Railroads & Locomotives History An engineer’s life: Trust me

An engineer’s life: Trust me

By Michael Sawyer | October 1, 2023

Uphill was easy, I earned my pay going downhill

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An orange BNSF engine approaches through tree on either side of the tracks with a mountain in the background.
Pulling a heavy grain train up a mountain pass is one thing, but smoothly handling that same train downhill is where an engineer really earns his pay. If a  dispatcher complains, sometimes you just have to say, “Trust me.” Mike Sawyer

I wrote last month about working grain trains west as a young brakeman. This month’s story, entitled “Trust me,” is from late 2008 when I was working as a locomotive engineer. In my 42 years on the railroad, the last 30 as an engineer, I took pride in being qualified on three mountain-grade territories: Stampede Pass, Stevens Pass, and Tehachapi Pass. I joked that uphill was easy, I earned my pay going downhill.

In November 2008, three of my fellow engineers were tasked with testing loaded grain trains westbound over Stampede Pass. The summit of this pass is actually underground, near the middle of the 1.86-mile Stampede Tunnel. My colleagues did excellent work on the project, concluding the best procedure was to keep the speed at 10 mph and make a first 6- to 8-pound service brake pipe reduction at 9,000 feet from the east portal and a second 2- to 3-pound service brake pipe reduction between the west portal and the east siding switch at Stampede. This would heat the cars’ brakes and provide the right balance between the brake shoes and dynamic brakes on the headend power and the unmanned mid-train distributed power units (DPUs).

Because of the tonnage of 112 loaded grain cars, we also needed manned helper locomotives on the rear and pushing from Easton to Martin, where they would cut off on the fly with helper link. Occasionally they would stay with the train to Lester at the bottom of the 2.2% grade on the west side of the pass.

Grain trains on the pass were restricted to a maximum of 15 mph; however, the recommended practice was 12 mph. The idea was to ride down the hill with 10-11 pounds of air set. Personally, I “put the fence up” between the headend power and DPUs, (“fencing” allows the DPU power to be independently controlled from a computer screen on the lead locomotive). This way I could keep the DPUs in dynamic braking and feather the dynamics on the headend locomotives to control minor speed fluctuations if my train started to bind up on the horseshoe curve of Borup Loop.

We departed Easton, Wash., eastbound one afternoon with three units on the headend and mid-train DPUs cut in at full rated tonnage, meaning they were placed into the train so they were pulling just what they could while my power was doing the same with the cars ahead of the DPUs placement. You never want the DPUs pushing hard — you want them to pull. On the rear of today’s train was a manned helper set of three or four units. Normally, the helpers cut off at Martin, just before entering Stampede Tunnel, but this day they stayed with me to Lester where I could hand the DPUs off to the helpers as they were needed for an eastbound that was next up the hill.

When we got to Lester, the North Branch Dispatcher had the rear helpers enter the siding and go to the west end. We made the cut and pulled the DPUs out over the west switch at Lester so the helpers could grab them from me. With 75 cars over the west switch and pushing up an .87 % grade, it took everything I had to shove my train back together.

As we were getting the air back prior to proceeding west, North Branch called and said they wanted me to shove the train into the clear so they could change the meet from Kanaskat to Lester. There was absolutely no way I was going to be able to shove a full-tonnage grain train in the clear with just three head units and I replied in a way people still tend to talk about. To be honest, I don’t recall exactly what I said, but it probably involved some Mad Dog language. We went back and forth on the radio, then silence. After about ten minutes the dispatcher said to forget it and just continue west.

I found out later the North Branch Dispatcher complained to the Seattle East Dispatcher, who happened to be a former clerk who had known me since I hired out. He asked who the engineer was, then listened to the North Branch explanation of what transpired. Seattle East replied if Mike said it was not a promising idea, it would be wise to listen because I knew what I was talking about.

It was nice to know at least one dispatcher trusted me!

2 thoughts on “An engineer’s life: Trust me

  1. As a retired engineer I can relate to the struggle with passes. My train was usually a 12,000-15,000 ton that I had to pull up a 1.5% grade. One night I arrived at Cherryvale, Kansas and after reviewing the train list and discovering that there would be no one to shove, I told my conductor we would have to cut off 80 cars to get over the hill.
    The relayed message to our trainmaster caused an emphatic no. He did allow us to cut out 40 cars. After not making it and having to back down into town, our fearless leader allowed us to cut off another 40 cars.
    We just barely made it over the top of the hill.

    1. Been there, done that one. I plan on a story or two about those kinds of days. I retired just over three years ago. I never had to run Trip Optimizer, from the sounds of it I’m glad I spent my last three years on a Tacoma to Seattle local.


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