Hot Times on the High Iron
Today We Ride the Heights Run

About the Author
JD Santucci

J. D. Santucci (a.k.a. "Tuch") began his railroading career in 1978 as a trainman on the Missouri Pacific. After a round of lay-offs in 1985, Tuch embarked on a railroad odyssey, working in many different situations for different roads. This column tries to explain some of the nuts and bolts of the job and also demonstrates what we have to deal with on a regular basis within and without the industry. Tuch currently works through freights out of Chicago for Canadian National/Illinois Central.

©1999, 2003-2007 JD Santucci.
Logo ©2002 The Railroad Network.

Hot Times on the High Iron Logo
By J.D. Santucci

August 14, 2002
In past columns I have mentioned working the Heights Run during my MoPac days. Today we are going to look in depth at the job. It was one of my more favorite runs to work while I was part of the MoPac Chicago Terminal seniority district. The Heights Run underwent several metamorphoses in my days at the MoPac. There were several variables involved in the transformations and we will discuss all of them.

When I first joined the MoPac in 78, the Heights Run was normally a small train with industry cars and some interchange traffic for The Elgin Joliet & Eastern and Conrail. More often than not, this train was headed up by a MoPac MP15DC switcher. On occasion, a MoPac or L&N Geep might perform the honors. Oftentimes the Geep would be swapped out at the Heights to replace the unit assigned there.

I managed to catch the Heights Run one day very early in my career. As it would happen, the other guy who got hired when I did caught the job with me. Being that I was senior to him, I had the choice of working the head end or the tail end. Normally, the more senior employee takes the caboose, so I followed suit. Not bad, a caboose job after only a few weeks on the job.

We performed various chores around the yard before getting our train and heading south out of Yard Center in Dolton. These duties included coupling some up tracks, dragging a few cuts of cars from 2 Yard to 8 Yard and a cut or two from 8 Yard to 1 Yard. We also worked the caboose track. This track was by the roundhouse where cabooses were spotted for servicing. On the cab track the cabooses would be swept out and garbage cans emptied. They would also be supplied with proper paperwork forms for the Conductor, tools, air hoses and other various hardware, drinking water, ice, and crew packs consisting of paper towels, hand wipes, toilet paper, waterless hand cleaner and a toilet seat liner. The overhead water tank would be filled as would the fuel tank, and the brake system would be tested and inspected. The entire caboose also received an overall inspection to make certain all safety appliances were in good order and that the lights and the radio worked.

Should there be equipment problems such as with an air brake control valve, bad order wheels, broken or damaged running gear, or any other major problem which could not be addressed on the cab track, the caboose would be moved to the RIP Track for repairs.

While I cannot begin to recall all that we did on the cab track, I do remember pulling out a couple that were ready for the road. There were a few other chores performed as well during the course of our day.

We went to lunch and when we finished eating, we made our run to Chicago Heights, some eight miles or so south. I need to make mention of a valuable lesson I learned this day. It was raining when I reported for work this cold December morning and the rain continued pretty much the entire day. I discovered something I needed that I was never told about while training, rain gear. I had none this day and did get pretty wet. The MoPac, like most railroads, did not issue rain gear to the employees. You bought your own. I was not alone as the other new guy on the job had no rain gear either, and he came from a railroad family.

In any event, we did our chores, ate lunch and dried off, and then made our run south. The Conductor, Jason Simmons, was very patient and tolerant of having not only one, but two new shooters on the job with him today. I did learn a great deal from him this trip. I also appreciated the fact that he took the time to show us things and kept his cool. Having one new guy was bad enough, having two, well?

After leaving Yard Center, we made a stop in Thornton at Material Service, sight of a giant limestone quarry. We set out a few empties and picked up several loads. We then rolled south to 12th Street, the location of a set of hand operated main line crossover switches. We were instructed to cross over from the southbound to the northbound track here, but not until train JCZ (Jacksonville, FL-Chicago, expedited) went north first. This train was operated in conjunction with the Southern Railway and was MoPac and Southern's attempt to compete for business between Chicago and the Southeastern US with the Family Lines Rail System. This day as JCZ passed us it featured Southern motive power, intermodal loading, manifest freight, and a MoPac caboose.

After JCZ cleared we began to cross over. Jason instructed me to drop off and line back the switch from the southbound to the northbound and he would get the switch at the other end of the crossover lined back. I immediately learned to be quick about this move as the goal was to not have the train come to a complete stop while performing this chore but rather do it "on the fly." We were creeping along slowly as I dropped off, quickly restored the switch to the normal position and locked it then scampered back to the moving caboose and boarded it. Jason swung himself aboard, told the Engineer we were all aboard, all switches were restored normal and locked, and to highball.

Our train consisted of a MoPac GP 7 616 (recently renumbered from 1616), about twenty-five cars, and a caboose. We pulled it down to the south end of 26th Street Yard and backed it in on the east side, kicking the caboose out towards our outbound train in the process. We ran back around to the north end of the yard and went into the office there, which sat on the west side right along 26th Street itself. Jason gave the clerk there our waybills, obtained the bills and list of our outbound train, talked to the Yardmaster and told us to "get a cup." We had some main line traffic to wait on before we could re-enter the northbound main track and depart for Yard Center.

Eventually we got our turn and finally departed north for Yard Center. We yarded the train tied up and went home without any mishaps or problems. I also wasted no time in acquiring some rain gear.

Before I discuss the changes the Heights Run endured, I'll give you a little background of 26th Yard. The yard itself was an integral contribution to the transformations. It extended from its namesake road southward to milepost 28 at Sauk Trail. It was actually located in South Chicago Heights as opposed to Chicago Heights which was right across the road. The two main tracks dissected the yard. On the east side were seven tracks with five tracks on the west side. This facility was used primarily for interchange, classifying the inbound deliveries for southbound trains to pick up as well as industry support.

The lion's share of interchange came from the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern whose Gary-East Joliet double track line crossed the MoPac at milepost 27, about a quarter mile north of the north end of 26th Street. Up until late 1978, Conrail and its predecessors, Penn Central, New York Central and Michigan Central, also performed interchange in Chicago Heights, although they did not come into the yard to affect it. They had a small yard about a mile and a half or so northwest of 26th Street. Back in the days before MoPac took over, Chicago & Eastern Illinois crews used to deliver and pull interchange to the Central. By 1967, the interchange traffic between the two had dropped significantly with the closing of a Chrysler plant in Evansville, IN. Soon after that, the interchange, which was just a handful of cars, was handled on the wye that connected the two lines.

Chicago Heights Terminal Transfer (CHTT), a switching subsidiary owned by MoPac, also brought cars over for southbound trains to pick up. A wye that broke off from the east side at the north end of the yard connected to the CHTT.

EJ&E crews then and now deliver to 26th Street. C&EI, and later MoPac (and now Union Pacific), crews delivered to the J at their West Yard, which was about half a mile west of the crossing with the MoPac at Jay Tower. This crossing is a quarter mile or so north of the north end of the yard.

Northbound C&EI and later MoPac and Louisville & Nashville through freights would stop and set out cars at 26th Street Yard. Southbound through freights would stop and pick up business that had been switched out and classified by 26th Street yard assignments. L&N joined the picture after MoPac took over the C&EI. MoPac spun off the Evansville Division, a stake in the double track line and yards and various facilities between Woodland Jct., IL and Chicago, to the L&N as a condition of the takeover. However, the CHTT was not included in this transaction, becoming a MoPac subsidiary only.

On occasion, MoPac and the L&N would have unit coal trains for the J. Normally the train would stop short of the north end of the yard, cut the inbound power off and duck into the yard. An EJ&E crew and power would come off the east leg of the wye, couple onto the train, pull down, cut the caboose off, and pull it all around onto their railroad where they would add their own caboose. The inbound crew would come back out after they J cleared, grab their caboose and head north to Yard Center. And even this plan varied. On a few occasions when a J crew was not there to make the meet, the train was delivered to the West Yard by the 26th Street yard crew.

There were several industries near the yard that were switched by yard crews as well. These included Gaby's Iron & Scrap, Nebraska Bridge and Supply (later to become Hines and a key player in the "We do what we're told, over" column from a couple of years ago), D'Amico Macaroni Company, Dowell Services, and Engblom Oil. There were others that had discontinued rail service long before I had arrived.

Nebraska Bridge was located at the end of the lead for east yard on the south side of Sauk trail. Dowell was located off this lead on the north side of the street. Gaby's was located at the north end of the east yard on the east side of East End Avenue which ran parallel to the east side of the yard. D'Amico was located a couple of miles south of the yard in Steger. It was reached using the Steger Siding. This siding started out as the lead for the west yard and extended south to just a little north of milepost 30 where the pasta plant was located. Ironically enough, I worked at D'Amico for about a year in 1975 and early 76. I even loaded a couple of MoPac boxcars with pasta product while I worked there. At one time there were several other industries along the siding in Steger, but all were already gone by the time I started. Engblom was located west of the west yard towards the south end of the yard. They had stopped using rail service shortly after I began working at the MoPac. I do not believe I had anything to do with that decision though.

There were yard assignments around the clock, seven days a week at 26th Street. There was a Clerk and a Car Inspector on duty 24/7 as well. The CHTT Yardmaster covered 26th Street as well as the entire CHTT. He could, and did, move freely between the CHTT yard office and 26th Street office. The yard assignments at 26th Street switched up the set outs from northbound trains separating the EJ&E, Conrail (and predecessor), and CHTT interchange cars as well as cars for the industries. They also switched out the deliveries from the EJ&E, Conrail and CHTT classifying the southbound business into blocks for MoPac and L&N trains to pick up, cars from the Heights Run for industries and northbound cars going to Yard Center for the Heights Run to pull.

Normally, a single MoPac or L&N Geep was assigned to 26th Street. Like Yard Center in Dolton and the 37th Street Intermodal Facility in Chicago, this was a joint facility with the L&N. Several L&N engines were assigned to Chicago as free runners and could be used everywhere except on the CHTT. For the longest time in 1973 and 74, C&EI GP7 84 was assigned here. This unit would later become MoPac 1776, one of two units painted in Bicentennial colors. When the MoPac acquired the all new GP15-1 locomotive in 1976, several of them, including the C&EI 1570 and 1574, were assigned at various times to 26th Street. These units worked "home" rails until the C&EI was fully merged into MoPac in October 1976 with its name officially disappearing. These GP15s were the very last new C&EI units ever built.

While I worked there, the afternoon job at 26th Street used to normally make the delivery to the EJ&E. As a kid, I can vividly recall the daylight job handling this chore for a short period of time. More often than not, they performed the delivery around lunch time. This all happened about a block from where I attended grade school, so I used to observe this move frequently. The Conrail interchange was about finished by the time I started in 78. I never made a move to the Conrail wye. The crossing was removed from service in very early 1979 with all signals retired. The diamonds of the crossing came out shortly thereafter, as did the switch to the wye.

The location of 26th Street Yard was the culprit that actually led to its closing in 1980. Who says location is everything? The bulk of the switching was performed at the south end of the yard, which meant Sauk Trail, a very busy road crossing, was blocked excessively. Many trains that performed work there also had this crossing blocked. Enough complaints from neighbors and tickets from the South Chicago Heights Police sealed the fate of the yard. When it was determined there was no other way to handle the switching there without blocking Sauk Trail, the powers that be decided to simply close the facility eliminating all the jobs. A new plan of operation was created and this was what led to the first metamorphosis of the Heights Run.

Effective with the closing of the yard, all northbound trains took all their EJ&E, CHTT and industry cars to Yard Center instead of setting them out at 26th Street. The start time of the Heights Run was moved from 0759 to 1559. It now got two Geeps for power instead of a single MP15DC. All of the CHTT cars were moved to and from their property via the Ford Run, a night transfer assignment between Yard Center and Ford Yard in Chicago Heights on the CHTT. The afternoon version of the Heights Run now handled all the cars for the EJ&E as well as any industry cars. They also handled delivering the cars to the Jay and worked all the industries as required. All cars delivered to the MoPac from the J along with outbound cars from the industries were brought back to Yard Center on the Heights Run.

The interchange cars from the J were classified at Yard Center now making their connections to southbound MoPac and L&N trains there instead of 26th Street. This placed a burden on Yard Center to now handle more business and also added a day each to any J interchange. About the only business that was same day were the loads of limestone out of Material Service in Thornton. They were picked up by the southbound Heights Run and delivered that same evening to the J.

All of the changes instantly turned the Heights Run into a twelve hour day. Oftentimes, they didn't even make it back in before succumbing to hours of service. This job quickly became a high seniority assignment. There was big money to be made now. All student Engineers were required to work this job and I did my turn on it. I liked the variety of the work on it and when my seniority allowed after attaining my promotion to Engineer, I marked up to it every chance I got. It was my favorite assignment to work in the terminal.

The new and improved version of the Heights Run resembled the old version only on a much grander scale. Instead of having fifteen or twenty cars, now it had ninety or one-hundred, or sometimes even more. Remember, all the cars for the EJ&E that used to be set out by road trains at 26th Street were now being handled all at once by the Heights Run. The same was true for cars interchanged from the J. They were all gathered up by the Heights Run and brought back to Yard Center. Again, there were nights we had one-hundred twenty cars or better.

The Heights Run now also handled the delivery of cars to the J as well as the industry work. Being that there were so many cars for the J all at once, we had to make two separate deliveries. I'll explain how the delivery procedure worked.

We would yard our train on the east side at 26th Street and run around the train. It usually took several tracks to accomplish the yarding as we set ourselves up for two separate cuts to deliver and also switched the block of industry cars out of the train as well. We would get permission from the Yard Center Operator to come back out of the yard and onto the northbound main to deliver to the J. Sometimes there would be traffic and we would have to wait in the clear for it to go first and then get our turn.

The Operator at Jay Tower would line us around the east leg of the wye onto the EJ&E and we would pull the first cut around. He would also notify us which side we were to deliver to. The West Yard, like 26th Street, was dissected by the main tracks, only this time it was those of the EJ&E. In the meantime, the Conductor and Flagman, along with the Yardmaster would drive over to the J's West Yard dropping the Flagman off at the east end of the yard by Chicago Road, Illinois Rt. 1. He would drop the waybills off to the Clerk at the J depot there, unlock the switches, and remove the derails for whichever side we were going to yard the delivery.

After we cleared the signal, Jay Tower would then line us to head west, on either the east or westbound track depending upon which side we would deliver. We had to shove over three road crossings to reach the West Yard and the head man had to ride the leading car of the shove to protect the move. Once the gates and flashers at Chicago Road activated, the rear man stationed at the switch to enter the yard would then line it for our move. As the cut reached him, the head man dropped off and the rear man boarded the car to ride it down to Euclid Avenue, which crossed all six tracks (the two mains and four yard tracks). The reason for the crewmember swap was to give the headman a break. It can be brutal to hang onto the side of a car for this kind of distance and his arms would be tired and sore.

The rear man would drop off at Euclid and the Conductor and Yardmaster were at the west end of the yard to protect the move and assure we didn't shove out the other end and over a derail. When the shove was complete, the rear man would make the cut at Euclid and call us clear when the gates went up. The head man would handle the move to set over the balance of cars to the other track. Again, if needed (and most times it was), the rear man would protect Euclid for the second shove and the Conductor and Yardmaster would protect the west end.

With this delivery completed we would head back over to 26th Street. More often than not, we would go to dinner after the first delivery. After dinner we would normally make the second delivery. It followed the same pattern as the first. With this move completed we would then do the industry work. Although like anything else, the plan was always subject to change. If there was main line traffic on either the MoPac or the J, we might work industries first. After all was said and done, it was time to gather up the outbound train and head back to Yard Center. With this move and all of our other moves requiring the use of the main tracks, we were at the mercy of main line traffic. We would have to wait for any main line traffic before they would let us out to do our work. We would double up our train and depart when it was our turn.

Changes were made in the method of interchange with the J as well. No longer did they shove around the west leg of the wye and into the west side at 26th Street. They now pulled the cars into the east yard via the east leg of the wye at Jay Tower. The west side became storage for excess as well as heavy bad ordered freight cars. These were cars requiring major work to make them suitable for loading. Being the country was deep in the throws of a recession, we had far more cars than customer orders to load them and justify the necessary repairs to keep them in revenue service.

On occasion, we would have to go out to Balmo Siding to place cars into or pull them out of storage. Balmo was a little south of milepost 32 near Balmoral Park Race Track (once known as Lincoln Fields) just south of Crete. In C&EI days this station and siding were known as NE. At one time there was a passenger station across from the race track and C&EI used to operate "race trains" on race days. There were also horses brought in and out by rail as well. The siding had a spur that broke from it to reach the station. The last time I was out that way a portion of the station was still standing. The passenger trains were long gone and the siding was now used to store freight cars that were not needed for revenue service.

From time to time, some of the cars there were needed for service and we would head out to Balmo and pull them out. Other times we took excess cars out to Balmo and set them in for storage. There was no place to run around the cars out there as the siding was stub ended, so we would have to shove out caboose first. So the train would be caboose, cars then engines shoving south. The moves to Balmo did not occur with any frequency though. Sometimes months at a time would pass before a move was made out there.

During 1982, in an effort to minimize the overtime, a decision was made to cut off the crew before they made any overtime. It was decided to call an extra crew out from Yard Center and transport them out to 26th Street, finish the remaining work, and bring the train into Yard Center. The Heights Run became a rubber tire operation as well as steel wheel service. This attitude went on for several months before it was decided to let one crew do all the work. By the time the attitude had changed towards overtime on the Heights Run, so had the fortunes of the American steel industry.

1982 had become a very dark period for American Industry. Numerous factories had begun to close or significantly scale back operations. US Steel, the backbone and single largest customer (and owner) of the EJ&E was not exempt from this downward spiral. Steel production dropped and thus, shipments of the finished product curtailed dramatically in 1982. This meant far fewer loads of steel shipped by rail. Suddenly, the Heights Run went from a twelve hour a night run to an eight to ten hour a night run. This set the stage for the next evolution of the job.

In December of 1982 a monumental business transaction took place that would lead to numerous changes later on; the MoPac along with Western Pacific merged with Union Pacific. This merger would have a major impact on the Chicago Terminal operations over the next few years, none of them good for the employees.

Changes began to occur in 1983. Chicago Heights Auto Ramp (CHAR) opened that year. This was a General Motors automobile unloading facility. GM was very displeased with the service they were, or in this case, were not receiving from the Illinois Central Gulf at their facility on 130th Street in Chicago. GM dumped the ICG in favor of an all new facility on the MoPac. At that time, GM was MoPac's largest customer. On some occasions, the Heights Run might be sent over to CHAR to work the facility. More often than not, it was to pull the empties out of the unloading tracks and set them over to one of the runaround tracks. Later in the evening, the CHAR run from Yard Center would come out with more loads to spot and set them into place, then grab the empties and head back north.

Also in 1983 it was decided to put the Heights Run on and off duty at 26th Street Yard instead of Yard Center. And after several years of being an afternoon run, it became a daylight job again, going to work at 0759. The job would be to come on duty and gather up the cars delivered in the previous 24-hours from the EJ&E and CHTT taking them to Yard Center. Deliveries from the J had dropped to something in the range of twenty to thirty cars per day. The CHTT would deliver dimensional (wide or long) loads to 26th Street and the Heights Run would handle them north. It was easier to move these loads on the abbreviated version of the Heights Run as opposed to the longer Ford Run. For clearance purposes, it was also simpler running these cars across the abbreviated Heights Run than across the entire CHTT to reach the MoPac mains at the connection at 12th Street since there were far less curves and tight spots.

Upon arrival at Yard Center, the train would be yarded and the power serviced if required or even swapped out if need be. The outbound train would normally be ready to go, and after coupling on and getting the required air test, would depart. The work at Material Service continued and on occasion, extra work and cars were added.

The Grand Trunk Western was involved in major track projects and required a great deal of ballast. They would deliver thirty or so empty ballast hoppers to us for loading at the quarry. The Heights Run would set them out for loading. Some days they would pick them up coming north while other days an engine would run out from Yard Center to pull the loads.

Power and caboose for the Heights Run were kept overnight at 26th Street on the east side right across from the yard office. The area was open and well lit, but this didn't stop the occasional vandal from their devious behavior. On more than one occasion, the cabs of the engines were trashed and the power could not be used. We would have to be cabbed to Yard Center to get power and then come south.

There was another change in 83, this time in motive power. MoPac had taken some old SW8 and SW9 switchers and cut them down into slugs. These were non-powered units that drew electricity from the mother units to power its traction motors. One of these sets was assigned to Yard Center and they assigned it to the Heights Run. It was MP15DC 1539 and slug 1413.

The L&N, now called Seaboard System after the component railroads of Family Lines were merged into one company, pulled all of their switching out of Yard Center and moved it into the Belt Railway of Chicago's Clearing Yard. They also built their own intermodal facility in Bedford Park and pulled out of the joint facility at 37th Street. At Yard Center 1, 2 and 3 yards were removed and construction began on an intermodal facility in their place. This facility would replace 37th Street, which would now be used to handle Union Pacific intermodal business between the west coast and Chicago via the Chicago & Northwestern.

In early 1985, MoPac decided to close Yard Center as a classification yard. The first move was to shift the interchange business with the Grand Trunk Western to BRC's Clearing Yard. The interchange with Chessie System's C&O was shifted to Barr Yard in Riverdale. All other major switching was moved to 26th Street. I guess all the fines and warnings from the police about blocking Sauk Trail had been forgotten by this point in time as we had quite a few different officers running the show now.

As it would happen, I worked the last through freight train that would pull cars out of Yard Center for months. I was working train CDZ (Chicago-Dallas Expedited). By this point in time I had been given the opportunity to work the road and dove for it. So for a period of time, I survived the changes and stayed gainfully employed working the road out of Villa Grove, IL. The changes going on in the Chicago Terminal were taking their toll on employment as numerous jobs were being eliminated in all crafts. Prior to going on the road, I was now only working about three or four days a week much of the time.

With the closing of Yard Center as a classification yard, the Heights Run became a shuttle for power between Yard Center Diesel and 26th Street. Some days they would have several extra units in their locomotive consist. They also pulled the empties from CHAR taking them to Yard Center more often than not.

After getting cut off in Villa Grove in March 1985, I came back to Chicago Terminal. I lasted another few weeks here and was then furloughed. In April of 85, my career at the MoPac, essentially the Union Pacific now, had drawn to a close.

And so it goes.