Monday, October 12, 2015

Charlotte Circle Trip, November 1990

It seems like all of the really good trips come around the same time, usually in the Spring and the Fall. Fall of 1990 was no exception, and so, on Friday, November 2, I found myself out at the Greater Pittsburgh Airport waiting for my USAir flight to Charlotte. At the terminal I met my friend Dave from Wisconsin, who changed planes in Pittsburgh and flew with me to Charlotte. The flight left a few minutes late, but we were essentially on-time into Charlotte where we were joined by my friend Rick from Chicago. (Aside: Rick wanted to fly one way to Charlotte from Chicago. The best fare he could find was nearly $300. I got creative and booked him on a Chicago to Birmingham roundtrip on USAir for $128.00. Had we decided on the trip a few days earlier I could have booked him on the same flight for $54. Of course, to go to Birmingham from Chicago on USAir requires a change of planes...guess where?)

Anyway, we rented a Maxima from Hertz (for the grand total of $19.96 per day!) and drove to the hotel that the trip sponsors (the Piedmont NRHS folks) had recommended.  The Holiday Inn-North was an old Holiday Inn. The rooms had the usual old Holiday Inn musty smell, and the whole place looked seedy. As we parked the car in a nearly empty parking lot, I started worrying about whether it would be there the next morning. (It was, but that and an unexpected knock on the door in the late evening from a woman inquiring about something or other :-) caused us to shift our reservations to a Red Roof Inn for the next night.) So we went out for some southern BBQ and then played half a game of Rail Baron before calling it a night.

The train was scheduled to leave Charlotte at 7:30am on Saturday. Boarding passes were to be distributed starting at 6:15am. We arrived at the station at about 6:25am to discover that there was a long line ahead of us waiting for passes (which they didn't start giving out until 7am). Eventually we got seats in the 8th car (right behind the commissary) the first open window coach. The train was the Norfolk Southern Steam Excursion program's "B" train, a very mixed bag of equipment. The consist included open window and A/C cars, a commissary, and a sleeper lounge (Pine Tree State) for invited guests. The routing was from Charlotte to Winston-Salem via Barber Jct. on the Southern, Winston-Salem to Norwood on the Winston-Salem Southbound, and Norwood to Charlotte on the Aberdeen, Carolina and Western. Power was to be Class J 611 to Winston-Salem, a pair of Geeps (NS, and CSX) from Winston-Salem to Norwood, and a trio of GP7's and GP9's back to Charlotte. For me, the attraction was the new mileage: Charlotte to Barber Jct. and Winston-Salem back to Charlotte.

It was a beautiful sunny day for a train ride, and we left Charlotte only a few minutes late at around 7:40am. Things were going well for a few minutes when we ran into our first delay. 611 was having trouble negotiating a curve on a grade still within the Charlotte city limits (near a place called Atando where the line to W-S diverges from the main line). We took an hour to get up the "hill" with our 14-15 car train. Then we started to move, and all was again well with the world. A really nice photo runby was held at a place called Mt. Ulla, complete with a long sweeping right of way and plenty of brilliant fall colors.

611 on a photo runby -- though not on the trip being written about
Those of us into shortlines were really looking forward to the runbys scheduled on the WSSB and the AC&W. Alas it was not to be. About 20 miles from W-S, the 611 again had trouble pulling the train up a grade. It tried for about 30 minutes before they decided to double the hill. The plan was to take 6 cars off the front of the train to a siding at the top of the grade, come back for the rest of the train, rejoin the cars at the siding, and continue on our way. They made the cut and the 611 took off...a few car lengths. It still couldn't make the grade (I think I can, I think I can, ...., I can't!) So they radioed for diesels to come and get us and let us get off the train and stretch our legs in the middle of nowhere while we waited. Eventually two diesels showed up (the ones for the WSSB segment), and we took off after a 3+ hour delay with a CSX engine heading up the train. Some folks off the train got a great picture of the train being pulled by a CSX unit passing the disabled 611. (We later heard that it had sander problems...maybe.)

So around 4 hours late, we reached Winston-Salem and made the transfer to the WSSB. Switching there went faster than expected and we were soon heading through some spectacular scenery across high bridges, and along glistening lakes. I say glistening because due to our lateness we only saw the northern part of the railroad. The lakes were lighted by moonlight. We reached Norwood with no trouble, quickly made the transfer to the AC&W (which also involved hooking up another private car, the "Babbling Brook" to the rear of the train), and headed for Charlotte.

Due in at 6:30pm, the train did not make it until 10:30pm or so. We dashed off to our car, and went to check in at the Red Roof Inn, a much nicer place at less cost than the Holiday Inn (though inconsistent with the AAA ratings!) My friend Rick was catching the Crescent around 1am, so he used one of our rooms and showered while the rest of us went and had a late dinner at the nearby Waffle House. Then I took Rick back to the Amtrak station to catch his train, and left him to wait while I showered and went to bed at about 12:30am. At 7am I got up, and Dave drove me to the airport where I caught a flight back to Pittsburgh. Except for the fact that USAir had lost my reservation, this was uneventful.

The trip was a good one, even though there were delays. I've got a few observations however:

  1. When I ride a trip scheduled to be pulled by steam, I always assume it will be at least an hour late these days. Steam is dead, and the railroads (even those that want to) don't know how to deal with it anymore. If anything goes wrong it is magnified by the inability of the railroaders to deal with it. The should place less emphasis on steam on these excursions.
  2. The days of the NS steam program are (in my opinion) numbered. There seems to be very little high level committment to the program at the NS. Every NS trip I've been on in the last year has been late, sometimes due to equipment problems, and sometimes due to sabatoge by the dispatchers, etc. The passenger equipment is borderline. Some of it looks like it hasn't had any maintenance in years. There is no pride in the program on the railroad anymore. Moral: if there are trips you've been wanting to ride, ride them next year if they are offered. They might not be here in 92.

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