Take the 'A' Train
Oct 8, 2008
|And don’t get blown away! - Wednesday, October 8
Today we’re headed for the summit of Mt. Washington, highest point in the northeastern United States. They say that on a clear day you can see 5 states and Quebec from the summit. Today is sunny and clear overhead, but there is a haze in the distance. They also say to dress warmly. Mt. Washington weather is considered to be the worst on the North American Continent.
Winds in a 1934 storm reached speeds of 231 mph, the highest wind velocity ever recorded by man. The average wind speed is 37 mph, and hurricane wind speeds of 75 mph or more are attained on over half the days in the winter. Temperatures range from 74 degrees (the highest ever recorded here) to –49 degrees (the lowest ever recorded here), and temperatures fall below zero (32 degrees below freezing) an average of 65 days a year. Global warming here will be a mixed bag. The higher temperatures will be nice - but the down side will be more storms and even higher wind speeds!
So why are we going to this forbidding place? To give the standard sappy answer: “Because it’s there.” And to give a better answer, “Because it gives us the opportunity to ride the cog railway, which in 1976 was declared to be a National Historic Engineering Landmark.
The cog railway, besides being historic and fascinating, is also one of the few alternatives available to people like us who do not have a car. Motorhomes are not allowed on the road to the summit, so if you want to go there you have to either rent a ride (there are tour busses and a limousine service that will take you to the top), or take the Mt. Washington Cog Railway.
There is a third alternative that might have looked attractive 40 years ago, but today is not appealing. That is, you can get on the famous Appalachian Trail and hike to the top. From the base station at 2,700 feet it is a vertical climb of about 3,600 feet, and some nice people have put hundreds of rock cairns along the trail for you to follow so you won’t get lost. What they don’t tell you at the bottom is that on top of the mountain there is a long list of people who have died trying to climb the mountain, and for the first woman who died there is even a memorial.
Even with all it’s huffing and puffing and warnings of cinder fallout, the cog railway looked like the best alternative. And besides - we already have the reservations we made yesterday. We arrived half an hour before our 1:00 PM departure, and picked up our tickets. We were assigned to ride the ‘A’ train, which turned out to be a good thing because trouble with one of the other trains at the top was forcing them to cancel the ‘B’ train that was supposed to leave with us, and reschedule the people on that train to a ‘C’ train they planned to add on the 2:00 PM departure.
We boarded a bright orange car with 68 other people and a Brakeman named Adam. Adam was a personable young man who pointed out points of interest along the way and talked about the history of the railway. He also explained a lot of the procedures involved in operating the railway, and there is a lot more to it than meets the eye.
Touted by management as ‘one of the safest railways in the world’ the Mt. Washington Cog Railway is not without problems, and in the past some of those problems have led to several fatalities. A switching error in the ‘60’s caused a derailment that killed half a dozen passengers and the engineer (although a video we watched later said a hiker did it).
Since then strict switching procedures have been instituted, and all the manual switches but one have been replaced by electric and hydraulic switches. Switching a cog track is far more complicated than switching a normal two rail track. We got to watch the operation of the complex manual switch on our way down, when Adam switched our train to a siding so three upbound trains could pass.
The coal fired locomotives use a ton of coal and 1,000 gallons of water on each ascent. The tenders only carry 700 gallons so there is a stop on the way up to take on more water. Shortly after that stop the train reaches the halfway point at 4,500 feet, and then it begins the ascent of ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ a potentially dangerous stretch of track that takes the train over a trestle where the train is simultaneously on a sharp curve 16 feet off the ground, and climbing a 37.41% grade! At that grade the seats in the front of the car are approximately 14 to 16 feet higher than the seats in the rear of the car.
We negotiated Jacob’s Ladder OK and a short time later the summit was in view. There was snow on the ground here, and below the surface the ground is permanently frozen and never thaws out. We started seeing the cairns marking the Appalachian Trail and even saw one hiker. Adam warned us that hikers on the trail like to ‘moon’ the trains, but this guy was either ignorant of that tradition, or too cold to want to expose himself. He just glanced at us and then disappeared over the crest of the rock.
At the top we had time for a rest stop and some photo ops, and then it was board up again for the descent. The ride down is faster, and after switching to the siding to let the other trains go by we made good time. On the trip down the car is independent of the engine, and the Brakeman controls the descent using two wheels that operate axle brakes which are very safe and efficient. He stays very near the engine, which is now ahead of us (it pushed from behind on the way up), but he can bring the car to a stop if the engine has problems (like breaking something and running away!).
Our descent was not troubled by any problems, and we ended our ride at the Base Station by 4:30, only half an hour late. We spent some time watching a video on the railway and visiting their museum, and then we headed for our KOA to update this journal and relax for the night. Another great day goes into the memory bank!