Sweating the assets
Forty-one years ago, I was in the employ of the World's Greatest Transportation System as the third hour CP operator at Eastend in Chatham, Ontario. I lived in a decrepit, wooden boxcar that had been converted to a flanger, and at the end of its useful life, de-trucked and dumped at the west end of the yard to serve as a bunkhouse for the Windsor-based yard crews that worked Chatham assignments. The yard crews rarely if ever used the miserable little shack during the days I worked, so I had it to myself. Well, me and the rats that resided beneath the car.
The ancient box, which stank of sweat and grease and stove oil, was outfitted with a fridge and hot plate, a table, a couple bunks, and an oil stove. The top bunk, strategically placed by the window that faced the yard lead and main line, was mine. I was young, and sleep — what little of it I needed — came easy. So I was more than happy to be able to keep an eye on passing trains from the relative comfort of my bunk.
So that’s where I was 41 years ago this afternoon when I was awakened by the sound of Alco 244s softly burbling outside. I opened my eyes in time to see a matched A-B-A of FAs drift by the window. My feet hit the floor before the trailing unit was past. I pulled on a pair of jeans, grabbed the camera from my grip and bolted out the door.
Extra 4082 West, No. 903’s freight, was stopping to make a 29-car set-off. Who needs sleep when there’s an A-B-A of FAs in town? For the next hour, FPA2 4082, FB1 4404 and FA1 4015 put on a delightful performance as the crew switched out the jumbled set-off; kicking cars for the C&O interchange in one track and dropping local CP cars in another. I’d lost all interest in sleep by the time the vintage cabs accelerated out of town with a still-substantial train. I hoped they’d linger in Windsor long enough for me to catch them returning on a daylight eastbound the following day.
The afternoon man had already cleared No. 916 and the train’s orders were strung in the hoops when I arrived for work about 23:00. The hot eastbound was on the bell at Ringold a few minutes later.
Hoops in hand, I took up position a few paces east of the C&O diamond as No. 916 came hurtling through town. As the engineer dimmed the headlight, I could make out the illuminated digits in the number boards of the lead locomotive: 4-0-8-2. Forty eighty-two! I couldn’t believe my eyes.
I swung the hoop skyward. The FPA hit the diamond, the fireman snagged the string from the hoop and I was immersed in a fury of barking 244s and the machinegun clatter of steel wheels hammering the diamond as the A-B-A roared by.
Only hours after they’d gone west on 903, the aged MLWs were back. The Windsor roundhouse staff would have had just enough time to fuel and turn the FAs before kicking them out for 916. The vintage cabs had seen better days, but CP was squeezing every bit of life out of them. Decades before Rob Ritchie would coin the phrase, the elderly FAs knew all about sweating the assets.