COBWEB CORNERS: The wreck train
By Mel McFarland
Down in the Midland yards sat the cars of a train everyone knew would be needed but hoped it would not be soon. Several cars and heavy equipment were used in the wreck train. The railroad had three of them, one here, one in Leadville and another in Basalt, over near Glenwood Springs. If there was a wreck anywhere on the line, one or more was sent out to clear the tracks.
In the old days a telegram arriving at the railroad superintendent's desk might have read, "Accident to train No. 2 with engine number 12 at Hartsel with Engineer Smith and Conductor Jones, at 1 a.m." A wreck-train crew would have been dispatched within minutes. Each station had a telegrapher to maintain contact with other stations and the division superintendent. After the first communication, the station with the most information about the wreck would send additional telegrams detailing what had happened and what the damages might be. The kind of equipment sent out would need to match whatever had happened!
Suppose it was a freight train that had derailed a few cars because of a problem with the track. The wreck crew would need to be ready just to put the cars back up and fix the track. If it were a passenger train, the crew would need to know if people were injured and if other cars would be needed. This would require different equipment.
The crew might include mechanics, track workers and just plain laborers, depending on the situation. It would often include a cook or two and a car with a kitchen and another with bunks for men to rest if it was going to be a long and involved situation. Spare parts might be needed too! A wreck train would have as few as two cars or as many as eight or nine, but it would have a clear path to the problem. All other trains would be ordered to stop at stations and wait until the wreck train passed. Soon the crew would return home, back to other jobs on the railroad until the wreck train was needed again.