Just like everyone else these days, I've been interested in the recent train derailments that have resulted in the huge catastrophe in Ohio and extremely horrible situations in other parts of our country. I have a special interest in derailments because, believe it or not, as strange as it might seem, I know a little bit about train derailments.
As most of my long-time readers have heard me say many times over the years, I've had a few jobs in my life. Well, as hard as this may be for some to believe, I once worked for the railroad back in 1978. The fact is that in 1977, right after being honorably discharged from the Marine Corps, I worked for a company that inspected and refurbished airbrakes for railroad cars. That company also made rubber brake hoses for trains and a few other things. I worked assembling those hoses and made thousands of them. It was a terribly boring job, but it paid the bills. Of course, I only did that work for three months before I was laid off because of cutbacks.
The economy was in the tank in those days. And for a guy like me who didn't have a trade, and who was fresh out of the military, I was lucky to find a job. Since I was one of those guys who did anything honest to pay the bills and keep food on my table, I took whatever jobs that I could find.
People today forget how it was in the late 1970s, but I haven't. It was a time of feckless Jimmy Carter and his focusing on everything other than what he needed to -- including the double-digit inflation, double-digit interest rates, and double-digit unemployment that plagued our nation.
It was the closest that America's economy had been to an actual Economic Depression since the Great Depression. The official inflation statistics claim that inflation was at about 7% in 1977, at almost 10% by 1978, and at almost 14% by 1979. Interest rates were at about 9% in 1977 and rose to about 12% by 1979. I remember it being much higher than that. As for unemployment? Supposedly the official unemployment rate was at about 8% by 1978. But in truth, I will never forget when the New York Times ran a story talking that almost 42 percent of the adult population in America was unemployed.
So, after working for that company for a few months, I was actually ready to back into the Marine Corps. In all honesty, it wasn't only the tough job market that was pushing me to return to the Marine Corps. The fact is I really didn't care for the civilian world. I especially didn't care for how my fellow Americans treated Veterans at the time. It was very popular, especially on college campuses, to spit at Veterans. It was "very cool" in those days to treat Veterans like trash. And yes, it was also very common for people who were running companies to go out of their way just not to hire Vets.
I remember trying to get a warehouse job and the young man who looked over my application asked me for my discharge papers. I was told when leaving the Marine Corps that I should try to get a prospective employer to focus on my being an Instructor and a Sergeant -- instead of a rifleman. That didn't work and I'll always remember that young man looking me right in the face and laughing as he said, "We have no place for Veterans. But if we need a 'trained killer', a 'rifle-man,' we'll call you."
I also remember putting an application in at a business where I was told to put down that I was in a college overseas, "anywhere overseas," instead of the military for those four years. I was told that was better than putting down that I served my country -- especially since the head of Human Resources for that company hated Veterans.
So now, if you're now asking yourself, why would I want to return to the Marine Corps and again be ready to fight for such an America? Well, the answer is one that has never changed. I knew in my heart that the majority of Americans out there aren't like those who treated me like crap. I also wrote it off to my being in the San Francisco Bay Area which hasn't been representative of America for decades.
So, did I re-enlist? No, because I didn't have to. The fact is, after I was laid off, my old foreman talked me into giving the civilian world another chance. He was a World War II Veteran and he didn't like how Vets were being treated at the time. To help me, he actually referred me to a friend for a job.
It was after I left working on train airbrakes and making those train brake hoses that I went to work for Western Pacific Railroad. I remember how it was when I showed up at the head office of Western Pacific Railroad in San Francisco. I was given a name of a man who I was supposed to see about a job. And frankly, I had no idea what sort of job it was going to be. But that didn't matter as long as it was a job.
When I walked in the door, there was a sign on the receptionist's desk that said, "Not Taking Applications." As I turned around to walk out, I was stopped and asked for my name. After I gave the secretary my name, she led me to the man that I was sent there to see. From there, he gave me an application to fill out and then sent me to a medical clinic in Oakland for a back x-ray. Once the x-ray came in, I was instructed to go to the Western Pacific Railroad's repair yard in Milpitas and give an envelope to the yard foremen.
When I showed up, I handed the foreman and he told me that I started work the next day. He also told me what I would be making an hour and that he may use me in other things. I went to work as a laborer. A few weeks later, I was put on as a Railroad Carman -- a railroad car mechanic. I worked for them for almost a year until they laid off half of the entire maintenance yard because Western Pacific Railroad was going bankrupt.
While I was with the railroad, I worked on a lot of railcars and replaced a lot of brakes, hoses, drawbars, knuckles, trucks, wheels, doors, and hooked cars at the Ford plant when I was sent there. I did whatever was needed. It was good hard work and I enjoyed it. And yes, it was during that time that I had to work on a few derailments. Of the six or eight that I worked on over that year, most were not too difficult or extreme. None were even close to what we've all seen take place in Ohio over the last few weeks.
A few years after leaving the railroad, I was in my Jeep sitting at a railroad crossing in San Leandro as a Southern Pacific Railroad fast-freight was hauling its assets north toward their Oakland yard. I can still remember sitting there and thinking about how just a few years before I worked on such a string.
That was when my eye caught something in the distance at the end of the rail cars. It was certainly something that you don't see every day -- or night as was the case. About six or so rail cars from the end of the string, a car's wheels were on fire.
I knew really well that its brakes had to be stuck closed and it was metal-to-metal on those wheels. What people don't understand about trains is that when hoses brake, or an airbrake malfunctions, when air is somehow cut off from a car -- a train car's brakes lock up.
While I have no idea if it is still that way or not, simply because I'm talking about how it was back in the 1980s, it's probably still true today. Brakes on trains, the brake shoes, disengage and open up and away from the wheels when air is pumped through the string of rail cars. If things haven't changed, then it was easy to understand how a derailment can happen if a car's brake locks up.
Metal-to-metal sparks, a fire, the extreme heat on the wheels, the dragging of the wheels that are locked up, the failure of the metal after a while, and then the possible loss of those wheels from the metal breaking apart. A sudden jerk when the car comes off the rails. The string responds with forces being pulled apart and soon there is a horrible derailment. All of that went through my mind. So many scenarios ran through my mind at the time.
In the case of what happened that night many years ago, the brakes were stuck closed and the metal-to-metal friction had started a fire. I realized that the wheels might crack from the heat and derail the string, the fire itself might spread, and the train was passing by a heavily populated area. I remember thinking that train needed to be stopped. If not, there was certainly the possibility of a derailment.Since those were the days before cell phones, I knew that I need to find a payphone. So when the train finally made it past me, I floored my Jeep and found a payphone at a local restaurant. I dialed "0" and contacted a Phone Operator. I told her that it was an emergency. I told her that I need to talk to the Oakland yard office because a train was on fire. She immediately connected me and I told the Yard Master what I saw and that I once worked for WP Railroad.
He asked for my name, phone number, and address. I guess he wanted to know if I was placing some sort of crank call. Then the Yard Master had me wait on the phone as he radioed the train. In those days, Brakemen were still working on the trains. The train's Brakeman in the caboose looked out and confirmed that a car's wheels were on fire. It was stopped and the car was cut out of the string. It was pushed into a spur where it could be attended to later. The train then went on its way.
About a week later, I received a nice thank you letter from Southern Pacific Railroad. While they didn't have to do that, I did appreciate their sending it. But more than them saying, "thanks," I appreciated that they let me know that what I saw was what happened. That it was a car with a "sticking brake," and that it could have resulted in a possible derailment had it not been cut out of the string.
Tonight, while talking to my wife about the derailments going on in Ohio and elsewhere, I told her about what happened that August night back in 1981. I told her that I knew that those brakes were sticking and how that happened when air is cut off to the brakes. In the short time that I worked for Western Pacific Railroad, I saw a few derailments. Some were due to track maintenance, or more honestly lack of maintenance. Others were equipment failures of some sort.
While I didn't work for Western Pacific Railroad very long, I was there long enough to learn that some derailments are avoidable while some are not. Of course, track issues such as broken rails and broken welds are probably still major causes of derailments. An overheated wheel bearing is also a very common cause of derailments. Mechanical failures happen. Yes, just as operator errors happen.
According to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), in a typical year, American railroads move about 1.7 billion tons of freight across nearly 140,000 miles of privately owned track. That's about 29% of all goods that are transported from one place to another in our country. And here's something else, about 800,000 people are moved by rail each day. Those stats are impressive.