Railroad Days

An item in the news today about a D.C. Metro worker who was struck and killed by a train — the third fatality in that system in recent months — was a madeleine that brought back a flood of memories of my own fifteen months as a railroad worker, back around 1975. It’s a mighty dangerous job.

I worked in the signal department of the Central Railroad of New Jersey, reporting for duty at the Boyd tower in Raritan at eight each morning. My official title was “signalman’s helper”, which meant I drove trucks, schlepped equipment, dragged cables, and, mostly, dug ditches.

The signal department was responsible for maintaining the network of cables, sensors, relays, and lamps that control the movement of trains (but not the switches; that’s another department). Each morning we’d meet at the tower, then get into our yellow pickup trucks and head off to some job-site, where, typically, some daunting earth-moving project awaited us. Railway signal cables had to be laid in trenches four feet deep, and generally these must be dug by hand with shovel and pickaxe, due to there being so many cables in the ground everwhere already. The ground through which they must be dug is usually mostly made up of the broken stone known as “ballast”, compacted by decades of train traffic. It’s tough digging, and particularly so when the cable-run has to cross the tracks, which means that the laborer must excavate the narrow rectangle framed by the two rails and two adjacent ties. In such tight quarters one cannot effectively swing a pickaxe, and the densely compacted, ballast-laden earth must be broken up with a heavy iron bar. It’s hard work, especially when you are in a three-foot deep hole on a hundred-degree day.

There were a lot of ways to get killed, and during the time I was part of the crew, a few people found them. I had had a couple of close calls myself.

One that comes to mind was a fine autumn day when I was dropped off at a grade crossing on a woodsy branch line in a rural part of the system, out towards Phillipsburg. I was given a dolly that I could pull along the tracks (there were no trains scheduled to come along that morning) and told by my crabbed and bitter little cockroach of a foreman, Gene Homler — who detested me, and made no secret of it — to make my way along the tracks taking old relays out of any signal cases I might come across. The cases (those silvery metal boxes you see along the tracks) were being retired, and the expensive glass-and-Bakelite relays they held had to be collected. Gene assured me that all the boxes had already been disconnected. I’d be picked up at the end of the day at another crossing a few miles along the line.

I was happy with my lot: it was a beautiful day, the surroundings were sylvan, and I was all on my own (itself a violation of protocol, as we were always supposed to work in teams of at least two.) I plodded along for while and, when I came to the first box, opened it up, and reached inside with my standard-issue half-inch nut driver. As soon as I touched metal, there was a glaring flash, and the wrench melted. The box, as it turned out, was not disconnected at all; it was still energized with the standard 600 volts. Had it not been for my rubber-soled boots and the nonconductive handle of the wrench, I’d have been fried to a crisp.

I was not pleased, and did no more work that day. When he picked me up, Gene did not apologize; he was annoyed that I hadn’t got anything done.

A few months later: it was the dead of winter, and my co-worker Dave D. and I were sent off in a truck to Annandale, another lovely rural spot, to attach an electronic motion-sensor called a “DMD” to the rails at a bend in the tracks. It was a windy, frigid day, and I was wearing what is called a “snorkel parka” — a heavy jacket with a hood that zips up into a face-protecting funnel. They’re warm, but you can’t see much.

At this point in the line there were two tracks running along the railbed (that’s four rails in all, with just enough space between for two trains to pass without clipping each other). The task at hand required digging a deep little hole under one of the inside rails, dropping the DMD into the hole, and attaching its wires to the rails.

Now, one thing that is forcibly borne in upon you again and again when you work on the railroad is that trains are dangerous things, and that care must be taken in their presence. To that end, it is customary, when men are working on the track, to have someone in the group whose only job is to keep an eye out for approaching locomotives. When he descries one, the protocol is for him to holler “HOT RAIL!!!!!”, and all the workers scurry to safety. (I suppose they might holler something else these days, but that’s the way we rolled back in ’75.)

Anyway, there I was, muzzled up in my snorkel parka, lying across rail #2 of four, with my face and both arms stuffed down in the hole, when I felt a familiar rumble. I paid it little mind, however, because I knew trusty Dave was watching for trains. About this, though, I was mistaken: doughty Dave was in the truck, drinking coffee and smoking a joint.

The rumble increased, and I realized with sudden horror that a train was bearing down upon me. In my thickly hooded parka, though, I had no idea where it was, or even what direction it was coming from. A further complicating factor was that I was lying mostly between rails #2 and #3, and didn’t know which track it was on — or, therefore, which way to jump. I lifted my head from the hole and swiveled left, but my head just turned around inside the hood, and I saw nothing but blackness. I turned my whole body to the left: no train. It was behind me, obviously, but I still had no idea which track it was on. It was now very close.

At that moment, the train operator, having now seen me sit up, gave a deafening blast on the horn, from just a few yards off. I fell back into the narrow space between the tracks, and lay there in mortal terror as the train roared past, a foot or so away. I was alive. (When I got back to the truck, you can be sure I gave that Dave a piece of my mind, too.)

Looking back on all of this — the carelessness, the corner-cutting, the corruption, and above all the pandemic drunkenness — I’m amazed the system worked at all, and even more so that most of us survived.

Yep, good times! I’ve got lots more of these happy little stories, but I think that’s enough for now. Off to bed you go.

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  1. Wow, Malcolm, both of those outdo any story that I might come up with. Even my near electrocution was due to my own stupidity . . . and not nearly so dangerous as your own close encounter.

    I’m glad that you survived both brushes with old mortality. Which were you more shaken by? One of these two — or the more recent instance in which you got bogged down in the tidal flats near your vacation cabin?

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted September 16, 2009 at 6:31 am | Permalink
  2. Charles says

    Amazing story, Malcolm! This only cements my belief that you should be writing the next Great American Novel, or at least a really awesome collection of stories.

    (I suffered low-level electrocution once when I ran over an extension cord with a riding mower and didn’t check to make sure it was unplugged before I tried to unwrap it from around the blade. That kind of sucked, but no lasting harm was done. I’ve never been hit by a taser, but I imagine it would feel something like that.)

    Posted September 16, 2009 at 7:21 am | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Why thank you, gentlemen.

    Jeffery, both of these episodes were far more harrowing — especially the one with the train — than that sticky situation on the mudflat. Looking back, I can think of a few other times that I very narrowly avoided getting killed; maybe I should dredge them up for a post also.

    Charles, though I certainly enjoy writing, I’m not at all confident that I’d be much of a novelist — but thanks for the kind words.

    Posted September 16, 2009 at 11:37 pm | Permalink
  4. bluezboy says

    I was hired as a Signal Helper shortly after you left. Gene Homler hated everyone. Back in the 70’s, railroad safety was a joke; things are better now as the FRA has forced railroads to comply with safety standards. Our fellow employee, John Pichalski was killed by a motorist while working on a railroad crossing.

    Posted April 15, 2014 at 11:34 am | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Hi bluezboy,

    What a startling surprise it was to find your comment!

    I am terribly saddened to hear of the death of “Littlejohn” Pichalski. He and I worked side by side every day; he was a good man, tough as nails, and a damned hard worker. (I was thinking of him, in fact, just the other day.) Why couldn’t it have been that SOB Homler?

    Perhaps you know what became of some of the other men I worked with. Tony Milkowski? Dave Dight? Big Jim Morrison? Paul Rothweiler? How about that foul-mouthed, diminutive lackwit Anthony Blazevige?

    Posted April 15, 2014 at 1:07 pm | Permalink
  6. bluezboy says

    I can give you the total rundown on all these chaps… Rather than putting all the sordid details out in public view, what is your personal email?

    Posted April 15, 2014 at 2:38 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Sent you a note. It’s malcolm – at – malcolmpollack.com.

    Posted April 15, 2014 at 3:20 pm | Permalink