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Home / Railroad Stories: The Way It Was / A Little Nervous Calculating

A Little Nervous Calculating

By Ed King | March 1, 2000

90 mph on a Norfolk & Western 4-8-4

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On the Norfolk & Western, when you qualified for passenger service as a fireman or engineer, the Road Forman of Engines’ office put a “p” by your name on the seniority roster. This told the world that you had the right to warm the appropriate seatbox on a locomotive on any passenger train on your division.

Hank Kinzel went firing on the N&W’s Radford Division in the early 1950’s. He’d put in some time working in the passenger station at Roanoke until the firing job came open, but when the opportunity knocked, Hank threw over the ticket stamp and swapped it for a pair of bib overalls and a scoop shovel, or the controls of the Standard, Duplex, and Berkley stokers then used on N&W power. And when he’d accumulated the necessary six months experience, they put the “p” by his name on the roster. Hank was proud of that “p.”

It happened that the fireman’s job on train 45, the westbound Tennessean bound for Bristol and Memphis (via Southern Railway), was vacant one fine day when Hank was in town, and he was called for it. Hank always thought 45 and 46, its eastbound counterpart, were the flagships of the Bristol Line fleet, with their stainless-steel cars. And here he was, going to fire the Tennessean‘s J class 4-8-4 the 151 miles to Bristol — his first passenger trip.

Now, Hank doesn’t mind admitting that he sort of strutted down the station platform to the engine with his engineer (whom we’ll call Sam Roberts because that was not his name); several folks he’d worked with at the station were on hand, and he wanted to make sure they saw him climb up on that big 4-8-4.

For those not familiar with N&W’s Bristol Line, there is a long straight stretch through a little town called Atkins, which is just east of Marion, Va. Bristol Line folks all knew Atkins; if you could run fast anywhere, you could run fast there. Hank had fired Y-6 2-8 8-2’s on freights through Atkins at speeds much higher than their designers had intended — he knew the road.

Let’s let him tell what came next: “We were going through Atkins, laying ’em down, and Sam hollered over and asked me if I knew how fast we were going. I said I had no idea — I wasn’t familiar with the engine. He waved me over, and I looked at the General Electric speedometer needle bouncing on 90 mph.

“I did a little calculating on my way back to my seat. I subtracted the 65 mph speed limit from the speedometer reading. And then I subtracted the 35 mph limit on the curve that I knew was at the east end of Marion.

“And then I thought that if Sam doesn’t know where he is, I’m just going to sit down over there, mind my own business, and hold on.

“But then Sam started setting the air, and we started slowing down.

“When we got into the curve, I went over and looked at the speedometer, and the needle was right on 35.

“Sam looked up at me with a big grin on his face and said ‘you thought I wasn’t going to make it, didn’t you?’

“I didn’t tell him that if he didn’t make it I wasn’t going to either, and if we turned over, we’d turn over on my side.”

Yep, it made a difference which side, whether or not your casket was open at the funeral.

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