Thursday, August 2, 2018

EJ&E Culvert for Kress Creek and the 17" rain in 1996


William O'Neal Stringer posted
Photo by Michael Bachmann.
It as July of 1996 and I was working out of Joliet, Illinois on JSW3 which was a road switcher servicing the industries between Joliet and Spaulding. Besides me there was a conductor and a brakeman. We also would deliver and pick up rail cars along the way. The start time was 8 pm because #21 the far west job (to Waukegan) had to go out ahead of us after the lined train arrived and yard crews built up their train and ours. The only thing special about that night was the rain. It was raining when I got to work and it rained almost my entire tour of duty. Not a hard rain but a very good steady rain. The conductor and brakeman were wearing rain clothes to attempt to stay dry but after we worked at Walker / Plainfield they were completely soaked. Those rain suits were not make for a continuous pouring rain.
So that night we worked our way to West Chicago made a delivery to the UP in our yard and ran around our small train to return East to Joliet. Still raining of course. We left West Chicago about 1230 am with orders to fill (pick up rail cars) at the BNSF Eola. Now I've worked many a night in the rain but there was casual water everywhere which was unusual. Railroads spend a lot of time and money on drainage. At about 1250 am I approached Diehl road, Eola. This was a flasher protected crossing and I'm blowing the whistle but it is dark. No flashers at all, it was totally dead. (They do have batteries but they were apparently drained at that point) Fortunately there was no traffic and we crossed that road with no incident. So I called the train dispatcher to report it. I said, "Bill we just had a compete crossing protection failure at Diehl road, no lights at all." Then I added, "We have had so much rain that I'm not going to operate my train at track speed." I had never said that to a dispatcher before and never said that after. His reply was, "Operate your train at a safe speed." I was never known to be dragging an anchor around with me out there anyway so he respected my opinion.
Another two miles and we arrived at Eola leaving enough room between our train and the road crossing at Liberty Street for the cars we would add to our train. We had stopped on a hill and went down into Eola yard to get the cars. This yard must be 100 acres of tracks and all we could see was the tops of the rails with the occasional low spot completely under water. Not the bests of conditions to be working in and especially since diesel locomotives cannot operate in water that is more than 3 inches over the rail. DC traction motors at 600 volts and water make for a bad combination.
So we got the dozen or so rail cars and tied them onto our train. The brakemen were out doing the air test, a set and a release after I signaled that the air was up. So I'm doing a crossword puzzle and the head light is not on as we were close to the crossing. There was lots of lightning and I just happened to look up at my front window during a flash and I wasn't sure what I saw. So I turned on the bright head light and was I surprised. The main line about 150 feet ahead of me was submerged. Not just under water, there were ties floating out there. So I called the dispatcher and it was about 130 am. I said, "Bill, the main line is submerged in front of me." He immediately said, "Stand by." Then he called train #21 that was behind me. "#21 have you left West Chicago?" They reported that they were going to in a few minutes. Bill said, "Do not leave West Chicago." The dispatcher then called me back and asked me to ascertain if we could get past the submerged track safely. I said absolutely not. So they sent out a cab to pick up both crews.
Now for the back story. It was not raining at all in Gary, Indiana where the dispatchers office was located. Not a drop. A front had situated itself right along our tracks and was stationary. Then all of the storms moving from the south came along and were "steered" along the same path. Just over 17 inches they reported. My train was on a HILL so it was hard to understand why the track was under water. The New York avenue overpass ahead of me had narrowed the flow of water along the track and made it back up.
The picture is just south of West Chicago and I had run a train over that washout earlier but the road bed was still intact. The train behind me was about to go over that track about 90 minutes after me but was stopped by the dispatcher.
Most people don't give dispatchers enough credit for what they do. Their job is to move trains period. So when I started reporting track conditions and crossing failures dispatcher Bill Lang was reading between the lines. He stopped all the J trains in that area and good thing he did. I don't see the three man crew on #21 coming out of West Chicago surviving the fall into that washout. It is a long way down to either side right there where that creek was running through a culvert under the main line. If not washed out at that time it surely was severely weakened and would not support the weight of locomotives.
When the powers that be came in to the office and confronted the dispatcher about why he was not running trains, he got a butt chewing. He had no proof anything was wrong. Later when the track department did an inspection and found all the washouts not only at West Chicago but also at my location and elsewhere, they promptly took all the credit for stopping the trains. That is just the way they do things. Now some people were trying to give me credit for saving those lives but all I did was report conditions. It was Bill Lang that read between the lines and took the initiative and the heat for doing so. He was the hero not me.
Dennis DeBruler I remember that rain. A lot of roads that I have never been flooded became impassible with that rain, including Ogden. I'm sorry to hear that management took credit rather than apologize to the dispatcher and then give him credit.
Michael Bachmann We had some good smart dispatchers that would not let you get into trouble. Crabby but safe.

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