by Bruce Goeser
Driving a real locomotive, A wheelchair user feels the power
|In July, 1997, the Great Northern Railway Historical Society held it's annual convention in Duluth, Minnesota. The society has ownership of the first production EMD SD45 locomotive, Great Northern 400. The Burlington Northern donated the locomotive to the society which restored it to it's original paint scheme with it's Hustle Muscle name adorning it's flanks. At that time, the Lake Superior Transportation Museum housed the locomotive and used it on summer weekends for excursions.
During the convention wee learned that the 21 year old locomotive was in need a new wiring harness, and to raise money for the the wiring, the society opened the locomotive to members, allowing them to operate the locomotive within the yard limits. Each member donated money, boarded the locomotive with three other members and got to sit in the operator's seat and run the locomotive for about 30 seconds. The response was overwhelming with some members returning several times for the once in a lifetime chance to play with trains on the grandest scale.
As a member of the society confined to a wheelchair, I considered it politely necessary not to pursue such a ride in the cab. Several members offered to carry me up the steps and into the cab, but being the realist that 20 years in a wheelchair brings about, I politely declined. Instead, my wife talked to the man in charge of the locomotive at the museum and got his card and phone number.
Again being the realist I just wrote the whole thing off as something that could never be possible. After several phone calls, my wife made arrangements with the museum and the person in charge of the locomotive. I was to drive Hustle Muscle.
On the 29th day of the following September, my wife and I arrived at the museum at 9:00 am to be greeted by a the man in charge of the locomotive. He explained that he was going to start the locomotive so it was warmed up and ready to go for the noon brunch excursion along Lake Superior. He would allow me to operate the locomotive before he got the rest of the consist connected and prepared.
Soon the bright orange and green locomotive pulled up to the platform and came to a stop. To accommodate wheelchair users on the dinner excursions, the museum had a makeshift wheelchair lift. The lift was basically a pallet with sides, that fit on the forks of a forklift. The plan was for me to transfer from my wheelchair onto the pallet, sit there while I was raised to the operator's side window of the cab, slide through the window and down into the operator's seat. Getting out would be the reverse of he operation.
The plan worked flawless, in a few minutes I was sitting in the operator's seat of the world's first production SD45 with it's twenty cylinder prime mover idling behind me. I could hardly breath from excitement, as the engineer explained the controls to me. Off to my left was the control stand. There were four metal levers with metal description plates attached above the levers. The engine brake lever, push it forward to stop, train brake, don't worry about that, throttle, push forward, direction control lever, forward and back.
The rest of the cab was sparsely apportioned with a second seat on the non-operator side of the cab, control panel on the back wall with a few switches, and peeling light green paint throughout.
The only other instructions were to keep the speed below the 25 miles per hour yard limit. As he finished the preparations, he asked if I was ready. I practically shouted,”yes.”
He then threw the switch to engage the generator and the pitch of the diesel changed, changing from their rhythmic purring to a slow growl. We were ready to go. The engineer stood at my left shoulder in case something went wrong. As he released the air, he had me put the direction control in reverse and push the throttle to notch one. No one can imagine the excitement flowing through my body as the big diesel revved up behind me. I must have looked a bit wide eyed when nothing happened for several seconds. The engineer comforted me saying,” Don't worry, it will take a few seconds, watch the amp meter.”
Finally the heavy engine began to move in reverse. I watched as another museum volunteer signaled us through a switch in the yard. Once clear, the engineer instructed me to apply some air and stop. I gingerly pushed the lever forward getting a feel for how suddenly we would stop. Not much happened, I quickly applied more force and acquired the feel of the brakes. After stopping and reversing the direction control, the engineer said I could throttle up to notch two. Now the diesel really made some noise. Oh what power, twenty 574 cubic inch cylinders pumping up and down turning the crankshaft to power the generator. The generator would supply the electricity to turn the motors attached to the six axles. The axles turned the steel wheels which gripped the rails to pull the thousands of tons of rail cars behind. I could just feel it, though there wasn't the g-force, pushed back in the seat power, it was a slow power of a giant wakening. Watching the speedometer, it quickly hit 20, then 25 and almost thirty. I it took upon myself to back off on the throttle and bring it back down to notch one. The engineer just smiled and said, “good job.”
We were coming to the end of the yard and I was instructed to stop before the sign up ahead. We didn't want to trigger the crossing gates of the highway. Throttling back and applying air, I thought I was doing well, more air, the sign is approaching too fast, more air still. Opps, the sign passed by the window. I got the locomotive stopped several yards past the sign with the crossing guards activated and several cars on the street came to a halt. A bit embarrassed I said, “sorry,”, quickly reversed the control, and notched the throttle up to one. We slowly backed up and the gate lifted. Even though I missed my target to stop, it was still a power trip to have those cars stop for me.
The ride back was not as exciting, we were in reverse and heading for the end of the ride. Crossing the switch, we again changed direction and I pulled into the station short nose first. The engineer this time gave the stopping point of a fence post along the tracks. I stopped within a couple of feet of the mark. Not bad.
All in all, the ride lasted fifteen minutes. To this day it is still the most exciting fifteen minutes of my life. I learned two things that day, first and foremost, never chance a grade crossing, That power will not stop for you. Second, it is not easy operating a locomotive, it is definitely harder than operating an automobile.
I thanked those volunteers profusely. As I think back, I am glad the insurance companies, OSHA, or the FRA didn't get their way.
Hustle Muscle is now stored in St Paul at the Jackson Street Roundhouse of Minnesota Transportation Museum. The roundhouse is the former Great Northern facility located just north of downtown St Paul Minnesota.