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January 1996


Altamont Tower Closes

CSXT's Altamont (AM) Tower on the Mountain Subdivision of the Cumberland Coal Business Unit in Western Maryland officially closed as an interlocking office at 5 P.M., December 29. Noted for its presence at the highest point on the former B&O, with a concrete marker designating "Summit of the Alleghanies - 2628 ft." across from the office, the tower served notably as a location to switch helper engines following their shove up Seventeen Mile Grade. It is on the route of B&O's famed National Limited, trains 1 and 2, which once sped their way by the tower en route to or from St. Louis. In recent years, the tower's plant consisted of two sets of crossovers, and switches at either end of an eastbound passing siding. One set of crossovers has now been retired, as was the west switch to the passing siding, and the remaining crossover (from number 1 to number 2 track eastbound) has been converted to hand-throw. Operators will remain at the tower through January 3 to perform clerical calling functions.


Maryland Midland Inaugurates Stone Train

Maryland Midland operated its first exclusively on-line stone train on November 16, hauling 19 carloads from Woodsboro to Finksburg.


Maryland Midland Negotiating with Prospective Passenger Operator

Auction of EnterTRAINment Line equipment took place in November. Meanwhile, the Maryland Midland has been negotiating with a prospective party to assume a new passenger operation. Former MARC F-units 82 and 84, painted for Washington Central, have been moved to Union Bridge, reportedly for use in excursion service being developed.


Northern Central Excursion Company Formed

The Northern Central Railroad Excursion Company has been formed with the intention of running dinner trains between New Freedom and York, Pennsylvania. A startup date of May 3 has been reported.


Wheeling & Lake Erie Begins Using New Intermodal Facility in Ohio

The Wheeling & Lake Erie Railroad began operating from the new Stark County Intermodal facility near Navarre, Ohio, on December 15.


Norfolk Southern Announces Capital Improvements

Norfolk Southern plans to spend $708-million on capital improvements in 1996. This includes $193-million to purchase locomotives.


Amtrak Plans to Broker Electricity

Amtrak has proposed a plan whereby it could buy and sell electricity along the electrified portion of its Northeast corridor. The power could be transmitted over the railroad's electrical system which could get its feed from the lowest-cost supplier and then be sold to customers along the route.


Amtrak Ending Slumbercoach Service on Silver Meteor

Amtrak is ending Slumbercoach service on the Silver Meteor. Slumbercoach service remains on the Silver Star, for the time being, but the company says its Slumbercoach equipment is slated for retirement. The cars "have just gotten too old," according to a memo.


MARC and VRE Introduce One-Ticket System

MARC and VRE have begun an experiment whereby passengers with tickets for one system may use them on the other system at no additional charge. Tickets must be used on the day of purchase.


Lew Geiger Dies

Veteran B&O trainmaster Lew Geiger died on December 5. He was 60.


Eight Hours at Miller Tower

[By Allen Brougham . . . feature article] . . . . .

Well, here it is! After over 25 years of bumming it in the towers, I've finally gotten around to writing a record of an eight-hour shift. Mindful that some bloke 75 years from now will thrill at reading what happened at Miller Tower in West Virginia some obscure evening in 1995, I decided to make this one-time record for the sake of history. Indeed, how super it would be today to see the result of a similar effort done 75 years ago. Now THAT would make some great reading! (More on this later.) But the cold-hearted fact of life is that most folks, I included, don't now and never did much care to write down everything they routinely do on the job, whether for history or not, as first to do it and then to write it down is akin to doing everything twice. Get it? Double work! Ouch! So that's why there are not too many blow-by-blow descriptions of tower life. But here this one goes, for whatever it's worth:

The date I selected was Friday, December 15. And I should quickly point out that this is a writeup for that particular day; it is not some sort of composite collection of events to portray a seemingly typical day. My sense of history lends value to doing it this way. Coincidentally, readers who save their issues of the Bull Sheet (most do) should refer to the issue of November 1993. That one was dedicated to Miller Tower, complete with historical information and items about the area.

My shift begins at 3 P.M. But my "day" really begins nearly four hours earlier, at 11:15 A.M., as I climb into my Tracker for the nearly two-hour trek to Bodine's Restaurant in Hedgesville, West Virginia, for an all-you-can-eat repast. Along the way I record license tag origins over three indigenous highway segments for a statistical survey I've been keeping. (Well, I've nothing better to do, and it does help to pass the time!) My tummy suitably filled with Bodine's usually satisfying fare, I motor my way over the hills to the lovely hamlet of Cherry Run. (I still tell folks that Cherry Run Road served as a guide to those who built the roller coaster at King's Dominion!)

Miller Tower is at the end of a nearly mile-long dirt road paralleling the tracks. The glaze from an earlier ice storm graces the landscape. I'm there in plenty of time for a leisurely transfer from Jim, the daylight operator. I go over the notes that are hanging pertaining to the hotbox detector at Sleepy Creek, and the signal maintainer being on vacation. Q39613 is by Hancock and routed east on number 2 track. Jim and I go over the vacancies for the evening. (Miller is a clerical callers' office, in addition to being an interlocking office), and we note that all vacancies for the rest of the day have been filled. We then swap a thought about a hypothetical "snowbird club," the members of which would be certain employees who routinely get "sick" whenever it snows! I sign in at 1445. (Military time is expressed henceforth!) Jim was leaving the office as Q396 came into view, and I follow him to the lower landing to watch it pass. It has CSXT units 8249, 8123 (both clean) and EMD unit 191. (Lots of leased power has been showing up; it's our busy season!) As the train was passing, it suddenly struck me that this was one of the final seven Q396 trains to be so designated. Beginning at origin December 20, Q396 would become Q286 as part of a symbol restructuring. As noted in an earlier issue of the Bull Sheet, the designation 396 was one of very long standing, rooted well back in B&O times, and its change in identity is indeed the end of an era. Its time (OS) by Miller is 1449; the dispatcher is not yet ready for times (he's taking transfer), so I simply say the time on the dispatcher's wire for the benefit of the next tower, West Cumbo, acknowledged "OK, Allen," by Carl, the daylight operator.

My next order of business is to log onto the computer - a procedure involving a user-ID and a password - which I do at 1453.. The phone rings. It's an employee marking up from being off sick. I note this in three places - a log book, a work sheet, and a screen on the computer. The markup involves a job not scheduled to work again until Monday, so no immediate vacancy changes are affected.. At 1457, I go onto the stock report screen on the computer. As of 49 minutes earlier, CSX stock stood at 87-1/8, and a news report said there had been very heavy trading on this and four other listed railroad stocks. "Triple-witching" hour was at hand, and this had caused the heavy volume. [CSX stock has since split, two for one.] .. Crawford, the second-shift CM train dispatcher, makes his first appearance on the line, and I give him the time for Q396.. Then, at 1507, Q396 goes by West Cumbo, reported by Bill, the second-shift operator.. At 1509, Glen, the second-shift operator at Mexico Tower (east end of Cumberland), gives a markup for Q34214. It has work at South Branch, Green Spring, and Hancock, en route to Hagerstown - and later to Harrisburg.. At 1510, I go onto the safety screen to check on the latest injury totals. This has been a hot topic lately! If our division can get by with fewer than 18 injuries for the year 1995, all division employees (without getting injured themselves) will get $500 in CSX stock, gratis. As of yesterday (the 14th), ours (with 15 injuries for the year) is one of only four divisions still in the running for the stock award. The other 11 are out of the running.. At 1516, a message comes over the fax about ticket agents being off for the Christmas and New Years holidays. In the meantime I've been reading an operations screen describing unusual happenings. It also includes thoughts for the week. There's a tip on how to avoid food poisoning; also the safety rule saying, "No job is so important, no service so urgent, that we cannot take time to perform all work safely." At 1524, the Martinsburg helper (B216) leaves Martinsburg to swap power at Pearson Yard (between Martinsburg and West Cumbo), go to West Cumbo, and return to Martinsburg to turn in. (This event has no particular relevance to Miller, but I include it since it's a local happening heard on the wire.) .. At 1534, Doris, the operator at WB Tower (in Brunswick), reports E10714 ready to leave. It has 184 empty coal hoppers. Now that's a big one! (It departed at 1548.) At 1535, the operator at Connellsville, Pennsylvania, reports there will be a Z41615, a WLE grain train, to show up in Connellsville about 1730, with three WC units - 3102-3068-4016.. At 1547, D79515 called me by radio from Hagerstown to say they had left Hagerstown two minutes earlier. (I never see this train - it goes the other way - but I need the time for a report I send to Jacksonville.) .. At 1613, Doris at WB reported to the dispatcher that Q396 was stopped near Preacher's Mill (west of Harpers Ferry) with air trouble. E107 had been instructed to approach looking out.. At 1621, I check the computer to learn that the westbound Capitol Limited (P02915) had gotten out of Washington six minutes late.. At 1638, Bill at West Cumbo calls to see who his third-shift relief would be. (It would be Dick.) At 1703, Dick calls to see if there had been any change in his third-shift assignment to West Cumbo.. At 1704, Barb at NA Tower in Martinsburg reports E107 is by. The train will stop at Pearson Yard to pick up three units; also to get a box of computer paper for HO Tower at Hancock.. At 1706, I check back on the stock screen to note that CSX stock had closed for the day at 87-3/8.. Then, at 1714, I put up the Christmas tree! This follows a long-standing tradition of mine to place a tree during the Christmas season, complete with lights, next to a window which can be seen from passenger trains. Well, actually it's not a "tree," rather it's a tomato plant frame shaped like a tree, which when adorned with lights appears as a tree would appear from the outside. The tradition began in the late 1980's at JD Tower when I would place the same contraption next to a window where it could be seen by the passengers on the MARC locals. After all the locals had passed, the tree would come down. To implement this display at Miller, I plop the frame down on the desk next to the east window, supporting it with one of the feet of the fax machine in order for the frame not to topple over, and then I plug it in. There it stays until after P029 passes, and I suppose the passengers may get a 2-second glimpse of the thing as they go speeding by - so long as they're looking in the right direction.. At 1719, Doris at WB reports that P029 had passed at 1710. Note now that E107 is still on number 1 track doing its work at Pearson Yard, and with P029 coming toward Martinsburg, this requires P029 to run number 2 track from Martinsburg to West Cumbo. Crawford, the dispatcher, then issues a "DTC" block, since number 2 track is not signaled for westward moves. In this manner, P029 can get around E107, and the Martin block is issued at 1737. (DTC blocks have names; more about them later.) At 1738, I get a fax message with the markup of V83112 to move from Hagerstown to Harrisburg. Again, I don't get to see this train, but the markup is needed for a couple of reports we make, including its eventual time out.

At 1747, Barb reports P029 has left Martinsburg.. At 1754, I notice some burned out bulbs on the Christmas frame, which I change.. At 1757, Bill reports P029 by West Cumbo, now back on number 1 track. It has units 274-816 with 16 cars.. At 1800, I note the weather, needed on the train sheet - 37 degrees and cloudy. At 1804, E107 reports ready to leave Pearson Yard. At the same time, P029 comes on the bell at Miller, activating the tower's model board circuit west of Beard's crossing.. At 1805, Glen reports R342 by Mexico.. At 1808, P029 comes into view at Miller, blows for the crossing at Cherry Run, I don my Amtrak hat (given to me by one of the engineers), and venture outside for a ritual denoting the "high point of my day." First there's the song I sing. (A song?) Yes! Those who know me will attest that I have songs for a number of occasions, and with the isolated location of Miller, and absence of neighbors close enough to hear me, I feel free to bellow my notes as loudly as I like. In this case, it's the "29 song!" It's sung to the tune of "Here Comes Santa Claus," and it goes like this: "Here comes twenty-nine, here comes twenty-nine, here comes twenty-nine . . ." (the words being repeated 12 times through the course of the melody, which can be repeated through a second verse, if time permits, but you get the idea!) Anyway, I time the ending of my song to the approach of the locomotives to the tower, and from the steps I carefully watch for open baggage car doors, improper lights, etc., and then as the passenger cars start by I vigorously wave my lantern in a friendly sort of way to all the passengers. (During warmer weather, when it's light out, the ritual is the same, except that I can wave without the lantern.) If you're ever a passenger on P029 when I'm on duty at Miller, you WILL get a friendly greeting as you pass. In fact, a number of people have told me that they've been passengers on the train, and they have seen me wave. (They don't get to hear my song . . . but by then it has already been sung!) Seeing all the happy people on the train (some of whom return my wave) makes me itch for my next Amtrak adventure. Perhaps someday it will be on that same train - now won't that be a treat! "Amtrak 29 looking good by Miller, over," say I on the radio, acknowledged with thanks by the engineer. I record 1810 as the time by Miller. I decide to leave the tree up, for the time being, but I change hats. (The Amtrak hat is only worn for P029!) .. E107, with units 113-8176-6443-2252 and its long train, is by West Cumbo at 1817. Bill gives me the sequence and direction of the units. This information is needed for a report I fax to Cumberland noting any locomotive defects. At 1825 I call the engineer on the radio, and he gives me the defect codes corresponding to the units having defects. Examples: DNP for dynamic brake, LWP for low water, FWD for flat spots.. At 1827, one of the extra-list employees calls to mark off sick.. At 1832, E107 passes. In fact there were 179 cars, not 184. I fax the locomotive report to Cumberland.. At 1838, I take down the tree.. The conductor on V83112 calls on the radio to report their departure from Hagerstown at 1848.. At 1855, E107 departed Hancock; the box of computer printer paper duly delivered.. At 1903, I proceed to mop the floor. It's an effort I do whenever I get the urge, whether the floor needs it or not (it needed it), which I continue to do in easy stages until the job is done.. At 1907, Glen at Mexico gives a markup on R34215 (not to be confused with R34214, which was already out), with work at South Branch, Green Spring, Hancock and Williamsport.. At 1923, Glen reports P029 by Mexico, having been delayed by the defect detector at South Branch, the train's 50th axle. It was coach 34088 - nothing found wrong - a 15-minute delay. (P029 was 25 minutes late leaving Cumberland.) At 1929, I finish mopping the floor.. At 1937, Doris gives a markup on Q29715 with a pickup at Pearson Yard.

At 1942, I call Bill at West Cumbo. I wanted to know who Pearson was, the one for whom the yard was named. Bill proceeds to give me a long and involved answer, which I began writing down, until the details started to get a little far fetched, at which time I ask him if this be fact or fantasy, to which he replies that he was simply making it up. Oh, well! (Some day I'll find out who Pearson was, perhaps one of the readers knows!) At 2000, I proceed to go over the payroll report. It's done on the computer using the information derived from the day's clerical assignments. Jim had already done the report as of the time he had gone off duty, and since I had no further changes to make, I merely filled in the status of the extra people, which I finish in just four minutes.. At 2010, Glen reports Q216 had passed Mexico at 1955.. At 2022, Doris reports Q297 had left WB at 1955; has Conrail unit 6158 in the lead.. At 2024, Owen at Hancock reports that R34214 is approaching, having work there. I then prepare to get the train's consist and other information in order to get a block for the train to Hagerstown and yarding instructions. The "block" in this instance involves the verbal direct traffic control blocks, issued by the train dispatcher, for the train to proceed over "dark" (non-signaled) territory from Miller to Hagerstown. Two blocks are involved, usually given together, named Pool and Gate. An absolute block through either one authorizes that train, and no others, to occupy the block exclusively until the train reports clear. At 2027, I call Paul, the CJ dispatcher in Jacksonville, share crew and consist information on the train, and yard information in Hagerstown. He issues the DTC blocks for the train at 2033.. At 2047, R34214 was going back against its train at Hancock, and was routed down number 1 track to Miller. (Number 1 track between Hancock and Miller has bidirectional signaling, so no blocks were needed for that portion.) .. At 2048, Glen reports R13614 by Mexico.. At 2053, R34214 departs Hancock. At 2054, I begin my very first assault on the levers since coming on duty. Miller Tower is one of only about 14 interlocking towers in the entire country still having the old time "armstrong" levers connected to pipelines for moving switches. That Miller Tower has survived in this manner until the present time is a miracle -- that I am a part of its scene is truly an honor to be cherished! The lineup in this instance -- eastbound from number 1 track to the Lurgan Subdivision toward Hagerstown -- is a six-step procedure, taking about half a minute: unlock levers 17 and 12, reverse levers 16 and 10, and re-lock levers 17 and 12. The levers are especially easy to throw this evening; Dave, the maintainer, had undoubtedly graphited them before going on his vacation. The levers engage their respective pipeline with a mechanical advantage of about nine-to-one. That is, for each inch moved in the field, the lever is moved at its force point in the tower by nine inches. It is an old system, yet it is incredibly efficient. In the three plus years I have been assigned to Miller, I can count the number of switch failures I have experienced (except those caused by snow) on the fingers of my hands. This is not an exaggeration, and I'll match this record with that of electric switches anytime! At 2100, the blocks are given verbally by radio to the conductor (the engineer is not allowed to copy blocks, unless the train is standing), and the information is repeated back. The conductor is then given permission to occupy the Cherry Run yard limits (a mile-long segment prior to entering the first block), and yarding instructions for Hagerstown. He, in turn, advises the need for a taxi to return the crew to its home base (Cumberland) from destination. I then go onto the taxi screen on the computer, type in the required information to obtain an authorization number, and call D&T Limousine Service (speaking to Cindy) and order the taxi.. At 2104, Barb at NA Tower faxes her Christmas Eve and New Years Eve holiday bid. (Holidays are assigned by bids, based upon seniority, and do not always get worked by the incumbent.) At 2105, Q216 comes on the bell at Hancock. A few seconds later, R342 calls the signal at Miller -- Restricting. Before going outside to watch the train, I get the route for Q216 to run east on number 2 track. My trek outside for R342 is only my fourth opportunity to see a train in the over six hours of my being on duty. So far, it has been a rather slow evening. I note that unit 8522 is freshly painted. It is now raining slightly; the temperature is 36 degrees. "R342 is by Miller and Fred is blinking on the rear, over," say I on the radio, once back inside. R342 is by at 2111, and I reline the switches to normal.. At 2112, Q216 is reported by Hancock, to which I acknowledge on the dispatcher's line with a click. (Owen knows I got the time from my click.) At 2121, I get my first glimpse of the approaching Q216, afforded in the winter by the lack of leaves on the trees, which gives me extra time to put on my hat and coat for the trip outside. It has units 8523-8597, both in reasonably fresh paint.. At 2143, R13614 comes on the bell at Hancock. R136, an intermodal train, has the highest priority of any train on my shift -- outside of P029, of course.. At 2145, Bill reports Q29715 by West Cumbo. At 2146, Doris gives a markup on G91315. A few seconds later, Glen reports R34215 had passed Mexico at 2136.

At 2148, R34214 (the train that had passed Miller at 2111) calls me on the radio to report its engine had loading problems, and the train was drifting toward Williamsport. The engineer wants to know if there is another engine at Hagerstown. He further asks me to divert their taxi to Williamsport to take them to Hagerstown to retrieve the engine, if one were available, since it is possible that they might not be able to get their present engine started. This begins a period involving the activity of several things at the same time. I attempt to contact the CJ dispatcher, but without immediate success, so I then call the taxi company to divert their vehicle to Williamsport, and then attempt once again to contact CJ. With attention needed inside the tower, I opt to watch the passing of Q297 and R136 from inside the building, which pass at 2158 and 2200 respectively. In the meantime, the engineer of R34214 has contacted CJ directly by keying his radio, and the mechanical desk makes separate contact with the engineer to discuss the loading problem.. At 2210, I review the nightly vacancy report, and print it for the workbook. At 2219, I file away the extra personnel work sheet for the week just ending (it ends on Friday) and insert the corresponding sheet for the new week which begins the next day. This effectively ends the nightly report process which prepares third shift for Saturday's vacancies.. At 2220, I complete my train sheet transfer, which notes any operational matters requiring special attention. At 2229, I log off the computer. At 2238, the words "fresh meat" are heard on the dispatcher's wire. Jack, the third shift CM dispatcher, always announces his presence this way.. At 2241, Bill reports G913 by West Cumbo with unit 5. At 2247, I ask the engineer of G913 if there are any defects to report. "Top of the line," is his response, referring to unit 5 with no defects. At 2254, G913 passes Miller, the same time Brenda shows up to relieve me.

This, then, concludes my Eight Hours at Miller Tower. It was not a "typical" shift, but few really are. Only twice in these eight hours did I have to make a switch lineup, and there was no occasion to route a train toward the low-grade (number 4 track) line, most often used by tonnage trains. It was an easy shift. But had it been more busy, it still would have been fun. I've never thought of it as "work." But lest I lose track of history and fail to give credit where credit is due, I should note that things in the towers were not always so easy. The glory years of interlocking towers involved shoveling coal for stoves to keep warm, enduring smoke and soot from passing trains, working without plumbing, and handling traffic far busier than it is today. I have figures published in an old issue of RAILWAY AGE showing December 20, 1926, with no fewer than 104 trains operating on the then-three-track line west of Miller. This was said to be typical for the period, about three times the volume of today. That tower operators of the glory years really earned their place in history, it is their story that ought to be told. But even if they had wanted to write it all down, I doubt they would have had the time. They were just too busy! Still, they are the unsung heroes of Miller Tower. [A.B.]

Employees Mentioned in the Article . . .

"CM" Dispatchers:
Crawford Boggs - second-shift
Jack Thompson - third-shift
"CJ" Dispatcher:
Paul Pottorf - second-shift
Mexico Tower:
Glen Logsdon - second-shift
Miller (R) Tower:
Jim Vargo - first-shift
Allen Brougham - second-shift
Brenda Weller - third-shift
West Cumbo Tower:
Carl Kief - first-shift
Bill Lowry - second-shift
Dick Campbell - third-shift
Martinsburg (NA) Tower:
Barb Guthrie - second-shift
Brunswick (WB) Tower:
Doris Sharar - second-shift