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RailCamp 2017

RailCamp 2017 Report
by Cadence Hinnant

[Ed. Note. The following is the report on RailCamp 2017 from this year’s winner of DCNRHS’s G. Lawson Clark RailCamp scholarship. RailCamp 2017 was held in Newark, DE, from June 25 – July 1 and is an educational experience designed to teach students about 21st century railroad operations, dispatching, and maintenance, while simultaneously providing insight into the early history of U. S. railroads. DCNRHS awards a scholarship annually to a high school student with an interest in railroads. Cadence will be a sophomore at Flint Hill School in Oakton, VA, this fall. Cadence’s interest in railroading was sparked when he received a Lionel train set when he was two years old. He has been a member of National Trackers O-Gauge Club since he was six. He volunteers at the Fairfax Station Railroad Museum, and “Classic Trains Magazine” published a photo of his home layout in 2011. Cadence is interested in pursuing a career with Amtrak or Norfolk Southern after college.] Photos by the author.

In the summer of 2016, I found out about this thing called “RailCamp” through a friend who had participated that summer. I did some more research and decided that it would be my goal to attend in the summer of 2017. I immediately started brainstorming how I would write my essay to get into RailCamp and how I would try to get a scholarship from the D.C. Chapter, as well. And here I am, one year later, and I can wholeheartedly say NRHS Railcamp was the best week of my life. Everything from our activities with Amtrak to hands-on learning with Strasburg was mind blowing to me. How are teenagers getting to do this? Every day was like a Christmas present, but instead of receiving a new HO Scale engine, you were receiving an eye opening activity that would change your life.
During our first two full days of RailCamp, we were granted exclusive access to what goes on behind the scenes at Amtrak. On the first day, we visited the Amtrak Training Center in Wilmington, DE. After presentations by various Amtrak employees, including a former RailCamper, we were broken up into four groups.

Our group started off by training on multi-million dollar training simulators which are used to test trainee crew members before they are put in the field. The simulators were fitted with life-size, 100-percent-accurate renditions of cabs from various Amtrak locomotives, and computer generated routes were designed to resemble various Amtrak lines. After testing on the simulators, our group went outside into the small yard to tour a P42DC. While in the cab, we were able to start the locomotive. The last thing we did was train on railroad dispatching simulators. These simulators, and the room they were in, were exact replicas of the Amtrak dispatching center. We would get to see the actual dispatching center later that week.

Amtrak P42DC No. 24 at the Amtrak Training Center.

On the second day with Amtrak, we started off by touring the Amtrak shops in Wilmington. While there, we saw many different units being worked on, as well as an F40PH Non-Powered Control Unit (NPCU) being lifted off its trucks and onto a stand to be fixed by the Amtrak staff. We also had the opportunity to listen to presentations given by a few different employees from the shops about what kinds of things happen there and what education is required for certain jobs. After this, we hopped in the vans and drove to Amtrak’s Consolidated National Operations Center (CNOC) / Centralized Electric and Traffic Control (CETC), which are the Amtrak communication/dispatching centers for the entire East Coast. Under just one roof, the Amtrak dispatching center, Private Car Management, Consist Management, and more reside. Amtrak let us tour the entire dispatching room, as well as check the consists on a number of different Amtrak trains. After we finished in CNOC, we boarded Amtrak Train 125 to Washington, D.C., where we rode in the Amtrak Theatre Car and Geometry Car. Throughout the whole ride, we were shown each car's purpose for the railroad and why it was important. Once at D.C., we were shown just how many jobs there are for Amtrak, from Police Dog Handlers/Officers to Switch Tower operators. We were able to tour the famous K Tower and see the large switchboard that controls the entire Washington, D.C., On the third day of Railcamp, we ventured further away from our home base at the University of Delaware to the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg, PA. We had complete, behind-the-scenes access to everything going on in the museum, from extensive private tours of equipment to touring the shops and seeing future projects for the museum. During this time, we also learned that our groups would make a presentation about one piece of equipment to the rest of the RailCampers. Our group was assigned the Pennsylvania E44, and we spent some time that day doing research and forming our presentations.

Amtrak Shop in Wilmington, DE.

The following day, we traveled back to Strasburg for an extremely amazing day that I will never forget. The campers were again broken up into four groups, each taken through four different activities which I had no idea teenagers would ever have the chance to do. For our first rotation, we practiced uncoupling and coupling a grain car to a locomotive. After coupling the car to the engine, we applied the hand brakes on the car. Throughout the whole exercise, our only communication with the engineer was hand signals. This was one of my favorite things we did during all of the camp, and it was very cool to learn hand signals and actually apply them in the field. Between our second and third rotations, we did some track work on a siding, consisting of removing old ties and placing the new ones, along with spiking them in. This was a lot harder than I expected, and everything seemed to weigh twice as much as it looked. After this, our group went on to tour the shops at Strasburg. We also were able to use a tool to engrave “Strasburg RR” into a spike. Following our shop tour, our group took turns operating the Lancaster, Oxford, and Southern Railway (LO&S) diesel railcar they had there. It was amazing to actually operate a locomotive, especially one I’d seen before in previous trips to Strasburg. Following some banter about which Strasburg locomotive we liked most, we moved on to our final activity for the day. At the Strasburg Railroad, they have a small live steam railroad, and each of us got to drive the “Cagney”, the steam locomotive they use. The Cagney is literally just a scaled down steam locomotive, and everything works the same as one of the full size locomotives they have at Strasburg. This was another amazing experience that came as a total surprise to me.

On our final day of Railcamp, we started off by presenting our projects at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania. We then set off for our final activity, which was taking turns riding in the cab of steam locomotive Strasburg Railroad No. 90. Not only did we get to ride in the cab, but we got to shovel coal and blow the whistle. It astounded me how many hands-on activities we were able to do, and I will forever be grateful to the Strasburg Railroad and the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania for their hospitality and trust.

Performing track work at the Strasburg Railroad.

Wow! It is hard to describe in words what NRHS RailCamp and the D.C. Chapter’s scholarship meant to me. I went into this expecting a good experience, and I came out with one beyond words. The activities we did, from the first day’s blasting of the horn on Amtrak No. 24, to blowing the whistle on No. 90 on the last day, came as a total surprise to me. I had absolutely no idea how hospitable every organization would be and just what amazing things we would do over the week. I know that I would never have been able to do anything featured in this program if it wasn’t for the NRHS. Another thing that was also very important to me about Railcamp was meeting other teenage railfans. In the year 2017, almost every person my age I know is into Basketball or Video Games. I have a small group of about 10 friends I railfan with, but after NRHS Railcamp my number of train friends doubled. Overall, I cthank the NRHS enough for everything they’ve done, from sponsoring me to creating this great organization known as Railcamp. I encourage any teenage railfans to participate in this camp; it really is life changing.