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Thread: Hi-railing with Buck

  1. #1

    Default Hi-railing with Buck

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    Hi-railing with Buck

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    Montana Rail Link Assistant Roadmaster Buck Tripp checks his laptop. He has just "IM'ed" the Helena West dispatcher asking for track and time on the mainline west of Helena. On his screen is the exact schematic of the line that is being viewed by the dispatcher in Missoula. Red lines turn to green and then to blue.

    "That's it," Buck says. "We're clear to put on and go as far as East Austin."

    It's a sunny Friday morning and Buck is about to work west, making his weekly inspection of the mainline over Mullan Pass. His territory today will go from the depot in Helena to just beyond the west switch at Avon, on the west side of the mountain.

    "We've got a lot to look at today," Buck tells me.

    Beyond switch frogs and rods, there are all the angle bars installed as temporary bonds where the welded rail has broken. With the steel gang due up on the mountain in a few weeks, the numbers of angle bars to be inspected are at a high.

    "Once the steel gang arrives and the welders, my job will get a whole lot easier."

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    It is a leap frog trip up the east flank of Mullan Pass. Where ever there is an angle bar, the pick-up stops and Buck hops out. This is tedious work requiring a close look and a sharp, experienced eye. On his hands and knees, Buck sprays a substance similar to WD 40 on an area where he suspects there is a crack. Tipping up his safety glasses he takes an even closer look. Getting up, he remarks, "Found it. That'll be an automatic 10." (10 mph slow order.) Buck "IM's" the dispatcher the exact location of the offending bar, and a slow order is immediately issued.

    "Once we find a cracked bar, we have 24 hours to replace it," Buck tells me. With a crew in the area, Buck calls them up on the radio. "Since they've got the work window all day, we'll have this fixed a few hours."

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    Up on the loops at Austin, we stop to check the flange greaser. A quick look told Buck all he needed to know.

    "She's not pumping any grease. We still have the summer grease in it, but it's getting cold enough at night it's getting too thick to pump. Usually ends up getting an air lock."

    Always having the right tools for the right job, Buck grabs a handy snow broom and stirs the grease in the pump chamber. Overriding the automatic pump settings, Buck forces grease through the lines until he is satisified the lubricant is flowing smoothy. He then checks the settings....4 seconds every 32 axles.

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    On the upper loop, while once again staring at angle bars, Buck shows me a graphic example of the pounding the rail takes. Rail that was transposed from onside of the curve to the other is butted up against the exact same weight rail that had not. (Later in the day, he showed me an even more amazing example while talking in Buck's office. Placing a relatively new cross section of rail against a well worn section of the same revealed what time and tonnage does to solid steel.

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    On up the line we went, stopping ever few hundred yards to look over the angle bars. All the while the dispatcher was monitoring our progress, granting track and time without so much as a word being uttered between himself and Buck.

    "Some of the guys still like to use the radio, but usually you'll get a qucker response by using an IM," Buck admits.

    Inspecting the last of the bars outside the Mullan Tunnel we hop in the pick-up in time for Buck to get a message from Missoula.

    "Oh no," Buck mumbles. "The dispatcher says Fish and Game spotted that bear that got hit this morning. I guess they want us to get it off the right-of-way."

    A light helper had hit a bear somewhere east of Elliston. Exactly where, none of us knew for sure.

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    Passing through the Mullan Tunnel, Buck kept one eye on the track, with the other closely inspecting the walls and ceiling with his spotlight. The tunnel was surprisingly dry, but Buck showed me a few spots where patches had been made on the roof to stem the flow of water.

    "We still get some pretty big icicles in here," Buck told me. "Every so often we have to drag that old car over at Blossburg through to knock them down. I keep telling the Roadmaster to give me shot gun and I'll shoot them down."

    Emerging from the tunnel, we are lined for the siding, meeting Sam Sutton on a light helper coming back east.

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    Dropping down the west slope of the pass, Buck's jobs eases. The rail is newer, the angle bars are few and far between. Rounding a curve, we spot a blob of something in the middle of the tracks.

    "There he is," Buck says.

    We drive over the carcus of a black bear and stop. Dead game on a warm mid-morning, is there a better smell? Looking over the scene we are amazed. At the point of impact, the bear's heart was blown right out of his body. His spine and rib cage exited a few more feet up the track. (Note: the bear's heart can be seen between the third and fourth ties, Buck is throwing the spine and ribs off the track. The bear itself came to rest on the otherside of the pick-up in the background.)

    Each taking a hind leg, getting the bear off the tracks on dug down over the embankment was a major effort for myself and Buck. The bear's fur was greasy and oily. My hands felt like I had dipped them into a jar of Crisco and there were oil stains on my jeans where the fur had rubbed against my pants legs. Back in the pick-up, Buck and I stared at eachother.

    "Pretty ripe," I commented.

    "Yeah, we'd better try and get cleaned up down at Elliston."

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    I'm not sure if the hand soap in the section house at Elliston helped that much. If anything, it just made it smell like the bear got killed in a flower garden rather than out along the railroad. Still, there was more track to inspect. Held on the siding, Buck gives the second of two eastbounds a roll-by before we continued the last few miles west to Avon. Getting off the tracks west of town, we stopped off at the Avon Cafe for a late lunch before taking the highway back to Helena.

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    The visual inspection complete, it's paper work time. A thorough report of Buck's trip has to be made out and filed both for MRL records and for the FRA. The locations of the defective angle bars have to be recorded as well as a detailed description of where on each bar the crack was located.

    "It's a good job to have," Buck tells me. "I get my orders from the Roadmaster in the morning, and then the rest of the day, I'm pretty much on my own."

    Buck pauses from his writing.

    "Then again it has its downside." He cracks a grin. "Just try and get a crew out to fix a broken rail on a sunny Sunday evening."
    Last edited by Martin Burwash; 10-01-2007 at 01:49 AM.

  2. #2


    Okay, here's a look at the day I spent with Assistant Roadmast Buck Tripp on Mullan Pass.

    Martin Burwash

  3. #3


    Another quick note:

    I need to thank Tom Nanos and his recent essay about shooting with a fish eye. Naturally, I had to travel light on this trip with Buck so I down sized my gear. I shot the images with the 65mm on the medium format RB ( wide angle in the 6 x 7 world) and a standard 50mm on my trusty Minolta SRT 102.

    Martin Burwash

  4. Default

    Very nice Martin!

    I always enjoy your writing style specifically the way you mix in quotes to communicate the main point of the story. Your style makes reading easy and enjoyable. I'll admit to being one that doesn't completely understand the role of track inspector (other than the outwardly obvious part) so your article helped me to understand more of the track inspectors job. The photos are well done and do a great job of documenting the inspection trip without going overboard.

    You have my approval.

  5. #5
    Two23 Guest


    An unusual perspective,not at all the usual foamer stuff. Spending time with the same people over several years pays off. I learned quite a bit from the shots of the rail etc. The photos are obviously pretty good, but the writing is even better. Was it Misko who was complaining no one takes photos of people in America? LOL! Anyway, approval for this one is a no-brainer.

    Kent in SD

  6. Thumbs up

    I've always liked the maintenance side of railroading. You really get a feel for the place rather than being transfixed by the choo choo side of things. I like the photos being right in there with the text. There is a nice play between the narrative and images that keep the story moving and informative. A big thumbs up from me! Thanks for posting Martin!

  7. #7
    lamsv Guest


    Nice stuff pop.

  8. #8


    JFU sez:

    "Nice stuff pop."

    "Pop" sez:

    Get back to work and quit surfing the net....come to think of it, I'd best practice what I preach.


  9. #9


    Quote Originally Posted by Martin Burwash View Post
    JFU sez:

    "Nice stuff pop."

    "Pop" sez:

    Get back to work and quit surfing the net....come to think of it, I'd best practice what I preach.

    But Martin, you're part of the staff here, so doesn't this qualify as working? After all, it only pays a little less than farming does...

    Meanwhile, excellent essay, thanks for posting. I'd have voted yes, but it had already been approved by the time I found it.
    Bob Harbison
    RailroadPhotoEssays host

  10. #10


    Great stuff usual!

    Mark Perry

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