Adventures in Dogcatching, A Railroad Story

william's picture

At the ThrottleAs a railroad brakeman working for the Burlington Northern Railway out of Grand Forks, North Dakota in 1979, my normal lot in life was to be called for local freights that ran up long lonely stretches right up to the Canadian border. As a brakeman on locals, you would work 12 hour shifts, usually nights, switching out grain elevators, spud houses, and bean warehouses. Sometimes it felt like you walked the entire route, as you hiked up and down spur lines to spot and pull hoppers and boxcars. And, to add to the misery, I typically worked the most when the weather was at its worst. Days and nights when the temperatures were maybe 30°. Not above Fahrenheit. Below. When the crew caller rang you up and announced to your tired soul "Walhalla local, 3 p.m.", or "Drayton local, 6 p.m.", you cringed.

So it was always a pleasant surprise when you were called for something out of the ordinary. A job where you might even be able to sit and enjoy the ride a little bit. The best calls were for coal trains. Just climb up into those swanky SD-40's, the best locomotives on the system at the time, and do absolutely nothing but sit and watch the signals, maybe periodically look back at the train on curves to make sure nothing was dragging. Compared to the tired F-9's and GP-9's we typically operated, locomotives that were built in the 1940s and 50s, the SD-40's were heaven. They even had working bathrooms (well kind of -- the toilets usually didn't stink)!

The second-best call, after coal trains, was for a dogcatcher. At least for most of the time. Sometimes, though, a dogcatcher was its own special hell.

A dogcatcher was a special crew called to relieve another crew that had gone dead on their hours of service. Twelve hours was the total amount of time a train crew could work. Going dead meant that they had managed to use up their entire 12 hours of service, while either working a local or trying to get a train to its destination or interim stop. What typically made a dogcatcher assignment great was that you knew at least half of the trip would entail just riding in some form of transportation in order to get to the dead crew. And best of all, you typically got round-trip pay for a day trip, something that rarely happened. That meant you would go relieve the dead crew, bring the train back in, sign out, and boom, you were back on the extra board available for another trip after your eight hours rest. Several dogcatch calls during a month usually meant a little fatter paycheck.

The term dogcatcher arrived from a long ago railroad superintendent in the northeast, who, being irritated at his train and switch crews for taking too much time to complete their assignments, accused his crews of "screwing the pooch". Generally, the term used in North Dakota was "f***ing the dog". Hence the term dogcatcher.

Now when you were called for a dogcatcher, there were usually several ways the dispatcher could send you. If there was a freight going your way, you would either ride in a trailing locomotive in the consist or you would ride in the caboose. If there was such a train, your first choice would be to try and ride in the caboose, because normally the trailing units were units that were not qualified as a lead unit. The trailing units could be behind the lead unit for a variety of reasons. The unit could simply be dirty inside, the holding tanks for sewage were full (typical), or there was some sort of malfunction such as a non-working speedometer that prevented the unit from being on the front end. So the caboose was always the first choice. Sometimes, however, the conductor would make his dislike clear for having additional crewmembers ride in "his caboose". In that case, the conductor would fuss enough the whole time you were in his caboose, thereby making it almost preferable to ride in a stinking, trashed out, trailing unit. If you ended up stuck in a malodorous unit, it was usually so cold outside that you couldn't open the windows to air out the stench. Four or five hours in a locomotive that smells of fecal matter, urine and/or disinfectant chemicals was not my idea of fun. And boy would the wife complain about the smell in my clothes!

On one snowy North Dakota evening, shortly after midnight, I was called for a dogcatching assignment to relieve a crew that had gone dead in Dilworth, Minnesota. What had happened was that the crew had made it about 10 miles out of Dilworth towards Grand Forks when two of their F-9 locomotives broke down. The dispatcher sent out more power from Fargo to replace the dead units, but the relief power malfunctioned also. The crew went dead. So the dispatcher ordered a relief crew and two locomotives from Grand Forks, 75 miles away. That was us.

And so, as we left the Grand Forks yard, the snow was blowing, it was 35 below and we were in command of two tired GP-9's for a hopefully quick turnaround in Dilworth. I was dreaming of a fatter paycheck for the month when we hit the first CTC (centralized traffic control) signal on the main line.

Now in North Dakota, there is always a danger in the wintertime of switches getting filled with snow, and producing a gap between the switch point and the rail. As we were heading down the main line to Fargo, the dispatcher put us into a siding to allow a coal train to get past us on the mainline. This was CTC territory and the dispatcher had control of the siding. Unfortunately, as we proceeded into the siding, we felt the locomotive lurch and we knew we were "on the ground". The dispatcher was not happy when we reported that we had derailed trying to get into the siding he had lined us up for.

As we stumbled out into the cold, I realized we were in for a long night. The four of us could only stare at the huge locomotive wheels sitting forlornly on the ballast. There was nothing we could do but wait for the carmen, the personnel that would get our locomotives back on the tracks.

We sat in the locomotive, engaged in idle conversation, tried to doze, and ended up waiting for 3½ hours for the carmen to come out. In the meantime, we had completely shut down the single-track main line and trains begin to stack up. When the carmen finally arrived in their big four-door pickup truck, they were all business. Using a device called a frog, we finally got the front trucks of the lead GP-9 back on the tracks. The dispatcher told us to proceed into the siding and stay there, as he tried to clear up the mainline.

The dispatcher finally authorized us to proceed back onto the mainline only to put us back into a siding 20 miles further down, where we spent another hour and a half. By the time we reached Dilworth to pick up our train, we had 1 hour left before we went dead. Both the crew we were sent to relieve and the dogcatching crew (us) were sent to the Silver Spike, a local railroad hotel, to tie up for the night. We wouldn't get back to Grand Forks till late the following evening. It was far from the quick turnaround I had envisioned.

Sometimes you would get called for a dogcatcher and the railroad would have a crew hauler shuttle you to your train. Such was the occasion when I was called for a dogcatcher at 3:00 in the morning on yet another snowy, cold night. We were being sent to relieve a crew that had made it about 30 miles out of Devil's Lake towards Grand Forks with a mixed freight consist. The crew hauler, a contractor who was on call to pick up train crews when there was no other way to get them to their trains, loaded us up at the yard office. The crew hauler used Chevrolet Suburbans to move people in, and the four of us fit in comfortably. Being the low man on the totem pole seniority wise, I got in the very back seat in an attempt to catch some shut-eye. It would be an interrupted sleep.

We took off from Grand Forks, and as usual in a North Dakota snowstorm, it was slow going because you could not see the centerline and it was a two-lane highway all the way to Devil's Lake. We were almost 3 hours into our trip, and about half an hour away from our train, when suddenly, the big Suburban swerved violently and we spun around a succession of times. I hung on as best I could, cringing in anticipation for the rollover or crash. It didn't come. Luckily, we barreled into the snow filled ditch alongside the road and came to a halt.

Everyone sat still for a moment after the vehicle stopped, stunned with disbelief. I quickly felt myself all over to make sure I didn't have any broken bones, and everyone else pretty much did the same thing, all the while beginning to holler questions at the driver. I assumed the driver had fallen asleep.

The driver opened his door and climbed out of the vehicle, and the rest of us followed suit. The Suburban's left side was tilted up towards a still dark sky, and we all got out on that side and dropped down into the heavy snow. We still didn't know what happened, but the driver started slipping and sliding across the road towards a vehicle on the other side of the highway. The driver turned and hollered to us "that son of a gun nearly killed us! I barely missed him!" It was then that I realized that the vehicle had been on our side of the road, parked as if it was in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Not a light on, and the vehicle wasn't running. All of us cautiously approached the vehicle, a battered Chevy 4-door sedan, wondering what we'd find.

There were four people inside. They appeared dead. A chill went up my spine, and I immediately assumed that hypothermia had killed the four people. The car stalls, they can't get it started, and they freeze to death. It happened often in North Dakota. That was why North Dakotans always pull over to check when a car is stopped on the side of the road. But, I wondered, why did they stop on the highway itself? There was room on the shoulder for the car to have pulled over. Why would someone put others at risk? We would find out.

The driver of our Suburban started hammering on the window, getting more and more agitated as he thought about how close we had come to being killed. We tried to open the doors of the sedan but they were locked. No one moved in the car.

"Keep trying to get in the car; I'll call for help on the radio," our driver hollered as he made his way back to our tilted vehicle. The conductor had brought his lantern and he shined the light inside the decrepit, trash filled vehicle filled with what looked like four corpses, all men. We kept banging on the windows and doors of the Chevy. Our conductor hollered, "let's break a window"!

Then, like a miracle, someone stirred in the car. We hollered louder, and I saw eyelids flutter of one of the men in the backseat of the car. He opened his eyes, and didn't appear startled in the least to see us. We continued to bang on the window, shouting, "Open the door," and finally, the one conscious individual in the car pulled up a door lock.

I opened the door, and the smell knocked us all back. It smelled like a distillery. As the colder air rushed into the squalid vehicle, the other three men in the car began to stir. They were dead all right -- dead drunk. They couldn't even speak, and it became obvious that they had simply decided to park the car and sleep it off. Almost killing us in the process!

"Well boys, it doesn't look like we're going to get to Devils Lake to pick up our train," the conductor said with a sigh. "Let's see if we can get the Suburban started and wait for someone to come get us."

He was right. We ended up going dead on the side of the road and Grand Forks had to send out another crew to relieve us. The four drunks ended up going back to sleep after we shoved their car off into the ditch. They didn't even get out to help us. It took several hours for the North Dakota Highway Patrol to get out there after they were informed there were no injuries. It took even longer for the wrecker to come out and pull the Suburban out of the ditch. I was glad my wife had packed a hot thermos of coffee. It was all I had to sustain me for that trip.

Sometimes, the railroad didn't have a train or a crew hauler to take us to our destination. Such was the case one summer morning when I was called for an 8 a.m. dogcatcher to Fargo. At the crew office, we were loaded up into the typical Suburban and I assumed, wrongly it turned out, that he was simply going to drive us the 75 miles down to Fargo. But I was wrong. He dropped us off at the Grand Forks bus station. We were taking the bus to Fargo. But not Greyhound. We were taking the Gray Goose, a Canadian bus line.

Now the last time I had taken a bus was when I was a kid and my mother would pile us kids into a Greyhound bus and we would ride for two straight days to get from Atlanta, Georgia to Underhill, Vermont. Now here I was catching a bus from Grand Forks to Fargo. I felt somewhat nostalgic as I boarded the bus. Apparently, there were a lot of nostalgic people in Grand Forks, because the bus was crowded. I grabbed the only available seat I saw, near the front of the bus, and sat down next to a teenaged mother with a small infant. I prayed that the infant wasn't a screamer.

God must not have heard my prayer.

As soon as the bus pulled out of the terminal, the baby let loose with the loudest screams I had ever heard in my life. "Waaaaaaahh, Waaaaaaahh!" the baby shrieked. The mother sat absolutely still -- she didn't reach for a pacifier, a bottle, anything. She just stared straight ahead. Everyone on the bus started looking at me, apparently thinking that it was my responsibility to get the kid quiet. Maybe they thought I was the father. I shuddered at the thought.

As the bus proceeded down the highway for the next stop in Hillsboro, the bus driver began turning around and staring at me. The kid had screamed incessantly throughout the short journey. I finally said something to the mother. "Do you have a pacifier?"

No response. I might as well have been trying to communicate with one of the drunks passed out in the car outside of Devils Lake. She continued to stare straight ahead and wouldn't even acknowledge me. I pulled my car keys out and tried to get the baby interested in playing with the keys. Somebody hollered from the back of the bus "hey, shut that baby up!" There were murmurs of approval from the rest of the group on the bus. The bus driver looked back at me again and gave me a long cold stare. This was turning bad. No matter what I did, I couldn't get the baby to quit crying and screaming.

Finally, the driver had enough. The bus swerved and then lurched onto the shoulder, coming to an abrupt stop. All of us pitched forward with the slamming of the brakes. The thought came into my head that the driver was going to pitch the mother, her baby, and me off the bus. Fortunately that didn't happen. But the bus driver did jump out of his seat, and he pointed directly at the young mother and her screaming child. "Lady," he roared, "if you don't shut that kid up right now, I'm putting you off this bus. Do you understand me?" Everyone in the bus, except me, the mother and the driver, began clapping. Some stood up to give him a standing ovation. I had to laugh.

The mother quickly came out of her catatonic state. Out of nowhere, she instantly produced a pacifier and a pack of crackers. She stuffed the crackers into the kid's mouth and the baby immediately quit screaming. At the ceasing of the screaming, the driver gave one more "I really mean it!" stare, and sat back down to resume our trip. The rest of the trip was relatively quiet. Every now and then, the baby would start to whimper, the bus driver would turn back to glare, and the mother would spring into action to make sure she and the baby didn't get put off the bus. It was a long trip to Fargo.

I was worn out by the time we reached Fargo. I was especially glad when I was able to climb into a relatively quiet locomotive cab. Compared to the derailed locomotive and the near death experience outside of Devils Lake, the bus ride was by far the worst experience I ever encountered on a dogcatching trip.

If you liked this story, then you'll enjoy "Burlington Northern Adventures: Railroading in the Days of the Caboose". Click on to order the book.