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Walking the 'hill:' On the front lines of expansion

Winter 2015

Conductor Perry Brown, wearing a remote
control locomotive device, “cuts” cars at the
Bellevue hump.

Perry Brown arrives at Bellevue Yard before sunrise with one main task: To safely move as many rail cars as he can “over the hill.”

“That’s what they pay me to do, and I want to keep them happy,” said Brown, a first-shift conductor foreman.

Brown works atop the yard’s 31-foot high earthen hump and is on the front lines of Bellevue’s expansion. Using a remote control device strapped over his chest, Brown pulls blocks of cars out of the receiving yard, shoves them up the hump, and “cuts” them loose at the crest, letting gravity carry them down into a sprawling network of classification tracks to be assembled into outbound trains.

On an early December day, Brown warded off westerly winds of 15-20 mph and a wind chill in the 20s wearing a hooded pullover, cap, gloves, jeans, and steel-toed boots.

“I’m still trying to get used to the new bowl,” Brown said, referring to the yard’s  38 new “class” tracks, which resemble an elongated bowl. Employees refer to the new class tracks as the south bowl and the yard’s original 42 tracks as the north bowl. When humping a single train, he can cut cars for both bowls.

Conductor Perry Brown walks cars over
the hill.

“On a windy day like this, if I’ve got an empty going into the south bowl, I run in hump slow,” he said, the slowest of three speeds on the remote control unit. This allows more time to stop cars moving up the hump if a wind gust stalls a released car before it rolls clear into a class track. “You’ve got to use your head and watch what’s going on.”

He worked rhythmically, walking alongside the rail cars as he moved them up the hill. At the right moment near the crest, he reached over and pulled up on a car’s cut lever, a steel rod that releases a pin in the coupling knuckle, allowing the car to roll free. Over and over, he repeated the task, 14 steps up and 14 steps back.

While working, Brown monitored two digital “hump boards.” The boards identify cars moving up the hump by number, whether they are empty or loaded, and where to cut the cars – either individually or up to five coupled together. Flashing lights beside a car number mean it is loaded with material considered hazardous under federal rules, including crude oil and certain chemicals.

When two trains are humped simultaneously, a new capability with the expansion, two conductors work side by side. One cuts cars into the north bowl, the other into the south bowl. Together, they will be able to hump up to about 300 cars an hour – about twice as many as before.

“I say bring them on,” Brown said. “This is the most money I’ve ever made, and for the work they ask me to do, I’ll do this all day long.”

A native of Monroe County, Ohio, four hours southeast of Bellevue, Brown hired on with NS about 12 years ago. He met his wife, Bellevue yardmaster Meaghann Brown, at the yard, and is the proud father of a 2½-year-old daughter. He spoke enthusiastically about the yard expansion and Bellevue’s elevated role
as a central hub of NS’ rail network.

“I love it. It’s job security,” said Brown, echoing a sentiment common among Bellevue employees. “It shows the company is putting a lot of trust in us and relying on us. That’s why I want to keep the cars moving.”

Digital boards on the hump provide conductors with rail car information, including car numbers, which cars are empty and loaded, and whether cars should be cut individually or in groups.