We were just about ready to give up on catching the high-and-wide move in favor of heading east. So what made us decide to turn our plans on a dime and jump over to Cassandra instead?
The drama unfolded thus - coal drag 568 was headed east through Portage on track 1 when one of its rear helpers suffered a ground relay fault, shutting it down. The loss of power was enough to stall the train between Portage and Cassandra, and the crew immediately set about trying to restart the unit. The much-anticipated dimensional move, 052, was stuck just behind it. Its only hope to run around would have been a backup move to the nearest crossover, but there was traffic coming up track 2 as well, and the dispatcher wasn't inclined to let a slow-moving train out in front of it. The crew of 052 settled in to wait.
While the crew of 568's helper spoke with a troubleshooter on the radio about their ailing unit, my sidekick and I hurriedly packed up and headed for Cassandra, hoping the problem wasn't sorted out before we got there. We got our wish - as we got back out on Route 53, the troubleshooter and the helper crew conceded defeat, and the dispatcher announced that he would be sending another helper down from Cresson to couple on the head end for a rescue.
From the footbridge at Cassandra, we could see the 568 sitting in the distance with the 052 tucked in behind. The dispatcher had issued no orders to the rescue helper yet, leaving us with plenty of time to get in position. Needless to say, track 2 saw action first as stack train 26T thundered upgrade at 12:33, led by C40-9W 9554, ES40DC 7655, and C40-9W 9920. As the containers paraded past, the dispatcher chimed in to set up the move that was to come. It seemed he was hedging his bets, as the first track authority issued was to the 052 to work between MO (Cresson) and W (near South Fork) on track 1 - we could only assume this was in case there was any more trouble getting the 568 moving again and they needed to back up to cross over to track 2. As the tail of 26T disappeared around the curve, the dispatcher next issued track authority to the crew in SD40E 6309 to bring their helper set down from Cresson on track 1 to rescue the 568. And so, we waited.
Less than 5 minutes off of 26T's marker, SD40Es 6325, 6302, 6329, and 6323 kept their distance as they followed the stacks east at 12:44. It wasn't until just after 1 that we finally saw the headlight of 568's rescuers in the distance, as SD40Es 6309 and 6308 crept down track 1 towards their ailing target. A pastoral quiet returned to the park while the helpers were coupled up and the orders sorted out. A few minutes shy of 1:30, everything was in place, the dispatcher gave his blessing, and the crew on the 6308 said what everyone was waiting to hear:
"Alright, here we go...'
Somewhere in the midst of all the commotion, the voice of the detector at Portage tried to chime in but was cut off in the process:
"NS detector, milepost two five eight point nine, track two..."
As if to warn the masses of what was about to unfold, a nearby emergency siren broke into a wail as the distant drumming exhaust built in a slow crescendo. Surprise! The source of the noise was not the long-awaited 568 but crude oil drag 64R, stomping upgrade on track 2 behind ES44AC 8061 and its more-celebrated sister unit, Monongahela heritage unit 8025. With my attention focused on the 8025 marching away towards Lilly, I almost didn't notice the exhaust noise building, not fading away. In a spectacular, deafening piece of choreography, the newly beefed-up head end of 568 appeared on track 1 just 8 car lengths back from the head end of 64R. The rescue set of SD40Es 6308 and 6309 now lent their muscle to 568's road power, C40-9W 9971 and SD60E 6944, the latter completed in the Juniata shops just days before. The two trains roared away around the curve, neither one giving nor gaining any distance over the other. As the two giants continued their dance, SD40Es 6316, 6303, 6301, and 6300 cruised by on track 3, giving us a brief look at all three tracks in use simultaneously. The margin between the head ends of the two trains was nearly the same at the rear. 64R's DPU, SD70ACe 1038, was first to pass, followed 7 cars later by SD40E 6306 and the wounded 6311 - just one car length's difference.
It wasn't over yet.
With the 568's lead now up to 10 minutes, the 052 resumed its own eastward journey. SD70 2569 and C40-9W 9823 charged upgrade with an assortment of bulldozers, farm tractors, telephone poles, prefab track panels, and front-end loaders following behind. Incredibly, the 052 was joined by its own dance partner - 12 cars back on track 2 were ES44AC 8030 and SD70ACe 1094, crawling upgrade with crude oil drag 64X. The pairing was much more uneven this time; 052 was well on its way by the time the tail end of 64X appeared, topped off by SD40Es 6313 and 6307.
NOW it was time to head east.
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