Train Time At Greenwood
It’s a cold evening in the Mississippi Delta town of Greenwood. It is early March, and the sun has already set some time ago as we pull up to the old Illinois Central Railroad station. In the parking lot, passengers are starting to arrive for Amtrak’s northbound City of New Orleans.
North of the depot, a headlight shines. Its source is a southbound freight that is setting out cars for the local switcher. The presence of that southbound says that it’s unlikely that Amtrak 58 will be on time this evening.
Across the mainline from the station sits an old warhorse. GP38 #9565 looks good for a locomotive now in its fifth decade of service. Now working for its fourth owner, the locomotive started service on the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio during a time of peace, love and moon shots.
Shortly, the southbound freight wraps up its work and heads out of town. The computer on the desk inside the crew’s portion of the depot shows 58 is lined up all the way to Sidon, the next siding south of Greenwood. This freight is going to have to boogie to clear the main at Sidon in time to avoid delaying the passenger train.
Once the freight train clears, quiet descends. An occasional car passes the north end of the station and crosses the tracks. A handful of passengers congregate in the waiting room. Occasionally one of them steps out into the cold to look for any sign of the train’s approach. As of yet, there is none with the exception of the signal that has now changed to green. The dispatcher has 58 lined up.
“Excuse me ma’am. Is the train on time?”
I must look official somehow, as I’m not in uniform on this night.
“No, not tonight. He shouldn’t be too late, though.”
The elderly gentleman thanks me and heads into the waiting room. Another man arrives, forsaking the waiting room to stand outside next to the building and take a shot from his soda bottle.
Inside the depot in the crew office, the radio comes to life.
“You look good, Amtrak. Two markers on the rear.”
58 is coming by the siding at Sidon.
The train’s new conductors gather their grips and head outside. Passengers begin to leave the waiting room and head up the platform.
“The coaches will be up there by that light pole, folks.”
After a few minutes, the glow of the train’s headlight begins to shine off of the steel rails. The train itself is still out of sight due to the track’s curving to the south. Several passengers and family members seeing them off set their bags on the platform outside the waiting room. They’re in the right place; they’ll be in the sleeping car.
The train’s horn blows for the crossing south of the depot. In a few moments the train rounds the curve and slows to an easy stop along the platform.
As passengers get on and off the train, the conductors change. The original crew from New Orleans gets off and will head to the hotel on the west side of town while the new conductors will take the train on to Carbondale, Illinois. The engineer has been on the train since Jackson and will change with his Carbondale counterpart at Memphis. While the train sits and blocks one of the main streets through town, the crews exchange notes and go over their orders for the next leg of the trip.
After a few minutes, the passenger work is done with only the well wishers and the smokers trying for one last puff remain on the platform.
His conference with the conductor done, the engineer walks back to his engine.
Moments later the conductor calls him on the radio.
“Conductor to head end, Amtrak 58. Give me a boarding whistle, please.”
A long blast follows from the locomotive’s horn, and the stragglers throw away their cigarettes and climb aboard the train.
Two blasts from the horn and a rush of air as the brakes release and the train slowly starts back into motion. Doors slam as the attendants and conductors close their doors. The whine of the locomotive turns to a trademark General Electric bark as the engineer notches the throttle into Run 8. The horn sounds for one more crossing as the cars pass by, picking up speed as they go. Then the end passes, red snake eyes of the marker lights bringing up the rear. The crossing gates rise, and then the flashing red lights go out as the handful of cars waiting for the train’s passage thump across the track. There is the metallic clatter of wheels over the rails as the train pounds over a switch, then the marker lights disappear around the curve north of town. A moment later there is the distant sound of the locomotive’s horn, and then it’s gone.
Another day’s edition of the City of New Orleans is on its way to Memphis and points north.
Story and photographs
Copyright 2010 – Mary Rae McPherson