Christopher Brimley updated January 25, 2011

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  • It's Still No. 3

     

    RailNews - July 1997 - Page 32 RailNews - July 1997 - Page 33

    Andrew S. Nelson

    If railroads didn't change when they needed to, there wouldn't be anymore railroads-anyone who doesn't believe this should take a look at what happened to the Rock Island. Still, I haven't found much to like in many of the changes I've witnessed: the Milwaukee Road's 1976 retirement of Alco RS2s, RS-3s , and RSD-5s on the Wisconsin Valley line; the death of the Milwaukee Road it self in 1985; Green Bay & Western's "boat trains" annulled with the end of railferry service across Lake Michigan in November 1990; Green Bay & Western becoming part of Wisconsin Central's Fox Valley & Western in August 1993; and Chicago & North Western becoming Union Pacific's eastern arm in April 1996.

    Change triggers an emotional reaction in me not un like that experienced by my two-year-old daughter: If I don't like it, it must not be right, so I'm going to fuss. One recent change is particularly irksome. It has been known for about year that Burlington Northern & Santa Fe would switch from train numbers to alpha symbols-as used by the former Santa Fe-on former BN lines. The change finally took place during the first weekend in March 1997. I learned of it on Sunday morning, March 3, while listening to BNSF's rather easy-going first trick C&I Dispatcher as he guided trains over the main line between Aurora and Savanna, Illinois. One train crew-on an eastbound intermodal, No. 16 to be exact-wanted to find out what its "new" symbol was. The dispatcher chuckled, told the crew he had the list, but that it was "just gobblygook" to him. He also commented he should start answering radio calls as "Santa Fe di spatcher" in reference to the plan's Santa Fe origins. By the way, he referred to all trains that morning by their train numbers-and continued to do so for weeks afterward.

    Alpha symbols have been around in one form or another for decades, but to me a group of consonants and vowels doesn't have the same ring, resonance, or simplicity that a train number has. Perhaps the C&I Dispatcher that Sunday morning was thinking the same thing.

    Which brings me to train No. 3.

    Most big-time railroads have a train that no one wants to be responsible for delaying, lest he or she be called before a testy divisional superintendent or chief dispatcher. On BN's Chicago-Pacific Coast main line that was train No. 3 (offspring of the Pacific Zip from Chicago, Burlington & Quincy/Great Northern days), moving trailers and containers from Chicago's Clyde Yard to the Puget Sound like no other train on the railroad. It carried that same number for over 20 years.

    In the dozens of times I've seen this train, either between Aurora and Savanna, or along the Mississippi, I've been aware of one delay to No. 3 because of a dispatching error. One.

    When No. 3 hit the C&I at Aurora in mid-after noon, opposing eastbounds within 20 miles (most sidings are only 10 miles apart) were put "in the hole" to await its passage. Train 3's official track speed was no higher than that for other inter modals-60 mph-but it always seemed to move with greater urgency. Watching No. 3 's containers and trailers pass amid blowing snow, dust, or dry leaves, was something else.

    When I think of No. 3, I equate the number with the experience. Consider this photo of No. 3 flying over the east siding switch at Chadwick, Illinois, on Sept. 29, 1996. Its engineer is pouring on the power for the slight grade through town, and the containers and trailers are generating enough wind that I will turn away to avoid flying leaves and twigs as it passes.

    But now, according to BNSF, No.3 is " Z CHCSEH9 A." A single, simple digit has been replaced by a combination of nine numbers, vowels, and consonants that reads more like a Russian exit sign than anything else-all in the march toward standardizing one behemoth of a railroad. I don't like it much, but I'll get over it.

    For the time being-contrary to what Forth Worth says-to this railfan it'll still be No. 3.

    RailNews

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