Railroads & Locomotives History An engineer’s life: Mad Dog’s dinner train fiasco

An engineer’s life: Mad Dog’s dinner train fiasco

By Michael Sawyer | July 9, 2023

Some days go 'beyond the call of duty'

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red and silver dinner train on tracks in city
Aug. 08, 2007, the Spirit of Washington dinner train is running up the “Gulch” of the former Milwaukee Road — which was operated by Tacoma Rail until just a few weeks ago. Downtown Tacoma is in the background.

The Washington Central Railroad’s Spirit of Washington dinner train started running in 1989. Originally, it operated for a few years along the Yakama River Canyon in Eastern Washington, before moving to the east side of Lake Washington to run on Burlington Northern’s Woodinville Subdivision.

The 44-mile round trip to the Columbia Winery in Woodinville departed Renton, Wash., depot at 6:30 p.m. during the week and twice on the weekends. To be able to markup on the Interbay (Seattle) Engineers extra board, you had to be qualified on the dinner train. After I made the required qualifying trips, I forgot all about it. It was a high seniority job, so the extra board was rarely called to fill in.

One Saturday afternoon, I was called. I told the crew desk I didn’t feel qualified nor did I feel comfortable doing it — pulling people around is a big responsibility. The crew desk told me an engineer that transferred from out of state had been there for a week and could help me out with the rough spots. I reluctantly agreed and drove to the depot at Renton.

I ran the first leg to Woodinville. It was a beautiful afternoon. I kept a slow pace so the passengers could be served and have time to eat, then turned the control stand over to my qualifier engineer for the run back to Renton. I got the feeling the regular engineers picked up the pace a bit on the Saturday afternoon train, because the sooner the train arrived at Renton, the longer the break was for the dining crew before the second run. The crew wasn’t happy if you ran a little slower than normal.

After the passengers on the round trip disembarked the train in Renton, we had to reposition the power to the other end of the train for the second trip to Woodinville. The qualifier engineer made a rough joint on the train — and that would become an issue. I ran the third leg of the day and wanted to run the last leg back to Renton. I knew we were going to be pushing our 12 hours of duty and wanted to make sure we made it back in time.

The trip along the east side of Lake Washington was beautiful, and crossing the Wilburton Trestle was the highlight of the trip for sure. When we pulled up to Woodinville the second time the conductor made the comment that the train was awfully quiet, and that the mechanical supervisor was there to meet us. Well, it turned out one of the fuel lines on the power car broke when the qualifier made the rough joint at Renton. The poor cooks had to prepare dinner by candlelight because they had no power.

After the mechanics fixed the problem with the power car, we headed back for Renton. As I rounded the last curve into Renton, and started street running on Houser Way South, I noticed a yellow car sat at the stop light, headed north on Main Avenue South. As our train ambled closer the driver of the car gunned his engine. My mood at that moment was to silently tell the driver, “Come on. Do it.”

Well, I’ll be darned if he didn’t do just that. Smoked the tires, turned right into me, and bounced off the front of the locomotive. My speed was the normal 10 mph. I put the train into emergency and went back to give aid. However, before I had walked the length of the first locomotive, the vehicle’s rear tires began to smoke again and the car, what remained of it, limped away down Mill Avenue South — with no front tires.

The vehicle finally stopped in front of the Renton Regional Fire Authority Station 11 — the firefighters had witnessed the whole thing. No one was hurt. The young driver and three friends had borrowed Mom’s new car for a joyride. I still laugh at the thought of the one hundred plus phone calls to 911 from the passengers on the train while the car was sitting in front of the firehouse.

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