Rail tunnels are really a bore.

Rail tunnel            This was a grain-hopper rail car I rode from Vancouver, BC, to Calgary, Alberta Canada.  This tunnel here is roughly 900 yards long.

I had been working at a tank-farm right off the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe railroad tracks in Minot, North Dakota, setting up concrete bases that would later sit under cattle watering devices.  I had worked for two long days and had been paid in cash.  I walked a short way to catch-out heading West.   I rode on a gondola that had been loaded with steel beams that looked like they would be used in bridge work.   This gondola on my train took me all the way west to the small ski-resort town of Whitefish, Montana.   I got off the train here and felt that I may have eaten something that had gone sour.  So after scouting for a while I found an old empty boxcar to sleep in for the night.  I got really sick overnight, so I lay all the next day in my boxcar nearly motionless trying to get up enough strength to continue west.   I didn’t realize that I was in for several days of sickness.

Finally on my seventh day in Whitefish, my sweating & fever broke.  I was starting to feel much better, so I had to now make tracks and leave this ski resort mountain town for the west coast.  I gathered all my gear, walked down to the Amtrak depot, and ran fresh water into my gallon milk jug I used for a drinking water container.   After being in that dirty old boxcar for seven days sweating, you can imagine how filthy I must have been. I proceeded on down to a small, clear stream that ran underneath the railroad tracks on the west end of the yard, undressed and waded out into the stream with a bar of “Lava” soap I had brought along with me. I washed off the grime that had built up over those past several days.  Ah, I felt so, so, much better after this!  Now I was ready to ride.  After about an hour’s worth of waiting, a westbound mixed freight train came in for her crew-change.   I walked up to an empty boxcar and boarded.  The crew-change only took about 60 seconds then we were on our way westbound.  

Now, riding west out of Whitefish there is the “Flathead Tunnel” that injects the mountains with a full and easy seven miles of mainline railroad tracks!   This tunnel I knew was somewhere west between Spokane & Whitefish, but I wasn’t exactly sure just how far it was to it’s bore, so I rode the boxcar by sitting in the doorway, constantly looking ahead for the hole in the mountain.  There it was, right outside the tiny roadside town of Happy’s Inn, right at 33 miles east of Libby, Montana!

We entered the tunnel doing about 30 mph.  I started hyperventilating because of my fear once we entered!   I ran over to where my gear lay and shone my flashlight at my sleeping-bag zipper trying to find out why I couldn’t get it un-zipped!  I was panicking badly!  I needed to get my sleeping-bag unzipped so I could dive inside and cover myself up!  Finally I just ripped open my bag by pulling both ends of it as hard as I could, got inside, covered up fully, and prayed for 20 minutes until I came out the west-end of the tunnel.  At last I was in the fresh air.  It felt like I could breathe once again!  I had made it through!  Now I had to figure out how to sew up the huge, long tear in my sleeping-bag.

I hadn’t realized that if I were going to suffocate, I would have already died inside the tunnel, since carbon monoxide molecules are smaller than any sleeping-bag material that I may have had.  I have always hated rail tunnels not because of their length, or from being all closed into a small area, but because of the diesel exhaust that pours out from the locomotive units inside them while riding through behind these heavily exhaling beasts.    Once the train gets all the way inside these tunnels, a red & white striped painted metal door electronically closes over the east-end of its bore, and a fuel-fed jet engine built at the east-end of the tunnel also comes to life sucking out the foul air inside!   The inventor’s idea was pretty simple, yet ingenious!   It works fairly good.  A vacuum is created inside the tunnel when the door covers the east-end and as this jet-powered suction comes on, it draws in air from the open west-end of the tunnel, blowing it out of the east-end through a separate portal on top of the jet!   Once inside the tunnel you can feel the slight vacuum on your eardrums.  If you are close enough behind the locomotive units, you can suffocate from carbon monoxide poisoning still, so by riding as far back on the train as possible, the fresher air has a better chance at being where you are by the time you roll through the point where the units were earlier.  Also you can ride in the rear unit itself up in the cab where you are exempt from having any problems since you are sealed inside the cab.

The thing is, once you get out of the 7.2 mile long “Flathead Tunnel” and are riding on a freight train headed for Seattle, there is another even longer 7.8 mile long “Cascade Tunnel” that lies between Wenatchee & Seattle on that very same rail-line!  Both of these tunnels are the same in that they have a jet-powered vacuum system set up on the east-ends of the tunnels helping to clear the tunnel bore of bad air so the train crews and hoboes on the next train due to traverse through, will have good clean air to breathe.7.8 miles long! by distortingreality.     This is Cascade Tunnel between Seattle and Wenatchee. The tiny town of Index, Washington, is where you enter or exit the west-end, while the tiny town of Baring is at its east-end.  (Notice the notches at the top-end? These were etched out the entire distance through, in order to create enough room for the higher rail cars that were manufactured after the 1950’s and 1960’s).

The “Moffat Tunnel” between Denver & Grand Junction, Colorado is 6.6 miles long, and then you have “Tennessee Pass Tunnel” that lies between Pueblo, Colorado, & Grand Junction, which is 4.8 miles long.  Then there’s “Hoosac Tunnel” that lies between Worcester, Massachusetts, & Albany/Schenectady, New York.  Hoosac bore is 4.7 miles in length!   When I first started riding freight trains, I had been told several times that you could also take a hanky, wet it down and by covering your face & mouth/nose, you can avoid suffocating in these really long tunnels. Once again no matter what type of cotton material that you may have, there is actually no material that you can use over your face that filters out the microscopic carbon monoxide particulates.  You may be able to buy such a filter at an army/navy surplus store, but placing a layer of material over your face hoping to filter out poison exaust,…you are in for a big surprise!

Peak-a-Boo by trainboy03This is Moffat Tunnel between Denver and Grand Junction, colorado.

So, if you are planning on taking a hobo trip through one of the above named tunnels, make sure to ride on the very last rail car, or inside of the locomotive rear unit in the cab.

About hoboshoestring

I'm a professional hobo of nearly 25 years. This blog is a collection of my most memorable freight train trips; most with photos. First things first, a hobo is someone who rides freight trains and is not a homeless bum on the city streets. I've been hopping freight trains for transportation since 1989. I've ridden over 340,000 miles of steel rails in 49 US states, eight provinces in Canada and 14 states in Mexico. I ride all rail lines in North America. I have hundreds of hobo trip photos that can be viewed by clicking my "Photostream" at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/30715417@N04/
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