A Switchman's Swan Song

(original 12-23-05 story re-edited for literacy's sake, 9-26-14)

Back in the late 1970's, the night depot goat crew - the crew that set-up commute cars for the morning rush hour Fleet at San Jose's Cahill Street (now Diridon) depot - also did freight work on the Vasona Branch. On their own, the crew used to go to work a half hour earlier than the on-duty time of 11:30 PM so that they would finish switching the branch in time to shove a couple of additional cars on to #108's equipment immediately after it arrived at Cahill shortly before 2:00 AM.* That way the crew could take an undisturbed nap for about four hours, until it was time to shove more equipment into the depot to refill tracks left vacant by departed Fleet trains.

The freight cars destined for the branch were waiting at College Park Yard . The crew would dig them out and proceed to a runaround track next to the wooden Granite Rock silo, across the main tracks from College Park Tower. After running around the cars, the crew would then head towards the branch.

During what turned out to be my last extra board call to work the job, the runaround track was blocked by cars, so after we pulled a single boxcar out of College Park Yard, foreman Snyder elected to shove it to Campbell.

Once that we got onto the Vasona Branch, Engineer Butch Nesbit, as he was want to do, cranked-up the 2689's throttle so that we were doing a good 50 mph by the time we blew past the Western Pacific crossing's stop sign. We whizzed over Lincoln Avenue in Willow Glen at 60 mph, before the crossing gates - timed for the branch's 25 mph speed limit - even began to quiver. Nevertheless, we made it unscathed to Campbell to spot our car at spur #873.

After I lined the switch back to normal for the return trip to the depot and sack time, we took off like a shot! Being very jittery about all of this, I was fixating on the speedometer, and when it hit 45, Snyder gave a start and yelled "BIG HOLE! BIG HOLE! THE SWITCH!" Butch plugged it and we braced ourselves, because we all saw that the 870 switch target ahead was 'cocked' (at a 45 degree angle), indicating that we had run-through it previously. Miraculously, the 2689 headed into the spur, rather than derailing (which was the more-likely scenario) and stopped barely short of the spur's substantial concrete end ramp!

Somehow none of us had noticed the switch being against us on the outward trip., but no damage being done, we located a suitable piece of pipe in the weeds, bent the switch stand back to its proper configuration ( SP switch stands were flimsier than those on many other railroads, thus very user-friendly) and headed for town. Unbeknownst to us, there had been a recent rash of switch tampering in the area.

After spending an unsettling month with this crew's high-speed antics earlier in my career, I'd had enough and bid-in the San Francisco Freight Brakeman Extra Board the following afternoon. This was my final swan song as a switchman.

* There always was a petty bone of contention between #108's train crews and we switchmen regarding tying hand brakes on the train after its arrival in San Jose. The train crews sometimes did not tie the brakes, knowing that the switch crew would be joining cars onto the equipment, and that the last crew touching the equipment would be responsible for insuring that it was properly secured. The switchmen, on the other hand, rightly pointed out that according to the rules, 108's train crew should set hand brakes before their engine cut away from it. This is one of the few cases that I noted switchmen actually evidencing awareness of the rules, but their's was a risky position to take. There was a gentle grade northward (TT westward) out of the depot. I'm told that once, after the air had bled off, 108 attempted to retrace its steps towards San Francisco, making it all the way to Lawrence curve above Santa Clara before rolling to a stop. I doubt that neither the train or switch crew could talk their way out of that one!

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