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Home / Railroad Stories: The Way It Was / ‘Jump, kid, jump!’

‘Jump, kid, jump!’

By Roger Lebrecht | August 29, 2019

Close call for a Santa Fe switchman

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ATSF2383
ATSF2383
Switching at night could be hazardous, especially when some dodgy moves were attempted.
Robert Hale
In the middle of 1960 or ’61, during a summer break from Texas Western College in El Paso, I was working the extra board on the New Mexico Division of the Santa Fe.

One night I was the pin-puller on a third-trick job switching on the south side of Albuquerque. We had finished our work except for spotting two tank cars on a fuel spur next to the locomotive shop. The conductor and engineer decided that, given the fact that the two cars in question were behind our Baldwin switch engine, and the spur was accessed by a facing-point switch, the best course of action was to execute a “flying switch,” also known in some places as a “Dutch drop.” In such a maneuver, the engine and cars would start slowly toward a switch. The switchman (in this case, me) riding the footboard between the engine and the first car would pull the pin on the coupler between them. The engine then would speed up and go through the switch, where another crewman, on the ground (our conductor), would throw the switch as soon as the engine cleared, allowing the cars to roll on by and coast into the spur. All of this was not only strictly against the rules, but could be dangerous — as I was about to find out.

Everything started OK. We backed down the lead, then changed direction and started toward the switch. I reached down and pulled the coupler pin, then signaled the hogger that the cut had been made. He promptly opened up the throttle of our Baldwin, which moved out smartly. But then, about halfway through the switch, he suddenly applied the brakes and stopped the engine. 
Stopped? The rear footboard — with me still on it — was fouling the switch and those tank cars were rolling straight at us!

Fortunately, the conductor saw what was happening and yelled out, “Jump, kid, jump!” I took a dive off that footboard just seconds before the tank cars smacked the locomotive.

The cars stayed on the track, also fortunately, and we were able to push them back and couple on. Then, incredibly, we tried the maneuver again. This time we backed up farther and, on the second attempt, successfully completed the drop. We tied up for the night with nobody the wiser.

But why did the hogger stop before he’d cleared the switch?

“Sorry, I couldn’t see the switchstand and thought we had plenty of clearance,” he said afterward.

“Did you see me give you a stop signal?” the conductor exploded, “No, you didn’t! And who’s running this job?” Let’s say that’s a very cleaned-up version of what was actually said. I knew enough not to utter a peep.

That was on a dark night now some five decades ago when, one way or another, things got done on the railroad.

First published in Winter 2011 Classic Trains magazine.

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6 thoughts on “‘Jump, kid, jump!’

  1. Railroad work can be exciting at times. I was working in UP auto rack switching facility one night, we were building a set of powers. The plan was to cut two engines on one track and take the rest as our power unit. In my haste to close the angle and cutout cocks on the set of engines we were leaving behind, I accidentally turned some cutout cocks to open. Cutout cocks are opposite of angle cocks in design- when they look open, they are shut and visa versa.
    Consequently, as the engines cutaway, all the air began to bleed off the remaining two engines on the track. The track being on a downward slope, the engines began to move toward the one lone locomotive and an empty auto rack.
    I hopped on the the rear engine and tightened the handbrake. Locomobile handbrakes only apply one shoe to a single wheel. Thus, it had a marginal effect.
    I raced through the rear to the lead Locomobile and applied the handbrake. Again, it barely dampened the escalating speed.
    I stood in the cab of the lead Locomotive and braced myself for the collision. Bang! The jolt sent me into the control stand where I cut my knee.
    My fellow conductor on the job arrived and asked what happened? I shook my head and he surveyed the damages. Everything, by the grace of God, was still on the track.
    We let out a sign of relief and I opened the first aid kit to patch my wound. Our motto, what happens on the crew, stays on the crew, meant this story has only come to light after my retirement.
    Boy, I got a mountain full of wild, crazy stories, which, as you can suspect, only happened at night.

  2. Bruce

    Your mention of angle cock handles on power being backward reminded me of a very bad although non-fatal derailment at Ashtabula, OH on the NYC in 1967 or 1968. The train involved was a unit coal train from a mine somewhere in WV to a power plant in New England. The routing was mine-MRY-Brownsville (PA)-P&LE-Youngstown (OH)-NYC-???-B&M-power plant. I’ve forgotten how many Diesel units were used but, because of ATS, NYC units were always the lead power with B&M units trailing.

    The angle cocks on the B&M units were, as you described on the UP units, closed when the handle looked like they were open and vice versa. NYC units were set up like most other equipment with the handle being aligned with the train line when the valve was open. The accident investigation presumed that the angle cock between the trailing B&M unit and the train had been closed, probably during an inspection and crew change at Youngstown.

    Making the matter worse, a proper terminal brake test was apparently not conducted at Youngstown. The engine crew first realized they had no train brakes as they started down Carson Hill, a long descent to the NYC main at Ashtabula Jct and then on down to the harbor on Lake Erie. The train crew realized they were aboard a runaway when they saw the engine crew waving at them from trackside. It was never determined why the train crew didn’t dump the air before joining the engine crew.

    The Ashtabula Branch joined the NYC main via a very sharp, 90 degree curve. The Ashtabula Jct tower was surrounded by track with four mains to the north, the Ashtabula Branch to the west, and the track joining the branch to the main to the south and east.

    The power almost made it around that curve but the brand-new aluminum coal gondolas didn’t. They piled up so high that the operator’s car, parked on the south side of the tower, was completely buried under coal and twisted aluminum. The operator was fortunately only scared half to death.

  3. I worked as a switchman/footboardman on Seaboard Coastline Railroad out of Hialeah Yard (Miami, Fl.) for 2 years, ’73-’75, as well as the local road switchers out of Ft. Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Occasionally we did that ‘Dutch Drop’ maneuver, though we called it ‘dropping them by’. I don’t remember that it was an illegal movement, but it sure was dangerous! I have to admit that I was scared to death the first time I did it (at night of course). What if I threw the switch too soon? That could derail the locomotive. What if I threw the switch too late? That could derail the train car. That first time it all happens so fast, but after a few times it does become easier and almost second nature, but never get complacent about the maneuver. Oh, and of course after throwing the switch you have to jump up onto the moving car as it rolls by so as to ride it down and set the hand brake. I explained the maneuver to a present day railroader and he was horrified that we would do such a movement! Strictly forbidden these days!

  4. Awesome and LOL. I’m surprised that some railroaders still (secretly) performed the “flying switch” into the 1960s!

  5. You can’t do anything like that today, there are cameras and microphones inside the locomotive cab that watch and record your every move, not to mention that they are using UAV’s to spy on trainmen.

  6. My Dad worked 3rd trick as car yard clerk in his early days with Frisco. He only had a battery lantern to swing as he moved around and it was in the days of steam. One night when he was not working, a switchman was backed over by engine and Dad heard they had to pick the pieces up in a box. Don’t if they were doing this or not. Dad had to walk all over checking car seals for tampering and checking the manifest paying close attention to cars hauling cigs and booze. If he found a broken seal, he notified the yard bulls who could check the car and see what was missing. Dad probably had some kind of primitive walkie talkie to contact them, this was in early 1940’s. He had to walk carefully around, swinging his lantern at all times and hope he was seen. Mom was glad when he got enough seniority to work as clerk in the yard office, much safer. It was dangerous work and still is, if you are not careful what you are doing. I remember Dad telling us about co-worker’s son switching auto racks, and always told to hang on the side, he did not but was between the cars and one of the racks to load cars was down and cut him in half. So all the technology in the world won’t fix doing something stupid or not obeying the rules. Hi Harvey, glad to see ya over here too.

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