Runaway Train!

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It was a frigid-frigid-freakingly-cold-frigid early weekday morning in the month of February sometime back in the early 1990’s when I drove my shitbox Chevy Blazer along the Southeast Expressway to work at South Station. I was working as the conductor (Big C) on the early morning express train out of Boston to New York, New York.


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John Lima

I ran into my good friends and coworkers John Lima and R.C. Fowkes in the crew room and as usual, this would be a great railroad kind of day because you can’t find two better guys to work with, even on the most frigidly cold and miserable of railroad days.

After getting our shit/act together, we walked upstairs and headed out to the train and as usual, locomotive engineer R.C. Fowkes, pride and joy of South Boston, Massachusetts, was as cranked up as one could be…….In conversation, reminding me of a human pinball machine bouncing from one topic to another and then another and in the midst of all this waving and bidding morning wishes to his many fans and confidants who drifted about the South Station concourse on this most frigid of railroad mornings.

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John Lima, the assistant conductor and my good partner in train, responded to R.C.’s commentaries and wise ass remarks with his typical dry, cynical, who gives a shit-not wit. The general consensus this morning? We hope the freakin’ heat works in them railroad cars.


I jumped onto the rear car at the end of the platform, which happened to be the food service/café/club car a la first class…..And yes, it was warm! A good start because otherwise I’d have to listen to all the first class folk complain about being slowly and systematically frozen to death for the extra fifty bongos the railroad was charging them to ride in the expensive seats which also afforded them to opportunity to eat omelets nuked in nasty looking microwave ovens and drink sometimes really bad railroad coffee. Bad coffee because of the bad water and sometimes just because the attendant purposely made it bad to keep the passengers from asking for more.


Warm passenger cars were a great start. Unfortunately, the doors were screwed up because of the frigid cold ice and snow. With sledge hammers in hand like Ol’ Jawn Henry, the steel driving man, the car knocker (car inspector for you non-railroad types) and the redcap helped John and I crack open a few doors so we could get the herd of early morning riders of the rail onto their silver chariot of steel wheels and plastic windows.


I gave the signal to the gateman to send the passengers out to the train, and then off we would go. Twenty or thirty hearty souls bundled up in various forms of winter wear, clutching cups of hot coffee and briefcases fought their way to trainside and boarded, all expressing the ooohs and ahhhs of relief as they stepped into their cozy warm passenger train cars.


The car knocker did his brake test with R.C., gave us the “okay on the air,” I got a high ball signal from John Lima who was working the head end (front) of the train….I checked my Seiko railroad watch,  RAILROAD APPROVED mind you. Then gave the highball to go……”Rear end of Amtrak 151 to the head end, o----kay to go R.C.” The brakes slowly released and both John and I fought to get our doors closed as the train quietly drifted out of South Station, guided by whining wheels atop frozen rail, all muffled by the frozen roadbed of a railroad in winter.


Next stop in three minutes the cavernous concrete tunnel and the always cold and always ugly Back Bay Station. We drifted to a stop in Back Bay. As expected, trouble with the doors. We did whatever it took to open a door or two as packs of cold folk shivering away, stood near us on he platform, somewhat impatiently, waiting for the opportunity to jump aboard our train full of warmth and shelter, away from this awfully cold and nasty morning.


About 40 or 50 cold, miserable souls boarded. We closed the doors as best we could, and off we headed to Route 128 Station.


When it comes to engineering trains, R.C. gives one of the safest and most comfortable of rides a passenger could ever want or expect. In fact, I always remember R.C. telling me that he took pride in giving the folks in the back a smooth comfortable ride because, as he put it, “they are the ones paying our salary and it’s the least we can do for them.”


We sped along the Southwest Concrete Corridor from Back Bay to Readville Transfer at a good clip, 90 miles per hour or so and as we approached the Route 128 Station stop, still moving at that same good clip, both John Lima and I began our dreaded task of finding ways to get the damn frozen doors and snow packed traps (staircases) open. This would be even more of a challenge because at the time, the Route 128 Station had a low level platform, meaning we had to drop the trains “traps” or stairs to get the people off and on. I had my trusty sledge hammer/crow bar combo in hands and I banged away, breaking away ice and snow and finally got the door to slide open as we sped along at a good 70 per or so. Getting closer and closer to “The Route,” I was able to get the trap/stairs down and then stepped out of the vestibule and back into the warm coach until we made our station stop. As we passed the Conrail yard full of boxcars and blue freight locomotives I noticed we were still going quite a bit faster than the norm for some train that was about to make a stop……Then I got a call from R.C. on the radio.


“Brian,” he said.

“Yah Richie, what’s up?”

“I got nothing,” he replied, in somewhat troubling tone of voice.

“What Richie????” I asked, very puzzled and getting nerved up quick.

“Brian, I have no brake.”

My first reaction was, “What the f?!#.”

My second reaction was to step back into the vestibule and start winding up the goddam handbrake.

In the meantime, I heard John making cynical comments on the radio like, “here we go” and “this is just what I need” among other things. John, out of gutt instinct, did the same thing I did and started winding up the handbrake in his vestibule. Any railroader with half a brain would know that winding up a handbrake on a train doing a good 70 miles per hour will do little to absolutely nothing to slow or stop this runaway train.


“Jesus H. Christ,” I thought to myself. “Save us.”


I’m winding and winding the goddam brake as a constant blast jet of cold air and snow fill the vestibule and nothing, not a damn thing is happening and then we fly right through Route 128 Station at 60 or 70 or who knows how fast miles per hour and the sixty or so folks waiting on the platform become a blur.




I see quick images pass of blurred faces with a look of disbelief all over them. Can you imagine what was going through their minds?


We keep rolling along and now I’m thinking, “what the f#*& are we going to do to stop this train!!!


We pass the Industrial Park and as I look back at “128” I now see the little clusters of people who were waiting for our great train, some running back into the station. Some or maybe all knew by now what the hell had happened.


Over the narrow Neponset River and now into the first curve west of Route 128, I feel a little bit of a bump/tug/jerk-like reaction and the train now seems to be slowing down. Maybe R.C. got some brake back or maybe the uphill climb of the railroad right of way to Canton Junction is slowing us down. No matter what, we’re slowing down thank the good Lord and thank St. Anthony, the patron saint of railroadmen.


In the meantime, some pasty-faced yuppie makes his way into the vestibule with his horn rimmed glasses and fist sized head.


“Excuse me but weren’t we suppose to stop back there,” he asks.


In the back of my mind I reply, “no shit, Sherlock” but in reality I just say “yes, we have a problem” and then ignore him.


“I want to know what happened,” says the now becoming arrogant prick.


“We’re working on it and we’ll make an announcement once we figure out what we are going to do,” I reply.


He continues to bust my balls. This is just what I don’t need right now.


You always have to have some hero of the freakin’ day who has to stick his nose into your business when this kind of crap occurs. The flag bearers of anti-railroadism, who think their big titles and simple little duties in their big business world give them some kind of inherent right to use their little tidbit of authority on our train.


“Look man, we’re quite capable of taking care of this……..Thanks for your concern!”


The train finally slows to a halt.  Quiet. Cold. Thinking I am. “What next?”


I step down off the train as does John and we walk up to the locomotive to see R.C.


As we get closer, R.C. has his head and arms out of the locomotive’s door and he’s yelling, “What the f?#& guys, eh? I had no brake…..Nothing!”


We discuss what to do. What lies we would have to tell the passengers and what to say to whomever to keep us out of the poop.


I walk back to the tail end of the train and start doing a brake test. R.C. throws the train into “emergency,” then pumps the brakes back up and sets them up.


“Okay, we have a brake back here R.C.,” I tell him via radio.


We decide to not take any chances and walk the entire train looking for any potential problems. Other than a 50 below zero wind chill factor, I guess there’s not much else to worry about.


We test the brakes one more time for good luck then jump back on the train. My freakin’ feet are frozen.


We get the Dispatcher’s permission to back down to Route 128 Station and even he was wondering what the hell happened. “Problems huh?”


We roll back to the station, with John and I in the rear vestibule, watching the tracks, and as we approach Route 128 Station we both notice that everyone is gone. We finally come to a stop and both John and I walk into the station to see if there was a brave soul or two who may be interested in riding with us.


The station agent see us, with a big smile on his face and says, “Nice job fellas…….You scared them all away!”


Apparently they all ran for their cars when they saw me/us/train flying through the station at 50 or 60 miles per hour.


I ask the station agent if I can use his phone and I call up the train dispatcher to explain. A minute or two later we jump aboard and off we go. “R.C.” does a running test of the brakes and all is well.


When we got back to Boston that afternoon the officials asked to speak to us. They wanted a statement from me. My statement was, “No freakin’ brakes.”


The moron/asst. general foreman in the yard who is responsible for overseeing the maintenance of the equipment called us liars. What other reason could there be for such an incident?????  Why would we lie about this?


I told the moron/asst. general foreman he didn’t have a freakin’ clue and basically to crawl back into his cigar stinking little hole. That was basically the end of it. Nobody wanted this crap to become an issue. Case basically closed. We already lost more than a few passengers because of it.


Don’t need to lose more.



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