Thursday, December 29, 2016

Sometimes You're the Bug

Hartwell Railroad; Bowersville, Ga.; December 6, 2016
Shortline railroads come in all shapes and sizes. Some operate like clockwork, with the crew called at the same time every morning and serving the same customers every day. Others are not quite as organized. When you start to explore the hardscrabble shortlines of the South or of New England, you find some interesting, if not seemingly random, operating patterns. Such was the case when I (along with my brother Bruce) stopped in for a day on the Hartwell Railroad in Georgia.

The Hartwell at one time operated from its namesake town to a connection with the Southern at Bowersville, ten miles to the west. As time went on, NS shed its connecting line with the Hartwell, which the shortline picked up; it now runs north from Bowersville to Toccoa and south from Bowersville to Elberton. It's primary connection to the outside world is with NS at Taccoa, although a bit of traffic comes off CSX at Elberton.

Operations on the Hartwell are interesting. The crew comes on duty at about 8:00 a.m. and gets on the train wherever they left it the previous day. This is usually somewhere in the Bowersville area, and the feed mill south of town is a good place to look first. We had tied up in Lavonia, Ga., the previous night, and our motel was just across the street from the Hartwell's line to Toccoa. We set out looking for the train on a gloomy, rainy Tuesday, December 6, and found former Elgin, Joliet & Eastern SD38 No. 654 working a coil steel place just south of town. The unit wasn't accessible so, believing the Hartwell ran to Toccoa every day, we headed there where we planned to wait for the northbound train and chase it back south. In the meantime, the ex-Southern NS mainline could keep us occupied.

Once at Toccoa, though, something didn't seem quite right. We assumed what we saw was a local shifter, and there might be a road train coming north. But as we thought about it some more, we decided we better get back down to Lavonia and check things out. Once there we saw the 654 was gone, and there were coil cars parked on the mainline. We had followed the railroad down from Toccoa and didn't pass any trains that we knew of, so we continued on south and found 654 working the feed mill south of Bowersville.
Hartwell Railroad; Bowersville, Ga.; December 6, 2016
We caught up with the friendly crew during a pause while they were switching. Yes, this is the only train running today. No, we're not going to Toccoa, but we're heading there tomorrow. Now we had to make a decision...

Our initial plan called for doing the Hartwell on this day, and once they were finished driving south to the Heart of Georgia Railroad at Cordele for the next day. But we got nothing on the Hartwell on this day, the forecast was for sun tomorrow, and that neat ex-EJ&E engine would be leading the southbound train. We changed our plans and decided to do a second day on the Hartwell.

The Hartwell has an exotic roster, with power gathered up from a variety of other railroads. And all of those units still wear the last paint job they had before coming to the Hartwell. The crew let us know where the other locomotives were; but since roster shots under thick clouds weren't going to be very good, we decided to pick them off with night shots where we could control the light. First up was a pair of units tied up on the original Hartwell line east of town. We found Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac GP35 136 along with Chicago & North Western GP9R 4556 in the middle of a long string of stored container well cars (top photo of this post). The Hartwell generates a lot of money from stored cars, with long strings on the original Hartwell and south of Royston heading towards Elberton. The railroad still has freight customers on these lines, so the long strings occasionally have to be shuffled and jammed out of the way so the train can get through. Next up was CSX GP38 1973 in Conrail paint at the lumber yard north of Royston.
Hartwell Railroad; Royston, Ga.; December 6, 2016
 Next we stopped at the feed mill where the Hartwell crew had tied up EJ&E 654 for the night. We got a shot there with the mill as a backdrop.
Hartwell Railroad; Bowersville, Ga.; December 6, 2016
 Finally we headed to Airline on the original Hartwell where the railroad has a small shop. Here we found Bessemer & Lake Erie SD7 454 missing a few pieces. Two other locomotives that we could see were inaccessible -- Denver & Rio Grande Western GP35 3044 behind a chain link fence south of Lavonia and St. Lawrence & Atlantic GP40 3000, tucked away at the steel coil facility also south of Lavonia.
Hartwell Railroad; Airline, Ga.; December 6, 2016
The next morning we found the crew working the feed mill again with EJ&E 654. They had to spot a few cars, then they'd head south by pickup truck to Royston and grab CSX 1973 and head north with two empty centerbeam lumber cars. At Bowersville they'd add EJ&E 654 to the train, along with a bunch of covered hoppers. From there they'd continue north, picking up steel coil cars and maybe the StL&A 3000 at Lavonia, then head to Toccoa. We watched them finish their work at Bowersville, then headed to Royston. Sure enough, they arrived, put the train together, and headed north, stopping at the mill where they would theoretically put the rest of the train together.
Hartwell Railroad; Canon, Ga.; December 7, 2016
Well, once stopped at Bowersville the crew vanished and the train sat. And sat. It sat there with the locomotive running and the lights on, and we anticipated a move north at any time. But it sat. And sat some more. 

After we had stared at the train for almost three hours we were joined by two county police officers, each driving a police car. Apparently someone saw us sitting there all that time and phoned us in. The officers were friendly and sympathetic to our plight. One said he would drive down to the mill and see if he could find the crew. If he did, he'd report back to us.

About ten minutes later, the officer returned. He found the crew inside the mill, and the news wasn't good. The steel coil place hadn't finished unloading a car that needed to head out to Toccoa. If the train moved at all, it was only going to Lavonia and tying up for the night. Toccoa wasn't happening.
That made our next move easy. We thanked the officer, pointed the car south, and headed for Cordele and the Heart of Georgia Railroad.

Now don't get me wrong -- we have no ill will towards the Hartwell Railroad. The crew was very friendly and did its best to let us know what was happening. We knew that some of these shortline railroads were high risk/high reward attempts, and on this one the reward just didn't happen. As Mark Knopfler wrote (and Mary Chapin Carpenter sang), "Sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug." We were definitely the bug for our two days on the Hartwell. All it means is we'll have to try again some other time.

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