Resourcefulness and Pride on the Batten Kill

I’ve always had a thing for shortlines. More often than not, a shortline was created by a larger railroad spinning off a lessor used branch line as they couldn’t get the economics to work for them. Shortlines survive because they can provide a service that the bigger guys can’t or don’t want to and still make a small profit at the end of the day. They’re usually owned and run by people vested in the local community who work hard to service businesses owned by people they actually know. Without the financial resources or facilities of a large railroad, self-sufficiency and resourcefulness are essential to getting things done on a daily basis. The Batten Kill Railroad is all of these things and it was time to pay the line another visit.

Seeing the road in action can be a challenge, as they, like most shortlines schedule their train crews as traffic warrants. They service two main customers; a feed supplier and a fertilizer distributer. In Winter, the Batten Kill crews a train once or twice a week and without a fixed train schedule, I knew it would be a gamble to drive up there and find a moving train. When I got into my car that morning, I did so with the expectation that I would be shooting images of still scenes of the railroad and communities that the Batten Kill travels through. I made my peace with that and headed North.

Upon my arrival in Greenwich, Batten Kill’s base, I drove over to the station area to see if any activity was going on. As I passed by, nothing was obvious from the car. The light was nice, so I decided to park on a nearby street and walk around the area looking for images. From down the street, I spied a person walking out of the old freight station that serves as their office and towards the engine house, which sits behind it. Well at least someone is here… I thought, and hoped that person could answer the question on whether they were going to run a train that day.

I walked up to the station, but stayed on the public side of the property. I didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot by trespassing and potentially angering someone that could answer my question. After a brief wait, a man appeared and walked towards me, as I had positioned myself between the small yard and the station with the intention of striking a conversation.

“Not today” he said before I could utter a word.

Not 100% clear I heard him correctly, I asked “What was that you said?”

“If you’re looking for a train, we’re not running until Friday” as he went about looking for some materials next to the station. After a few moments, he asked “where you from?”

“New Jersey”, I replied, “I drove up on a fluke knowing that I was taking my chances on whether you’d be running or not!”

He had found his material and asked “How long is the drive?”

“About three hours, give or take…”, I replied, “I’ve been up this way before and had the day off, so figured I would see what was going on up here.”

“We’re going to bring the 605 outside and trim down a flange”. A minute went by in which he must have been deciding if I was trust-worthy or not and then heard “Come and take a look”, as he started walking back to the engine house. Nor quite quite sure if I heard him correctly, I paused and must have looked a little unsure. He glanced back and nodded for me to follow… and I did. I quickly closed the distance between us and he told me to watch out for the ice that had built up on the shady side of the engine house. Based upon his demeanor, I assumed that he was the manager of the operation.

There’s barely an unused space within the enginehouse as tools, parts and machinery set the stage for self-sufficiency.

Within a few steps, I was standing at the engine house side door, looking in. The low winter sun was streaming through the two large engine house doors that were open, creating a bright and airy environment. The engine house has space for both of the railroad’s locomotives, but the other one was parked out on the line, allowing a clear unobstructed view of No. 605 parked on the far track. I stood in awe of the scene before me; the shop was filled with small machines, tools, spare parts and assorted railroad equipment. It seemed that every available nook and cranny had either a needed part or a tool in it. Excited to be in such a scene, I started taking a few quick, but un-composed photos. I took a deep pause and knew I needed to absorb the atmosphere better before I lifted the camera again.

While I was completely absorbed in the scene around me, the ‘manager’ climbed on the engine and went to work applying reflective safety decals on the locomotive. As he continued to work up on the loco walkway, we engaged in some small talk and I reached my hand up to introduce myself. Reaching down to me, he was Bill, owner of the railroad. Now I could put into perspective his assured air and trust in letting me roam freely around his engine house.

Bill applies and trims new safety labels with care.

He asked me if I had seen the other engine and if I had a preference on the paint scheme. I told him I liked the other one better as it seemed “more railroady” due to the relatively minimal paint design and color scheme. He said that No. 4116 was due for a painting soon and was thinking about what he should do. When you care about how something looks, it’s either vanity or pride. In this case, I went for the later as Bill was working right below a large painted slogan on the locomotive that proudly proclaimed “Serving Washington County”. Pride in his railroad…Bill didn’t have to say it, but it was apparent in the way he was applying the safety decals and trimming them so that there was the right visual balance on the locomotive…. enough to satisfy regulations, but not too much as to overwhelm the appearance of the loco. He stepped off the engine to admire his handiwork just as another person came in through the open enginhouse door.

Bill’s railroad proudly serves its community.

He turned out to be Mike, a new employee on the Batten Kill and has spent the past two months learning the ropes of railroading. With Mike back from doing his work in the small yard, it was time to take the loco out and prepare to trim a wheel flange on it. One of the flanges was becoming too high according to FRA regulations and needed to be trimmed down to be within compliance. Bill started up the Alco which came to life with a nice white plume and that distinctive Alco engine gurgle. After releasing the handbrake, Bill guided it slowly outside and I was left with the engine-house to myself to explore its photo possibilities.

After starting the engine up, Bill release the hand brake so he can bring the loco outside.

I wasn’t sure how Bill and Mike were going to cut down the oversize flange, as I had imagined that such work needed to be performed in a large railroad shop…picturing an Altoona or equivalent. How wrong my perception turned out to be when I saw the cutter device and understood how it worked. Basically, the brake shoe is removed and in its place goes an insert that is designed to hold a carbide cutting blade that is aligned with the flange. As the wheel turns, brake pressure is applied against the wheel and the cutting blade engages the flange. Quite an ingenious concept…simple to install, minimal equipment outlay and a relative low amount of labor.

 

Bil and Mike work together to set up the flange cutter.

As the wheel turns, the carbide cutter does its job.

Bill directed Mike on creating a small DIY drip container and line to feed a soapy lubricant to allow the brake shoe insert to slide against the wheel. It was another display of the resourcefulness necessary to run a short line. Bill ran the engine down the yard, with Mike walking alongside with an eye on the cutting blade. When they got to the end of the yard, they would reverse back without the cutter engaged and start over again. They repeated this move about four times till they seemed satisfied that they had cut enough of the flange down. I’m not sure how much they needed to trim, but the long curled metal filings along the track showed that the cutter worked as advertised.

Mike puts together some spare hose couplings to make a basic lubricant feed for the flange cutter.

Mike paces the engine to be the eyes for Bill, who controls the engine throttle and brake.

Without a direct line of sight, Bill in the engine and Mike on the ground have to talk via radio as they work together to trim the flange down.

The flange cutter is quite effective as Bill holds the shavings from a single pass.

With the sun going down, it was time to bring the loco back into the engine house for the night. The engine crawled up the track into the engine house and I had plenty of time to compose my photos and take it all in. Once it was under cover, Bill shut the engine down and Mike had the two rolling doors closed before I realized that the day was over for them. Time to leave, I thanked them both for their hospitality in allowing me to photograph their work and facility.

The work done, Bill guides the RS-3 into the enginehouse for the night.

A small business owner needs to wear many hats, but never more so than on a shortline railroad. While Bill is the owner and president, he’s above all an entrepreneur with the can-do attitude needed to maintain the service his customers expect of him. After all, his railroad is a part of the community and he seems to take pride in serving it well…just like the prominent slogan on his locomotive proclaims.

3 Comments

  1. Eric,
    A illuminating story indeed. Showing us how much effort is needed to run a railroad helps us know it is not all just sitting in the right hand seat blowing the horn.
    Very, very nice.
    As always.
    🙂

    1. Eric Williams

      Dennis,
      We all want to see the trains run and that was my initial hope as well when I headed up there. In the end, seeing the personal side of what it takes to keep a railroad running was more engaging and offered a unique opportunity to photograph the side of the business that many of us don’t get to see!

      Eric

  2. Matt Krause

    Most excellent Eric.

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