Gravel Trains

(October 15, 1997)

by Frank Dewey, ARR Locomotive Engineer

Frank DeweyDear John,

Well, my friend last Saturday night summer ended. I was on the last gravel train for Central Paving Products. 78 cars of pit-run gravel delivered, though it was beginning to freeze to the insides of the cars. Thursday night the 7000s went south, should be landing in Seattle about now. Helms leasing 4000 (GP40-3) in the shop for a traction motor, then its headed south with its twin. We're the only railroad that borrows power then before we have time to repair our own fleet, sends them back so that we are still short on power. I don't think that they know how to use "leasers". Anyway I've never told you the gravel train story, so here goes.

There are two major gravel companies here and a third minor one. First, I'll discuss the minor one. QAP Quality Asphalt Paving/Davis Block, parent company AGGPRO, formerly Alagco. A small shipper 10 or 20 trains a year, the dumping operation was shown in Pentrex's video tape. When they run they are in the way of everybody.

So much for the little guy, now for the real stuff. A.S.& G. Anchorage Sand and Gravel; Alaska Basic Industries, the King of Alaska gravel companies. Ships only pit-run from its pit on the Palmer Branchline 35 miles north of Anchorage.

Originally operated with 125 cars and 5 locomotives, impossible to keep on a schedule, impossible to dump, etc. blocked the whole south line while doing so. Regular train is 80 cars and 3 locomotives (2 SD70s) is used 24 hours a day and generates $16,000.00 profit on each turn, $32,000.00 each 24 hours. By far the most profitable train on the railroad it earns a lion's share of our annual budget.

A typical day for A. S. & G. begins in Anchorage Yard at 0400-0430 hours. The crew of 3 with a caboose, because you can't practically run it without one (rare these days), departs northbound to the Palmer Branch. On its trip north it may meet a southbound freight at Reves, Birchwood, Eklutna or sometimes at the branch switch at MP 150.87. Up the branch and around the loop at Wilder, then backs to a spot on the tipple at MP A3.

The brakeman climbs up in the tipple with the tipple operator and the "dance" begins for the next 2+ hours. The Engineer in response to radio signals creeps back at about .345 mph, the material comes off the belt at a rate of one ton per second. 100 tons, 100 seconds. If everything works right, at about 85 tons 20 feet of car is left the brakeman tells the engineer "20 feet, next car" the engineer pulls back on the throttle raising the speed to about 1 mph, filling the rest of the car before the belt automatically shuts off at 100 tons. As the end of the next car begins to pass beneath the tipple the Brakeman says "10 feet", then "Loading'' as the chute gets completely over the hopper's slope sheet. This is very important timing as too early, it may dump between the cars possibly derail, at the least making a mess that has to be cleaned up later. Or too late the heavy material hitting the hopper doors directly popping them open (a real mess) or bending the doors over time. So it goes until 38 cars are filled.

The loading stops and the train is shoved back until the cut is over "Inner Springer Loop Road". The conductor who's been drinking coffee and reading the morning paper in the caboose makes the cut and sends the rest of the train back to a spot. Then 24 more cars are loaded and shoved to clear "Outer Springer Loop Road". The remaining 18 are loaded, then shoved back to the other cuts, charge the air "sort of" and down the hill to the mainline switch two miles away, 10 mph on a 1% grade.

Total time about 3 hours and the train weighs about 10500 tons. What I described is referred as "fast loading" speeding up between each car, "slow loading" is at a constant speed, add 25-45 minutes to the loading time, of a train that has about 45 minutes to burn without going "dead". I prefer to fast load and in the past made a couple of records, but doing a good comfortable load is what I shoot for now. I have a reputation of being very "smooth" and consistent.

The morning train usually meets the northbound passenger at the branch switch about 0945. After the meet it's out onto the main and a run back to Anchorage in "run eight''. There are only two down grades southbound from Matanuska, but you have to know what to do or........... At Whitney (Elmendorf AFB) you call the yard and prepare to go down through the yard at restricted speed, hoping that you're lined down the P-main at the "116.5 switch".

It's no problem to stop and line the switch (remember we hand throw all our switches), except that you "piss away" your air and it's a real pain to control the "semi-runaway'' when you re-start and that it takes over 10 minutes to slow, stop, throw the switch and then restart the train and bring it back up to speed. Actually I never release my initial application and with my experience I can usually stop without much more air. It is just that so much time is lost and an inexperienced engineer may have a panic/heart attack trying to do it all. If you're lined, the train comes down "real nice", I really enjoy it, its sort of like floating 11000 tons down a 1% gradient.

We made it through the yard by passing OVL switch at Mile 113.9 {0cean Van Lines}, named after the first company to ship piggy-backs in Alaska. 8 mph over the switch start pulling the .5% up grade by ''Elderberry Park" 15mph from the switch to Mile 111.7; through the sag at ''West Chester Lagoon"; over "Judges" crossing; ,"Bootlegger's Cove", "East Chester Creek" and through "Spenard" (where the little terrorist's live). Leaving the "Yard Limits" at Mile 108.9 "C Street".

Arriving at A. S. & G.'s dump site at "Turnagain Siding", you pull down the main and make a cut on 40, pull south of the switch at "Klatt Road". "Oh my, it's noon" and the traffic backs up quick on the 2 lane road as you back over the gated crossing. People stare as your rear car reaches the dump bridge and dumping speed begins and you have not yet cleared the crossing circuit yet. They look as if you have a button or something to push to make the gates go up. The brakeman has disappeared to conveniently line a switch so they won't see him.

Two guys named the "Jason Brothers" start "bustin' doors" at about .5 mph. The material falls through the concrete trestle. Slick and quite professional and if everything works out, you dump 22, cut-off run through the siding, couple to the north end of the cut and dump northward over 104th Avenue. The "cut" done pull northward to the main, pickup the caboose and set it to the siding. Cut off and come back to the main pick up the 40, shove to a spot on the dump track and start from the head-end dumping north. When the cut is all dumped, double to Turnagain siding pick up the cut and head back to town. On a good day that's 11 to 12 hours, done and dumped.

Back in the yard "Wilder" takes over and does 10.5-12 hours on their train. 24 hours a day 120 days a summer, 8000 tons a train, that's gravel. I estimate that in the past 20 years, I've done around 1500 of them. I like them and they pay well. Well this was longer than I thought it would be so until later. I hope that this may give you some ideas for your layout. Write when you can my friend.



© 1997 Frank Dewey