With a small staff, City of Prineville Railway workers learn how to do a little bit of everything

by: JASON CHANEY/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - At least three times a week, railway staff members haul freight back and forth down the winding tracks that connect the local freight depot to the Prineville Junction north of Redmond.

From the time the City of Prineville Railway was built in 1918, the world has undergone an immeasurable amount of changes.

The local railway followed suit to a certain extent, particularly in the past eight years as they made several improvements including the addition of a high-end freight depot.

Yet, at its core, people might find that the railway is still a simple operation of pulling cars from one location to another.

“It’s really not that much different,” said COPR conductor Cody Muck. “The railroad is pretty much the same.”

Such was the case this past Friday. Muck, who was hired by the railway a month ago, and longtime train engineer Bud Bowman arrived at the railway office at about 6:30 a.m. Although their job titles each cover one part of the operation, because they are half of a four-man railway, they wear many hats. In one day, they might inspect track, swing a spike maul, transport cargo, or even clean up the office.

“We have to do everything,” Bowman remarked.

By 10:30 a.m., Muck can be found coupling three Les Schwab tires cars and three tankers full of Enviro-Tech de-icer to an orange and black GP20 diesel engine. Aboard the engine is Bowman, situated behind an L-shaped control panel featuring two brake levers and the throttle. The seat is familiar to the 28-year engineer.

“It’s a good job,” he said. As he adjusts the automatic brakes, which control the cars, and the independent brake, which slows the engine itself, several loud hisses drown out the steady hum of the engine. “I enjoy it,” he continues. “This railroad has been good to me.”

After Muck is done adding the cars, Bowman backs the train down a portion of track where two more cars await. Today’s train will total eight of them. As he carefully backs toward the cars, Muck calls out commands over the radio. Without his help, Bowman has no idea where the train is headed.

“He is supposed to be my eyes and ears,” Bowman said. “The engineer doesn’t run the train. The conductor runs the train.”

By about 11 a.m., it’s time to leave the freight depot. Next stop is Prineville Junction, just north of Redmond.

Muck climbs aboard the engine, taking a seat at the opposite end of the small, metallic-gray room inside. The train slowly begins to move, and unlike a car, it seems to get quieter and quieter as it picks up speed. The hissing brake sounds cease, and the diesel motor quiets to a modest hum.

As the engine travels the track, it rocks from side to side — a motion caused by the pieced-together joints on the shortline, each section of track measuring only 39 feet in length. Bowman acknowledged that the gentle, rhythmic rocking, coupled with the drone of the diesel, could put a person to sleep.

Of course, sleep would be disastrous. To look at Bowman and Muck, one might assume that once the train gets going, it pretty much drives itself, but nothing could be further from the truth. For one thing, they have to keep a constant eye on the train’s speed, which never exceeds 20 miles per hour during the 15-mile trip.

“Speed is everything,” Bowman said. “You can run this off the track pretty easy if you are not careful.”

Consequently, they have to adjust to all the bends in the track, the rises and falls of the terrain, the blind spots, and perhaps most critical of all, the crossings. At each road and track intersection, Bowman blasts that familiar horn that motorists know all too well.

“You can’t stop a train,” he explained. “A lot of people, when they come to a crossing, think that we should stop for them. It doesn’t work that way. The momentum, the weight — we’ll slide right through a crossing if they don’t stop.”

As attentive as they must be, Muck and Bowman travel this stretch at least three to four times a week, so some of the work is automatic, which affords them the luxury of enjoying a view few others never witness. From the engine windows, a passenger can see lush farm lands spread out in front of rimrock cliffs and distant, white-capped mountains. At other times, the tracks winds up a narrow corridor walled in by juniper trees, or follow the twists and bends of the Crooked River.

“I never get tired of the view,” Bowman said.

About an hour passes before the train arrives at Prineville Junction. As they pull up to an empty, straight stretch of track, Bowman and Muck begin to wonder why nothing is waiting for them.

“We were expecting some cars,” Bowman explained, “but they didn’t show up.”

After a brief phone conversation with COPR Operations Manager Matt Wiederholt, they decide to drop off their cars at the junction and return to Prineville.

The duo take the unexpected change in stride, figuring that the two Les Schwab cars and empty A-frame flat car will be waiting for them on Monday. Besides, this isn’t the only unexpected part of the trip.

As they pilot the train past some farm land during the return trip, two cows suddenly join them on the track, trotting about 50 feet in front of the engine.

“This is another part of our job — herding cattle,” Bowman quips. He slows the train and before long, the cattle find an exit and take advantage of it.

For Muck, who spent two years at Union Pacific before joining COPR, and Bowman, a long-time employee for the local railway, the railroad process and all of its quirks has become routine.

“It kind of becomes second nature,” Muck said. “It’s just like anybody’s job.”

Still, the novelty of riding a train for a living hasn’t completely worn off.

“It’s still neat,” Muck said. “It’s real historic.”

Nearing Prineville, Bowman and Muck stop by a local mill to pick up some empty tanker cars for return to the freight depot. By about 1:30 p.m., they roll back into the freight depot.

Bowman backs the cars into their drop site as Muck counts off the number of cars waiting to pass the rail switch.

“Four cars...three cars...two car...OK, that’s good.”

Bowman sets the brakes, closes the throttle, and rapidly flips several switches before opening a metal panel door to power off the engine.

“That’s it,” he proclaims — at least until Monday, when they start the familiar railroading process all over again.

Contract Publishing

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