...Hear the train a-comin’; it’s rollin’ ‘round the bend

Posted 10/21/21

One can judge large industries by the equipment required to move their product. The railroad, alongside of which many in the county reside, is by this measure a massive industry.

Consider that …

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...Hear the train a-comin’; it’s rollin’ ‘round the bend


One can judge large industries by the equipment required to move their product. The railroad, alongside of which many in the county reside, is by this measure a massive industry.

Consider that locomotives used on the Union Pacific Railroad weigh over 200 tons, and an appreciation for the size of equipment leveraged by the railroad industry becomes apparent. Now consider that any train of significant length requires several locomotives to provide the necessary pulling and stopping power and the size of the operation becomes clear. 

Even loading and unloading trains and bringing new rail cars and locomotives into service require even larger specialized gear. The physically imposing equipment of the industry rivals the smaller end of the maritime industry.

Yet, when the trains are not running, the empty tracks are eerily quiet and simply whisper, “Commerce passes by here.”

Mineola owes its founding to the railroad. The Union Pacific Railroad owns the line passing through town and continues to be an integral part of the city. That relationship, as they all do, continues to evolve as the industry and the city change. 

In a weekly event which harkens back to a time when train crews embarked from Mineola Station, a small number of retirees meet at Kitchen’s for breakfast. Their collective experience was consulted in an effort to build some appreciation for railroading.

Retired conductors Buster Beck and Mike Love and retired engineers Joe Paul Hogue and Mike Roberts attempted to bring some perspective to the work.

Three characteristics stood out. 

Love described that his father, Zeb Love – who also retired from the railroad, as did Mike Roberts’ father L.M. Roberts – told him early in his career, “Every day is a Monday and it never rains.”

His father’s wisdom spoke to the regularity and strict scheduling under which railroaders operate. Hogue added that when they used to embark from Mineola, they had 60 minutes from time of the alert call to report to the station. 

Beck then described the shift in perception necessary when running a train.

“You have to appreciate that there may be a mile, or more, of train cars behind you,” he noted.  He related that it requires an appreciation for this fact, and the physics and momentum involved, in order to safely conduct a train.

“You must also remember that although the locomotive may be on a downgrade, the end of the train may yet be climbing a grade,” he reminded. 

Mention of momentum naturally led to a discussion of braking. When speaking of emergency stopping distances, the group concurred that in an emergency it may be possible to stop a train in a half-mile distance. Stopping distance is dependent on train length, weight and speed. Much more likely, however it would require a mile or more to bring the load to a stop.  

There are markers in time which characterize long-term service in any profession. For this group of local retirees, many events of their service are characterized as either “before or after the merger.” The merger was the 1998 merger of Southern Pacific with Union Pacific. 

The other major marker for the group was moving the point of crew embarkation from Mineola to West Mineola and then again from West Mineola to Longview. Crews were offered a stipend to assist with family relocation. 

The strict scheduling and long hours necessitating time away from home often took a toll on family relationships. Marriage stability was noted as akin to the same types of challenges faced by police and other first-responders. 

The third characteristic highlighted in discussion was the seemingly unstoppable efforts to modernize the industry through automation. Devices such as stationary track-side monitors and end of train device (affectionately known as FRED) perform many functions once accomplished by crew. 

Today a two-mile long freight train will normally have a crew of two: a conductor and an engineer.

While many functions previously performed by people have indeed been replaced by automatic devices, the group returned again and again to the importance of crews knowing their routes. The importance of applying forethought and experience to the business surfaced repeatedly.

”It’s not all automatic,” was a familiar refrain. 

As retired engineer Mike Roberts noted, “I wish I had taken more photos of what I had seen on the railroad.”

Today the main line running east-west along the southern boundary of Wood County is an integral part of the Union Pacific network. Observing the trains reveals that many are intermodal trains composed of mixed freight and/or containers. Specialty products, such as lumber or chemicals, are also often sighted. 

Absent are the fruits of the heartland. Produce from the Midwest is carried on north-south lines from hubs in the Midwest to shipping points on the Gulf coast like Houston, Beaumont or New Orleans. 

The main line between Terrell and Longview is a single line, part of the Union Pacific Fort Worth Service Area. Sidings are regularly present along the route, providing for management of trains to allow safe passage. A typical siding is about 8,000 feet long. It is desired to have sidings about every ten miles to maximize flexibility.    

The major yards, such as the Miller yard associated with the local line, are located logically in the greater Dallas/Fort Worth area. According to their annual report, Union Pacific operates 6,355 miles of track in Texas and employs over 5,500 people in the state. The railroad supports, through ancillary contractors, nearly 50,000 additional jobs.

It is however, those few miles in Wood County which are of greatest interest. It may surprise many to know that the yard office in West Mineola is pretty busy. In addition to a station manager and a maintenance gang, a crew continues to operate out of the yard. 

Veteran conductor Chris Nichols and engineer Deprimethon V. Lee, who have about 70 years of experience between them, make daily service runs. Five days a week they take locomotives 682 and 1042 to pick up commodities at local production facilities and to deliver empty cars back to them. 

In the immediate vicinity, twice a week they service spurs to Trinidad-Benham, Sanderson Farms and Morton Salt. Three times a week they take locomotives to Terrell where they provide the same product movement services for six industrial customers.

Railroading has a language all to its own. As Nichols commented about their short line service, “We don’t operate on a track warrant, but in a signals environment.” This reinforced the opinions of the breakfast gang who had commented on the value of informed and experienced conductors. 

A big part of that railroad language is, of course, the train whistle. The conductor commences sounding the official signal – two long, one short and one long – a quarter of a mile before the train reaches a crossing. The signal is repeated until the train reaches the crossing. 

It is a sound, which hopefully, will be sounded through Wood County for years to come.