Launching Locomotives

By Tom Neale, 4/1/2010


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In the early morning of March 26 a train was rumbling along, heading for some place that was on the other side of the Intracoastal Waterway. This was in Chesapeake, Virginia, just to the south of the Great Bridge Lock. Usually when trains cross the water, they do it on a bridge. Usually when they do it on a bridge they wait for the bridge to close. It’s kind of a no brainer, don’t you think? Well this train didn’t. It did try to cross the ICW on a bridge, but it tried to cross the ICW with the bridge still in the up position. I guess the train’s operator figured out something was wrong as the gates which were intended to stop a train from running off a bridge ripped open a fuel tank. As the front wheels approached the open abyss, he applied brakes and the train finally stopped, but not until a long portion of the leading diesel locomotive was hanging, far up in the air, out over the channel of the ICW. Now don’t you think they’d have figured this out? The train company, as of at least a couple of days later, wasn’t commenting on how it had happened.

Railroad Bridge Where Locomotive Launched
But some of the media were wondering. Some kept saying, “Well the bridge was up.” But most TV news media know about as much about maritime matters as a humming bird knows about brain surgery. Train bridges over most navigable waters are usually kept in the up position until the train comes. This is because boats are frequently and regularly traveling the water below and the trains don’t come very often, if at all. The solution is simple. Signal the approaching boaters that the bridge is going down and put it down just before the train arrives. But some media were implying that maybe the bridge should be down all the time so that trains don’t fall in the water. This way, the bridge would be opening and closing all day long rather than a few times a week, if that often. But I gave up on TV news reporters making any sense a long time ago. That’s asking too much.

You don’t even have to launch a locomotive to mess with boating traffic. For example, there are several railroad bridges crossing the ICW in Norfolk and in this large metropolitan/industrial area there are a lot of trains. Want to guess how the railroad bridges are operated? Would you think they’d have a bridge tender? Oh no. They’re operated by an automatic switch on the nearby tracks. Makes sense doesn’t it? When the train comes the switch activates and closes the bridge. Saves money, I guess. But did you ever see a train stop on the tracks? And stay there. And stay there. Or go back and forth forever switching cars? I’m sure you have. Well, they do this in Norfolk too. So sometimes the train bridge is kept in the down position, blocking off the ICW. This includes not only pleasure boats but also millions of tons of commercial shipping traffic. On several occasions we and other boaters have been trapped between bridges in Norfolk with night time coming on because some train was sitting on a track somewhere nearby. This is significant because the Norfolk bridges go into “lock down” during rush hours and if you don’t make it through them on time you’ve got to proceed on in darkness and maybe bad weather. This is definitely not a good thing to have to do on this busy portion of the ICW.

Norfolk Bridges
Something similar happened several years ago near Savannah. It didn’t involve a train, but it was still very bad. As the Causton Bluff Bascule Bridge was opening a gentleman driving a truck approached along the road. For whatever reason, he apparently didn’t see the stop lights, didn’t hear the warning siren, didn’t notice that he was crashing through the gates and rammed into the partially open bridge knocking the thing off its foundation. The worst part was that, as I understand it, the gentleman suffered fatal injury. Also, this resulted in a waterway closure for months so that the bridge could be repaired.

This ICW closure included, again, the springtime period when the great northward migration was in place. At least here some boats could pass around the area by waiting for good weather and going into the Atlantic, using two of several decent inlets north and south of the area. But a boat that was planning to get through Great Bridge and Norfolk the morning of the train fiasco wouldn’t be able to get around without backtracking nearly 200 miles and going outside and around the dangerous, sometimes deadly Cape Hatteras—a trip that would take many days on a displacement hull boat. Of course a trapped boat could back track approximately 36 miles to the Coinjock area where the skipper could hope to find a slip to wait, but that’s still a long way for a boat. To make matters worse, the ICW where this bridge was located is very narrow and the bank and shallow water on the sides have many huge stumps and other debris. And to make matters worse, the first decent anchorage, were you to back track to one, is south of Coinjock, about 60 miles from this bridge.

Some 10 years ago a “part” broke on one of the bridges in Norfolk Virginia It took weeks to “fix” the bridge. Boats on the ICW couldn’t get by. Guess when the closure occurred. You got it. During the height of the season as boats were headed north. And, as with the train wreck, the only way around was to backtrack and go around Cape Hatteras. The marinas were soon full. There literally wasn’t any place for many boats to wait it out. I remember some of the media intelligentsia then portraying grumbling boat owners and delivery captains as rich fat cats who didn’t have anything better to do than complain while they were lounging on their yachts.

Other delays are less complicated. Once when passing through the Charleston area we got under way from anchor at O Dark Thirty to make the Wappoo Creek Bridge during it’s “On Demand” time, before its long “lock down” for the morning rush hour. We timed our trip well and were at the bridge far before the witching hour when nobody moves but vehicular traffic. The channel here is narrow and the current was pushing us toward the bridge at a break neck speed. It would be very difficult to hold station or even anchor in that current—particularly for several hours. We called on the VHF for an opening and no one answered after many calls. We saw nobody in the bridge tender’s house. We then signaled repeatedly with our very loud air compressor horn and we next tried the loud hailer. Nobody responded. Finally we called Charleston Coast Guard. They called the bridge office on the phone. We saw a lady pop up like a jack in the box, pick up the phone, and start looking around. She came up on VHF and said, “Oh, I didn’t hear you. I have a cold.” I think she was sound asleep.

Tom’s Tips About Bridges Operating Improperly

1. Use your cell phone. If the problem is with a bridge, call the bridge tender’s number if you have it. Most guide books publish these now.

Click Here for More Tips

Back to the train: once again, as thousand of boats are beginning to head north for the spring (not to mention the huge flow of commercial traffic in this area) somebody who belongs on the shore blocked the waterway for at least several days. When these things happen it’s usually the result of carelessness or lack of good sense or somebody not doing their job. And the people on boats are caught in a very bad situation. Whether it’s caused by a car, a bridge or whatever, it can be a train wreck for a boat.

Cars can detour and go around to other roads and bridges. It may cost an extra few minutes, but not a day or more. And sometimes the day or more won’t help the boat. To put matters into better perspective, often these boats are tugs and barges, commercial fishing vessels, dredges, cruise liners and other commercial vessels, the owners, captains and crews of which are trying to make a living. And none of us can expect much help or even sympathy from the folks ashore, who’re getting their understanding of the situation from talking heads on TV.

Far too often most boaters just sit there feeling helpless, not knowing what to do. Sometimes, of course, delays such as those I’ve been discussing are unavoidable and people are doing all they can as fast as they can to rectify the situation. Such was the case when the Great Bridge Lock flooded during the 2009 November Nor’easter. But often when there’s a blockage of navigation, there are things that can be done. I we don’t speak up, nobody will do it for us, and we’ll just sit in the water while something is going on like a train dead on the tracks. See the tips below.


Copyright 2004-2010 Tom Neale 

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