Building on the thoughts from the last post, I dug out some stock and thought I’d mock up an operating session. In doing so I could test track locations and siding lengths. Beyond running the trains, I can test the various vantage points from which I can watch a train and consider if the various scenes could look appealing and remind me of times and places I’ve been. After all, if I do this right I’ll recall time trackside in these six square feet. Here goes.
We always pretend that every arm of every railroad once had a heyday. Instead, in reality, like so many other rural branchlines this one never saw streamlined passenger trains, never inspired a great railroad song, never did much more than be here and most of the time, just in the way. In common with many similar rural railways, the period since the war has seen a divergence away from the train and even the many farms and towns served in the land it called home. We romanticize about the way communities and businesses depended on the railroad’s service but overlook the way that same railroad quietly forgot that relationship and too many people were left behind. They chose their cars and trucks not because they hated trains but as an act of actually getting product to market and a level of service they couldn’t trust the railroad to provide to them. First it took days to get a car moved from here to there when you could drive the same distance in an afternoon. Then the cars themselves got harder and harder to get. When the railroad finally found you some cars they were of such poor quality part of your crop was wrecked before it even arrived.
I didn’t mean to editorialize so much but behind the wheel of my old Volvo wagon and to the sounds of Oasis on my tape deck I get to think about those questions. Being a model railroader first and someone who came to know railfanning later in life I try to interpret these thoughts in terms of my hobby. In the pages of magazines I’ve seen a lot of people model decrepit modelling but not as often do we discuss what I’m trying to term “emotional modelling”. I wonder how we could attempt to model the sentiment from the period after the way and before the shortline took over with the promise of locally-seeded optimism: how could we model the look of a community that was deservedly critical of the railroad, even suspicious of it? What details would need to appear in our model to contrast to a new railroad in town bent on repairing that relationship? If the great novel was bred in the rich contrast between the hero and the villain could we attempt something on two miniature rails as good?
I really could have done a better job of preparing for this trip and on the seat beside me is a copy of Railfan and Railroad magazine, the particular issue in which described this branch and a map. I studied that article, memorizing every word and every nuance in each black and white photograph. When I left to finally meet my old friend in person I figured like I wouldn’t even need a map but as I discover the land and roads just outside each photo’s frame I discover how grateful I am that I did have that map. Great railfans always talk about some small diner they discovered trackside but I stopped at McDonalds and I’m sipping on a coffee and a pie from there instead. As I sip my coffee it occurs to me that in investing where I did I played in the same change that marks the county every day and the railroad that drew me here in the first place.
Behind the wheel of Garfield (what else do you name a tangerine orange Volvo wagon?) I could move more quickly but I haven’t a clue where I’m going so any advances I can make on road are offset by my lack of familiarity. Luckily for me and likely cursed by the actual train crew, they’re working against ten to fifteen mile an hour track restrictions and various work along the way. This slower pace provides a great many opportunities to get ahead of the train and every so often a change to be in the perfect place when it finally enters the scene. Today’s train is led by a borrowed Sorry Valley RS11 and the line’s newest third-hand acquisition: an ex-GM&O RS1. Pretending I’m like some railfan reincarnation of the mythical tracker my ears are trained to the air for the exhaust bark from their Alco prime movers. So far the air is the sound of cars on the road and the occasional people.
Finally the train arrives. I described an exhaust beat that really wasn’t the train’s introduction today. At this pace it’s a quieter beat almost drowned out by rail and ties stretching under the weight of the train. We’re down to two cars so they must have cut out quite a few on the way here. Lacking proper office facilities they’ve elected to borrow a caboose from parent road, the Sorry Valley, to use as a rolling office on every train. The railroad likens this approach is one more way they’re bringing the railroad to the people. So few lines run cabooses these days and I wonder how long this will continue.
With only two cars in the train and a lone Vermont Railway boxcar placed on the public siding in town there can’t be much work to do today. I know this scene so well from near-obsessively studying photos in train magazines and I can’t describe what it feels like to finally be here, trackside. I didn’t notice the older gentleman walking up beside me. “Yup, that’s the new railroad. The locomotives aren’t their’s but they seem like they’re trying.” He’s smiling and looks just a little proud and I guess he’s been around long enough to remember the big railroad at its prime and the time in between. His remark sounds alot like what you’d say about your kid’s first date.
After placing the cars on the runaround I expected them to just drop the van on the other end and take off out of town. Instead the power is back on the main. Every so often a short-lived grab at the throttle but mostly the sound of heavy engines on light track. The ties are popping under the weight and the rail cries out: “Easy now!”.
What makes this town so unique is that it was once a junction. Between me and the engines in the above photo is the turnout for the spur. The spur itself, as the timetable refers to it, was actually once a complete subdivision. Today it’s barely a few miles long and used only occasionally during harvest season. The power clears the turnout and I’m excited to see the brakeman drop onto the ground the throw the turnout for this very spur. I can’t believe my luck and am already excitedly hoping I’m seeing what I am and some really rare mileage. The power reverses and down the spur line they pause long enough for the brakeman to hop back on. The engineer grabs a notch on the throttle and they head off leaving the two cars on today’s train in town with the van.
I jump back in the car. Engine revved and in gear. I haven’t a clue which road to follow and pray now more than before I can offset lost time with the train’s slow pace. Every minute behind the road is agony while I guess which road goes the right way. I apologize to the car a lot for each rough gear changes and I feel more like the Sprongl brothers piloting their Audi Quattro in a rally at Parry Sound than a kid in a twenty-five year old Volvo station wagon chasing fifty year old Alco’s through the heart of nowhere.
It probably only took minutes but I get in town before the train. I barely have time to question how that happened but just long enough to wonder if I’ve already missed them. Back to the tracker, I scan the sky for a trail of exhaust.
As subtly as they arrived before, the crew appears just after I did. You noticed the condition of the track in town but also the work they’d done upgrading it. Here, you saw and heard how bad things had gotten. This makes for great railfanning but I’m sure lousy railroading. The crew inches their power slowly onto the cars with a care that quietly suggests that with track this bad they’re only going to get one chance at this.
On the way to here I failed to notice any cross roads I could use to catch the train on its return trip. I should be grateful that I sort of remember how to get back.
Back in town the crew moved the Vermont Railway boxcar. The cars from the spur were apparently just a local move from farm to town. In itself, this felt like railroading from a very long time ago. I watched as the crew tied onto the Vermont Railway car on the public siding and placed the three from the spur behind it.
The two CP cars that arrived with the train today were left in the siding. The crew grabbed their van and shoved their two units and the van to the other end of the main, just beside the road crossing. It seemed a little luxurious but saved a few steps bringing them closer to the diner.
Today I shoot digital but then we only had film. Where I’d invested in recording the trip up I wanted to just watch the events unfold on the way back. These are the best photos I grabbed. It was a great chase and I hoped it wouldn’t be too long until I could get back.
Back to reality. I took these photos on the layout. Obviously the top of the layout is just cardboard and I’m relying on loose lengths of flex track to rough in the arrangement of things. Turnouts are just paper templates from Fast Tracks. I’ve placed trains in their locations so likely derailed equipment is as much of this effort as not. There are so many things to work out but I’m pleased with the way things look and the flow of the mock operating session. Siding lengths as estimated here worked very well. As for the story itself it’s my memories of railroading in northern Vermont as well as other’s memories of railroading here on the Island. If I ever find that time machine, among the first stops will be more time behind the wheel of Garfield chasing Alco’s across northern Vermont – hopefully with a little more money in my pocket for a few more photos along the way.
Thanks for following along.