by Dave Beach
The diesel era helper operations on the South-end up to Altapass were really interesting. I think the pushers at least for coal trains often tied on before Erwin–maybe Johnson City or even Kingsport. I can remember seeing pushers cut into coal trains north of Erwin, but this was before the JC cutoff was built. I don’t know that they ever cut off at Poplar or were put on at Spruce Pine. I suppose that there could have been an occasional boost from the Spruce Pine switcher but doubt that it was a planned operation.
The cutoff at Altapass (or Ridge siding to be more exact) is something I observed several times and have a sequence of photos of. Maybe someone else saw the operation that King described in his book where the wye was used to run around and turn helpers but I never did. The only time I saw the wye used was for #1 on an excursion in 1975 and when the crew on a July 1971 Marion local didn’t like running long hood forward.
Here is the way I saw it. Helpers were cut in ahead of the caboose. The train would slow as the rear end exited the Blue Ridge tunnel. The helpers would cut away from the train on the fly. They would back up into the tunnel, bumping the caboose a little bit more up the hill into the tunnel before reversing directions (The top of the hill was near the north end of the tunnel so they had to be careful not to push too far!). The crewman on the ground would line the helpers into the siding and then quickly line the siding back to the main for the caboose which would by then be slowly drifting downgrade towards the train. The train would be around the curve out of sight; I assume that they stopped to let the caboose catch up. The crew on the caboose would have to work the brake wheel to avoid a jolting collision as well as to avoid stopping short of the rear car. The helpers would then get or wait for clearance to return to Erwin. The trains that I saw do this always had the trailing pusher unit facing north so using the wye at Altapass was not necessary. The wye was in service so they could have used it if they were stuck.