The most perfect locomotive

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Fri Sep 8 22:59:59 EDT 2006

Gordon Hamilton mentions the J's making 118 MPH across the Indiana flats. I heard the same number used in conversations around Roanoke in the early 1960s, with the additional remark "and there was still ten inches to go on the throttle."

Such things were do-able in the mid-West.

In 1981, I was transferred from Philadelphia to Harrisburg and assigned as Night Trainmaster at Enola. I reported to a great older gentleman, Earl Williamson, Terminal Superintendent. Earl had worked his way up the ladder (to Superintendent of the Chicago Division,) and had been sent back home to finish out his remaining time, due to declining health. Nothing ever flustered Earl... he had seen it all and done it all. He always smiled and dealt with a fair hand, and I never heard a soul utter a cross word about the man. His men spoke of him as "Earl the Pearl," and he was exactly that.

One of Earl's great stories concerned his first position as an official on the Railroad. It was the early 1940s, and he was assigned as Trainmaster on one of the districts of the "Panhandle Division." "The Panhandle" was the hot-shot line between Pittsburgh and St. Louis. A fast railroad with very heavy traffic.

Shortly after arriving on his new turf, Earl received a telephone call from the Road Foreman of Engines. "I'll pick you up Thursday morning at 8. We're going out to do speed checks."

At the stroke of the appointed hour, the Road Foreman of Engines drove up in front Earl's office. As Earl seated himself in the automobile, he noticed two fishing poles in the back seat... rather strange equipment for two bosses going out on railroad business.

Arriving at some remote spot on track straight-as-far-as-you-can-see-in-either-direction, the Road Foreman of Engines set up his speed checking device. It was a mechanical timer driven by a wind-up clockwork mechanism, mounted in a wooden box. Two small plungers were then fastened to the rail, fifty feet apart, and connected by wires to the tape-driving machine in the box. The first wheel on the engine depressed one plunger, then the other, and the paper tape recorded the time in seconds between the two events, which was easily convertable to Miles Per Hour.

Then came out the fishing poles, one for Earl and one for the Road Foreman. After some few minutes of fishing, an engine whistle was heard in the distance and the Road Foreman ran up the bank and started his timing machine. Momentarily a fast passenger train behind a big T-1 locomotive roared past in a blur of steam and a flash of Tuscan Red cars. And then the Road Foreman of Engines returned to his fishing pole, saying nothing about the train.

A few minutes later, the sequence was repeated... Engine whistle, start the timing machine, then return to fishing.

After a number of trains had thus roared past without remark, Earl asked the Road Foreman of Engines how fast the trains were travelling.

"Oh, a Hundred or better," was undramatic answer.

"What's the speed limit out here?" asked Earl.

"There ain't none. They go as fast as they can go," was the answer.

After meditating on these two pieces of information, Earl finally asked the obvious question...

"Then why are we out here checking speed?"

"Because we have to," replied the Road Foreman of Engines. "Now get back to your fishing!"

-- abram burnett

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