buy with all the classes and numbers and names of the locos, and you underlined them when you saw them. These were steam trains of course, and you could hear them coming from afar. At the instant one came by, all the boys (not the girls, it was beneath their dignity) would rise in their seats to get a look, take the number, look round at each other, make a face (Malta Great Crate again, or some other pet name we had for the passenger locomotives that were often on that line and we saw too often...)

The teachers made out they didn't notice. They had a collective policy that it wasn't worth trying to fight it.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Aug 5th, 2007 at 02:13:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Hehe....nice story.
I could tell a similar one, but about planes....

The struggle of man against tyranny is the struggle of memory against forgetting.(Kundera)
by Elco B (elcob at scarlet dot be) on Sun Aug 5th, 2007 at 02:21:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I used to love going down to London Road station for a spot of spotting. I think I did it for about a year before discovering planes and cycling to Bruntingthorpe or Stoughton with Bobby Andrews, whenever the weather was nice and we had spare time.

We'd always come back late and ride through clouds of midges backlit by the setting sun.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Sun Aug 5th, 2007 at 02:58:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Bruntingthorpe's a memory. Cycle out of Fleckney on the Arnesby Road, go through Shearsby... Stare in amazement at the empty bottles in the ditches the closer you get. Even the blue Dodge run off the road and left with a door half-open... More amazing to ten-year-olds than the planes...

An American base put a lot of stuff in local circuits. I still wish I could have those white Sea-Island cotton shirts from Saks of Fifth Avenue again, best shirts I ever had, found their way out of the back of the PX somehow...

It seems Bruntingthorpe's a museum now.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Aug 5th, 2007 at 03:56:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Lol, when I was stationed at an (American occupied) base in the UK, it was King Edddie cigars and cigarettes that everyone sold or gave away to you Brits.  I didn't know those shirts were that popular.  HM Customs & Excise didn't either!

I can swear there ain't no heaven but I pray there ain't no hell. _ Blood Sweat & Tears
by Gringo (stargazing camel at aoldotcom) on Sun Aug 5th, 2007 at 11:17:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I know that railway well, I used to live about 400 yards from the track, and used to go and watch the trains speed by with the aid of Dr Hoffmans little helper, so wasn't really up to writing down numbers.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Sun Aug 5th, 2007 at 03:46:18 PM EST
[ Parent ]
LOL, I didn't knew this was such a mass sport!

I never practised such numbers-checking (expect recording the data for trains I photographed), but some memories come up.

When I was a small kid holidaying at my grandparents', my ex-railroadman grandfather would tell me when each of the 8-11 pairs of express trains pass by, and I wanted to see all of them each summer. Now there was one train that passed at night in both directions. However, there were streetlights on the street between the garden and the railway, which illuminated trains at some spots. So one day, my grandfather woke me up at 3am, and we went out, under a heavy barrage of curses from my grandmother at my grandfather for doing such a thing to a child and himself...

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Aug 6th, 2007 at 09:45:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I understand by it that railroad schedules (that we mortals call railway timetables), and the documents of railroad companies, in the States, use ordinary type for am and bold for pm so you know which is which without having to have am and pm printed. (Where, in continental European countries, you have the 24-hour clock so no ambiguity.) "Railroading" being "the practice of railroad companies, workers, people".

I am probably completely wrong.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Aug 5th, 2007 at 02:19:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Especially as this doesn't cover "real railroading". Well, er...
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Aug 5th, 2007 at 02:23:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Gosh, must be a slow news day elsewhere :)

Thanks for all the comments and questions.  Let me attempt to tackle a few of them.

"Railroading" refers to the practice of operating a railroad (or railway, if you will).  The jotting down of names and numbers is "trainspotting," which we call "railfanning."  Many of the Metra locomotives are named (primarily for Illinois politicians or for towns and counties along the right of way, e.g. 170 "Village of Winnetka."

The timekeeping does matter.  Burlington used to ask train crews to explain any delay exceeding thirty seconds.  The intermodal train is too tall and too heavy for European track structure, and it is gutsy of the dispatcher to run it through the beginning of the dinky parade in that way.

The weight of the rail is in fact stamped into the rail, but I pay that even less attention than I paid to the names and numbers on the diesels.  It's probably 132 pounds to the yard.  (The U.S. is unlikely ever to go metric as the yards and miles are literally part of our geography.  Anywhere from Pennsylvania west you are likely to encounter what we call "mile roads" (that "Eight Mile" movie about Detroit invokes such a road) surveyed in the late 1700s to map what we then called the Northwest Territories, now Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

Stephen Karlson ATTITUDE is a nine letter word. BOATSPEED.

by SHKarlson (shkarlson at frontier dot com) on Sun Aug 5th, 2007 at 02:44:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
132lbs/yard? It seemed to be much less (it seemed to be too light), but maybe I was tricked by the different profile.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Aug 6th, 2007 at 09:52:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Term is new to me, too.
Thanks for the diary.
by cambridgemac on Sun Aug 5th, 2007 at 07:19:40 AM EST
Thanks for the crosspost!

Note: you had a copy of the 3:41 picture as 3:59 picture, I corrected the embed.

I dare any European to mix container traffic with passenger trains this way.

What do you mean? A container train following a stopping train closely, or that it is followed by the limited-stop train again five minutes later?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sun Aug 5th, 2007 at 10:39:22 AM EST
A technical question I hope you can answer: what is the specific weight of the rails seen in Downers Grove (e.g. lbs/feet or what's the measure used)?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sun Aug 5th, 2007 at 10:46:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
If you don't know offhand : If they follow British practice, it's probably cast into the metal itself and can be read from platform level.

keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Sun Aug 5th, 2007 at 11:09:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
as it is from the Metra system in Chicago:

I suppose I should also link it to the previous diary on double deck trains...

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Mon Aug 6th, 2007 at 06:07:39 AM EST
I'd never heard the term "Dinky" used for railroading, other than the Princeton - Princeton junction shuttle in New Jersey.

http://www.iceandcoal.org/nfa/dinky.html

Is it a common rail term for a local or commuter train?

by dmun on Mon Aug 6th, 2007 at 11:47:05 AM EST
Wait.

Do you live in the area or were you just here visiting?  This is very disorienting for me to have just spent the week/end with Jerome a Paris (among others) in Chicago and come back to ET to find someone else writing about Chicago trains!  

Is Chicago part of Europe and I just don't know about it?

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Mon Aug 6th, 2007 at 01:52:27 PM EST
More questions.

The post is from a resident of DeKalb, Illinois, who has an account with the European Tribune for the train-blogging (and the opportunity to set the record straight about numerous misperceptions of North American railroading.)  So an excursion to Downers Grove (and an evening basketball game in Chicago) is a relatively simple day trip.  I use "relatively" because the easiest day trip to Chicago uses the old Chicago and North Western (two words is correct) from Elburn.  But I had reason after some comments on my main site to conduct a clinic on real railroading.

I was aware that residents of Princeton(in New Jersey, not Illinois) referred to the Pennsylvania Railroad shuttle (also called the PJ&B, "Princeton Junction and Back") as the "dinky."  In Chicago, the various railroads had different names for the commuter trains.  The Burlington used the term "dinky" (at one time they were, now imagine today's eleven car monsters arriving Chicago at three-minute intervals, as they do at the climax of the morning dinky parade) while the Milwaukee Road and Chicago and North Western called them "scoots" and the Pennsylvania had the "Valparaiso dummy."

Sure, they're all diesels, and we had our version of paraffin cans (the Union Pacific's early aluminum streamliners) and buzz boxes.  But the Diesel was instrumental in the Arsenal of Democracy, and its successors -- check out those Dash Nines on the intermodal -- are impressive in their own way.  And yes, you do want 132 pound to the yard cross-section rail or something similar on those tracks.  The inner bogies of an articulated double-stack car carry a load of 125 short tons and some of the coal and grain cars are pushing 130.

Stephen Karlson ATTITUDE is a nine letter word. BOATSPEED.

by SHKarlson (shkarlson at frontier dot com) on Mon Aug 6th, 2007 at 02:45:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I dare any European to mix container traffic with passenger trains this way.  

You say that like it is a good thing.  It is not.  But we are stuck with a primitive rail system that mixes traffic types, because we won't upgrade.  

So that means the dispatcher has to mix, and try not to cause too much of a mess.  Kudos when he succeeds.  

I rode the Burlington a few times as a child, and was impressed by the good roadbeds, good upkeep of the equipment, and routine high speeds.  Glad to hear some of that culture still exists, after all these years.  

VERY nice photos.  Thank you.  

The Fates are kind.

by Gaianne on Tue Aug 7th, 2007 at 02:19:43 AM EST
Thank you for the kind words about the photographs.  Your substantive remark is really an entry into a policy problem that cannot be addressed briefly.

"You say that like it is a good thing.  It is not.  But we are stuck with a primitive rail system that mixes traffic types, because we won't upgrade."

I am interpreting the "we" as referring to the United States, and I take exception to the characterization of its rail system as "primitive."  The European high-speed passenger-only lines, impressive though they can be to tourists and commuters, are what the North Shore Line might have been, had it enjoyed relatively easy access to public funds.  But neither the North Shore Line nor any of the European high-speed lines have to deal with time-sensitive intermodal traffic (Wal-Mart gets upset if the Christmas containers are delayed, and factories lay off workers if parts aren't there) or high-tonnage coal gons and corn hoppers in 125 car rakes, or ethanol tankers running everywhere.  The "we won't upgrade" is part of a bigger policy problem: Economics and Falling Bridges touches on the failure of government to upgrade its air, road, and water properties (which isn't as simple as stingy Republicans, but that would take me too far afield.)

The North American freight railroads (including Canada and Mexico) are upgrading, sometimes aggressively, but that's not noticed by the general public, because the latest Christmas toys are on the shelves right after Hallowe'en and the components are at the factory when the day shift reports.

The Burlington spirit?  Yes, it's still there.  I'd be prepared to argue that BNSF is the world's best railroad, preferably over a pint or two ...

Stephen Karlson ATTITUDE is a nine letter word. BOATSPEED.

by SHKarlson (shkarlson at frontier dot com) on Tue Aug 7th, 2007 at 12:00:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Rumors here (New Mexico) are flying around that Burlington/Northern is planning to double track all of their north/south lines in the state to be able to keep up with demand.  

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre
by ATinNM on Tue Aug 7th, 2007 at 12:29:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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