Monday, March 17, 2014

War Stories - Episode 17: The Amtrak Eraser

"Fill this out.  It's for your Amtrak pass." said our Training Coordinator on the first day of work.

What?

I get an Amtrak pass?  Cool.

So, what's a pass?

One of the age-old benefits of working for a railroad was being issued a pass.  A pass let you ride on your "home road", that is, the railroad you worked for, for free.  Exactly how that worked with Pullman accommodations I don't know, but it was still a pretty good perk, especially if your railroad went interesting places.

Once Amtrak took over the intercity rail passenger service in 1971, things changed.  The rule for who could ride where and when changed, but for those who hired after April 1, 1976, like me, got a pass that was good for 50% off any Amtrak train, including accommodations.  Good deal...

...for me. Maybe not so good for Amtrak.  The "problem" was that I used the pass.  I also tended to use Amtrak for business whenever I could.


  • I rode the Floridian between Chicago and Birmingham AL in the Spring of 1979.
  • I rode the Broadway Limited from Philadelphia to Chicago and back (via PRR mainline: Crestline and Fort Wayne) in the summer of 1979.
  • I rode the Lake Cities from Toledo to Ann Arbor (via Detroit) in the early 1980s.


So, big deal.  I rode all those trains.  Now, go to The Museum of Railroad Timetables and look at Amtrak's route map in 1979 and then in the late 1980s.

See what happened?  Everyone of these rides, I'm pretty sure, caused Amtrak to take the train off shortly after I rode!  The route just vanished from the map!  I'm not sure why, but I became a "human eraser" to Amtrak's route map.

In the early 80s, they changed my pass to be nearly useless - just 25% off coach fare for tickets purchased within 24 hours of departure - and no discount on accommodations.  I was sad to see the changes, but I never really understood why I was ever entitled to anything in the first place.

It's probably a good thing.  If they'd have left it alone, Lord knows how much more of Amtrak's route map I'd have wreaked havoc on.

Full disclosure:  I have ridden many non-NEC Amtrak trains since they changed the pass and every single route is still operating.  Lake Shore Limited, Maple Leaf, Crescent, Silver Star, Silver Meteor, SW Chief, California Zephyr, Adirondack, San Diegan, Cascade and Pennsylvanian.

Apparently the power was in the pass.


I still have my pass.  Might even use it again someday, when time is more flexible.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

War Stories - Episode 16: "Welcome to the (Metro)club!"

This is a war story about an actual war!

When Conrail was created from the wreck of the Penn Central et. al., Amtrak inherited the former PRR "Northeast Corridor" from New York City to Washington DC and the branch to Harrisburg since they were the predominant user of the line.  This was probably a good thing.  Conrail had enough trouble to keep them busy without having to figure out how to host another hundred or so passenger trains a day.

But, it didn't come without trouble.  Conrail still had the right to run trains there and had to negotiate with Amtrak over a whole host of issues.  The relationship didn't start out well but it got worse over time.  One of the first sticking points was over usage of electric traction power.

When PRR, and then PC, strung up the catenary, they didn't much care which particular train or MU car used how much power.  They just built the equipment with efficiency in mind and then payed for the generation needed to cover the total consumption.  They knew how much they were generating, but not where it went, specifically.  It really didn't matter to them.

Amtrak and Conrail negotiated a split to the electric bill, but after a few years, it was clear to Conrail that the method for splitting the bill was way off.  Both sides agreed to take a fresh look.

It was tricky because the power went all sorts of places. It was being used by commuter trains in Philadelphia and New Jersey, freight trains on Amtrak-owned track and some Conrail owned tracks, such as the Port Road or Enola Branch/Low Grade Line, Amtrak locomotive hauled trains, Amtrak Metroliner MUs and borrowed commuter MUs.  It also went to handle building light and heat in certain places as well as being converted for signal system power.

The looking included putting some power meters on locomotives and MU cars to see exactly how much power they were drawing.  Conrail's Equipment Engineering department ordered a few power meters and got them installed.  I believe one went on an E44, another on a SEPTA MU car, one on an E60 and aonther on a Metroliner.  They'd be moved to other equipment once enough data was collected in order to get good coverage.  That was the easy part.

There was quite a variety equipment and train types using juice from the wires....

E44s going through Princeton Junction.


GG1 at South Amboy


Soon-to-be NJT Arrows closing in on Princeton Junction
Soon-to-be SEPTA Silverliners at Radnor PA
Amtrak GG1 in Metroliner Service, Claymont DE

Metroliner passing Amfleet train at Princeton Jct NJ

Amtrak leased Silverliners from SEPTA for Harrisburg Line Service, Lancaster PA

The hard part was collecting the data.  That chore fell to Conrail since they were the ones complaining.  So, Conrail had to supply man power.  That typically consisted of stalking the equipment and when it was close to Phila, jumping on and reading the meter, often riding to the end of the trip and reading it again.

I found this all rather fascinating so I stuck my nose into it, and offered up a way to figure out approximately how many more runs were needed to get to specific confidence interval given the current small sample of data - sort of a backwards "t test."  The reward was I got the occasional quick slot in the data collection.

The memorable trip was the time I got the call to catch the early afternoon Metroliner to New York that was expected in Philadelphia shortly.  Just by luck, the power meter had been installed in a Metroclub car.  The Metroclub cars had actual parlor car seating in them - probably the last equipment built this way in the world.

I had ridden in Metroclub once before in my life.  It was on July 20, 1968 on a family trip to NYC for the day.  (Bonus points if you know what ELSE happened that day....)  I was twelve years old and that whole trip remains cemented in my mind to this day.

So, I head down to the platform at the appropriate time with my clipboard and pencil.  The train arrives.  I hop on and find the power meter about mid-way in the Metroclub car on the left hand side.  It's not crowded so I take the seat under the meter.  I read the meter and write down the value.  The conductor comes along looking for tickets.  I explain.  He's good with it.  He also volunteers to get me a "dead head" ride back to Philadelphia since this equipment isn't turning until the next morning.   The train gets to New York. I write down my number.  Hard day's work!  It was the second and last time I ever ride in a revenue parlor car seat.

The conductor directs me across the platform to a long clocker that's just getting ready to depart.  I find the crew and settle in for the ride in the head end back to 30th Street. I get the center seat in the cab.
E60 near Grundy tower, Bristol PA
The E60s were just getting their ride quality issues sorted out after derailing at 120 mph back in 1974 and this train is allowed 90 mph between the stops as it makes it's way to Phila.  The ride is actually pretty decent....until we hit an interlocking while motoring at 90 mph.  The entire cab lurches sideways.  The seat armrest plants itself in my ribs.  Then, the locomotive cab lurches the other way and the opposite arm rest repeats the process on the other side of my rib cage.  This goes on for a couple cycles and finally damps out.   The engineer just rolls with it, looking much like a "Weebil".  You know, "Weebils wobble but they don't fall down!" Gadzooks!  Now I know why the cab seats have arm rests!  "How'd you like that?" asks the engineer with a big grin on his face.

That was my last ride for the project.  The "plug got pulled" - literally.  Conrail was relieved of commute operations, so the MU fleet operation fell to the state agencies to fight it out with Amtrak.  After studying electrification between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh and deciding against, Conrail decided to retire all the electric freight locomotives and run diesels under the wire...the secondary effects of this decision would come back and haunt them year later.

Conrail GG1s with no more work to do
But, that's another story for another day.

War Stories - Episode 15: "100 mph commute!"

A quiz.  Did you study?  It's multiple choice.

When you work in a train station, the best possible way to get to work is by:

a) train
b) train
c) train
d) all of the above

I chose "train".  In Philadelphia, that meant I had lots of choices of where to live as there were commuter rail lines radiating out from Philadelphia in all directions.  I ultimately chose to live in northern Delaware.  Delaware is just barely big enough to have a "northern" part, but it did - and I lived there.  In fact, the place I lived was within sight of the Pennsylvania border.  It was fairly close to the SEPTA Marcus Hook PA station a bit more than halfway from Philadelphia to Wilmington.

PRR-side trains all originated out of Suburban Station

RDG-side trains all originated out of Reading Terminal

To New Jersey, the choice was the PATCO Hi-Speed Line
...which connected to ex-PRSL Budd cars for Atlantic City, Ocean City and Cape May

Here, then, are some tales of the commute.

I had a fairly easy, cheap and fast commute.  I drove a few miles to Marcus Hook where I caught a SEPTA train scheduled for roughly 7:40 AM.  It was one of the few that started its route in Newark, DE and was often a few minutes late because of it.  It took me the 17 miles from "the Hook" right to the upper level at 30th St. Station just in time to get a Dunkin Donut and a Coke (Breakfast of Champions!) and be in the office at 8:30.

Most days, the train would be four Silverliners.  The train stuck to the historic schedules for the line and stopped nearly everywhere on the way in.   Lamokin St., Highland Ave, Chester, etc, etc.   It even stopped at the Baldwin Locomotives Works stop, which had been shut down for over 20 years!  Surprisingly, on the average, one and half people boarded there.

Silverliners at old Claymont DE station.  Next stop, Marcus Hook
One morning, the train was particularly late.  So late that SEPTA decided to turn the next arriving Marcus Hook local back immediately from the other platform instead of having it cross over and wait for it's regular schedule.  The station agent popped out of the old silver trailer that was the Marcus Hook station and told everyone to cross to the other platform to catch the inbound local, which was arriving soon, and would be the next train to Philadelphia.

There was an overhead bridge complete with stairs to the platform and a sidewalk, but nobody ever used it.  Most folk just walked across the four track, high speed mainline.  It was the shortest way back to the parking lot.  It wasn't the safest way, but it wasn't particularly hazardous if you took a bit of care.  Most people waited until the train departed before crossing the tracks, but there were always a few impatient people who crossed IN FRONT OF our train every day.  This was quite a bit more dangerous.

You'd think that, with all this practice, we'd be "pros" at crossing the tracks.  Not really.  Behavior was more like lemmings.  When one went, all followed blindly.  Maybe "creatures of habit" is the right term.  Yeah.  That's it. We were "Creatures".

Most evenings, the Silver Meteor would beat us out of Philadelphia and we'd have a clean ride all the way to Marcus Hook.  However, if it was a bit late, we would get passed by the Silver Meteor at Hook interlocking just before we arrive at Marcus Hook station.  He crossed over in front of us and then we follow him. However, on rare occasions, he would pass us on the other track while we're in the station.  Those days often had the "front crossers" scrambling for safety.  "Creatures" IS the right term.  Definitely.

Well, this particular morning, the creatures started swarming across the track as the agent told them that's where the next train would depart.  I looked up at the home signal for Hook Tower that was just to the north.  They'd just put up the signal for our delayed commuter train.  Hmmmm.  I also saw a headlight approaching from the north.  Double hmmmm. But, it didn't look like a Silverliner.  It looked suspiciously like the Metroliner that was out of Philly about 7:40 and through here about 7:55.  Triple hmmmm.  Perhaps the one we passed every day on the way in?  So, I stayed put...and watched things unfold.  This wasn't shaping up well!

Turns out, it WAS the Metroliner, closing fast!  Next thing I know, the hoard of creatures, 50-100 strong, were scurrying like rats.  The Metroliner's engineer was blowing his horn steadily, emitting that shriek that only Metroliners do.  I winced as he blew through the station at roughly 110 mph.  I don't see how, but everyone managed to scramble to safety.  A minor miracle.

Now, everyone is standing on the west platform.  I'm alone on the east platform.  The late, regular train rolls into the station and stops.  Nobody on the other platform budges an inch.  I get on the train.  The train departs. They're all still standing stock-still on the other platform.  It was hard to tell if they were more dazed or confused at this point, but NOBODY was crossing those tracks again this morning!

Metroliner at speed
The trip home was the best part of my daily commute.  It was fast and I liked fast.  I rode the express that departed the upper level of 30th Street Station at 5:03 everyday.  This four car train rolled out onto the center tracks at Arsenal and then did it's very best Metroliner imitation, quickly eclipsing 90 mph and sometimes just nicking 100 mph mark on the slight downgrade through Ridley Park, blowing by a local train en route.  How did I know the speeds?  I rode on vestibule every day.  The speed indicator on all the cab cars worked whether they were in the lead or not and the conductor didn't car much if we rode out there as the train was generally full leaving 30th St.  We usually had four Silverliner IVs but occasionally would draw the older IIIs or IIs.  The older Silverliners were a hair faster and would often get into the low 100s.

The train ran the first 13 miles to Chester in about 11 minutes and then started making local stops after that, quite often covering the 17 miles to Marcus Hook in 17 minutes.  That's a pretty fast commute!

One day, after fast run to Chester and knocking out the next two stops in short order, we come to a stop signal at Hook.  They were holding us for the Meteor. It would be by in just a few minutes and we'd be on time, still.   After just a few seconds, one cranky lady said out loud to no one in particular.  Why is this train ALWAYS late!?! I guess 100 mph just isn't fast enough for some people.

Another day as significant snow had the lineup of trains at Suburban Station in disarray.  The train behind ours was an all-stops local that usually ran with a six car set of ancient MP-54s.  At full boil, the MP-54s could just get over 60 mph.  In the place of our usual equipment, this set of MP-54 oozed up to the platform.  Everyone piled on and away we went.  We got the "high iron" at Arsenal as always and then bounced and swayed our way down to Chester at far less than our normal speed.  We got to Marcus Hook about 10 minutes late that day, but nobody was complaining this day.  They were just happy to get there in the snow.

The last tale comes under the heading of "Wayne's Law." (info here and here).  Ninety-nine percent of the time, the trains arrived and departed the upper level at 30th Street like clockwork and "creatures" like me depended on that.  One day, at 5:03, a train rolled in.  I didn't listen to the announcement or look at the sign by the vestibule door.  I just hopped on - like every other day.  "Hmmmm.  Six cars today.  That's unusual", I thought, priding myself on being so sharp as to notice.  Then as the train departed, I thought some more.  The Media Line trains have six cars. They share "our" platform.

Uh. Oh.

Yes, this was a Media Line train running slightly late.  So, I went to Media! I could have found my way back to 30th Street one of a couple ways and then tried another train for Marcus Hook, but that would have taken quite a while.  Instead, I found a payphone and had a buddy come pick me up.  The penalty for "stupid" was rather minor, this day.

I made the Marcus Hook to 30th Street commute until the summer of 1980 when I decided to move to an apartment in New Jersey.  Somewhere during 1981, Amtrak kicked us out of 30th Street.  They were going to renovate and move their offices from a rental on Market Street in Center City.  So, we moved to an older office building at 15th and Walnut, and a few years later into Six Penn Center, the last home of the PRR in Philadelphia.  Ten years after that, it was on to Two Commerce Square, down the block.

I used the PATCO Hi-Speed line, NJT express buses, and SEPTA heavy and light rail lines in various combinations over the years, but none ever came close to that 100 mph commute!