Friday, August 8, 2008

Around the U.S. By Train – Part 13

It’s not quite 3:00 a.m. and the Empire Builder is sitting in Spokane, Washington, where I’m awakened by a slight bump, part of the maneuvering that accompanies the dividing of the train here. Most of us will continue on to Seattle, but two coaches and one sleeper will split off and head southwest, arriving in Portland, Oregon, at just about the time we’ll be pulling into Seattle.

The rear cars are the ones headed to Portland, so they have to be disconnected, then coupled to another Amtrak locomotive, all of which requires a fair amount of switching. I’m still sleepy, but I turn on my scanner and spend the next 15 minutes listening in on some interesting radio chatter. A yard worker is on one end of the conversation, the Empire Builder’s conductor and engineer are on the other.

I can picture it clearly in my mind’s eye as the yard worker calls out car lengths to guide the engineer, who is backing the locomotive slowly toward a coupling with the Portland section:

“Three cars, Number Seven.”

(The Empire Builder is Amtrak’s Train # 7; he wants it clear to anyone who could be on the same frequency that his instructions are for Train 7’s engineer only.)

“… two cars … one car … half-a-car … 20 feet … ten feet ... three feet ... a-a-a-a-and that’ll do, Number Seven.”


(For some reason, long since lost in time, "that’ll do" is the phrase invariably used at the conclusion of these maneuvers.)

The yard worker checks the connection and tells the engineer to pull forward a bit to make sure the coupling is secure:

“OK to stretch ‘em, Number Seven.”

He does and the passengers in those cars -- those who are awake, anyway -- feel another little tug. The coupling is good and the yard worker begins to manually make the additional connections from the locomotive to the Portland cars -- electrical for power, air for braking.

The new Portland section is not scheduled to depart for another half-hour, but the Empire Builder's Seattle section is ready to go. After double-checking with the yard workers and the stationmaster, the conductor pops the radio and gives our engineer the word:

“High-ball Seattle, Number Seven.”

I switch off my scanner and watch Spokane gradually disappear into the night behind us, then slide back down under the covers. The train is rocking gently and in minutes I’m asleep once again.

1 comment:

Mike said...

I slept through the Spokane stop last year. Anyway, for Air Force guys, Spokane = Fairchild AFB = Survival School = Cold & Hungry.

But I do think I want to look into a scanner!