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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At August 14, 2008 at 2:38 PM , Blogger Philosofik said...

Sounds like a great time. Are there any photos from the trip that could go up on the blog?


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