Tamping Track

A maze of track and switches in a rail yard, circa 1900. The task of tamping all that track is much the same today as it was back then. (From Old Time Railroad Stories)

When I was first out of the Army, some 40 years ago, I went to work, briefly, as a trackman on the Missouri Pacific. I worked with a track crew in Neff Yard, in Kansas City’s east bottoms.

All day long we tamped track. It was summer time, and hot. The first lesson I learned was that there isn’t any shade in a rail yard. I envied the guys in the switch engines. They had shade in the cab–and a water cooler. We had a water cooler that we dragged along on a trailer behind our motor car, but we couldn’t go for a drink unless the foreman gave us permission. Our tough old foreman was a product of the old school of railroading. If you ever saw the movie, Cool Hand Luke, it was much like that. No drink without first asking, “Getting a drink here, boss?” Often as not, the answer was, “No!”

Tamping track involved leveling the rails by means of a heavy jack and a bubble level. Also, the foreman would put his face on the rail and check it visually. Wherever he pointed out a sag in the track, I would dig a hole under the rail and set the jack in place. The foreman would indicate how high to jack up the rail. Then the tamping machine would come along and push the ballast under the ties to level up the track. Just before the machine reached the jack, I would yank it out of there and trot down the line to the next sag and dig another hole.

The problem was that the tamping machine could not work where there were switches. And a rail yard has lots of switches. There we had to do it by hand–or rather by foot–for we would use our shovels and our feet to force the ballast under each cross tie. We would kick the shovel repeatedly, thus forcing the crushed stone to fill the void under the ties–every single tie.
Sometimes we would have to vacate a track for a few minutes so the yardmaster could send a cut of cars down our line. If we were lucky, those cars might sit there for five or ten minutes before being shuttled somewhere else. And if we were really lucky there might be a string of cars sitting on an adjacent track. And we could stand in the thin line of shade that they cast and lean on our shovels and wipe the sweat from our faces.
I was young and in a hurry. I didn’t stay with that job for long.

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