Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Car 32, Where Are You?

A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—that’s how Director Bev Fitzpatrick describes his recent ride on an inspection train. Generally railroad museum pieces move from active service to retirement display. This time the train ran in the opposite direction.

Among the dozens of locomotives and rolling stock the Virginia Museum of Transportation owns is a former Southern Railway Research car. Now painted in Norfolk Southern colors and known as Research 32, it is in wonderful shape.

Late last year Norfolk Southern asked to use it for track inspections while the railroad’s equipment was being upgraded. After all that NS has done for VMT, we were tickled to help them out. Shortly afterward, Research 32 left the museum, was retrofitted with some new technology, and hit the rails.

In conversations with railroad personnel, VMT staff expressed a desire to understand better what the car does in order to interpret it more accurately when it returns to the museum’s collection. Thus a few days ago the railroad took VMT employees on an inspection trip to observe firsthand how the car helps keep NS lines in their normal great shape.

I’ll let Bev tell the rest of the story:

We arrived at the old car shed in Roanoke just east of the old passenger station at 5:30 am. We needed to be there that early in order to board, have our mandatory safety briefing, and settle in for the ride. We were to travel south from Roanoke to Winston Salem, North Carolina on the "Punkin Vine." This line orginally belonged to the Roanoke Southern Railroad. Its nickname stems from the fact that it has very few straight segments of track along its 90-mile run.

We pulled forward out of the sheds, did a reverse move and rolled west until we passed the switch for the southbound main. Then the train changed direction and we were off on our great adventure.

We rode in a long room at the end of the car. Two employees were positioned there, one facing forward and the other turned to the rear. The first looked ahead through a window that extended about 6 inches beyond the edge of the car, spotting road crossings and bridges along the way and entering that data as we traveled. The computers had logged on at milepost 1 out of Roanoke and gave a digital readout of the train’s speed and milepost position as we moved southward.

The other gentleman watched the track behind us like a hawk. Each time we passed a mile marker a bell sounded to note where we were.

Just ahead, four other NS workers studied screens that displayed different data. The monitors showed the overall gauge of the track along every inch of the line, the wear compared with the contours of new rail, the track’s elevation, along with much more that we did not understand.

Human expertise and sophisticated technology worked together flawlessly to ensure the safety of train crews and product that will roll along this line. In the 90 miles we traveled, the inspection revealed only one small defect. The dedication of the Research and Test crew was obvious. These folks leave their families every other week to test track across the sprawling NS system. They patiently and helpfully explained what we were seeing and answered our questions.

The Virginia Museum of Transportation is so pleased to own car 32 and to have had this chance to learn more about what it does and did in its long and distinguished career. Once it returns to the Museum, we hope to do a much better job of interpreting its mission and explaining its significance to railroad operations. We remain most grateful to the R&T and engine crews for a wonderful learning experience and a safe trip.

Speaking of Safety, the emphasis placed on that was the most impressive thing of the day to me. The NS has a sterling track record in this area. They have won the highest safety award in the industry, the Harriman Award, more than any other American railroad. We experienced that culture of safety, from our safety glasses, hard hats, and boots to our safety briefings.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!

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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Busing to the ‘Burg

Sometimes the best way to take in a train is to take a bus. VMT is hosting a trip this Saturday, August 9 to the annual Lynchburg Rail Day at the Boonsboro Ruritan Club just off Rt. 501. A 1991 Gillig bus formerly used by Valley Metro will leave the museum at 9 a.m.

Following the Rail Day stop, the bus odyssey will continue with visits to rail sites around Lynchburg such as the lower basin, the Kemper Street Amtrak Station, the Norfolk Southern yard near River Ridge and perhaps others if time permits. We will return to Roanoke by 6 p.m. The bus ride costs $20.00 per person. Lunch and Rail Day admission ($5 per person, with children 12 and under free with a paying adult) are additional costs.

What will you find at Rail Day? Operating model railroad layouts, vendors, photography and slide shows, clinics, prizes and raffles. You can also purchase food and drinks and interact with other rail enthusiasts.

Featured layouts include Thirty Inch Rails to Portland, an On30 modular layout constructed by Noll Horan for the 2007 Narrow Gauge Convention in Portland, Maine; The Milwaukee Road in Milwaukee's Menomonee River Valley in HO scale, a project layout George Riley is building for Railroad Model Craftsman magazine; an N-Trak modular layout by LyNchburg Area N-Scalers; and an HO 1945 Northern Pacific steam locomotive servicing facility by Fred Meyer.

The Rail Day site is To reserve a seat on the bus, call 540-342-5670.

The bus itself represents a rich transportation heritage. Jacob Gillig first opened a carriage and wagon shop in San Francisco, CA
in 1890. By the late 1920s, the company produced pleasure boats and heavy trucks and, a few years later, school buses. After producing troop transports for WWII Gillig resumed the manufacture of school buses and, by the 1970s, transit buses.

Interactions on the bus ride should be half (or more) of the day’s fun. Considering the nature of rail fan(atic)s, I wouldn’t be surprised if, by the end of the day, the group had built a model railroad on board and gotten it running.

All aboard!

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Friday, August 1, 2008

Take the Bus

VMT will debut another new exhibit soon. In fact, the Lawrence Gallery has already unofficially opened, though it still needs some finishing touches—narratives and signage are not complete yet. It showcases The Messimer Collection, an exhibit on bus transportation, along with a feature on the Virginian, Roanoke’s other railroad. Volunteers have done much of the work on the project.

The museum gratefully acknowledges retired Greyhound driver Harry Messimer for the donation and installation of his collection which features artifacts and memorabilia spanning over 75 years of Greyhound history.

The Messimer Collection features the top dog of the 20th century highways. Begun in the rugged iron ore country of Hibbing, Minnesota in 1914 by a Swedish entrepreneur named Carl Wickman, Greyhound Bus Lines would become the largest bus line in the history of the nation.

For 15 cents a ride, Wickman transported miners from the Oliver Iron Mines in Hibbing to the new residential town of Alice. Wickman’s first year profits were $8,000. Over the years his company would reach revenues of $1.045 billion with a fleet of over 3,500 coaches.

In 1921 Wickman’s coaches were nicknamed greyhounds because of their sleek profile and gray paint. By 1929 the galloping greyhound had become the company’s official logo. During WW II the bus line began to train women drivers due to the demand for men in the military. Those female drivers, along with their male cohorts, transported troops coast to coast.

The collection includes signs, photos, toy buses, ticket stubs, magazine clippings, safety and service awards, hats, belt buckles, maps, calendars, promotional, promotional items and memorabilia that were sold at station gift shops.

Historic items from Trailways, the rival that Greyhound finally ran down, and local fixture Abbott Bus Lines also have displays. In addition, visitors can learn about industry labor issues, the connection between Greyhound and Trailways and the train industry, and the role buses played during the war and civil rights movements.

We will let you know the official opening date and provide details of the Virginian exhibit a little later. Meanwhile, come run with the big dogs. The Lawrence Gallery offers an express cruise down memory lane.

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