A train whistle blew mournfully off into the hills, bells clanged, hot air hissed across the tracks and the blue diesel engine roared like a tired, worn-out animal.
Easing back on the throttle of "The 7418," train engineer Jerry Lowery of Brunswick brought the massive 3,000-horsepower freight train to a dead halt. The cacophony of the mile-long Chessie System train, with its 120 empty coal cars scraping against each other at their connecting points, echoed through the streets of this historic railroad town.
Holding a portable radio, Lowery said: "This is the 7418 Curtis Bay Extra West--with one load of empties. May we proceed?"
"Roger, 7418 West," tower operator Boyd Robinson replied, with the air of a NASA space-flight controller. "The gates are down, but you're clear to go on my signal."
Peering out from his tiny window, Lowery watched and waved as a "Clank-Helper"--a work engine that assists tired old trains "over the hills"--chugged past him and into the roundhouse.
Then, he was cleared to proceed.
Pushing the throttle over and knocking off the air brake, Lowery blew the whistle. First, two long blasts, then one short, and then one more long toot thrown in for good measure, and then the 7418 streamed out of the Brunswick yards on its day-long journey en route from Baltimore to the coal mines of West Virginia.
Conductor Joe Howell, 55, of Boonesboro, Md., climbed aboard the tail end of his yellow caboose and waved at some children at a crossing, then glanced at his "railroad watch."
The 7418, which was due to leave the Brunswick yards at 11:50 that morning, was already a half-hour late. "Gone are the days when the train is on time," he said.
But Howell has been giving a lot of thought to time lately. Because he knows that the end of the line is near for the end of the train.
Efforts are under way now by the nation's railroads to sidetrack their 12,854 cabooses. American railroads hope to save about $400 million by phasing out the cabooses over the next several years.
Five states, including Virginia, now have laws requiring cabooses for safety. Maryland, however, has no such law and Chessie System officials hope to phase out most of the cabooses in Maryland as planned.
As 7418's caboose swayed back and forth to the "clickety-clack" sounds of the train's wheels on rail joints, the veteran conductor stared absently at the mountains.
"You know, it's going to be funny seeing a train with no end to it," he said. "I can't imagine it, really." He peered out the northside window as the train rounded a bend, carefully watching for "sun-kinks" or anything on the rails that could cause a derailment.
Howell was 19 when he rode the caboose of the railroad's biggest steam-driven train, "The Newcastle 97," as it streamed out of Brunswick at 60 mph on July 16, 1947.
"We kept the cabooses real clean back then because we cooked on them and slept on them," Howell said. From the cupola on each caboose, he could watch the train ahead and signal the engineer by flag or lantern if anything went wrong. The yellow caboose he now rides still has the air brake controls for the rear of the train, a Franklin stove for heating purposes, but no bunks.
Train crews now change trains every eight hours and sleep in hotels.
He remembered walking late at night with his battery-powered lantern in hand when "a big hand came on my shoulder," and a voice from the dark said: "Got a match?"
"Boy, was I scared, but it was just a hobo." He said he often wondered how one crippled hobo with crutches, whom he knew, got aboard the train. "Boy, he could hop into a boxcar in a flash," Howell said. But hobos disappeared in the early 1960s, and Howell said they are rarely seen now.
He remembered another scary night 14 miles west of Hancock, at a place called Shenandoah Junction, when his train with two engines and 49 cars derailed in February 1981. "The air brakes went down, then there was a lot of fire," he said. "The engine jumped the rail crossing over to the other track, sliding hundreds of feet upright. And there was sparks flying back and forth as the boxcars rammed into one another."
No one was hurt, he added. "But a ride like that can scare you." It is incidents like these that railroadmen fear the most. "The people in the caboose look out for us," said veteran train engineer Noel Williams, 56, of Brunswick, as the alert light flashed on his panel of dials and gauges. Williams said that the light flashes on every 45 seconds, and he must respond by touching the throttle or air brake, otherwise the train would automatically come to a halt.
As a steam locomotive and diesel engineer, Williams has seen his share of train wrecks and near-misses. Several years ago, his train collided with a busload of schoolchildren. The train pinned the bus to the tracks, but fortunately "no one died. It takes a mile to stop a train," he said.
Even as the 7418 passed a signal crossing last week, Howell, using a radio, warned Williams, who was close behind in train 4368, that cars were speeding over a railroad crossing. Williams blew his whistle and braked the diesel train, pulling 68 boxcars, but the automobiles just sped across the tracks.
"People will always try to out run a train," Howell said.
At Hobbs, W.Va., the two trains came to a stop. Four eastbound trains were switching to another track, and that meant an hour wait. In a general store, drinking Dr. Peppers, the railroadmen traded stories.
"There used to be a time when railroading was a way of life," said Brunswick trainmaster H. W. Minnick, 34, whose father, brother and uncles are train engineers in Brunswick.
"My grandfather had big overalls, a big red scarf and he had a gold pocket watch he watched religiously. Now railroading is just an occupation and you can't distinguish an engineer from a carpenter."
Many of the train engineers working for the Chessie System earn from $30,000 to $51,000, Minnick said. Conductors earn about $96 a day, but it is a seven-days-a-week job.
As the 7418 pulled out of Hobbs, conductor Joe Howell waved goodbye to the 4368. He took his seat on the right side of the caboose. Flagman Richard Edwards, 32, of Short Gap, W.Va., sat on the train's left side. And the little yellow caboose went around the bend and out of sight.