I worked in the SP’s Engineering Department from 1966 to 1987 and both personally used, and supervised others in using a few of the cars depicted in this volume. Where appropriate a few words are included in the chapters describing these cars.
Many of these cars would be found as often in local trains for routine maintenance as in dedicated work trains until locals themselves were abolished. Ribbon Rail Trains, Flangers, and Rotaries only worked in dedicated trains. Except for CWR trains and large automated ballast trains, many of the tasks once done with these cars is now done with regular construction equipment. In part this has been driven by the limits on track time for MofW work of any kind, why involve the dispatcher and a train crew if you can do the work with an end loader, dump truck, or boom truck?
To unload ballast, the train is moved at walking speed and employees open the ballast doors to (hopefully) spread just the amount of ballast needed along the track. There must be a good understanding with the engineer and other trainmen to avoid surprise stops as this can lead to a huge pile of ballast. We almost always placed a new tie on top of the rail just ahead of the rear set of trucks to act as a plow in case too much ballast was unloaded, with the tie plowing, at least the ballast should not get higher than the rail. Until about 1980 none of the doors could be closed once opened. I have seen track laborers placing their shovels across the openings to stop the flow during sudden stops. This was dirty, dusty work and employees had to be constantly aware of their footing while walking beside the cars and regulating the doors. Sloppy or excess ballast along the track was a sure-fire way to get unpleasant attention from officials all the way up to the Chairman’s Office (D.J. Russell, B.F. Biagianni, and D.K. McNear all began in the engineering department an knew what a good ballast section looked like and how much the company paid for that ballast.)
Sometimes ballast would freeze; we would ask the engineer for a little, or a lot of slack action to jar the rock loose.
For decades Roadmasters would unload a few, or even single cars from locals to get ballast where it was needed for routine maintenance. In my experience these cars would be handled through the local’s trip and returned for loading by the opposite local.
One safety precaution was to never unload only from the “high” or outside of a superelevated curve. Some of those who tried ended up with the remaining load on the “low” side tipping over the car, sometimes with fatal results.
Dedicated ballast cars have one or another type of controlled opening doors to regulate the amount of ballast flowing out, and they can be directed to between the rails or to either side. If regular hopper cars were used we would fasten chains between the doors and the body to limit how far they could open, but the rock came out all over the track and a tie was needed ahead of each truck in a string.
Ballast cars became a diminishing, yet still vital resource in the mid-1980s because of accounting rules. If a car sustained damage that exceeded the book value it was deemed scrap, even though it was still very important to the company’s overall mission. Eventually Chief Engineer G.L. Murdock worked out a reclassification of most of the remaining cars to an SPMW series where they were not subject to this scrapping rule.
Ribbon Rail Trains:
Rail is transported by clamping it to the “Tie Down Car” in the center of the train, and the “Rack Cars” extending on both directions support the rail on rollers to permit the rail to shift while going around curves. A “buffer” car (usually an empty box) was always placed at each end of the rail cars to block any rail that might slip out of the tie down car clamps. Otherwise, it could shift into the motive power or caboose. Switching out the buffer car was always the first move of a rail train.
There were three cars to unload the rail, two elevator cars with a folding ramp and a roller at the top, and the winch/threader car with a diesel engine to power the winches, ramps, and threader arms. The threaders were trapezoidal boxes with top, side, and bottom rollers through with rail could pass freely, they were on arms that could be moved vertically or laterally to help position the rail along the ballast. After the employee on the tie down car had unclamped the rail to be unloaded, the winch pulled it thru the threaders until it was down near rail height. Then we would attach a cable to the end of the rail and anchor it to the track. After unhooking the winch, the train was moved slowly ahead and the rail stayed stationary, dropping to the ballast. As the end of the string came near the ends of the other rails the train was stopped and the next rail was connected to the first one and the process repeated. The elevator cars were needed to align and support the rail before it entered the threaders.
Things get complicated at road crossings; we had three options. First was to stop unloading rail, pull across, and resume. Second was to unload right across the road and then cut the portion of the rail on the pavement and drag it to one side. Third was to dig a trench across the road and place a loose tie in the trench for vehicles to use the road until the CWR train came. They we would pull out the tie, lay the rail through the trench, and backfill it with ballast or gravel.
The favored way to unload CWR was to shove against the threader car, with the engineer able to eye the work and take hand signals, but this required full cooperation with trainmen on the caboose regarding track and signal conditions ahead. But we could, and did, unload by pulling, with the threader car on the rear of the train.
Sometimes only a portion of a rail string was to be unloaded, which could leave a partial string not extending to the tie down car. In that case it was connected to one of the other rails and the train moved carefully to the location where it could be unloaded.
Shipments of CWR trains often involved a mix of standard and high strength rail (for severe curves) and sometimes included re-welded used rail or rail of different sizes. Getting all the rail to the correct location demanded serious management skill and attention to detail. This begins with a “framing list” from the Houston or Tracy welding plant that shows what rail is in each pocket of the tie down car. Usually, the Roadmaster would motorcar over the district and place stakes or flags to indicate where to begin and end unloading as there is not time with a work train to be searching for the next unloading site.
I found unloading CWR to be as close to fun as working on the RR gets, you could really see progress being made.
Air Dump Cars:
These can be operated from the trainline of from an auxiliary airline. On dedicated work trains such as the Salt Lake Fill, we used air compressors mounted on a flat car or Jordan Spreader to operate them. But if there is no air compressor their isolation valves can be opened to use brake pipe pressure. In my experience we asked the engineer to set up for passenger operation with about 110 psi (instead of 90) to help overcome the weight and leaks on the older cars. Using the trainline means they should be right behind the power and the rest of the train cut off while this is going on.
The handle to dump the car is on the side away from where the material will be dumped. There must be a place below the top of ties for the material to go, otherwise it will roll or flow back onto the rails.
Sometimes they were used to transport scrap timbers. One job we had on the Santa Cruz branch was to remove decades of accumulated creosoted timbers from the portals of a Tunnel on the line. We used a Hy-Rail crane to load the cars, then took them to the Santa Cruz yard and dumped them there for salvage.
Dumping to the inside, or “low” side of a curve is almost too easy. Once we dumped some rock on the inside of the curve at Bridge on the Salt Lake Fill but were surprised that the load had frozen to the floor of the car, the whole car flipped into the lake.
When through using them, the air valves must be set to again isolate the dump cylinders, the reservoir drain valves cracked open, and the operating handles secured to prevent cars from tipping unattended.
In Texas large fleets of air dumps would shuttle between the rock quarries on the Austin district and the several construction and rehabilitation projects at Englewood. This because there simply is no rock out on the coastal plain of the Gulf Coast, every single rock in Houston came there on a train or a truck.
To understand Jordan Spreaders, go back to “The Three Rules of Track Maintenance: Drainage, Drainage, and Drainage”. It is impossible to keep a railroad track in good condition if water can saturate the embankment and turn it into mud or cause the ties to rot out prematurely. The original purpose of spreaders was to efficiently clean out the side ditches along the track, this in the decades before wheeled and tracked end loaders, road graders, and bulldozers. With the side blade set properly they can be pushed or pulled at a brisk walking speed and very efficiently improve the drainage on one or both sides of the track. They are also used to remove snow and to push rip-rap into position.
Originally they were operated by compressed air from the locomotive but by the 1970s, when I began working with them, they all had diesel air compressors installed. Some were rebuilt to use hydraulic cylinders instead of air, this made the blades much more controllable. The MofW employee operating the spreader is sometimes called the “wingman”, he must be able to quickly reach and operate a bank of air or hydraulic valves for each side. A Foreman or Roadmaster observes the operation, keeps looking ahead, and communicates with the train crew. Situational awareness if critical to prevent striking any lineside signals, signs, road crossings, bridge abutments, etc. We had one crew in Texas derail their spreader and locomotive when they failed to see an abandoned concrete signal foundation in the weeds. Another spreader was badly damaged when an inexperienced supervisor failed to retract his wing or stop the train as they approached a highway overpass.
There are three key elements in their design: positioning cylinders, locks, and wing securement devices.
The positioning cylinders can raise or lower the wing on the stationary post, angle the wing out away from the car, and tip the blade up or down. Some spreaders have an additional cylinder to independently move the tip portion of the main blade for better control of the shape of the resulting side ditch.
Each positioning cylinder has an air or hydraulic lock. To move a blade, first the lock must be released, then the cylinder moves the blade (but not against a load of soil, rock, or snow), and then the lock is secured. The strength of the lock is what moves the load.
Because a spreader with wings extended greatly exceeds the clearance envelope of the railroad, it is vital that all blades be secured before it is moved over the road. The stationary posts have locking pins, the wings rest in cradles, and there is a cross-body rod with bolts on each end to tie the wings together before movement. Spreader operators are always responsible for securing them, cutting out the control valves, and double checking them before authorizing the train to move away from a work zone. There are speed limits for spreader movement, often slower for operation with the nose pointed to the rear.
I have only seen spreaders used in work trains; their operation is too time consuming to be done with a local freight. They require very close coordination between the spreader “wingman”, the Roadmaster or Foreman, and the Locomotive Engineer. Radio works, but with the engine right next to the spreader hand signals are often employed. If the MofW cannot communicate with the engineer, there is an emergency brake valve in the spreader cab.
I only saw the snow spreaders used once, in 1982, so these notes are limited to what I saw then. They are set up to be shoved, with locomotive controls in the spreader cab so the wingman and the engineer are side-by-side. They have nose wings that can be set up to push all the snow in front to one side or the other, and they have much taller nose wings. They have circular spinning windshield elements that are derived from maritime use; the rapidly spinning disc flings off snow and water that would otherwise obstruct vision. Old news to a sailor but new to a landlubber. When moving snow, they can be operated quite a bit faster than when pushing soil or rock.
Burro Cranes and Locomotive Cranes can move railroad cars; whether they were permitted to do so depended upon labor agreements. This changed about 1980 when the agreements were changed to handle material for company use. From then on unloading ties and “trim” (tie plates, kegs of spikes, etc.) became more economical.
Before being permitted to move their own cars, Burro cranes were frequently placed on flat cars, they could then reach to a car on either end. Generally, Burro cranes did not have enough tractive effort to unload ballast cars. There were sizes from Model 15 to 60 , however most of my experience was with Model 40s. Burro cranes usually had electromagnets so they could unload and clean up trim and scrap. They used rail tongs, plain hooks, or timber/tie tongs as the job dictated. They all had the white letter on blue background BURRO brand name on the cab. I could not help being fond of them.
Locomotive cranes often had pile driving leads with diesel pile driving hammers during the 1970s+ years I worked with them. A locomotive crane could self-propel out of a spur to a bridge location and drive piling for repairs or, in my experience, new steel piles to replace a timber bridge with prestressed box girders on steel piles. Piles could be “canted” for lateral and longitudinal stability. When the piles were all driven they would lay down their leads on the accompanying boom car and then lift out old bridge elements and install the pile caps, box girders, and track panels, and could then move a ballast car onto the bridge to cover the skeleton track. One distinction between locomotive cranes was how far over empty space they could reach to position a pile. At washouts, when the old bridge was gone, this reach dictated the length of bridge girders needed. I think most of them could reach 30 feet which was a common design standard for concrete box girders. There is a direct relationship between Engineering Standards and MofW equipment purchases.
Outrigger placement was vital for safe operation. With rails only 56-1/2” apart the load or the counterweight could tip over a crane, especially on superelevated curves, unless outriggers were set. Crews would have to set a pad of timbers or plates to bear the weight of each outrigger jack. And just as important was to have the outriggers fully retracted and secured before moving in a train.
In my experience the MofW position of Pile Driver Engineer or Crane Engineer was always filled by exemplary employees: highly skilled, willing, and able to work under any conditions, and with excellent safety records. They were union jobs but with high qualification levels.
Locomotive cranes were seldom used for derailments.