Back Tracks | Working on the New England Railroad

Working on the railroad means carrying the lifeblood of New England Commerce through long stretches of nowhere.

By Bill Scheller

Aug 21 2019


Back Tracks

Photo Credit : Mark Fleming
At a little past 2 a.m., a Vermont Rail System freight train pulls to a stop in Rutland, Vermont, to await a train inbound from Whitehall, New York, with which it will swap tank cars.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

Six thousand horsepower, and we were still having trouble getting traction.

Engineer Rod Smith and conductor Ty Kahler were also having a hard time agreeing on the beauties of late autumn in Vermont. “This is my favorite time of year,” Ty said. “With the leaves down, you see things you don’t see anywhere else.” Rod had a different take on the season. “Fall,” he piped in, “is the worst time of year for an engineer. The leaves on the track are like grease.” 

Engineer Rod Smith, at the controls for the run from Bellows Falls to Rutland.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

You might agree with Rod about fall if you, too, are in command of nearly three million pounds of rolling steel.

It was a graying afternoon on the first of November, when leaves covered the rails. Rod was perched behind his engineer’s console as we trundled up a nearly two-percent grade just west of Ludlow, Vermont. Ty and I sat on the other side of the cab. We were riding shotgun on the lead unit of three GP38-2 diesel-electric locomotives, a quarter-million pounds and 2,000 horsepower each. Train 264, the Vermont Rail System’s (VRS) daily freight out of Bellows Falls, was bound for Rutland. But first we had to get the train over the leaves.

We New Englanders hear the sounds at night and at odd times of the day, especially if we live along the valleys where some of the first tracks in North America were laid: the almost melancholy note of the horn (still called a whistle, long after steam) and the rhythmic pounding of steel on steel. We likely know it isn’t Amtrak’s Vermonter or Ethan Allen Express, or the Massachusetts-to-Maine Downeaster, but we seldom tie those sounds to freight moving, unless we’re waiting, usually impatiently, at a grade crossing.

But freight does ride the rails, and much of New England’s economy rides with it. “The railroads,” a VRS engineer named Rick Wool told me, “are the cheapest way of getting stuff around in bulk.” And that’s a lot of stuff: In 2015, 6.7 million tons of goods and commodities moved through Vermont alone.

Train 264 consisted of 30 covered hoppers, traveling to where they would be filled with commodities like crushed limestone, talc, and cement; there are also two carloads of flour for Westminster Bakers, the cracker company, in Rutland. As freights go, 264 wasn’t a particularly long one. Rod Smith’s personal record is a nearly mile-and-a-half train of 118 cars. 

Putting a freight train together is an exercise in planning and precision—“an organized ballet,” Vermont Railway executive James Mattsen told me, using an unlikely metaphor for an industry that is anything but light on its feet. Freight railroading is a realm of lugubrious charm, where even the sounds and smells are heavy: the throb of diesel engines, the steel slam of couplers, the thick creosote aroma of Georgia pine ties warming in the morning sun.

A pair of Vermont Railway locomotives await attention at the roundhouse in Burlington. Built on the shores of Lake Champlain in 1918 for steam locomotives, the facility today can accommodate work on up to six diesel units at a time in its seven stalls.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

I’d started my day at a place called the Interchange, on the outskirts of Bellows Falls, where every day the Rutland train’s “consist”—its complement of cars—is assembled. “We never know what other railroads will be giving us until it’s almost time to make up the train,” said Mattsen. This morning, the New England Central had given us empty covered hoppers; we left empty fuel oil cars for one of its trains. As I rode in a switching locomotive with Rick Wool and his conductor, Tim Dumont, we passed cargoes of plywood, cedar siding and shingles, and snaky sheaves of rebar. A lot of it had come a long way, all by rail. “See those cars?” Rick said as he pointed to a siding. “Two or three days ago they were somewhere up in Canada.”

Tim, who minutes earlier had emerged from the engine compartment with a foil package containing an early lunch he’d heated on the diesel, set about the conductor’s job of checking off the cars we were picking up against his consist list. “That one there must be ours,” he said to Rick, pointing at the lead hopper behind us. “I think it’s an empty.”

“Lift it up and see,” Rick shot back.

The steel ballet was finished by early afternoon, and Rick lumbered off in his switcher. Now 264 belonged to Rod and Ty, and to the three locomotives that would take us to Rutland. Rod slowly opened the throttle as Ty finished his radio report to the VRS dispatcher, rattling off the date and details of the train’s consist and motive power with the speed of an auctioneer. The words “no hazmats” caught my ear. “That’s important information,” Ty told me later. “If we were carrying anything hazardous, I’d have let the dispatcher know just where in the consist it was. That way, if there was an accident or derailment that might involve a spill, the cleanup responders would know just where to go.”

Ty was in his mid-20s and wore a neat chinstrap beard. He’d been with the railroad for just 16 months and said this was “the best job I’ve ever had.” Rod had a few more miles behind him. Trim and just past his middle 60s, with a big gray mustache that would have done a Victorian railroader proud, he, too, started out as a conductor—but only after a career as a different sort of engineer. “My degree is in chemical engineering,” he told me as we eased out of Bellows Falls. “I spent over 16 years setting up pulp mills all over the world, and training people to run them. When I retired from that job, I thought I’d try the railroad for a while. That was 12 years ago.

“As we say around here,” Rod added, “where else could we possibly go to work where we get paid to play with trains?”

A covered hopper sits on a turntable, waiting to be pushed into a roundhouse stall for maintenance at the shop.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

Work or play, it’s a big job in a small room. The cab of a locomotive is a gritty little office, roughly ten feet wide and eight deep. Climb the narrow steel steps and head through the door, and you’re standing almost nine feet above the rails. The cab is spartan but surprisingly homey, with a good heater and, usually, a small fridge. An exterior walkway leads to the even-bigger space where the 16-cylinder diesel and generator are housed—a diesel-electric locomotive is a rolling power plant. The engine runs a generator that sends power to electric traction motors mounted above the wheels.

There is no restroom, but there is that exterior walkway, and a lot of nowhere along the tracks.

The engineer stays at his console, but freight train conductors are “our eyes and ears,” as more than one engineer told me. That means getting out and guiding backups and stops via radio, as well as setting fusees (flares) at road crossings if the gates aren’t in operation. At ungated crossings, the whistle gives the warning.

A Green Mountain Railroad tattoo sported by car shop superintendent Aaron Bridge.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

Train 264 broke 10 mph only after we left the yard. The design speed for freights on Vermont Railway track tops out at 25 mph, except for two stretches of welded rail where trains can hit 40 if conditions allow. The rest of the system operates over “stick rail,” the bolted separate sections whose small gaps give the wheels that classic clickety-clack.

Just east of Ludlow, we passed through a narrow gap in a rock ledge. “This is the Cavendish Cut,” Rod told me. “Ever hear of Phineas Gage? This is where the iron rod went through his skull.”

Rod filled me in: “He was a construction foreman back in 1848, when they were blasting to lay tracks through here. He was tamping blasting powder in a borehole, and it went off. The tamping rod went into his face and out the top of his head—but somehow, he wasn’t killed.” Gage’s accident and his subsequent personality change advanced the study of neurology and the functions of different areas of the brain.

At Smithville, we dropped off a hopper at a talc plant. Talc is a bread-and-butter item on Vermont rails, as is salt; 60-to-70-car salt trains are not uncommon as winter sets in. 

And then there are the odd cargoes. For Rod, the most unusual was a shipment of wind turbine blades, so long that they rode twin flatcars. “They were secured at one end and held in a sling at the other, so we could make the turns,” he recalled.

A couple of miles west of Ludlow, Rod announced that “this is the only railroad in the country that goes through a ski area.” Sure enough, we were soon passing an Okemo chairlift, and ducking under an overpass that carries a ski trail.

In a few miles we saw a doe and fawn browsing alongside the rails. “Moose, bear, turkeys, coyotes—we see a lot of wildlife,” said Rod. The deer kept a safe distance, but many animals aren’t so cautious. Cattle sometimes come to a bad end when they wander through broken fencing. There’s a stretch of track north of Rutland that railroaders call “Hamburger Hill.”

Wildlife or livestock isn’t a train crew’s most nerve-wracking type of encounter. It’s people who think they can share the track. Rod recalled an ATV rider heading toward him and, another time, a Jeep (“The guy was either on something he shouldn’t have been on, or not on something he should have”). Fortunately, the freight’s slow speed and a good line of sight ahead kept things from playing out badly.

The Burlington Local crosses Route 7 at the New Haven Junction depot, not far from Phoenix Feeds, an almost-daily receiver
of train shipments.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

It can be a different story running wide open on the main line of a Class 1 railroad, where speed limits are a lot higher. “When you’re going 60, things can happen fast,” said Rick Wool, a veteran of the Class 1 CSX Railroad and its 21,000 miles of track. “One thing I always worried about was going through an ungated crossing just before another train heading in the opposite direction. Drivers would see me go by, and then think the coast was clear.”

“You wouldn’t believe how many people try to run a crossing,” said Rod. I told him about my own experience with a duel between car and train—a duel that the train always wins. I was riding on Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited, clocking 60 or 70 through rural Ohio, when the train inexplicably slowed to a halt. Passengers asked the conductor why, and he gave the grim answer: A teenage driver had tried to beat the Lake Shore to a crossing. The two halves of his car ended up 100 feet apart. He and his two passengers were dead. A train that size, going that speed, takes a mile to stop.

We won the fight with the greasy leaves and reached a place called the Summit, in the town of Mount Holly. This is the height of land on the route. From here, our progress would require Rod’s fine touch on the brakes rather than the throttle. “Train handling is all in the brakes—and knowing your terrain,” Rod told me.

“The leaves are bad enough,” he maintained, “but some of the diciest situations involve winter weather. Years ago I was working this route as conductor. It was snowing, and the brakes weren’t grabbing on the way down from the Summit into Bellows Falls. When you get deep, fluffy snow blowing around the wheels and brake shoes, they cool down and you lose braking ability.

“The speedometer showed us doing 28 in a 10 mph zone. Snow was blowing all around us, and we couldn’t see. I knew we’d be OK, though, when we stopped picking up speed. When we hit flat track, the brakes caught and we started to slow.”

It grew quiet in the cab except for the thrum of wheels on metal. East Wallingford, Shrewsbury, and Clarendon slipped by, and dusk had turned to darkness as we slid into the Rutland yards.

This through-truss bridge over the Williams River near Chester was built in 1899 but shored up with new concrete abutments after Tropical Storm Irene destroyed the original stonework in 2011.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming


Two-thirty a.m. is a beastly time for a wake-up call, but the northbound freight run to Burlington was leaving at 4. I climbed into the warm cab of another GP38-2, one of a pair heading 53 cars: 29 filled with fuel, livestock feed, and plywood, and 24 empties. Engineer Aaron Hahn drew back the throttle and we started off in a light rain, passing the sleeping Amtrak Ethan Allen as we inched out of the Rutland yards. Rob Silva, our conductor, was at his flip-down desk, doing paperwork by the light on his hard hat. Rob was a 19-year VRS veteran, while Aaron had just passed 20 years of service—“This is one of those jobs where once you do it, you don’t want to do anything else,” Aaron said. He does do something else, though, when he isn’t at the throttle. He plays guitar and sings in a country duo called Two Bit Cowboys. One of their albums is mostly train songs.

An owl coasted low above the track ahead, seeming to pilot us as we left Rutland. We picked up speed through Proctor, and at Florence, we stopped so Rob could throw a switch, letting us back in to drop off 16 of our empties at the OMYA plant. OMYA, the railroad’s biggest shipper, produces calcium carbonate from Vermont marble. An average of 30 to 35 railcars a day enter and leave its Proctor plant.

I asked Aaron what happens to all that calcium carbonate. He answered that it “goes everywhere”—as a calcium additive in baked goods, in polishes, and as a slurry that gives a glossy coating to the kind of paper these words are printed on.

Employees at the car shop inspect one of the two wheel sets in a “truck,” the assembly on which a railcar rides.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming
An old locomotive seat and a discarded wheel from track maintenance equipment are creatively recycled as a work chair at the shop’s tool desk.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming
Repairman Ethan Lawrence at the Burlington roundhouse.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

Clearing Middlebury, we were on a welded section of track where we could run at 30 mph. We even hit 40, zipping through farmland near the border of Chittenden and Addison counties. We slowed as we slipped behind the Shelburne Museum, tracked through suburban South Burlington, and slid alongside Burlington’s bike path on the approach to the yards. We had finished the run.

As Aaron and Rob decoupled a car, I walked over to the locomotive repair shop. Imagine a garage that makes your car mechanic’s place look like something out of Legoland: Here are 35-ton jacks, four of which can lift body, cab, engine, and generator off the tracks, so workers can replace wheels and service brakes and electric motors. I saw pistons the size of wastebaskets, wheels over a yard in diameter, brake shoes and connecting rods of mammoth proportions. A young welder named Ethan Lawrence explained that engines are rebuilt after burning through a million gallons of fuel (that’s nearly 600 fill-ups, at 1,700 gallons to the tank).

I last saw Ethan standing alongside one of his locomotives, like a proud stableman with a big coach horse. Smiling, he left me with a remark that explains why this hard, heavy, vital world keeps working. “Every day,” he said, “is a good day on the railroad.”