Friday, August 02, 2013

My summer of '68 (or: How a string of tank cars almost killed me!)

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Those of you who know me well know that I was a brakeman on the Penn Central Railroad while in college. That was 45 years ago, but the recent crude-by-rail disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, has had me thinking back to my own near disaster involving tank cars in the summer of '68.

tank cars plural via ChemlogicTo begin with, how I got that summer's job at the Penn Central is a bit of a safety story in and of itself. It began when I walked into the hiring office of the Penn Central at Penn Plaza in Manhattan. Interestingly, I got a great paying job immediately. I knew no one. I just walked in and was hired immediately.

Some days later (I started almost immediately), I was in a training course in Jersey City, N.J., where we were schooled in the basics of train operation.

During one session as we were learning the proper way to get on and off moving cars and locomotives, I learned from a veteran conductor that he had a son who was working in a warehouse for less than half of what I was making at the railroad. I asked the dad if this was because the railroad had an anti-nepotism rule. Not knowing what the blazes I was referring to, he responded: "No, we hire people from all religions here."

When I explained what I meant, he told me: "I could have gotten my son a summer job here easily. I don't want him here because you can get killed here!" (Which, as you can imagine, made me feel just wonderful!)

To be truthful, this wasn't so much an indictment of railroad jobs as jobs at the Penn Central. By that time the railroad was pretty much out of money and its infrastructure, particularly its yards, had seen better days. We even had something we called "standing derailments" where a car would derail sitting in place with no horizontal movement simply because the ties or hardware holding the rails in place gave way and allowed the rails to spread, dropping the car on the ground! The Penn Central was where I learned the mantra that there are no "small" injuries on a railroad.

But on to my tank car "event." One late summer evening, just prior to my wrapping up my job at the Penn Central, I was aligning switches in a classification yard in Kearny, N.J. The drill was pretty simple: The switch engine with a train that had just come into the yard would pull the train up an incline at one end of the yard. The conductor (lead brakeman) would then cut groups of cars off the train and allow them to roll down the incline into the web of tracks below. The other two brakeman (I was one of them) would throw switches so that the cuts of cars rolling toward us down the tracks would end up in the correct track.

Each brakeman had a written list that showed not only which cars went where, but whether they were loaded or not. If the cars were loaded, they could be cut from the end of the train and rolled down gently... and safely... via gravity at a speed that approximated a brisk walk by an individual. If they were unloaded, however, they needed a shove from the locomotive to get them going fast enough to get all the way down into their designated track.

That evening, it was just past dusk, and I remember that I needed my signal lamp to read my car list. At one point, I looked at my list that told me that a cut of five empty tank cars was next for one of my tracks. I could hear the engine pitch change as it shoved the train forward so that the tank car cut could be pushed downhill. When I looked up, however, the cars came barreling down at me at much too great a speed! They were apparently full! As they flew past me I started running in the near-darkness so that I could get up to one of the ladders on the side of a car to climb it and put on a handbrake to slow the cars.

I was able to get my hands on the ladder of the last car in the cut and as I pulled myself up off the ground, my foot MISSED the bottom rung of the ladder! I can still remember the moon shining on the silver edge of the wheel inches away as I looked to my right! If I had dropped down I would have been cut in half! Fortunately, I was able to climb up and put the hand brake on, which slowed the cut of loaded tank cars to a safe speed.

(By the way, all of this is now largely [and safely] mechanized in classification yards today.)

What is the moral of this story?

Tank cars are always big and heavy and dangerous, especially when you do one or more stupid things around them. (And virtually all of my actions fell into the stupid category. I was just plain lucky that night.) The moral of this story? Don't do stupid things around tank cars.

Tony Kruglinski

Tony Kruglinski is President of Railroad Financial Corp., a financial advisory firm. He also serves as Chairman of Rail Equipment Finance (, an annual industry conference addressing critical developments concerning North America's railcar and locomotive fleet.

Kruglinski also mentors the annual Railroad Financial Desk Book, published each autumn. His Railway Age column, Financial Edge, is a longtime staple of the magazine and now will appear each month. Contact Tony at