Recently shared some remembrances of switching gondolas back in my ‘teens with several friends. Terry Smith, a fellow Maine two foot modeler, suggested putting the story on the blog and had to agree with him. Thanks for the idea Terry!
I remember working with my Dad back in the early ’80s when he used to have his railroad scrap business. We had a 25 ton Plymouth locomotive that he rebuilt (kitbashed in modeling terms) and added a Prentice crane with a stretched boom on it to pick up sectional rail and load into gons. We also had an electromagnet to pick up the “OTM” (on track misc, i.e. spikes, plates, bars). He and I would switch gons, MPTY and loads. Just like “the real railroaders”, we planned our moves to minimize our work as to not waste “downtime”. We even set MPTYs at various locations so they would be easy to retrieve. Typically we had our run of the railroad for 4/5 weekdays during major welded rail relay jobs and worked behind the welded rail crews by a few miles. Our 2 -3 man burning crew would burn the bolts/nuts off the bars on both sides of the ROW. They knocked the bars free so the ends of the rail would be disconnected. We also knocked off every rail anchor with a maul. I know, spent many a summer day walking ROWs back and forth knocking rail anchors and bars myself. Started out doing this when I was 14 or 15, great summer exercise for when I wrestled in high school. The rail base had to be clean to load the rail into the gons properly.
Anyway, we used to switch gons into facing sidings as a last resort. Of course, no railroad employee would do this, but passing sidings are not everywhere like on model railroads. So, we actually chained the engine to a gon so that the engine went past the points and before the gon made it to the points I would throw the switch and the gon would roll into the trailing siding. Sometimes we would have to use the crane to help push the gon along the siding to clear the fouling area of the switch. This process always took a fair amount of time vs switching trailing siding since we could use both the main and siding to switch cars. One day on the DELMARVA peninsula (Delaware, Maryland and Virginia eastern shore side of the Chesapeake Bay) we received a very rough cut of cars from CONRAIL when we did their DELMARVA main. We had either a Reading or EL gon that had no floor for about 2/3rds of the car. Could not believe they sent us a car in such poor shape. One of the journal boxs had an issue as well but over time I cannot recall what was wrong. Second car had a brake issue. To get the two cars out of the way, get to the gons we could use and put the 2 bad orders back took awhile. For one person to operate the engine and another to couple, uncouple, set brakes and throw the switch adds time up in a hurry.
Our little Plymouth had no train air, just its own engine brakes. I used to climb from gon to gon and partially set brakes when we went down hills and run back and release them when we went up hills. Sitting here today sounds like fun, but it was nerve-racking moving from gon to gon even at 10 miles per hour. I can not imagine doing the job on a boxcar roof at night in the rain and wind (or somewhere in Colorado on RGS/C&S/D&RGW) going down a hill and around curves. I used an extra maul handle to help tighten up the brakes when we set a car off on a siding. Even put a wood shim across the rail head wedged against a wheel on the lead axle. If you look you will sometimes see that still done, especially on cars where the handbrake just doesn’t seem to really tighten up the brakes very well. A little thing to do, but it all adds up.
Even when I used to drop off the engine at a switch and signal all clear to stop, throw the switch and get on the end gon or wait for the engine takes time. Most modelers don’t realize that the engine does not race to do this task. Can’t wait to get DCC to have those nice little steps in acceleration. Funny story…One day, after throwing the switch back for the main and getting ready to go on down the main to load more rail, I slipped off a bent gon rung and fell onto the road bed (on last car of the cut). Jumped up and ran to the shoulder of the ballast and started running and waving my hands yelling “wait wait”. Bet it made a funny sight for a passer-by!
And the rail in the gons what happened to it? Believe it or not I would say a far amount would go to a big mill in the Williamsport PA area that made (and I think still makes) bed rails for you to set your box-spring and mattresses. They used to cut the head,web, and base apart and re-roll into the bedframe. Very little rail, due to its age and wear was sold to other railroads. Most went on to some other use.
Enjoy your switching everyone.