By John Witthaus
Posted January 11, 2008
When someone says “train” or “railroad,” what’s the first thing you think of? A brand new EMD ACe, or GE GEVO, or how about Union Pacific’s shiny, flashy heritage units? Maybe a big black steam engine charging down the tracks, with a little red caboose at the end? That’s generally the reaction you’ll get from most people when you mention those words. The first thing anyone thinks of is the equipment, the machinery that makes the railroad “go,” and rightfully so. The machinery is the most visible part of the railroad, and the one thing that makes the first impression on people.
What about behind the scenes, though? Those locomotives don’t operate themselves, those switches don’t throw themselves either (even power switches have to have somebody hit the button somewhere). It takes people to run the railroad, and many times this element of railroading is grossly overlooked. The third trick yardmasters, the remote interlocking tower operators, the crews in the yard assembling the trains, these aren’t exactly highly visible parts of the railroad, however, without them, nothing would move. Being a railroader myself, I’ve made it a bit of a personal vendetta to record this hidden element of railroading.
It all started a couple of years ago, when I was out at about 0300 in the morning, in the Mississippi River Bottoms, practicing my night time photography. I ran across a manifest waiting for a signal to go north at “ICG.” This was the thickest fog I had seen in a long time and it was at about this time that a southbound showed up. The conductor got down and performed a roll-by of the passing train, the engineer flipped the headlights on bright for the conductor creating a great silhouette of the conductor.
It was then that I realized that people make the railroad, not the machines, working in all weather conditions, at all times of day.
In early 2006, I recorded the work of Terminal RR MOW crews working on Valley Jct. interlocking with a small window of time to complete their work, but it was their work that kept trains moving. More recently I made it a point to record the operations of Ridgley Tower in Springfield, IL, of noted historical importance because it is the last “Armstrong” tower with operational rods left on the Union Pacific. Granted, there’s only one rod in operation, but that still makes it the last. There have been mixed rumors that the tower won’t be around for much longer, also that the tower will be around for a long time to come. Either way, it’s a lost piece of railroading that’s still alive and well in Springfield, because of the people behind the scenes, and something that I believe deserves to be recorded. So the next time your trackside, take a closer look at the people behind the scenes who make the railroad go round, the track laborers, the freight crews, the yardmasters, the human element.