A CHAT WITH A CREW JUST BEFORE CONRAIL: BC-2 AT LINCOLN PARK
It was a typical November day in New Jersey, deep gray overcast and dull cold. I had finished college and received my degree in industrial engineering some four months earlier. Since the economy was still in a recession in late 1975, finding an entry-level position was easier said than done. I was still living at home with my mom and didn't have anything much going that day. So, to kill some time, I got in my car and drove over to the Erie Lackawanna Boonton Line in Lincoln Park. Lincoln Park had a dispatcher-controlled siding in the midst of the single-track stretch from Denville to Great Notch. The EL, now less that 6 months away from Conrail takeover, was running most of its hotshot freights to and from the New York metro area via the Boonton Line and the old ex-DL&W main line through the Poconos. This allowed the old Erie mainline via Port Jervis, the former preferred routing for freight, to be downgraded as an economy measure. Both the EL and myself were down on our luck at that point.
I arrived at the grade crossing near the west end switch too late to see any of the morning commuter trains from Dover to Hoboken. However, I did find an eastbound freight train stopped for a red signal. I got out of my car and asked the fireman what train this was. BC-2, he said. That was not surprising, as the Buffalo to Croxton (Jersey City) run was often seen coming east in the morning after the commuter rush hour. I was slightly taken aback though when the fireman asked me to get the crew some coffee. But once again, I didn't have any pending appointments in my calendar, so I agreed. I climbed up the pilot of the General Electric U36C, one of the EL's latest and last new diesels. The fireman met me outside the cab and gave me a few dollars along with an order for 3 regulars, one without sugar. Plus whatever I wanted. I asked if they were in a hurry, and he said no, there was some trackwork going on to the east. Still, I found the local deli and got back in short order. I climbed up the pilot of the big GE unit to make the delivery, only to be waived through the open fireman's door into the cab.
After handing out the hot, white styrofoam cups, the fireman, engineer, brakeman and I had time for some friendly conversation. I mentioned that I had worked for the EL as a summer relief operator at various towers on the New York Division during my college years. Since I would only work from June to September, I never really got to know the freight crews all that well; I really didn't recognize any of my hosts on BC-2 that day. But my credentials were good enough for them. We talked about various dispatchers, operators and trainmasters, i.e. who was working where, who had funny habits or interesting ways of doing things, etc. They asked what I was doing at present, and I told them that I had finished college but was still waiting to start my career. They suggested that I try to get back on the railroad, at least until something better came along. I nodded, even though I knew it wouldn't happen; the EL, in its last days before Conrail, probably wasn't hiring, and I wanted to stay focused on finding a professional job, something with a future.
In a few minutes, after I finished my coffee, the top red light on the DL&W-style signal mast facing us went out just as the yellow light under it lit up. Over some heavy static, I could hear the Hoboken East End Dispatcher on the radio, the redoubtable Robert F. Collins. Mr. Collins told BC-2 to start moving east as the maintenance crew was now getting clear of the line. However, he hedged his bets by keeping the signal on the east end of the siding in stop position (just in case the maintenance crew took longer than expected -- an example of a dispatching decision meant to cut delays yet insure safety). Seeing that, I thanked my guests for their hospitality, and they thanked me for the refreshment delivery. As I climbed down the pilot steps, the late autumn chill wasn't as noticeable as it was before. I watched contentedly as the big GE's started chugging and freight cars started pounding over the crossing. I now know that it was something more than just the residual warmth of the coffee in my stomach. I now knew that my time on the EL, however short, had made me "part of the family".
In early February, 1996, I took an engineering job in Washington, DC with the federal government. On April 1, Conrail took over the EL. I didn't think of my November visit with the BC-2 crew on that day. Only now, more than a decade later, do I see just how important the little incidents like that are in the story of one's life.