2010 Railcamp Report

by Adam Chilcote

RailCamp 2010, the week I had been waiting for since April, when I found out I was fully sponsored by the Washington DC Chapter NRHS.  Four of my friends had gone, and said it was easily one of the best weeks of their lives, and having been through it, I agree.  I got some inside information unavailable anywhere else and gained valuable experience and information that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
After a seemingly endless three-and-a-half hour car ride on Sunday, I met 23 campers and 11 counselors I would be spending the week with.  Everyone was a bit shy and unsure of the other people at first, but the group became quick friends on the next day’s travels.  I had a hard time falling asleep knowing what was to come after I woke up.

We boarded a bus after breakfast.  The bus was taking us to Amtrak’s Wilmington, DE maintenance shop.  Wilmington maintains the AEM-7 and HHP-8 locomotives used on the Northeast Corridor.  We toured the entire facility, walking halls that once housed GG1 electrics for the Pennsylvania Railroad.  They showed us every stage of maintenance, from rebuilding of individual components to assembling them back into complete locomotives.  After watching two passing Acela trains on the adjacent mainline, we climbed back on the bus for a short ride to the Bear, DE shops.

Bear is a car shop for the Northeast Corridor, servicing Amfleet I and II cars.  We started at one end of the building which contained tracks of nearly complete cars, and worked our way back through the process to cars freshly entering the shop.  Many cars were having ADA-compliant bathrooms installed along with a general refurbishment.  We were told that several cars were being refurbished thanks to stimulus money; one car had last run in 1980 and was sidelined due to minor end damage unable to be repaired at the time.  Again, we saw areas where smaller components such as seats and coffeemakers were refurbished, and the final products of finished cars coming together.

Once again, we boarded the bus.  We routed through Eastern PA, passing the Strasburg railroad and paralleling much of the Amtrak Keystone Corridor.  We then arrived in Harrisburg, at the Harrisburg NRHS chapter’s Harris tower.  Unfortunately, we were unable to see their simulation of the interlocking machine in use, but we saw a few passing Norfolk Southern trains before getting on the bus a final time to return to Scranton.  We ate dinner in Enola, PA across the street, and though we were all hungry, all the campers agreed we would rather be across the street from the restaurant, overlooking the Enola yard.

Tuesday began our program at Steamtown.  The first thing we did was to learn how to give an interpretive presentation on a piece of equipment.  The goal was to tell more of a story rather than giving a list of facts.  Even though for many of us this was the first time we had given this type of presentation, the presentations all went smoothly and were actually pretty good.  After this was over, we were taken on a tour of the shops there at Steamtown.  We were briefly shown some of the restorations in progress, such as Baldwin 26 and Boston & Maine 3713.  We didn’t spend too much time there that day because we would be back later in the week for a more detailed tour.  We ate lunch in the restoration shop lunchroom and then got on another bus to go to the nearby Lackawanna Coal Mine and Anthracite Museum.    The mine tour lasted over an hour and we learned about mining technology over the years, different jobs in a mine, and conditions for workers.  After that tour, we went in the Anthracite museum and learned about the other aspects of life for a miner and his family.  Life was hard and full of tragedy in those days in the anthracite region.

Wednesday was full of presentations.  The first one took us out into the yard to teach us the process of inspecting track, and the various pieces of the track structure.  Some things we learned were how to identify a rail’s size, age, and place of manufacture, and how to tell the size of a switch frog if the markings are worn off.  Many of us had a hard time balancing watching and photographing Nickel Plate 514 switching with listening to the talk, but it certainly was worthwhile.

After lunch we had two more traditional presentations in the Steamtown Theater.  The first was from some Amtrak employees about careers with Amtrak.  First we heard from Brian Gallagher, who is the Director of Government Affairs, and a former engineer.  He had gone with us Monday on our tours of the shops, and mainly introduced the other presenters and assisted them when necessary.  After the introduction, we heard from two Amtrak design engineers.  They told us about the different types of project Amtrak engineers work on, and showed a few recent infrastructure improvement projects.  One of these was the current renovation of the Wilmington, DE station.  After this we heard from an Amtrak dispatcher.  He showed us on his computer how he is able to monitor any Amtrak train in the nation and also to take pictures of the engineer’s view at any time.  He could also see any information about the train at any time.  It was surprising how few people at Amtrak actually control and observe their trains, and most from one centralized location.  The last presenter was the one that most of the campers were most interested in, a locomotive engineer.  He showed us some pictures he had taken of his trains and told about the varying schedule of an engineer.  He also brought with him his locomotive keys, some small electric locomotive parts, and some paperwork filled out on every trip.  Many of us said that we had not considered a job with Amtrak in the past, but after learning about the many opportunities, we now would think about it.

After that presentation was finished, we next heard from one of the counselors about steam locomotives.  We learned about the inner workings of a steam locomotive, from pictures of the cutaway switcher at Steamtown.  We also learned some of the process of firing and running a steam locomotive, and also a bit of maintenance.  He works as a fireman and engineer at the Wilmington & Western Railroad, so many example photos came from their 4-4-0 #98.  I knew a good bit about how steam locomotives work, as did most of the other campers, but we all learned something from the presentation.  I didn’t know much at all about running or maintaining a locomotive, but now I have a basic knowledge of it.

The first activity on Thursday morning was a presentation from a Canadian Pacific railroad policeman about his job and also about Operation Lifesaver.  We first watched a few OLS safety videos as a sample of what the program is about.  Then we were shown a slideshow of how a railroad policeman compares to a regular policeman, and some of this officer’s personal experiences on the job.  We learned that in addition to monitoring the railroad, a railroad policeman can also be called on to assist local law enforcement.

After this presentation, we headed to the different Steamtown shop facilities to take a closer look at their functions.  In the locomotive shop we took a close look at Baldwin #26, and some of the tools used in the restoration.  We learned about the Steamtown process of in-kind restoration where parts are replaced with the same materials in the same manner.  We went inside the tender to see the coating applied to prevent rust, and inside the boiler to see the new firebox pieces and how they are attached.  Then we walked over to the machine shop and were able to see some of the parts being fabricated for #26.

Next we walked to the coach shop.  We first were quickly shown all the parts of a coach needing regular inspection from a pit.  We then exited the pit and found a brake shoe in need of replacement, which we replaced.  Then we operated the drop table underneath another car, which is used to move the truck units to another track easily for maintenance.
Then we headed to the roundhouse for a quick lesson on how to inspect a steam locomotive.  We went in a pit under the Canadian National 3254 and again were shown the parts needing regular inspection.  Then we went into the cab of this and also Canadian Pacific 2317 to learn how a fire is built up and the locomotive started.

Finally, we went outside to the Reading FP7 diesels behind the roundhouse to learn how a diesel works.  We saw the purpose of all the machinery inside one of these early diesels, and how some of it had been reconfigured in more recent years.  Then we sat in the cab for a few minutes.

After lunch we headed across the yard to the trolley museum, taking a good look at the equipment in the yard on the way.  When we got to the museum, we were able to look at the exhibits inside for about half an hour before boarding our trolley.  We enjoyed the five mile trip over the former Laurel Line to the trolley barn, and learning about a few sights on the way.  We were shown the other trolleys under restoration, including the only surviving Scranton trolley.  The cars used came from Philadelphia.  After the ride back to Steamtown and a quick field trip to view some Alco diesels idling in the yard, the activities for the day were over.
For many of us, Friday was the day we had been waiting for all week.  We weren’t looking forward to the last day with our new friends, but the activities scheduled for the day.  We needed the Nickel Plate GP9 for the day’s activities, but Steamtown first had some switching moves to do to make up the next day’s train, so we watched as this was done.  Then we climbed on one of the coaches for a short ride through the yard to where we would be operating.  Our first task was to give hand signals to the engineer to couple and uncouple a car.  We were all fairly successful at this, especially since nearly all of us had never done this before.  Then, it was time for us to run the 514.
We eagerly sat at the side of the track while other campers operated the locomotive back and forth.  Finally, it was time.  I first was the conductor, sitting on the long hood end of the locomotive giving the same hand signals telling when to slow and stop at the end of the track.  Then, it was my turn to run.  With help from the engineer, I started the diesel moving back down the track, but all too quickly, it was over.
The last two activities of the day were after lunch.  First, we went in the locomotive shop and learned to put a hi-rail truck on the track, and got a short ride back and forth.  Then we took the truck back off, and went outside next to the 7 ½” gauge live steamer waiting for us.  The track went around the locomotive shop and ended next to the Lackawanna tender sitting on the other side.  Everyone whistled for the sidewalk crossings like they were real grade crossings and we even had a counselor radioing train movements.  Lastly, after everyone had run at least once, we went inside to take another group picture.  The week was finally over, but much too soon.  Everyone made great friends and before leaving made plans to see them again.  The information we learned and experience we gained will be valuable to us on our railroad career journey.  I would highly recommend the camp to any teenager interested at all in trains.