By Chris Starnes
Posted November 4, 2011
It is a few minutes before 6am on a 34 degree Saturday morning in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee as I make the short walk from my truck to our steam engine shed. It is foggy and still this morning along the Tennessee River and I have to listen closely for any other signs of life. Most people would still be asleep at this hour on Saturday morning and I can say the thought did cross my mind when the alarm buzzed this morning. I am just a few moments away from firing up our 1925 Baldwin-built 2-8-0 steam engine (former Washington & Lincolnton #203) for a day pulling autumn excursions on the Three Rivers Rambler scenic train ride. Thankfully, the crew from yesterday fired the engine up early in the day before shutting it down later in the evening. This means we still have better than 60 pounds of percolating steam still on the engine, plenty of pressure to fire the engine back up with and be up to operating pressure (175 psi) by the first trip of the day. Before too long, 203’s firebox has a small oil-fired flame slowly warming the firebox steel and water. While things are warming back up I go about the duties of greasing and hostling the 86-year old machine for the day’s trips. Meanwhile, the sky starts to brighten with the rising sun and joggers along the adjacent Greenway are a sign that the City is starting to come to life again. I cannot help but wonder how many other railroaders are out there seeing the same sunrise while going about their various tasks this morning, some happier than others to be at work no doubt. For me, the smiles and waves as people see a rolling time machine pass by and hear her Crosby 3-chime whistle echo through the Tennessee River valley are enough to make my effort worthwhile.
This behind the scenes work is being repeated at many places around the country this morning on short lines, regional and Class 1 railroads. With the help of the low hanging fog I can hear off in the distance that both the NS and CSX mainlines through downtown are busy with trains this morning. There are many people involved with keeping these trains rolling whether it be the machinist in the shop with a welder and grinder fabricating a replacement part, or the signal maintainer repairing a false grade crossing signal activation, or the dispatcher sitting over a cup of warm coffee trying to figure out how to make the best use of his available trackage, or even the IT person deep in a data center room making sure all the various forms of voice and data communications are working as they should. For those of us that enjoy watching, riding or photographing trains do we really know how much behind the scenes work it takes to keep things operating? Railroading in a complex business on many different levels and when once piece of the puzzle fails it is a domino effect. This much is true though, once railroading is in your blood it is hard to get it out.
Just remember next time you are trackside about to photograph or video a train what all is going on far from your camera lens to keep the railroad in motion. For every pixel you are about to expose on that train, chances are there are just as many people who are working behind the scenes to make it look just that simple. You can not fully appreciate some of these aspects of railroading until you have done them yourself. There are many opportunities to get involved with hands-on railroading, whether it is through seeking employment or volunteering your time at a NRHS chapter, local museum or tourist railroad. These opportunities and experiences come in many different sizes and shapes but the same principle still applies, there is much more to it than meets the eye.