Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Story Behind Workin' on the Railroad

I've been a train fan for a good part of my life. Both my grandfathers were railroad employees and my brother with whom I am very close just finished a long career on the maintenance side of the business. Most of us give little thought these days to the volume of material that travels by rail. Passenger traffic is of course far less than it was at one time but Amtrak still runs daily schedules on several routes and apparently fills most of their seats. I overheard a couple of men talking the other day and they observed how truck traffic is down on the Interstates while rail traffic seems to be up. This is probably a natural result of the rising fuel costs since a locomotive can move many more tons per unit of fuel than can a semi. I'm all in favor of that outcome even if I do not not care for the reasons!

Anyway, when Amber Allure planned a themed series built around a phrase and a picture ("working stiffs" was the phrase and the picture showing a hunky blue collar type guy, shirtless and sweaty. Yum!!) my first idea was to do a story about railroad maintenance. I had my own tech expert close at hand and also wanted to pay tribute to this segment of a key industry. Because the new technology has brought many changes to the main line railroads' procedures, I chose to use a small independent railroad that could not afford the complex machines and equipment so still relied on labor intensive practices.  There are quite a number of these 'short line' railroads scattered around the country that operate as a rule to serve a specific industry or facility such as a mine, an oil field, etc. I set my fictitious line in the "Four Corners" area where the states of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado come together in a neat square. It is rugged and an ideal place for such a company to function.

My two guys just kind of came out of the shadows and started talking to me. Alden had made a career of the work whereas Roane only intended to work for the summer to make enough money to cover his second year of college after his partying ways caused his grandfather to cut off monetary support. But as we all know, the best laid plans...

Just for fun here is a very old photo that I took long ago in Arizona's Verde Valley of a 'work train' that was in the area to fix some bridges and other structures damaged by summer flash floods. The guys lived in converted box cars made into bunk houses, called "camp cars" or "outfit cars." In more remote areas there was also a cook/dining car in the mix as well as other cars to haul equipment, machines and supplies.

This spot is now across the road from the depot and sidings used by the Verde Canyon Scenic Railroad but at the time of the photo, early 1960s, the line was a spur off the main Santa Fe routes.  I would recommend the Verde trip to any rail fan and also to those who want to see some gorgeous unspoiled scenery, wildlife and just have a fun time. The trip lasts about four hours and there are open cars where you can take in the scenery and photograph the fantastic vistas. Or you can travel in a closed coach in luxury! The URL for info and tickets etc is http://www.verdecanyon.com/  so check it out! I took the trip a few years back and cannot wait to go again!

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