Sunday, August 30, 2015

June 1990 - The St. Louis NRHS Convention

On The Road To St. Louis

On the afternoon of Friday, June 8 1990, I left Pittsburgh for Columbus, Ohio to catch the Independence Limited bound for the 1990 NRHS (National Railway Historical Society) Convention in St. Louis. Other than a massive traffic jam on I70 near Cambridge, Ohio (which took some fancy maneuvering to leave the interstate and go around) the trip was uneventful and I arrived at my hotel well ahead of the torrential thunderstorms that soon developed.

The next morning my friend and I were in the lobby and checked out at 7:15.  We boarded the shuttle bus and were soon transported to the departure point, the State Fair grounds.  The train was still in the yards, so boarding was not immediate.  The only problem with that was that another set of torrential thunderstorms came through while we were waiting and we got semi-soaked (I had brought an umbrella).  The train backed up to us about 8:10 and we boarded.  Since we were going first class we had the five rearmost cars to choose from (from the rear) the Mardis Gras (Roanke NRHS's ex-IC round end obs), the New River Valley (a lounge car), an unnamed dome car in UP colors, Pocahantas (an 11dbr sleeper), and Yadkin River (a 10-6).  Not wanting to sit in a sleeping car room, remembering that dome cars have a tendency to run hot, and observing the smoking allowed policy in the New River Valley, we chose seats at a table in the Mardis Gras and tried to dry off.

The rest of the train consisted of cars from various organizations leased to Norfolk Southern.  There were both open window and a/c cars as well as the Roanoke NRHS's Devils Lake commissary car. The 21 car train was pulled by N&W 1218.  The mixture of equipment made for a rather ugly train except for the first set of cars which were all N&W red.

N&W 1218
The train departed more or less on time and we began our trek towards Portsmouth and eventually Cincinnati (Norwood).  We were served a continental breakfast consisting of doughnuts, fruit cocktail and orange juice upon departure.  Shortly after leaving Columbus the skies cleared and we had a photo runby (we were to have one photo runby everyday except one).  Lunch and afternoon snacks for the first class section of the Independence Limited were prepared by Eric Crane, the pastry chef from the Greenbrier.  It was hard to diet on this trip.  We arrived late (due mostly to poor dispatching) at Norwood and boarded busses for a Holiday Inn that seems to have been chosen because it was not near to anything (it was at least a 20 minute bus ride on the interstate).  After a late dinner, I went to bed quite tired.

The next morning, Sunday, we again boarded the buses for the trip to Ludlow yard (the train had been moved there overnight to save us 2+ hours of switching...since I didn't need the mileage, I didn't care). Two NS business cars had joined the train (right behind the unit) reportedly to carry some Toyota people an important shipper on this line.  We left the yard late and remained late all of the way to Louisville.  Our route was down the Rat Hole and then over to Louisville on a line that goes northwest just north of Danville.  This is where the new mileage began for me on the trip.  Again we arrived late, boarded buses, went to our hotel (closer to where the train stopped), had dinner, and went to bed.

Monday found us repeating the by now familiar routine of waking up early.  However, a small group of us were determined that for this particular day we were going to get the rearmost seats in the Mardis Gras so we could get a good view of the track.  Instead of boarding the bus we called a taxi and beat everyone there.  Only problem was...the train didn't arrive until after everyone else did!  (We still got the seats thanks to a Roanoke NRHS person who reserved them for us.)  Item: the same people monopolized the same seats during the entire trip (except for the day we beat them to it).  We made it a point not to sit in the same place twice because we think this is bad behavior.  Apparently others disagree.  This was the most interesting day of the trip as we crossed the Ohio once again and headed across southern Indiana to Mt. Vernon, IL.  The scenery is rolling hills and the line twists and turns its way across the state.  We arrived late (as usual) but this time so late that they had served us dinner on the train.  The Mt. Vernon chamber of commerce was providing buses to the motel, but things were so messed up that after standing around for 20 minutes we got a cop to call us a cab. Again late to bed.
Mardis Gras about a decade earlier. It is still in use today (2015) by Pullman Rail Journeys
Tuesday was supposed to be a shorter day, with a scheduled 1:30 arrival at the St. Louis Amtrak station.  My new mileage was to end at Belleville, IL but I was in for a surprise.  Again we were late. This time there was a reason other than poor dispatching.  A rail had broken on the MacArthur bridge (used by the River Cities) and there were 10 freights waiting to cross.  They detoured us over the TRRA to the Merchants Bridge (used by the Chicago trains) and into the station.  Great mileage.  We arrived at 4:15, with plenty of time for my friend and I to catch our flight to Chicago.

Why Chicago?  Well my friend wanted to pick up his car for use in St. Louis, and at $19 one way, air fare was cheaper than a hotel room in St. Louis.  Besides, we could railfan our way down along the SP.

The NS excursion consist is showing its age badly.  The air conditioning is spotty in the closed window cars, and they just don't look (or smell) nice.  The 1218 performed well and we would have been early everywhere the entire trip except for two problems: 1) unlike the usual Independence Limited, the Roanoke NRHS's ground support was a bit shaky.  As a result there was usually confusion over how and where to deboard/board the myriad of passengers that were on and off at each of the many stops.  These stops stretched to as long as 20 minutes each.  This wouldn't have mattered much if it weren't for problem number 2) the Norfolk Southern doesn't seem to care much about keeping the train on schedule.  Everyday we were stabbed by freights. Virtually every time, if they had let us go on, we could have kept to schedule without delaying the freight (one day we sat in a siding for over an hour awaiting a freight...we could have easily made it to the next siding without delaying the freight or us).  Carl Jensen is not being given the support of the entire railroad.  With the departure of Bob Claytor and Jim Bistline (a major stockholder as well as the "soul" of the steam operation) I believe the NS Steam program is doomed.

Back Again In St. Louis

We arrived back in St. Louis on Wednesday afternoon and checked into the Drury Inn at Union Station.  This rehabilitated railroad YMCA would be my first choice for a place to stay, with reasonable rates about half of the Hyatt at Union Station.  It's located right across the street from St. Louis Car Company's private car tracks at Union Station.  The rooms are huge (especially the king rooms), well appointed, and best of all the air-conditioning works well (important in St. Louis in the summer).  After registering for the convention we went out to a yard where a friend is rebuilding a ex-Milwaukee Sky Top Lounge.  It's going to be a while before that car sees service again. (Update: as of this writing, in 2015, I believe the car is still being restored by another set of owners.) Dinner that night was held at Busch stadium where the Pirates trounced the Cardinals.  Actually the Cardinals gave them the game...there were enough errors by the left fielder (scored E8) that we soon had a fleet of diesels big enough to pull a 100 car freight.

Thursday found us in the lobby of the Drury having breakfast at 6am. The buses would leave for an undisclosed site at 6:45 and we wanted to be on the first bus.  We got out there at 6:20 and the first bus was already full.  Nevertheless we got seats where we wanted them. Today's train was over the Alton & Southern and Union Pacific to Findlay, IL.  Again, this was all mileage that I needed.

844 Leading a Train Through Chigger Central
Convention excursion tickets were a scarce commodity, and although my order had gone in quite early, I was forced to take an expensive deluxe coach ticket.  I was not looking forward to it because the regular coaches were the UP excursion fleet which is pretty deluxe.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the deluxe coaches were also nice, including Cimarron River (a sleeper), Chessie Club (a lounge), a dome car, and a gorgeous heavyweight pullman sleeper-lounge.  Behind the deluxe coaches where three first class cars, all lounge cars, including the Silver Solarium (should have been Silver Sauna I am told) an ex-California Zephyr dome observation car.  The unit pulling the train was UP 844.  We left nearly on time and had four runbys on the way to Findlay, and one on the return (we were supposed to do four on the return as well, but 844 needed more water and fuel than expected and we sat at Findlay for a long time).  In addition to great mileage, I picked up several dozen chigger bites (as I discovered on Friday). We arrived back at the yard around 7:30 instead of 6:15 and a bunch of us went right out to a Steak and Shake for dinner (33 locations in the St. Louis area!)

There were no trips scheduled Friday, and my friend wanted to go out train watching.  I decided to sleep in instead, and spent the day ambling around St. Louis Union Station (a really nice mall--I bought a pair of shorts because of my itching legs), viewing the four steam engines on display (1218, 1522, 844, and 819) and visiting with friends.

Saturday, the "get on the first bus" routine found us eating breakfast at 6am and on the bus by 6:25. Again we were transported to an undisclosed location and boarded the train.  Today's train would be pulled by 1522, and consisted of some cars of the NS excursion train, some of the UP excursion fleet, and most of the deluxe and first class cars of Thursday's train.  Not wanting to chance the A/C in the NS cars, we found ourselves in the UP car "Challenger", a car whose A/C performed well (though all of the cars had trouble with the St. Louis summer heat and humidity).  This was a fun trip, almost all of it new mileage for me.  The scenery was much more interesting than the Illinois trip of Thursday. 1522 had a bit of trouble with the 21 car train, and used much more water and fuel than expected, necessitating extra stops and delays.  There was one (poor) photo runby on the outbound trip to Newburg (actually Bundy Jct.), and we ended up about two hours late in St. Louis.

1522 enroute to Newburgh, MO
The Long Journey Home

Sunday we boarded the outbound convention train on the Cotton Belt to Pine Bluff.  Again, this was almost all new mileage for me.  The train consist included Cotton Belt 819, it's tender, and two baggage/tool cars, a HEP car, two commissary cars, a section of coaches for the NRHS Convention section to Illmo (where passengers would return to St. Louis by bus), a section of coaches going all of the way to Pine Bluff, and two private open platform observation cars.  It was a big train for the engine, 22 cars to Illmo and 14 beyond (if my memory serves me correctly).  As we boarded the train it was clear that the through section to Pine Bluff was going to be crowded, and that some of the cars had marginal A/C.  Some friends and I settled into one that seemed to have the best functioning A/C while others settled into another car that had reportedly worked well on the inbound trip.  We left a few minutes later than the 8am advertised departure, and made it to Illmo more or less on time.  The scheduled 29 minutes for switching the train and watering didn't come close to being enough time.  We were over an hour late out of Illmo with a shortened train. At this point the consist was: 819, it's tender, the two baggage/tool cars, the HEP car, three coaches, the commissary car, a lounge car, two coaches, a dome-obs, and two private cars.  By the time we left Illmo the A/C was only functioning well in the lounge and the commissary, and was non-existent in most of the coaches.  I should add that it was another 100-/100- day (temperatures in the high 90's and humidity the same).  Needless to say we were not amused, especially those of us who almost fainted from dehydration.
814 Enroute to Pine Bluff
By this time my chigger bites were becoming obvious to anyone who cared to look at my legs (not a pleasant sight.) I was given lots of home remedies for the bites (including nail polish remover) by lots of other passengers...but ultimately it took a visit to the dermatologist the next week to relieve the itching. To this day (2015) I am still ribbed about those bites whenever we get to a photo runby location. ("They're waiting for you Chuck".)

We continued to lose time due to longer than anticipated water stops (without an auxiliary tender we had to water four or five times on the way to Pine Bluff).  Luckily the A/C was partially restored to some of the coaches, but it was still a 5 Diet Coke day for me.  Lunch and dinner on this train consisted of sandwiches, chips, and candy bars. There were no photo runbys and in fact we were never officially allowed off the train all the way to Pine Bluff.  We arrived at Brinkley, AK, where my new mileage ended, about 2 hours late.  We watered and left without losing any more time and were enjoying some of the fastest running of the day (we had a daytime heat speed restriction that kept us to 50 most of the day instead of 70, the track speed for most of the route) when the train came to an abrupt stop.  Attempts to reach the engine crew by radio failed.  Eventually someone came through and told us that the headlight of the 819 had burned out and that we had to wait while they fixed it.  This turned out to be wrong.  One of the people in our group was riding in the tool car and came back looking like he had seen a ghost and told us that a steam line had ruptured in the 819, making the most god-awful noise.  It turned out that the line to the whistle had broken, spewing steam all over the place.  The crew had to abandon the cab and use a clinker hook (or some long rod at least) to manipulate the shutoff valve. Then we had to build up steam and eventually creep to a siding to clear the main line.  We could not continue without a whistle and so we waited while two freights that had been following us closely passed us.  Finally a northbound freight came along and we took one of its units to lead us into Pine Bluff. Through all of this, the Southern Pacific (Cotton Belt) was the most professional of the railroads that we saw.  The dispatchers were first rate, scheduling meets that delayed all trains minimally.  After our accident, most railroads would have "played railroad" for much longer making the switching moves necessary to get us our diesel.  With the SP, from the time the northbound arrived to the time the diesel was on our train and we were moving was much less than 30 minutes.

From here the trip to Pine Bluff was uneventful except for one plaintiff radio call from the diesel (fittingly a GP9) to the 819: "we're having excessive wheel slip.  You'll have to help us some."  We arrived in Pine Bluff 5 hours late to the minute at 2:30am.  The temperature was still in at least the 80s. Hard mileage indeed.  We then drove to Little Rock and checked into an air conditioned Red Roof Inn for what was left of the night.  The next morning we woke up with about 4.5 hours sleep and my friend drove me to St. Louis (following the UP much of the way) where it was in the mid-70s and not very humid as opposed to what we endured earlier in the trip, and I caught my return flight to Pittsburgh.

Miscellaneous Thoughts

There was a clear difference in professionalism between the various railroads which ran these trips. In order of increasing professionalism, I'd rank them: N&W, SR, UP, BN, SP.  I've separated the components of NS because there was a noticeable difference (though not a great one).  This ordering is very surprising to me because BN has had an anti-steam policy for so long, SP hasn't been that much better, and the NS roads have been doing this for 24 years.  But the SP dealt with an excursion train on its rails with little delay to freights (except after our accident) and hardly any delay to the excursion train due to freights.  This was not true of the others.

In terms of equipment, I'd rank the UP equipment the best by a wide margin, most of the private equipment used for first class and deluxe coach second (the Silver Solarium being an exception), some of the NS equipment third, and everything else (including the bulk of the NS equipment) last. Something has got to be done about this for future excursions to be viable.

The people who run steam excursions need to be more realistic in planning for servicing the equipment.  On the UP, BN, and SP trips servicing the train consistently took longer than expected. Even ignoring dispatching problems, the running time between stations was often optimistic.  On the NS, and SP excursions (the only ones where passengers were taken on at stops along the way) the amount of time allowed for passenger loading was extremely optimistic.  I'd rather arrive at 8pm on-time, than 8pm two or more hours late.  I'm sure others feel that way, and it certainly would make planning easier.  I don't imagine that the Toyota people were impressed with the performance of the NS on the trip from Cincinnati to Louisville.

Personally, I find the long delays to water and fuel the steam engines ridiculous.  Unless there is some other activity available off train, it is stupid to hold up the passengers for this.  If you have to run steam excursions to attract people (as opposed to diesel) run it with steam one way and use a diesel for the return with minimal delay at the outbound destination.  I notice that the NS is doing this on their October 13 and 14th, Richmond to Lynchburg excursions.

There was significantly better timekeeping by the airlines than by the railroads.  This was mostly a matter of luck I suspect.

Next year is the 25th anniversary year of the NS (nee-Southern) Steam program.  Carl Jensen is promising special events.  Hopefully the NS will support the program through then.


I'm happy to be home from such a long trip, but, during the car ride to Little Rock, my friends and I started started discussing coming on a proposed Pine Bluff to Tyler, TX trip in the fall.  I guess we're too dumb to give this stuff up.

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