29 July 2011

Riding the rails

"Oh, the Rock Island Line is a mighty good road

Oh, the Rock Island Line is the road to ride
The Rock Island Line is a mighty good road
Well if you want to ride you gotta ride it like you find it
Get your ticket at the station for the Rock Island Line."

-Rock Island Line, Leadbelly Johnson

"Well, listen to the jingle

To the rumble and the roar
As she glides along the woodland
Through the hills and by the shore
Hear the mighty rush of the engine
And the lonesome hoboes call
No changes can be taken
On the Wabash Cannonball"

-Wabash Cannonball, various artists

Last weekend saw Train Festival 2011 in Rock Island, complete with various old engines and rolling stock and numerous excursions, both on the railroad and on the Mississippi River. The event seemed to be pretty well attended and well-run. A great time for all of the railroad geeks out there, of which I am at least a junior member of the club.

Most of the excursions were run on the rails of the Iowa Interstate Railroad, which is the spiritual of not actual successor of the old Rock Island Railroad. The IAIS runs from Chicago to Omaha on the old Rock Island main line and crosses the Mississippi here in the QCs.

IAIS even recognizes their ancestor road by having one of their new GE ES44s done up in a 1950s era 'Rock Island' paint scheme. It's an eye-catcher and a favorite of rail photographers.

Iowa Interstate is a 'fan-friendly' railroad, generally amenable to hosting excursions and rail events. They even keep 2 Chinese-built 2-10-2 steam engines on the roster for running steam trains!

TBH and I took the train last Saturday for the all-day excursion west approximately 60 miles through Iowa City and turned on the wye west of town. The consist was one of the IAIS steamers, 2 Amtrak diesels, and 13 passenger cars.

We rolled across the bridge at the Arsenal over the Mississippi River (sorry-no pics. National security and all that. It's absurd in a million ways, but, hell, I don't wanna give ol' Ahmed any ideas), and soon we were on our way across the farms, fields, and small towns of eastern Iowa at a comfortable 45 mph.

For those who haven't heard a steam engine whistle, it has a deep and mellifluous sound not heard on modern-day horns. One need only close their eyes when they hear the old whistle blow and go back in their mind to the days when the train pulling up to the station was a major event for a village or town, bringing goods from far away and passengers leaving and arriving from distant and exotic locales (possibly someplace as far as 25 or 30 miles away!). A big treat when a person's world stretches mostly just to the horizon, I reckon.

The trip went well-no problems that I heard about. Everyone on board seemed to have a good time. I've said it before and I'll say it again-travel by rail isn't always the fastest option, but I think it may be the most relaxing. Nothing wrong with a nice, roomy coach seat and a drink and just taking everything in. Kudos to the Iowa Interstate crews and Friends of the 261 for work well done!

A little bit of background for the next encounter:

When the Iowa Interstate started up in the late 1980s, it ran over the Rock Island main line west from Chicago. The Rock was in sad financial shape for years and had let the physical plant (equipment and roadbed) deteriorate to the point where 15 mph was about as fast as could be run without risking a major derailment. The Rock went bankrupt in 1980 and the track lay abandoned for a number of years. A group of investors, led by a former Conrail manager, Henry Posner, looked at the traffic that was available and could be scraped up, took a chance and created the IAIS. At first, they ran with a hodgepodge of equipment, and none too fast. (Aside within an aside-there used to be a dinner train here in the late 1980s-the Quad City Rocket. I had the pleasure of having dinner aboard her once. Over the track in the condition it was in at that time, the experience was akin to eating on the pitching mess deck of a small ship in a storm.) Over the years, with wise spending and some loans from government and private entities, the ownership group got the roads fixed, new motive power, new service facilities, and a lot of new accounts for moving industrial and agricultural goods along the line. A real business success story, which should be studied by some of the current shlups running businesses (and government) in this country.

We're sitting in our coach on the way back to Rock Island when this thin guy in overalls and a jacket, looking like the guy in the painting American Gothic, walks into the car and introduces himself. None other than Chairman Posner Himself! Cool! He looked like he'd just got done with a turn at the throttle of the steam engine, and maybe he did-it IS his locomotive, after all. He welcomed us aboard, told us a bit about the condition of the railroad when his group bought it, and told us to be safe when waiting to shoot the runby. Actually, he pleasantly told us not to screw up or screw around on his railroad. I can accept that. Railroads are dangerous places to be hanging around. Liability insurance for excursions is expensive, and IAIS doesn't HAVE to sponsor them. Also, running essentially a non-revenue passenger train does divert people and resources from making money moving freight.

I also know from what I've read that Mr. Posner is something of a railfan at heart. He likes trains and is aware of how the rails helped form the nation. And hosting these events and excursions is good publicity for the company and fosters goodwill between the railroad and communities along the line. IAIS keeps their right-of-way, facilities, and motive power clean and well-maintained. Some of the bigger roads could do well to follow their example. It looks like everyone from the Chairman down to the guy wielding the hammer takes pride in their work-and it shows.

A long ramble-but impressive to me that there are still a few businesses that are trying to do things 'the right way'.

Anyway, an outstanding trip. I hope we can pull out another one again soon.

Oh, yes. Of course. You can see the runby and the column of smoke and hear the chuffing of the cylinders and the clicking of the drivers simply by going here. Enjoy!

yankeedog out.

19 July 2011

An Overcast day

with a lot of help from Wikipedia's article.

Aluminum Overcast is the Exprimental Aviation Association's B-17 Flying Fortress. She visited the QCs a couple of Saturdays ago.

Technically, the plane is a B-17G-105-VE, serial number 44-85740, built by the Vega Division of Lockheed (!-think of GM building Ford's cars). This particular plane never served in combat, having been built in May 1945. Most flying examples of the B-17 still existing were planes that either served as trainers in the States or built and moved to surplus. However, this plane was bought by a private citizen, who used it as a mapping plane, so the Overcast had a very interesting career mapping the remote corners of the world.

In the late 1970s, the Fort was bought and restored to a wartime appearance, mostly by veterans of the old 398th Bomb Group. The plane has nearly a million hours of flight time, the leader among the surviving Forts.
Today,  the EAA flies Aluminum Overcast to around 60 cities every summer. An enthusiast can even take a flight in her, if said enthusiast has a spare $465. Worth every penny if you're into historic aviation-there are only ten of these still flying. Fortunately, there are several more in museums around the world.

In addition, the local military vehicle club brought a couple of Jeeps to the airport:

The fellow in the pith helmet is I believe the owner of this classic WWII era Jeep, all resplendent with a major general's plate. The windshield frame bears the slogan 'HUMVEE RECOVERY UNIT'. You go, Jeep!

This model dates from the Korean War era, and Jeep made them like this for us civilians well into the 1980s. This bad boy sports the colors of the 45th 'Thunderbird' Infantry Division (Oklahoma National Guard), one of two National Guard divisions activated for the Korean War, and still exists today as 45th Infantry Brigade (Oklahoma). Someone around here has a Jeep with a .30 caliber machine gun on a pedestal mount. I saw it in the 4th of July parade. I'd drive that-and I bet I'd get a good parking spot wherever I went!

Anyhow, a few more pictures of Aluminum Overcast for your viewing pleasure:

Love the B-17. It has elegant lines not seen on the other major Allied heavy bomber types (B-24 Liberator, B-29 Superfortress, Lancaster), though the old Liberator jockeys at least will give an argument over which plane was the better of the two, and I suppose the surviving British, Canadian, and Australian Lancaster crewmen will argue for the British bird. They're all at this point great to see still flying.

As you can see from several of the photos, there was a line approximately the length of a communist-era bread line to tour the interior of the B-17. I decided that waiting an hour in the Midwest sun wasn't going to happen, so I pulled a photo of the cockpit of the Collings Foundation's B-17, Nine-O-Nine, to give an idea of what the interior of those old warbirds looked like.

Close quarters-but then so is the main office of a B-52.

A nice bit of aviation and military history to see. Keep 'em flying!

yankeedog out.

14 July 2011

A quarter century ago...

14 July 1986. Doesn't seem like all that long ago. Perhaps I must have skipped the second half of the 90s and all of the Noughts.

On that July day in '86, I started my first job after college in my chosen field: drafter/designer. And a lot has changed in 25 years in the American workplace.

I started at a company called IMECO, based in a small town in northwest Illinois. We made industrial refrigeration and HVAC equipment for food processing and logistics facilities all over North America. It was a great place to work. It was a family-owned business, and most of the time it felt like a family. We did a lot of after-hours stuff as a group-beers after work, hayrides, company picnics-that I've not done since. I think this kind of thing may not be as common as it used to be. Seems like people are just busy all the time these days trying to keep their noses above water. On the other hand, IMECO was in a small town. Everybody knew everybody else and the only thing that traveled faster than light was gossip. If someone did something at 8, everyone knew about it by 10. But overall, the general atmosphere was pretty laid back.

Back then, I started out drawing on the boards. The guy next to me had a smokeless ashtray. Yeah, kids-at one time you could smoke in the workplace. Tells you how far back this is! We did most of our work on boards until about '88 when we got our first dedicated CAD stations, which no doubt had roughly 1/100th of the computing power of today's smartphones. But drawing on the computer was a hell of a lot faster than doing so on paper, so it was pretty high-tech stuff. Then we could take our drawings to the new fax machine and send them over the phone lines!

Finally, we had a big ol' Digital Equipment DEC VAX mainframe for all of the company's records. There were several workstations scattered around the office for access. You know, even now, IMECO was probably the best organized place I ever worked at. It was super easy to pull up bills of material, purchased parts descriptions, and drawings. In the 9 years I was there, the company's business quadrupled. Am I proud to have been a part of that? You bet!

Eventually the owner of the company retired and the place changed hands a couple of times before I left. The last bunch mismanaged the company and it went under a couple of years ago. In a way, it's still a hard pill to swallow. We made a good company-made it work, made it valuable, only to see some chumps who didn't know their asses from their elbows run it into the ground. All too typical a story these days.

A definite change in the workplace since the mid 1980s has been the onward march of technology. Back in those days, it was possible to actually leave work. There were big clunky mobile phones, of course, and pagers-but nothing like what we have today. Given that I could run Pro/E on the very laptop I'm writing this on, I have a cell phone, and quick access to sites that host Web meetings, it'd be possible to never get away from work. Most people don't really get away from their jobs any more.

Are certain tasks faster than they were before? Certainly. Is life in the modern workplace better? That I'm not so sure about.

Right now, I'm on my third company since 1986. Not too bad a record. The last place I was at was converting over to an employee-owned company. When I left there, I got a nice chunk of change (my 'share' in the company) to roll over into my pension plan. Generally, when I've left a company it's been a more profitable place than when I started. That is by NO means all my doing-you have to have at least a core of good people at all levels to make business work, and I've been most fortunate to work with some fine people. But it's a sight better than most CEOs of major companies can say.

yankeedog out.

11 July 2011

Some rails long gone

As most of you know, I'm a railroad buff. Perhaps naturally, since my Dad and my uncles all worked for the old Milwaukee Road, and the Burlington also went through my old hometown. The Burlington had the great roadbed and track and the gleaming stainless steel Zephyr passsenger trains that roared up the Mississippi valley on the way to the Twin Cities and points west. The Milwaukee was more cash-poor and the equipment was generally a bit more weatherbeaten and worn.

In addition, the Rock Island was south of us. It was the first railroad to have a bridge across the Mississippi river back in the 1850s. By the 1970s it too was running on a cash shoestring and looked it. The Illinois Central ran north of us, along the Wisconsin border. The Chicago North Western ran west through Illinois and Iowa on its way to Omaha, and its connection to the Union Pacific (the first transcontinental railroad).

A local road that occasionally gets overlooked is the Chicago Great Western, which was in existence from the 1880s to 1967, when it merged with the Chicago North Western.

The CGW was a latecomer to the Midwest railroad arena and as such didn't have access to the best terrain or most direct routes between major cities. It crossed through some of the hilliest terrain in the Driftless Area and had to bore through the river bluffs near Galena with the Winston Tunnel. It had numerous branches in Iowa, as did most of the other Midwestern railroads. I believe that in the early 1900s, no place in Iowa was more than 20 miles from some rail line. Since a team pulling a grain wagon could cover 20-some miles in a day, the strategic placement of rail branches made perfect economic sense.

By the middle of the 20th Century, trucks began to haul all that grain, and the growth of the highway system took a lot of passengers and freight away from the rails. Those railroads burdened with a lot of (now) light traffic-density branches and no direct lines between major cities were the first to fall into bankruptcy and merger. So went the CGW. After the merger with CNW, the North Western pulled up a lot of the lines they didn't want or need. By the 1980s, most traces of the old railroad were gone.

The hub of the Chicago Great Western was the city of Oelwein, Iowa. Its lines to Chicago, Minneapolis, and Kansas City all merged there. The main engine and car shops were located there, and the North Western did keep these shops going until its own merger with the Union Pacific in the mid 1990s.

Most of the rail jobs are long gone now, and the UP runs through Oelwein these days instead of stopping. But there are a few people in town trying to keep the heritage alive with the Hub City Railroad Museum, located in the old Oelwein Yard Offices. This is where your correspondent took a day trip last Saturday.

The museum has a decent collection of old employee records, pictures, and small equipment. The museum does a good job of showing the CGW's influence in Oelwein.


A lot of the pictures and equipment aren't shown in any coherent order, and the few pieces of rolling stock they own are in somewhat sad shape. That isn't anyone's fault, really. The museum is run by volunteers, most of them getting up in years. It's a classic case of too few hands and too many projects and not enough visitors to fund said projects. It's a shame, but all too common.

Probably the centerpiece of the museum rolling stock is an old F7 locomotive. General Motors' E and F series were most railroads' first purchase of diesel road power. They're something of an iconic design in 20th Century industrial equipment and have been on many US and foreign rosters. Even today, the F7 can be seen occasionally hauling museum passenger trains, commuter trains, and business trains for the major railroads. They weren't extremely popular with road crews (they weren't easy to climb up into), or maintenance crews (major engine work meant removing a good portion of the carbody), but the things still look cool!

From the outside, she looks resplendent in crimson and black with yellow lettering. This is how she'd have looked pulling a long freight up across the hills and plains on her way to Chicago or the Twin Cities or down to KC.

We'll climb the stairs and go in through the vestibule door in the rear of the engine.

The powerplant-an EMD16-567B 16-cylinder diesel engine, producing 1500 horsepower. Fairbanks-Morse made a similar design for its locomotives-but a person would be more likely to see one on a fleet submarine from the World War II era. F-M produced its 16 cylinder diesel in trainloads for the Navy. Even today, a nuclear submarine carries a similar engine for last-ditch, emergency use. But I digress.

At the nose of the engine is, of course, the head office-the control station. Until the 1980s, a freight train carried a crew of five, three in the engine (engineer, fireman, brakeman) and two in the caboose (rear brakeman, conductor). Nowadays the average crew is two. So the engine has three seats-one for the engineer who actually did work, and two for the relatively useless fireman and brakeman.

This would be view from the engineer's seat:

The interior is, to put it kindly, in rough shape. Certainly not beyond restoration, but needs some serious work.

Like military vehicles, railroad museum engines and rolling stock should be kept under some sort of cover. This F7 would do well in a shed, with the interior refurbished and monitored to keep the riff-raff from stealing stuff and ripping the engine up, or traded to another railroad museum that could keep her up properly.

In short, as a city museum featuring their railroad history-not bad. As a railroad museum-not so good, but still  a good collection of a 'fallen flag' road.

yankeedog out.

06 July 2011

Hail Atlantis!

And the end of an era:

The last of the Space Shuttle missions will soon be launched, and with it at least a pause in American-run manned space flight. One hopes this won't be the last time the US launches men into space.

It's hard to believe that just over 30 years ago, Crippen and Young flew Columbia on the program's maiden flight. I remember back in the 1970s seeing pictures of the old Enterprise do landing and glide tests. And of course, the losses of Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. Exploration has always been a risky business.

To be honest, I'm not sure if the shuttle program was a huge success, or if it met any of the 'goals' the original designers might have had. The shuttles were instrumental in launching, supplying, and repairing several satellites and space stations. And for the stresses the vessels went through in a typical mission, they were remarkably durable. 30+ years for an aviation program is remarkable enough.

I think the shuttles were largely a victim of being part of the political football that NASA has been during most of its existence. Given a mission to perform, NASA performed generally well. President Kennedy wanted to place and retrieve Americans on the moon by the end of the 1960s-and it got done. Numerous agencies and nations wanted satellites launched-and it got done.

Now what? During the 1970s and 1980s, NASA didn't seem to have a clear vision for the future. Sure, the shuttles were in the pipeline. But what to do with them? Use them to build an orbital station? What about a manned mission to Mars? A return to the moon?

The collapse of the Soviet Union may have been both a blessing and a curse for the US space program. The 'curse' was that any plans to build orbital stations and planetary bases to counter the USSR went by the wayside. The 'blessing' was that the Mir station could be supplied and serviced by the shuttle. Mir and the new International Space Station provided work for the shuttles through the 1990s and 2000s.

After this final mission, the 135th of the program, the Space Shuttles will fade into history. The surviving vessels will be parceled out to various museums.

Again, now what?

Unfortunately, we haven't found a compelling reason to go to the moon or the other planets. The moon doesn't appear to be loaded with a lot of exotic minerals which would make mining a viable proposition. There may be enough water ice at the poles to sustain a small base-someday.

Building a big enough orbital station to have a permanent industrial presence (building interplanetary craft, for example) seems to be a non-starter. Venus, unfortunately, doesn't have the life many sci-fi authors thought it might. Same with Mars, though it is livable after a fashion, and more amenable to life as we know it. I haven't given up on life on the other planets, since we find organisms in the most inhospitable places here on Earth. If a bacteria can thrive on the inside of an operational nuclear reactor, certainly something could be living on Mars. Obviously, if Mars were more Earth-like, every nation would have been building ships as fast as they could to set up colonies there.

Observation and communication relays can be handled adequately by satellites, so it isn't like we need a manned station to perform those functions.

So what do we replace the shuttles with? Or will we?

The Russian space program seems to be doing okay with its venerable Soyuz/Salyut systems. They've been around a long time, but the Russians are believers in the engineer's dictum-if it ain't broke, don't fix it. The Chinese used a Soyuz clone for their manned space flight. Perhaps our next step will be a step back, like the proposed Orion and Constellation craft, which are at heart enlarged Apollo capsules. Perhaps the Air Force already has a replacement craft. There are a lot of strange craft seen out in the hinterlands of Nevada. I wouldn't be terribly surprised if we had something else available to send a brace of astronauts into orbit if necessary. Oh, nothing like a flying saucer with inertialess drive-but maybe a spaceplane like the old Dyna-Soar.

Or some private concern might pick up the slack and develop a manned craft. There may be a market for a very upscale hotel in orbit for the super-rich to spend a few days. Again, with no readily identifiable resources or industry within a practical distance of Earth, it might be a tough sell to get the private sector to invest in space travel. The space program has generated a lot of projects and products that we use every day. I believe continued investment in space, along with a well-defined program with realistic goals, is important for the nation.

In addition to the material benefits, the space program and any endeavors it can accomplish provide a source of pride in a non-violent sphere. Our seeming 'abandonment' of space seems like yet another example of an America in decline. Maybe it is. Certainly, in the halcyon days of the push for the Moon in the 1950s and 1960s, many people and organizations had big dreams and thoughts about man's future in space.

All I know is that by the 1990's, we were supposed to have interplanetary ships like the famous Botany Bay:

And by 2001, we'd have a real, honest-to-God space station with regular Pan Am service:

And I want them!! What the hell happened?

Of course, by some accounts, by 1992 the Apes were to take over the planet and that didn't happen. Whew!

yankeedog out.

04 July 2011

I hate a parade!

Another Fourth in the books. Another year, and the country still together! Didn't think we had it in us, did you?

There are some great Independence Day traditions: baseball, family get-togethers, community festivals. We here in the QCs don't do the Independence Day parade very well, though. Now, the Soviet Union-there was a bunch that could do up a proper parade!

Oh sure, they could only produce one roll of toilet paper for perhaps 10,000 people, but if you need a real, honest-to-God, big-boy parade, you'd have to call the guy who organized the annual May Day spectacle in Moscow.

Now, our Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena on New Year's Day is pretty darn cool. The work those people put into the floats (decorating them with flowers, seeds, and other natural materials) is astounding!

The local parade doesn't have big displays or cool floats, however.

TBH's mom loves parades for whatever reason. I suppose it's because back in the day there wasn't all that much to do, and people had simpler tastes. She did, in her youth, see a few (old!) Civil War vets, and that's a great story to tell. That's 150 years past, but in a way, three generations removed. Doesn't seem like such a distant event when put in those terms. But I digress.

Since Bob (her companion) died, we decided to take her to the 4th of July parade. Now, I don't mind spending the time-but the logistics of carting around someone in their early 90s can be complicated. We got to the parade route two hours early. Any later and it's a hike to the route. She doesn't see too well, so you have to get a spot right on the curb of the street. Oh, and make sure it's shady the whole time because those old Scandinavian types got no appreciable melanin and they burn easily. Also, need to find a spot close to a restroom. The choice of spots available goes down tremendously. Those of you with older relatives understand.

The first part of the parade was a series of firetrucks from the local communities. Very nice-and I have great respect of firefighters, most of whom in smaller towns are volunteer-but I don't know if I need six firetrucks in a row. There was one antique that the local firefighter's union restored, which looked right sharp. Other than that, all the fire engines look about the same.

Next were the local vet's groups. The color guards for the Vietnam Vets and Hispanic-American Vets here I'll put up against any other color guard outfits out there-they're crisp, they march in time, and they look like they could go out and fight today-not bad for guys in their 60s! Even had a couple of World War II vets in restored vehicles. Those guys are going away fast now, and before too long they'll all have passed.

The middle of the parade is local businesses and politicians and wannabe politicians. Oddly enough, most of the politicians were noticeable by their absence. Our local representative to Congress, a Republican, came by and shook TBH's hand. I told him to get his arse back to work. Country's drowning in debt and the economy sucks and you've got time to be fucknuckling around out here instead of being in Washington. Next was the state senator, a Democrat, the scumbucket gentleman we send to Springfield to screw up things. That worthy got in a shoving match with another senator over something or other during the last session. I yelled out and asked him who he'd beaten up lately. There. Got one Republican and one Democrat. Never let it be said that I'm not a fair man.

The worst part of the parade is that everyone in the parade tosses candy to the kids. Consequently, the kids (and worse, their parents, who in most of these cases are roughly the size of a dressed-out bull moose) get up in front of those of us who sat around looking at nothing for two hours before the damn parade started! Now we can't see squat. To be fair, if you ask, they'll usually move-but there's always that ten percent who are stone-cold clueless. The kids-OK, really not much problem with them. They're generally small enough to see over or around. When a handful of candy gets tossed to the street, the scene is reminiscent of a potato-chip truck getting tipped over in Mogadishu. A feeding frenzy. You can replicate this by going to a zoo or aquarium. Go to the feeding pond and buy a handful of fish food pellets and toss them into the water. The carp or goldfish or whatever react just the same as the kids. Really, we're hip deep in candy and gum here. I don't know why the frenzy.

Finally, the equestrian team from some Hispanic group here did some fancy riding. They were pretty good and had some fearsome costumes.

So to sum up: First 1/3 rd of the parade OK. Last group OK. Rest was a waste of time, though TBH's mom enjoyed the show. Guess the day's objective was met.

Back to the grind tomorrow. If the 4th were Monday or Thursday, we'd have gotten a four-day weekend. Since it's on Monday-three-day weekend. That's the way it goes, I suppose.

yankeedog out.

01 July 2011

235 years on-still here!

Fourth of July weekend. Baseball game and fireworks tomorrow. Don't get much more American than that!

Happy 235th to our Republic, somewhat belaguered and debt-ridden bunch that we are at present.

Later, citizens!

yankeedog out.