My First Train Trip

To tell the truth, my first train hopping experience was really stupid and not even worth mentioning. Suffice it to say that I didn't manage to hop a moving train, and did manage to attract the attention of a CP Rail Bull, who was kind enough to waive the $90 fine and give me a slap on the wrist. Since then, though, I had always wanted to actually hop a train and go somewhere, and two weeks ago I got the opportunity.

Since I moved back to Montana from the Midwest a year or so ago, I've done a lot more train watching. It is more accessible and safer, but not as varied, though railroad action in Milwaukee these days is rather pathetic. The Montana Rail Link runs through the old Northern Pacific line, from Laurel, Montana to Sandpoint, Idaho. My family lives in Helena, and I'm going to school in Missoula, 120 miles west. My car, a '64 Buick, blew the water pump in mid-October, while I was in Helena, and instead of replacing it I decided to put it away for the winter, and got a ride back to Missoula. My father had ordered a new Dodge truck, and said he'd give me his old pickup. So here I am in Missoula, and my truck is in Helena. I have very little money, and none of my friends can give me a ride. Good preface, eh? Well here's the story...

One Sunday afternoon, while walking track-side, I came upon two transients sitting by the rails. I struck up a conversation, and because I was interested, decided to see them off on their train. They had come from Pasco, WA, and were going to Helena. We built a small fire and were not bothered by any railroad personnel. Three or four hours later, an eastbound Burlington Northern container train came through and stopped for a few minutes. They hopped in, and then a few cars were switched out, and the train departed for Helena. "I can do this!", I thought, so I walked back to the dorms and planned out my trip.

The following Friday, Nov. 4, I packed up my warmest clothes, some food, and walked the 3-4 miles to where I had first met those two guys. I waited and waited, but there was nothing but westbounds for hours. Then around 3:40, a MRL security guy, in a plain white Chevy blazer drove by watching me, then doubled back and questioned me. I did not lie. I said, "I'm just watching the trains", and then I said "Yes, I know people aren't allowed to ride the trains". It's his job not to let me on, and he wanted me out of there, though, so I took a walk for an hour and a half, and came back just at dark (5:30 p.m.). An hour later, a westbound piggyback train came through, and I was about to give up hope and call it a night.

But, 15 minutes later, an eastbound BN mixed freight was seen, mostly closed boxcars, tankers and plywood cars. I thought, "but where do I ride?". Then I saw a gondola. I peeked in, nothing but snow. "Perfect" I thought. So, when the train was stopped, I climbed in. I had a sheet of plastic with me to sit on, and I braced myself for the slack action. About 30 minutes later, we pulled out of the yard.

It was about 35 degrees, and I laid low and tried to keep warm. We stopped once in Bonner, to let a westbound pass, then continued on. Beneath the snow was a thin layer of scrap metal, but I found a pretty comfy niche to sit in. About 40 miles or so out of town, I got tired of sitting, and stood in the corner watching the scenery for most of the rest of the way, laying back down when there was a town or a train passing. I would estimate the speed to be about 45 mph.

At a small town, we stopped to add helper units for the climb over the Continental Divide at Mullan pass. This was a very scenic trip, even in the fractional light of stars reflected off of snow. The train quickly slowed to 15 mph or so, up to the top, then plunged into a tunnel and picked up speed quickly. The diesel fumes in this tunnel were intense. I had read somewhere that at one time it was ventilated with fans and the like, but is not any more. I had to pay attention on the way down, because periodically the gondola would jerk violently, which I attributed to the resistor-brakes. Once I thought I saw another train far in the distance, but it was actually the front end of the train I was on. A large horseshoe-type curve permitted me to see the entire train. Then there was one last curve, and all the night-time lights of Helena could be seen.

The train stopped for a long time (30 minutes or more) at Helena West, to cut out the helpers. The night had turned warm, even though there had been snow at the top of the pass. Then we slowly pulled into the station at Helena. I considered jumping out while the train was moving, to avoid the station, but there were a lot of cars at the crossings (Friday night) and I didn't. The train pulled to a stop on the third track in. It turns out I should have jumped off sooner, because there were two trains to the south (where I needed to go) and at least 4 strings of cars to the north, and the station to the west (busted for sure), and nothing but strings of cars stretching east. So I did a very dangerous thing, and climbed between two grain trains that were hooked up to power, but not with headlights on. They stayed stopped, to my luck, so I crossed the street, went into Hap's Bar for a beer, and walked to my dad's place, 6½ miles away.