Volunteering — Blog Post #12

Volunteering, Niles Canyon Railway
Posted: April 9, 2017 at 4:01 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

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January 14,  2017

It’s a new year and that means it’s time to return to building track east of Verona. With the panels that have already been placed east of the Verona crossing the track extends east about a quarter mile from the UP overcrossing. Last month’s Club Car had photos of the new switch that was installed recently. To continue building east, the MOW team needs to place more panels of track. A number of panels of 136-lb rail are ready to go, but, some panels came from grade crossings in a previous life. This means the panels were torch cut out of the existing crossings and other areas leaving a very rough end to the rails. We needed panels that have flat, smooth, square rail ends that can be bolted together. We needed to cut off the ends of each rail in the panels, and then drill new holes for the bolts that will join the panels together.

The team of met at Brightside at 08:00 Saturday to assemble the MOW work train and gather tools and supplies. In the canyon, sunrise happens later then in the outside world. When I arrived, the mist was still in the yard, you couldn’t see much in any direction and it was very cold. There was ice on the MOW flat cars. One of the tasks was to clear the ice off the windows of the MOW equipment to permit safe operation. As we got ready, I could see the disk of the sun coming up over the hills through the clouds of mist. It was like being inside an airbrushed painting, clouds of mist appeared and then were gone. As the sun got higher in the sky, the mist burned off and the ice turned to sludge. Everything was slippery. Then the mist turned to a very light rain for a few minutes. The weather at sunrise is very dynamic. As we were switching the MOW railcars a Great Blue Heron perched near the pond next to Blake’s Palace. You never know what you will see out along the line.

It takes a lot of effort and teamwork to get the MOW equipment loaded and out onto the mainline to head east. Then we ride to Verona and the end of track. It can take up to 3 hours from the initial meeting at Brightside to being ready to work at the east end of the line. The sun was well overhead now and the sky was clear. When we started at Brightside it was near freezing, but now it was very warm. As the crew setup to use the cutoff wheel to cut the ends of the rails, I was assigned to file down the sharp edges of the rails that had been cut during the previous work session. It reminded me of junior high metal shop class many decades ago. It takes a lot of effort to remove any amount of metal from the end of 136-lb rail.

Cutting rail is a significant operation. Rail ends are cut using an abrasive disc blade driven by a large chainsaw engine. The cutoff wheel wears down very quickly, we can get about 3 cuts from each cutoff wheel. We used a lot of them this day. The saw is held in place on the rail by a pantograph which allows the saw to move up, down and back and forth, but keeps it square to the rail, and just like on TV, there are a lot of sparks. We watched carefully to make sure nothing got too hot.

Drilling the holes in the end of a rail is also impressive. The web of the rail is very thick so the drill is actually hydraulic. The drill bit is a hole cutter (technically called an annular cutter) that ejects a very clean disk of metal when it breaks through the opposite side of the rail. Like the cutoff wheel, the hole saw wears down quickly. Towards the end of the afternoon, after starting to drill another hole, the drill jerked a little bit. That means the hole cutter was dull and had broken. We had to replace the cutter and drill new holes.

We discussed some of the history of this project during lunch. When NCRY first arrived in the canyon, there weren’t any rails at all. Southern Pacific had removed them all, but left the ties in place from Niles to Verona. From Verona east, the ties had been removed as well. This means we are building railway from scratch as we work our way east. It is impressive to see what it takes to get even one panel of track in place. Each panel is about 40 feet long. When we get all the 136-lb rail panels we have in place, we will have advanced another 500 feet or so. At that point we will start using the 132-lb rail panels we have.

After lunch,  the sun was already casting long shadows on the track panel I was working on. It was getting cold again. In the canyon, sunrise comes later and sundown comes early. The shadows foretold of the cold that was coming after sunset. For almost all of the 136-lb rail panels we have, the rails now had fresh ends cut smooth and square. We also got almost all of the required holes drilled as well. This means we have panels ready to put in place to extend the line next time.

It was time to go home. The sunlight would soon be gone. We loaded up, flagged the crossing at Verona and headed West. We closed the gate behind us after entering Brightside, fueled the “Big Bird” MOW crew car, parked the MOW equipment and stored the gear. It was time to go home.

Next time will be very interesting as we need to lift each panel and place it at the end of track. We also have to stagger the rail joints. The rails in the panels we have line up with each other, just as they were when the panel was cut out of the grade crossings they came from. To stagger the joints, we have to loosen the spikes along one rail and pull that rail out of line to form the stagger. This process will be something to see.

It is very rewarding to see this all come together. I encourage you to join us, the first Saturday of each month, unless the rains come again. I also want to make clear that I don’t have any experience with building full scale track, but I was able to help, and so can you. It does help to have more people, to flag the crossing, throw the turnouts, help replace the cutoff wheel and many other tasks that must be done to keep extending the track to the east.

Brightside just before sunrise. Photo by Brian Hitchcock

Sunrise at Brightside. Photo by Brian Hitchcock

Ice on the MOW flat cars. Photo by Brian Hitchcock

Ice on the MOW flat cars. Photo by Brian Hitchcock

Ice on the MOW flat cars. Photo by Brian Hitchcock

Great Blue Heron near Blake’s Palace. Photo by Brian Hitchcock

End of line, east of Verona. Photo by Brian Hitchcock

My job, filing the freshly cut end of rail. Photo by Brian Hitchcock

Cutting rail. Photo by Brian Hitchcock


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