Last night and into this early morning has been bittersweet. I want to keep this moment, this memory, for as long as I can, so I have chosen to document it here. Its 4 a.m. and I have just completed my last run out of Erwin on APBR A202 pool turn on CSX's former Clinchfield Route.
When all this came about with the closure of Erwin Yard, I was heading into my off days Wednesday and Thursday. The last trains out of Erwin had pretty much come and gone by the time I marked back up Friday at 00:01. It seemed my run was over on my beloved southend pool turn. I even noted on another post that, “If only I had known my last trip was my last trip, I would have savored it a bit more… I called the Yard Office yesterday afternoon to see if there was anything else to go, maybe I could get just one more. The Yardmaster told me, “I'm sorry Joe, but there is not. So thats it. I am first out, and its over. I picked up my daughters from school, head home and resort back to staring into the void … My natural state for the last few days.
Then the phone rang at 15:30, it was the crew caller calling me for a relief job to relieve Q69615 at 17:30. I was to taxi to Marion and take the train to Bostic. This was it, this is my last run. I got it. A short run, but a good one. Thank God. I show up at the yard office where there were a few guys coming in from their last run, others just came in to see who was there. The general conversation was asking what the others were thinking about doing, Where you going, Nashville? Birmingham? Etowah? Tampa?. Followed by the Its been good working with you, then the handshakes, the hugs, the misty eyes, the turns and walks away. Same as it has been down here for the last few days.
My conductor and I finally loaded up our taxi with our grips and orders and headed to Marion. He's a fine man, a guy I went to school with who is also an engineer that has been cut back to conductor in recent months. He jumped in the front seat, and I got in the back. Thats the way it is. I am sure there is a story as to why, but if I have been told the story, I have since forgotten it. The conductor sits in the front seat, the engineer in the back, always, thats just the way it is … There was some small talk, about where he might go, the kids, where would be the best place for the kids, and schools. But mostly quiet, a bit somber.
We arrived at Marion where we relieved a seasoned crew, both were engineers, one a few spots behind me in seniority, the other cut back to conductor. There was the typical chit chat you get when you relieve a crew, but this time it lingered a little more with finally, handshakes, firm hugs, keep in touch, and the it will be alrights…
My conductor and I loaded up, contacted the dispatcher and started on our way. It was extremely sentimental to me. Not knowing what the future holds, this is my chance to savor the run. I ignored the automatic mode (Trip Optimizer) and chose to run this train manual, like I was trained to do years ago by men who were considered giants of the Clinchfield. We tore out of Marion with four locomotives (two of them dead in tow) and 7,400 tons of mixed time freight. I pulled them through Jacktown” then I started to throttle off and set up the dynamics to hold us back down the hill to Prison Curve. Come back on the throttle a couple of notches, then back off to dynamic to get us through the dip at Muddy Creek, where you come off of them again and get back in the throttle. All while maintaining 45 mph. This is where he shared with me, The fastest I have ever been on a train was right here.” He told me what the speed was, it was pretty impressive, but he was a bit reluctant to tell me who the engineer was. We laughed and he said, I thought we were going to send it all out into the cornfield when we hit the curve! Thats how most good stories go out here, they are always the kind that in the moment its pure terror, “we could die here,” kind of stories, but after some time has passed, you can share them with that nervous laugh that comes out when you reflect on the fear, but cover it with the laugh.
After the dip at Muddy Creek we started up the hill to Fero,” where you top it, then proceed down Vein Mountain. I set my dynamics up and proceed to bunch the train up against me gently like I have done so many times in the past. Like I was taught, when the slack comes in lightly. You have to feel it in the seat of your pants kind of lightly. He said, “this train is all messed up, empty's on the headend and rear, with loads through the middle.” I told him, it felt fine. I could feel the loads in the middle of the train slightly come in on us and press us up to 40 mph where I held them with dynamic. Once we got by the 40 mph speed board, I put first service train brake on and eased up the dynamics. The train responded perfectly, and we cruised down the mountain at 40 and hit the 35 mph speed board at Sandfill” right on target. Now, this isnt bragging. This is pride. We still have that on the Clinchfield. Some choose to do it, some choose to do it right.
As we glided down Vein Mountain he says, “It's been an honor to work with such a great engineer like you.” I buckled, its been an emotional week, and to get such a compliment at that moment was unexpected and moved me to tears in the darkness of the cab. I didn't say anything for a moment, then I told him he was one of the best out here, I never heard an ill word about him. My compliment was weak compared to his, but it was all I could muster. We went a couple of miles in silence when he said, “hey man, if you don't care, can I take 'em a couple of miles?” This broke me down. Knowing that there may never be another chance again for him to run a train down the Clinchfield, I knew this trip was just as important to him as it was to me. I said, “I got what I wanted, I nailed both speed boards, you take 'em down the big rail. (Meaning, run them through Thermal and onto Logan, the 50 mph track.) He got in the seat, and said “I just don't think I'll ever get to do this again.” I said, “take 'em as far as you want.”
We sat in silence both of us trying miserably to hold back tears as he ran them at 50 mph through Thermal and onto Tate where you hit a pretty good size dip called “Panic Dip I finally spoke and said, When I started running I always feared this spot.” He said, Yea, I think they named it appropriately, with a little bit of a chuckle. I had to lightly give a laugh, too. He ran them like a champ through the dip right on 50, like he has done numerous times in his tenure on the Clinchfield. He finally spoke up once we were by Dairy Farm and said, Thanks man, you can take them back now.” I patted him on the back. We both sat down and continued in silence, I couldnt dare look at him, the emotions were just too much.
We got the train to Bostic, switched it for the outbound, and by the time we were done, the outbound crew showed up to take over and onto Hamlet, N.C. We had to hang around there a little while, waiting on our final taxi ride home, so we just kind of stood out there and watched our train pull out of the yard. The yard office sits right next to the track, so when a train comes in or out, the noise is pretty loud, joints cracking, flanges rubbing the rail, metal on metal noise. Then the rear comes by, the noise fades, and all you see is a blinking red light silently going the distance up the hill, then disappears in the darkness.
After a little while, my conductor says I wish I had taken a picture of that engine. I have a picture of the first engine I ran, I would have liked to have one of this one ,too. I had thought the same thing earlier, we should do a selfie, our last run on the Clinchfield with engine 233 in the background, but I blew it off. I regret that now
Our taxi finally showed up, and with it was the best driver Bostic has to offer. Just the man we needed for the quiet ride home. A quiet ride where memories play out in your mind knowing this is it. It will all be different now. The ride none of us wanted to take ended two and a half hours later, in the parking lot of the Erwin Yard Office around 3 a.m. Just in time to see the last train of 20 some cars and eight engines head out of Erwin.
This is it. The yard is empty now, no crews, no engines, only a couple of cars for the industry we have left in Erwin, and lonely switch target lights. Its over.
God has been with me all day, I have felt it. Everything has been placed perfectly for this day. The pride held by every man doing the job today, that they have done for years has been immeasurable. Faced with what we have been given, everyone of them continues to carry the pride and responsibility they have had placed on them by becoming engineers, conductors, carmen, electricians, mechanics, signalmen, yardmasters, clerks and so many other titles on the Clinchfield. I pray that wherever they go they have the respect they deserve, because they are simply the greatest people I have ever met. To put it in better words, my brothers and sisters of Erwin Terminal, we are the CLINCHFIELD.
Publishers note: In the wake of last weeks announcement by CSX to close the Erwin Terminal, CSX engineer Joe Barr documented his last run on the former Clinchfield Route on Facebook during the early morning hours of Saturday, Oct. 17.