Mitch's Blog 7.0

Mitch's Blog


Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Riding the Iron Horse

With the exception of physics, all of my finals went well. Actually, comparatively, physics wasn’t so bad either. My score was better than the average, an unimpressive 45 percent. That's a solid D under the grading scale for that class.

Even though the last day of class before the start of the three week intermission between semesters was Friday, the 15th, I took advantage of the fact that my last final was in the morning two days earlier, on Wednesday, and came home on Thursday morning. For the second time in my life, I came in on an Amtrak train.

Riding Amtrak home at least once during the school year was something I had always intended to do last year. However, my actions ended up being entirely different from my intentions. Even though I knew precisely when the daily Empire Builder was scheduled to arrive in Grand Forks, precisely when it was scheduled to arrive in Staples (the nearest stop to Brainerd), and precisely how much a one-way ticket cost, I never did take it.

I vowed to change that this year. With the federal government increasingly pressuring Amtrak to cut money-losing, long distance routes such as the one of the Empire Builder, I figured if I didn’t ride at any time during this school year, I might not get any more chances.

So I thought it over during the summer and somehow came to the conclusion that the best time to ride the train for the first time would be during the three-day Veterans Day weekend. I think part of my reasoning had to do with my assumption that the train would be a lot less crowded on the day preceding Veterans Day rather than the day preceding Thanksgiving.

In any event, I made my mind up to ride home for the three-day weekend. By about the end of September, a funny thing happened: my roommate and a few friends decided that they were going to go to a concert in the Twin Cities during the Veterans Day weekend and that they were going to take the Empire Builder from Grand Forks on the same morning that I was planning on taking it. I thought this was great news, since it meant I wouldn’t be traveling Amtrak for the first time completely by myself. Shortly after I had heard about all this, I took the next step forward and ordered a ticket to ride from Grand Forks to Staples on the morning of November 10th.

And right around the scheduled arrival time of 12:57 AM on that day in Grand Forks, I boarded the train. As it turned out, I actually kind of did have to ride by myself, since the conductor placed all of the people I knew toward the back of the train and me in front. Still, I had an enjoyable experience. The ride from Grand Forks to Staples was comfortable, fast (average speeds are 70-80 mph), and, at a price of $25, right around what the gas would have cost to drive a car the same distance.

Something else that made the experience enjoyable was that I had brought my police scanner along so that I could listen to the behind-the-scenes operating aspects of the train that I was riding on. There is a bit more radio communication involved in operating an Amtrak train simply because, unlike on a freight train, the conductor is not in the locomotive cab with the engineer. In any event, as I was listening, I made sure to write down notes. I thought they would be a good way to remember my trip.

Skipping ahead to December now, I liked riding Amtrak from Grand Forks to Staples so much in November that I decided to take it home again last Thursday, the 14th. Though the train ended up being an hour late coming into Staples – which meant it came in at around 5 in the morning – I still had another great trip. As in November, I brought my scanner along and wrote down notes along the way. I thought posting them would be a worthwhile addition to my blog.

First, however, it might be necessary to have some background information. The route I took is outlined in blue:

An overview of the route; click on the picture to see a larger version
my route on Amtrak

A detailed look at my route through Fargo/Moorhead
my route through Fargo/Moorhead

It might also be worthwhile to know that a (defect) detector is a device mounted alongside tracks that is able to scan passing trains for defects such as dragging equipment, shifted loads, or overheated axle bearings. In general, after a train passes completely over a detector, the detector transmits a computerized radio message that will either list the defects it found or simply state "no defects" if there are none. Many detectors, in their radio transmissions, will also include a count of the total number of axles on the train that has passed through as well as the current ambient temperature. Click here for an mp3 file of a typical "no defects" transmission from the detector located at the Knollwood Drive crossing in Baxter.

Additionally, a (track) warrant is a document that grants a train authority to move between two specific points on a rail line. For reasons I don't see necessary to discuss, my train only needed to obtain track warrants to move between Grand Forks (called FO Switch in railroad jargon) and Fargo (West Yard Limits Dakota Junction) and Detroit Lakes (CTC Richards Spur) and Wadena (CTC Wadena).

Here are my notes...

The lead locomotive was Amtrak 165

01:19 - AMTK 165 gets a warrant between Station Sign FO Switch and the West Yard Limits Dakota Junction

01:33 - Arrive at Grand Forks 36 minutes late to pick up approximately 35 passengers and let off approximately 15

01:42 - Depart Grand Forks 45 minutes late, with a delay stemming from all the luggage in the luggage car

02:01 - No defects at milepost 79.0 (Buxton, ND) detector (52 axles)

02:24 - No defects at milepost 52.7 (Grandin, ND) detector

02:38 - Notify the Dilworth Terminal Dispatcher that we've passed Argusville, ND; the dispatcher says that we'll be meeting up with a crewless coal train at Dakota Junction and the Lincoln, NE to Dilworth, MN freight train (H-LINDIL) at the Fargo Yard Office

02:43 - No defects at milepost 32.7 (Harwood, ND) detector

02:48 - Encounter red signal at Dakota Junction; stop and get talked
past it by the Dilworth Terminal Dispatcher

02:49 - At station sign Dakota Junction, pass a crewless coal train bound for Cohasset, MN

02:51 - Having entered the yard limits at Dakota Junction, void warrant between Station Sign FO Switch and the West Yard Limits Dakota Junction

02:55 - Stop at the Fargo Yard Office to meet up with a 7,000-some foot H-LINDIL

03:01 - With the H-LINDIL past the yard office, receive authority to proceed to the Fargo depot, proceed to Moorhead Junction and then continue east to Dilworth

03:04 - Arrive at Fargo 51 minutes late to pick up approximately 30 passengers and drop off approximately 17

03:15 - Depart Fargo 1 hour and 2 minutes late, with a delay once again coming from all the luggage in the luggage car

03:26 - Pass the westbound Amtrak 7/27 train near the Dilworth Yard Office

03:29 - Exit the yard at East Dilworth and begin going up what's generally referred to "the hill" leading out of the Red River Valley

03:31 - Receive warrant between CTC Richards Spur and CTC Wadena

03:37 - Pass a United Parcel Service train west of Glyndon

03:39 - No defects at milepost 240.5 (Glyndon, MN) detector

03:46 - Pass underneath the wooden bridges west of Hawley

03:53 - Pass unknown type of train west of Lake Park

03:57 - No defects at milepost 221.2 (Lake Park, MN) detector

04:07 - Arrive at Detroit Lakes 57 minutes late to pick up 1 passenger and drop off 5, including two people traveling in a sleeper car

04:10 - Depart Detroit Lakes 1 hour late

04:12 - Pass double-stack container train in eastern Detroit Lakes

04:17 - No defects at milepost 203.0 (Frazee, MN) detector

04:29 - Pass unknown type of train in Perham

04:42 - No defects at milepost 174.1 (Bluffton, MN) detector

04:48 - Having passed CTC Wadena, void warrant between Richards Spur and Wadena

05:00 - No defects at milepost 151.6 (Staples, MN) detector

05:06 - Arrive at Staples 57 late to pick up 1 passenger and drop off
1 passenger (me)

05:08 - Depart Staples 59 minutes late


Blogger Jim said...

Mitch, thanks for the detailed description of this trip. Having never ridden Amtrak I am planning a trip Staples-Fargo in the near future to get the feel for what it is like. Is carry on luggage allowed? Also, did you use headphones with your scanner?

Mon Dec 25, 02:39:00 PM CST  
Blogger Mitch said...

Carry-on luggage is absolutely allowed on Amtrak, and actually, if you leave from Staples, it's the only kind of luggage you can have since Amtrak does not have anyone at the Staples depot that could check your luggage for you. There's supposedly a two-piece limit for carry-on luggage, but, in my experience, that's not strictly enforced. In actuality, there has been more than enough room for my carry-ons when I've ridden. Not only is there a lot of room for luggage in overhead compartments, but there is also ample room near your legs as well, since train seats are spaced much farther apart than airplane seats.

If you bring a scanner, it's essential to bring headphones for it. In the middle of the night, the train has generally been completely silent with most of the passengers trying to sleep. Because of this, a noisy scanner would likely be seen as a nuisance, and the conductor would ask you to turn it off.

I hope you have a great trip when you do ride for the first time. Although its hours around here could be better, I've found Amtrak to be an easy, convenient way to travel.

Tue Jan 02, 01:34:00 AM CST  

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Mitch's Blog began on December 23, 2001