Materials of Yesteryear

In 1967 young people were told that plastics were the future and the future did not disappoint. Today the world is made out of plastic, carbon fibre, corrosion resistant lightweight alloys, high strength concrete and LEDs. This technology has generally converted our world from one where stuff is expensive and people are cheap, to exactly the opposite. I could go on and on about the many economic ramifications of this, but in essence “things” went from being crafted and artisan, to being so invisible that they might as well not matter. Back in the day the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) was the largest private employer in North America with over 300,000 employees, roughly the same as WalMart. This vast army of workers was needed to polish, paint, lubricate and generally maintain all of the expensive, labor intensive technology that allowed humans to move at speeds faster than brisk walk. Replacing the materials of old was part and parcel to being able to replace the workers that cared for them, however as we charge into the middle of the 21st century some of these materials have soldiered on in the service of railroad signaling and, until their inevitable replacement, they provide a window into the pre-digital industrial age.

Steel and Iron
CSX Washington Sub – South Orange Interlocking

Steel and iron are the stereotypical railroad materials as demand for bridges, rails and locomotives practically created the modern steel industry. Of course steel wasn’t just used for girders and boilers. Back in the day this was the only metal one had available for structural components of any size, and before the advent of plastic or other composites, metal was one of the only materials available with an adequate strength to weight ratio. Stronger, weather proof and more durable than wood, iron and steel became the materials of choice of railroad signals and signal structures. The US&S style N color light signal mast shown above is almost completely made of iron and steel, right down to the base. Cast iron housing and brackets, sheet steel backing, steel pipe mast, strap iron ladder work, heck, even the signal wires are sheathed in iron. Read more

Construction of Southern Pacific’s
 Colton-Palmdale Cutoff


The line in use at Sullivan’s Curve. Santa Fe’s Super C is overtaking helpers on an SP freight as both head toward the summit of Cajon Pass. Super C is eastbound by timetable direction, while the SP freight is westbound (heading toward San Francisco).

In 1966 and 1967, Southern Pacific provided a rare spectacle for me – construction of a brand-new main line.

In 1876, the railroad completed its San Joaquin Line from Central California over the Tehachapi Mountains to Los Angeles, then it proceeded to build the Sunset Route east toward El Paso and New Orleans. However, by the middle of the Twentieth Century, the Los Angeles area had become a bottleneck for traffic to the southeast, so SP planned a bypass. Read more

A Job Well Done

A big event for the small town of Dresden, Maine
A big event for the small town of Dresden, Maine

Derailments are a fact of life in railroading. Today teams of well equipped, well trained contractors wearing high visibility reflective vests are called in to help. Their specialized equipment makes quick work of most derailments and cleanups. But for many years, the railroads maintained wreck trains equipped with flat cars carrying replacement wheels and huge steam cranes, along with tool cars bringing everything, including the kitchen sink, to the scene.

In spring 1967, Maine Central (MEC) train B-12 was meandering on its usual run along the Kennebec River, just south of Dresden, Maine. This was a daily, routine trip from MEC’s Bangor interchange with the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad at Northern Maine Junction to Portland. Something went wrong—probably a broken rail or wheel, dragging equipment. or whatever—which resulted in about eight cars “on the ground.” Happily there was no leaking cargo or injuries. Once the damage was assessed, the engines took the front part of the train on to Portland, and the caboose and rear end of the train was towed back to Waterville and routed down the back road via Lewiston and on to Portland.

Heading back to Waterville Yard
Heading back to Waterville Yard

That left the derailed cars and damaged track to be dealt with by the Waterville wreck train, which was dispatched along with track and car department crews to get started on the delicate and dangerous job of re-railing the cars and clearing the line.

Planning the job
Planning the job
Dresden Wreck 0667 943
Where to start?
Undercar springs not where they should be
Undercar springs not where they should be

Pictures of railroad accidents usually make the news, but photos of the crews doing the cleanup work, not so much. On this job, the crews working under the supervision of the wreckmaster have been careful and methodical in clearing the wreckage. The cleanup has gone well, and after working through the night, all the cars are back on the rails and ready to be towed back to the Waterville shops. New track is in place, and soon the railroad will be back to normal.

A job well done

Here’s the weary crew riding on the open deck of the tool car, just under the big hook’s boom. Their difficult job is complete, nobody got hurt, and you can tell by their tired but relaxed expressions that they are pleased with their work, and know the railroad is ready for tomorrow’s B-12.

Their faces reflect a job well done.

Bob HughesPhotographs and text Copyright 2016