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Shiny Rails

There is one barometer that I use to see if the railroad is doing its job, and that is how shiny are the rails? I’m glad to report that we have kept the rails very shiny. It is tricky to keep those rails shiny. It takes the dedication of a small army of volunteers supported by devoted staff.

To a certain extent, the running of the trains is almost anticlimactic. On the weekends when steam locomotive 93 is out on the track hauling the excursion trains that is just the icing on the cake. For 93 to make her trips, it seems like a thousand and one details must be accomplished before the show can go on.

I guess a good place to start is with the track. After all, we are a railroad. Twice a week the entire track that the excursion train runs on is inspected. I recently went out on a track inspection; we started at 7:00 am. Our goal was to get twenty miles of track inspected and make any necessary repairs as required. At the same time, we needed stay out of the way of the excursion trains and rentals that would be operating. They have the right-of-way (and they’re a lot bigger than we are.)

I drove the hi-rail truck. This is a pick-up truck with four railroad hi-railer wheels on it, one in each corner of the truck. The hi-railer wheel is about eight inches in diameter and has a flange on it. This flange will guide the truck on the track. These hi-railer wheels are lowered onto the track and locked into place. My partner to do the track inspection was Ed Shurtleff. Ed has over forty years experience in all aspects of railroading, one of which is track inspection.

By the time I showed up, Ed had the truck all warmed up and ready to work. Our first section of track to inspect was the Hiline to milepost H-7. We put the hi-railer on the track at the East Ely yard. Now this sounds a lot simpler than it actually is. First, you need to drive to a road crossing and instead of going over the track as you normally would, you literally drive onto the track. You need to get the trucks wheels right on top of the rail so you can drop down the hi-rail wheels. Our pick-up is a crew cab, nice and long (thank God for power steering.) What I learned is that you put the rear wheels on the rails first. We lined up the rear wheels and then drop the hi-rail wheels on to the track and lock them in place. As with many things in life this is easier said than done. The back of the pick-up is filled with track tools and track parts, which is all very heavy. The truck needs to be lifted up for the hi-rail wheels to lock in place. To do this, Ed has a wooden wedge that he places near the back tire and I back the truck up onto the wedge. This helps take the weight off and Ed can then lock the rear hi-rail wheels into place. After successfully locking the rear wheels in place, it’s time to align the front wheels and lock in the front hi-railers. When all of the hi-railer wheels are locked in place there is just one more piece of equipment to lock and that is the steering wheel.

It is a very strange experience to lock the steering wheel, put the vehicle into drive and hit the gas. The flanges on the hi-railer wheels will guide the truck and steering isn’t needed or wanted. Anyway, away we’re going at a scorching five miles an hour, sometimes I could get up to eight miles an hour, but when ever I did, Ed signals me to slow down. Remember we have twenty miles of track to inspect. At any reasonable speed, twenty miles would be a piece of cake, but at five to seven miles an hour, we’re going to be out here for a while.

At this point, I should mention that the reason Ed signals me is because he is riding on the hood of the hi-railer truck watching the track. He is watching for broken rails, missing bolts, broken angle bars, rail out of gauge, and any other problem that he might see.

I guess now would be a good time to explain how our track is constructed. Our track is built on wooden ties. The rail is placed on these ties and then spiked into place. The rail lengths are thirty-three feet long. Each end of the rail has two holes drilled into it. These holes are for the angle bars, which are bolted to each end of the rail to form a joint between the rails. This joint is what causes the clickty-clack that you hear when the train is running. On modern railroads they have done away with the angle bars and they weld the end of the rail together. The reason for this change is that the track is stronger.

Meanwhile, back at the Nevada Northern we still have to the old style jointed track. That means there is a joint every thirty-three feet on both rails; remember there are two rails that make up the track. The Hiline run is eleven miles long. That means there are 3,520-some joints that need inspecting along with 14,080 angle bars and 14,080 bolts all at the scorching speed of six mile an hour.

Did I mention that the joints are staggered? What this means is that your eyes get into a pattern first look left, then right, then left, then right, then left checking every joint. Back and forth, back and forth, mile after mile–have you heard the expression, “that’s as much fun as watching grass grow?” I have to tell you after doing track inspection, watching grass grow is fun. On top of it all, you don’t want to miss anything. There will be an excursion train coming up the hill carrying passengers. It would be bad form if they derailed because of something you missed.

Well, after driving eleven miles we got to the end of the line without finding anything. Now it was time to head back to Ely and inspect the track out to Keystone. This was not going to be as easy as it sounds. There were three trains scheduled for the Keystone line and we wanted to run in between trains. We got back to Ely at 8:54 am. The next train was due out at 9:30 am. Ed and I thought we could put on the track and head out before the train. We radioed the crew of steam locomotive 93 to notify them of our intentions, we were on the track by 9:00 am and away we went again at that blistering speed of five to seven miles an hour. Ed’s back up on the hood checking the track. I’m driving.

I’m also remembering those word problems that use to give me fits in math class. If train A left the station at 9:00 am and was traveling x miles per hour how soon would train B over take train A if it was traveling y miles per hour. Well as we’re going down the track between six and seven miles an hour, with an occasional burst to eight miles an hour, I’m inspecting the track and trying to solve that problem in my head. I know 93 will be traveling fifteen miles an hour-is a thirty minute separation enough? Then Ed signals me to stop. He gets off the hood of the truck and walks back down the track about fifty feet and picks up an odd shaped object. It is his coffee cup; he dropped it.

Now, I’m trying to factor in our stop, 93’s stop to throw the switch to get on to our track and still watch for missing bolts. Well, it really wasn’t that exciting. Ed and I got off the track a good twenty minutes before 93 came down the track and we were in radio communication with the locomotive the entire time.

This is just one of the many jobs that need to be done that the museum performs to keep the trains running. It’s not glamorous. Just incredibly important, as I said before, a train derailment would be bad form. Due to the efforts of the volunteers and the staff there were no defects found on this inspection. The track is well maintained and ready for the next train that will help keep the rails shiny.

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Monday - Saturday | 8AM - 5PM
Sunday | 8AM - 4PM

Our Location

1100 Ave A, Ely, NV 89301

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