Monday, August 18, 2014

War Stories - Episode 26: EMD's travelling MAC show

This is my favorite war story.

It has the happiest ending, I think - at least in my own mind.

It involves the assent of AC propulsion locomotives.  It was real, tangible progress and I played a small part.

I still have a copy of the test report I wrote following the test, so my memory is "enhanced"!

The equipment needed to make a North American AC propulsion freight locomotive started to seem technically practical back in the late 1980s.  Amtrak and CP both took some "off the shelf" European equipment and retrofitted an existing locomotive to get an idea of how it might work out.  Neither retrofit was particularly successful except as a proof of concept to show that the high-power electronic switches that could chop DC power back into AC in a high horsepower diesel locomotive.

The next step was to see if a modern, state of the art new locomotive could be constructed.  The locomotive builders were reluctant to build a demonstrator fleet since the cost of development was so high and they were uncertain of follow-on orders even if it was wildly successful.  Without a demonstrator, no railroad wanted to take the first leap.  Too many things could go too badly to justify such a huge investment.  Things were at an impasse.

Out of this, the AAR formed an ad-hoc committee to explore funding a joint AC demonstrator fleet.  The ad-hoc committee's charge was to develope a specification and test plan for a demonstrator fleet.  It was championed was Steve Cavanaugh of CP.  Mike Iden of the CNW (and later UP) was on the committee, too.  Some pretty high priced talent.  Then there was little, old me.  I was selected to represent Conrail on the committee.  It got rolling in 1991 and involved discussions with locomotive builders - big and small, propulsion equipment suppliers - Siemens, ABB, et. al., one person from each of the major US and Canadian roads - Conrail, BN, ATSF, NS, CSX, CN and CP, and a few folk from the AAR staff.

Work progressed fairly quickly and the committee settled on a specification for a 5000-6000 HP six axle locomotive.  The thought was it could replace SD40-2s on a 3 to 5 basis in drag service and nearly that in merchandise and intermodal service as well.  A fleet of roughly 25 was proposed so that it would spread the development costs out and garner enough experience to understand how well AC propulsion worked and what remaining work needed to be done in order to have a reliable fleet.

Some interesting rememberances from the meetings...

Republic Locomotive came in one time expressing interest.  The owner wore a cowboy hat and flew his own plane up to Chicago from Spartanburg, South Carolina.  A strange outfit run by interesting guy - or an interesting outfit run by a strange guy?  It was hard to tell.

At another meeting, the NS representative was fully on board with the work we were doing, offering several helpful suggestions.  At the next meeting, he stated NS had no interest in participating and he was only there to keep an eye on what the industry was doing.  He sat silently through the whole meeting.  I guess he got a dose of "we ain't doing it and keep your mouth shut" when he got home.  NS tended to be that way, culturally.

We were just at the point where we needed the railroads to start to ante up for the test fleet when the whole project collapsed on a stunning announcement.  BN had just placed and order for 350 AC locomotives!  A mammoth bet that obviated the need for a test fleet.

No more fun meetings to go to.  Rats!

During the time the committee met, EMD and Seimens constructed four demonstrator locomotives.  They were based on the current production DC locomotive, the SD60M, but would have AC propulsion.  They were christened SD60MACs and spent the first part of their life on the BN testing prior to production.

Once the testing was done and production on the first of the 350 was underway, EMD made three of the demo units available for other roads to test.  We were scheduled to get them in August of 1993.  I was all over it!

Unfortunately, the transportation department had decided they were just going to run them all over the network on all kinds of trains.  They even had a list published.  It was not good.  It wouldn't tell us anything about the limits of the AC propulsion system.

What we needed to do was give that AC propulsion system a workout.  Get them "on their knees" at close to those adhesion levels EMD was claiming.  We already knew what a 3800 HP six axle could do on an intermodal train.  The SD60MAC would perform identically.  But, could it pull with 130,000+ lbs force? THAT was the question we needed the answer to.

They had EMD's radial truck which helped them to keep a good grip in curves.  We were familiar with these, having tested some SD70Ms a couple years ago.  What we really want to see was those crazy, high adhesion levels.

Testing radial trucks against four axles on Elsworth Secondary

We argued, through the right channels, of course,  for a test plan that would have it work on the Boston Line, Pittsburgh Line and West Virginia Secondary with some tonnage trains.  It was accepted!  I was the guy who had to coordinate the test. It was probably the biggest, most complicated task I'd been handed since my time at Conrail began.  I lobbied hard to get it.

Time to get to work!

The locomotives would need cab signal installed.  We arranged for one unit, BN 9503, to be done at Enola.  A quick calculation showed that the AC propulsion system would be running at roughly 100 Hz at 70 mph.  Uh, oh.  That's the same frequency as the cab signal system carrier.  We'll need a test to make sure the two systems don't interfere.  EMD designed and installed some special shields to go around the receiver bars to reduce interference.

We involved Harmon Electronics, our current cab signal supplier, our C&S department - they were also concerned about interference with overlay circuits for grade crossings -  and EMD.  I arranged a special test trip from Enola to Thompsontown and back on August 17, 1993 with special permission to operate at 70 mph.  There were folk at road crossings along the way and Harmon was measuring the raw signal coming in off the receiver bars behind the front pilot.

The whole thing came off without a hitch.  Harmon's data showed input from the propulsion system, but it was faint, less than 20% of the track circuit signal. We might have been able to get away without the shields, but things worked well with them.  That was a job for another day.  We were ready to go!

This is the only picture I can find of the test consist.

Here's the test routes as executed:

8/24/93 UBO coal train Conway PA to West Springfield MA *
8/25/93 BAL ballast train to Selkirk NY
8/26/93 SEAL merchandise train to Allentown PA
8/27/93 lite to Enola PA
8/27/93 ENPI merchandise train to Conway PA
8/28/93 lite to West Brownsville PA
8/28/93 ULK coal train to Enola PA *
8/29/93 ZSR ore train to Pittsburgh PA *
8/30/93 lite to West Brownsville PA
8/30/93 UFY coal train to Enola PA *
9/1/13 ENPI merchandise train to Conway PA
9/1/13 XCG empty hopper train to Dickinson WV
9/3/13 UGS loaded coal train to East St. Louis *

* trains that tested adhesion close to design limit

One of the things we had to watch was drawbar strength.  If you had standard C couplers and all three AC units on line, you could very easily break a knuckle, regardless of train weight.  E couplers could withstand whatever all three units could put out.  We had a rather detailed test plan, complete with how many units could be on line with what kind of train, what data to collect from EMD's test car, and a schedule of trains, routes, and riders. Testing was underway.

Some testing stories:

While making the westbound trip on the Pittsburgh Lline with the ZSR ore train, somewhere somebody in transportation got it in their head that we might be able to do away with helpers if we used AC locomotives. That could be true under the right circumstances, but not on the day they wanted to try it.  It was a 11,100 ton ore train with grade C couplers.  All three units on line.  Heading over Horseshoe Curve.  Quick calculation.  1.8% grade x 20 #/ton x 11,100 tons = 400,000# force!  Three SD60MACs should be able to come close, but Grade C couplers are only good for 250,000# - might take 300,000# in a pinch if you aren't too far into the fatigue life already.  We called the division, "Don't try it.  You'll get a knuckle for sure." "We want to try it, just to see..."  "Don't do it.  It won't work."  Fell on deaf ears.  Up the hill went the ore train. The train was just getting into the meat of the grade when....BANG went a knuckle about 6 deep and WHOOSH went the air.  Got the train back together and called for helpers and off they went.  Didn't try that again.

We did get to work all three units hard with some coal unit trains with grade E couplers.  At least one was on the West Virginia Secondary and one was up the west slope of the Pittsburgh Line.  In both cases, the results generally successful, but not 100% so.

The one on the West Virginia Secondary got a knuckle after encountering a thunderstorm downpower.   After getting the train back together, it had great difficulty getting up to 5 mph, however once over that, the units dug in and accelerated the train.

The other was from UFY coal train to Enola with a 110 car coal train.  I happened to be riding this one but almost missed out.

Just before it was my turn to accompany a test run, I wound up with a ridiculous, never-had-one-like-this-before, headache.  My doctor's best guess was viral meningitis.  I have no idea if it was or wasn't, but it was bad enough to keep me from getting much sleep or doing anything except lying in bed with my eyes shut. Ugh.  He gave me some percocet to zonk me out.  Didn't make a dent.  The good news was the headache pretty much faded into a dull ache after a couple days regardless of the percocet.  I finally got a good night's sleep and the next day headed out to West Brownsville to catch up with the test consist.

The test consist included the three SD60MACs, EMD's test car, and 110, 100 ton hoppers.   Trailing tonnage was 14,700 tons.  The destination was Enola where these 110 car trains were chopped down to 90 car trains in order to operated south through the B&P tunnel to power plants in Maryland.  The train was right at the limit for tonnage on the west slope, so we had a pair of helpers tacked on the rear at Conemaugh for safety.  Started to pull.  Not moving.  Dynamometer couler in EMD's test car was showing less 100,000# per unit with quite a bit of variability.  Lead unit is jumping up and down a bit.  EMD advises the engineer to trust the wheel creep system and just keep pulling.  Slowly, we start to move.  After 12 minutes, we're only a few hundred feet down the track.  Still not pulling anywhere close to 35% adhesion.

We call for the helper to give a nudge. He shoves and we start moving for real.  Once the speed got close to 3 mph, the AC units get a grip and we start making a solid, steady 135,000# a unit.   We have the helper throttle back.  The train moves fairly smartly away from Johnstown and shortly into the meat of the west slope a steady 1.1% grade with a stretch of 1.25%.  We hit it in notch 8, making 8 - 10 mph all the way.  Not a hitch the whole way up.  If these had been DC SD60s, they'd have burned their traction motors to a crisp  These AC locomotives were the real deal!

The trip down the Horseshoe Curve and along the Juniata River valley to Enola was uneventful.  I remember the rather strident tone of the BN horn.  It was more piercing and strident than the Conrail standard three note Leslie.  I also remember the cloud of black blowing from the hoppers as we rolled along at 40 mph.

Soon, the testing was over.  The cab signal system was removed and the locomotives moved on to the next railroad to test.  I was left with a small mountain of chart recorder data to analyze and a report to write.

There were two big questions:

1. Was the 32% adhesion real?

2. Where and how could or should we use AC locomotives?

The test answered the first question.  Yes.  32% adhesion was real.  Again and again the locomotives achieved 32% or better adhesion.  The only fly in the ointment was the two times at very low speed when the locomotives couldn't get a grip.  Any purchase of AC locomotives would have to be contingent on this flaw being resolved.

Where would we use them?  That was a tougher question.  We looked at three cases.  A 4000 HP version for drag freight, a 5000-6000 HP version for Merchandise and Intermodal and in locations where helpers might be eliminated - or some combo of these.

As it turns out, the best case was for the 5000-6000 HP locomotive operating on the Pittsburgh Line with merchandise and unit coal traffic.  Taking a sample of actual trains, we calculated what DC and what AC power they would require and then aggregated to get a replacement ratio.  They also showed a decent replacement ratio for general freight service on the Chicago Line, but that service didn't take advantage of the high adhesion.  I had the report completed by the end of September 1993.

The report made four specific recommendations:

  1. Use any 4000 HP AC locomotives in drag service only
  2. Pursue a 5000-6000 HP AC locomotive in lieu of a 4000 HP AC locomotive
  3. Perform comprehensive testing of any and all AC locomotives to insure no interference with cab and wayside signalling using audio frequency carriers
  4. Pursue integrated distributed power system (Harris Locotrol with EPIC airbrakes to maximize locomotive utilization and minimize add-on hardware.)

The report was written just as Conrail was getting interested in some GP60s and SD70MACs for 1995 delivery (with isolated cab, of course!).  The report got a fairly wide distribuiton and I think it helped push Conrail toward changing the order to EMD SD80MAC locomotives.

There was some discussion about EMD's 6000 HP four stroke engine, however, we'd seen the havoc wrought by even small changes to proven designs.  There was no way you could convince the Mechanical Dept. to take a chance on that.

The 5000 HP 20 cylinder 710 engine was different, though.  Even though no railroad had any running around and the bitter taste of the 20-645 still lingered , there were over a hundred in marine service by 1993 and the economics around the replacement ratio didn't work for a 16-710 engined 4000 HP AC locomotive.  It helped that Conrail did have some good experience with the improved 20-645 engined SD45-2s.

The order was placed.  28 SD80MACs - and later the two demonstrator units EMD built to Conrail specs.  They were the most technologically advance locomotives in the US at that time.  The collection of features they had was unparalleled:
  • Electronic airbrake (EPIC II)
  • Electronic cab signal/LSLtrain control (Harmon Ultracab II)
  • Locotrol DPU
  • EMD ICE - integrated cab electronic and displays system
  • Isolated cab with sound proofing (Whisper Cab)
  • Electronic fuel injection (RFI)
  • Radial trucks
  • and, of course, Siemens AC propulsion
By the time they were delivered, I'd moved on to a job in the Intermodal Service Group.  They arrived in late 1996 to great fanfare at Conrail.  There's lots of good info here and here.

A of pair nearly new SD80MACs sitting in Pavonia NJ
In service, they had some teething problems, particularly around the EFI, but genearlly settled down and performed well.  Conrail did some goofy things with them, like running a few in intermodal service and eventually putting them all on the Boston Line for maintenance convenience.  This was fairly low utilization service for locomotives we should have be running their wheels off on the Pittsburgh Line.

1997 was the start of the NS/CSX merger madness and plans to purchase another big chunk of SD80MACs went by the boards.  In the end, CSX and NS split the fleet.

They are now approaching 20 years old and are still soldiering on.  NS's VP Mechanical recently said they were a good, solid locomotive.  NS keeps them captive between Altoona and Conway for maintenance familiarlity - they are unique.

Every now and then, a pair of SD80MACs leak out of Conway on a mainline train headed for Enola or points east.  Just as God intended.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

War Stories - Episode 25: The Tooth Fairy visits a GP15-1

The unfortunate case of CR 1625.

It was one of 100 GP15-1s bought in 1979 by Conrail.  The GP15-1s were new locomotives with a good sprinkling of parts from trade-ins.  They filled a niche for low HP locomotives suited for yard and local service.

In the mid-1980s, digital electronics started showing up on new locomotives.  They held great promise for being able to optimize and adjust locomotive performance through software rather than through wires and relays.

It was thought that tthat older locomotives might benefit from digital electronics.  That thought collided with GP15-1 CR 1625.

First, some background.  Woodward Governor of Fort Collins Colorado had been making mechanical flyball engine governors for locomotives since the dawn of time - maybe a bit before.  Their PG governor was a state of the art,  time-tested device, but its set-up was so tricky, railroads generally wouldn't let any field maintenance be done on them.  Screw up and you could make a big mess.

Woodward had developed an electronic governor called CLC, that not only did everything the PG governor did, but could also control other devises like cooling fans and the air compressor.  One of the interesting things you could do was to independently set the engine speed and load for each notch.  The PG governor was limited by the mechanical geometry of its design, notably a triangular plate with three solenoids acting on it.  You had some flexibilty to set the speed/load schedule, but it was always a compromise.

Why would you want to do this?  Fuel efficiency!  There was the potential to squeeze more out of the lower notches, particularly on roots-blown engines where the blower provided more than enough air flow in the current scheme.

In 1988, we decided to try one.

Mistake number one.  We chose a GP15-1.  Modular electronics.  Good.  Fairly new locomotive.  Good.  Able to keep it captive to one location for testing.  Good.  DC main generator.  Oops.  Should have chosen a GP38-2.  Having the CLC get control of the excitation for a DC main generator without a massive load regulator proved to be a big problem.

Mistake number two.  Too many interested folk involved in the installation.

Here's what the story:

We gather at Altoona.  Juniata is going to do the installation.  It involves placing a speed sensor on the camshaft gear, mounting a fuel rack actuator where the governor used to sit and wiring up the brains of the system mounted in the long hood near the AC cabinet.  There is a small group working on each part.  It all goes pretty smoothly.

The last step before firing it up is setting the speed probe so it can "see" the camshaft gear teeth.  We pull the probe out and bar the engine over until one of the teeth is right below the drilled and tapped hole.  Then we screw it in until it touches and then back it off a bit until it has exactly the right clearance. The electronics are loaded with decent default values to mimic the PG governor we took off.  It's time to crank it up!

Whirrr, whirr, whirrr....nothing.  Woodward guys start checking out signals coming into the box.  Nothing from speed sensor.   Start checking connections, etc.

Meanwhile, while nobody is looking, the local Woodward service representative, loosens the collar on the speed sensor and screws it in until it bottoms.  He's thinking the gap is too large. What he's doing is screwing it down between two teeth!

The electricians find a wiring problem and fix it.  Prime, Crank.  Whir.... then nothing.  The whole locomotive heels over a few degrees, hangs there and then the engine starts cranking.  Whir, whir, whir.... Still nothing.

What the heck was that rock and roll action?

Speed sensor now shows defective.  Unscrew it.  It's stuck.  Finally get it out.  The end is gone.  The business end is pretty much destroyed.  Hmmmm.  How'd that happen?  Get another one and install it.  Crank.  Whirr, Whirr, Whirr....Varoom!  Big cloud of smoke, then smooth, steady idle.  Success!

We get the engine speeds tuned to the original speed schedule and set the fuel rack accordingly and called it quits for the day.

Later that night, the Woodward guy confessed to what he did.  We thought briefly about what it would take to check and see what the damage was to the cam gears - and decided against it.  We'd have to pull the main generator...big job.  The locomotive was running okay, so, no harm - no foul!  We load boxed the locomotive the next day, got it running reasonably well and send the locomotive out to work.

A few months, the main generator has a ground and the locomotive is sent to Juniata.  They pull the generator, and laying on the cam gear housing is....

The gear tooth, not the golf ball....

The broken speed sensor had caused one tooth to sheer right off!  I take the broken tooth as a souvenir of the project.

The grounded generator appears to be unrelated to the cam gear problem.We get the generator replaced, some new gears on the rear end of the engine and the locomotive is on it's way back to Pavonia for a checkered career with it's CLC governor.

The CLC never could control the main generator well.  The controlling SCR fails.  Woodward replaces it with better one.  The loading rate doesn't tune well and the locomotive runs poorly ramping up and down between notches.  We try several things, but none work very well.

One Sunday morning I get a call from the Philadelphia Division.  The locomotive had a major case of exhaust sparking, probably a side effect from that CLC governor, and had set a brush fire.   It makes the "unusual occurances" report.  Lots of unwanted attention. Oops.

I take a ride on it, from Pavonia to Millville and back and later, from Pavonia to Mount Holly and back.  I monitor it with the plug in tuning device.  It works pretty well but even monkeying with the tuning a bit more, I can't get it to totally behave.

Finally, we surrender and send it back to Juniata to have the CLC removed.   However, on it's last day, I spend one long day - past midnight - with it at the test lab, running a bunch of steady state load and speed settings for each notch.  Extrapolating from those results, we find that we might be about to save about 2% of the fuel burned each year with an optimized load/speed schedule.  It would require a huge amount of further work to get all the way to the goal line, though.  So, we move on to other things.

The 1625 is living out the remainder of it's life as LTEX 1411, recently working on the Wiregrass Central in southern Alabama following a stint as NS 1411.

The tooth fairy might not have been nice to it, but, I have still have its tooth!

Monday, August 11, 2014

War Stories - Episode 24: No flying! No problem!

In the 1970s, Conrail was all about rehabbing.  The run-down eastern railroads that made up Conrail got a good going-over.  Locomotives rebuilt.  Freight cars overhauled.  Track upgraded.

In the 1980s, Conrail was all about economic survival.  The stock was sold in an IPO and now the heat was on to show a decent profit each year.  This led to some interesting behavior.  Sometimes, we'd get into the beginning of the fourth quarter and there'd be an all-out push to save every nickel possible to make the end-of-year numbers.  Sometimes, a bad beginning to the year would elicit the same response.  It usually meant you could count on a few things.  One, all of the IT contractors got send home. Two, program locomotive and car work would get put on hold or scaled back.  Three, travel budgets were slashed.

Slashed travel budgets usually were manifested as a "no fly"mandate.  If you needed to fly anywhere, you needed your department head's approval - and he often said "no".

There was a loophole.  They didn't say you couldn't take the train.  No flying?  No problem!

I would often try to work Amtrak trains into business travel where it made sense.  I had been known to take the Lake Shore Limited overnight to Erie, the Broadway to and from Chicago,  the Broadway, National and Pennsylvanian to and from Altoona - in fact I was in the Altoona station waiting for the Pennsylvanian when I heard the news of the space shuttle Challenger exploding, Empire Service trains to Selkirk and, of course, NEC trains to all points on the NEC.

Others in my office would use Amtrak along the NEC fairly regularly, but I was the only one "crazy" enough to try it elsewhere.  Now I had the "authority" to be crazy and use Amtrak even when it made less sense!

Some trips I made included:

Montreal:  A winter ATCS meeting in Montreal allowed an all day trip up on the Adirondack, including nice views of frozen-over Lake Champlain.

London Ontario:  Visiting EMD to check on new locomotive construction.  Maple Leaf out of Penn Station.  Change at Aldershot ON to VIA and on to London.  A marathon day trip.  Leaving home at 4:30 AM and arriving London after 9:00 PM.  Slowing down from 100+ mph to 79 mph at CP-169 just west of Schenectady felt like we were crawling after flying but lots of great scenery along the Mohawk River made up for it.    The tight connection at Aldershot worked out just fine despite some interesting delays at the Canadian border.  I made this trip at least twice. Once the train was delayed on the bridge at Niagara Falls as customs agents inspected the train with dogs and hauled a couple 20-somethings off the train.  Another time, we got delayed at the drawbridge over the Welland ship canal.   On one return trip, the London to Aldershot train was an LRC.  Neat!

 And, the "big trip" - a round trip to Tampa to take a look at CSX's road slugs made from GP30s and mated to GP40-2s for Bone Valley service as well as their ATCS pilot installations.  Overnight in a roomette both ways.  Silver Star down, Meteor back. Spent one whole day in Tampa.

With abundant cell service and tethering, it would be no big deal to use a coach seat or roomette as a "mobile office" these days.  Then, I had no mobile phone, expensive laptop computers were just appearing on the scene and the internet was a ways off.  Still, to be fair, I did what work I could on the train often reading and revising specifications and catching up on other professional reading.

On the Tampa trip, I took the office laptop and completed reformatting mainframe text locomotive specification documents into a PC format.  It was lots of tedious work.  In the early days of PC's it wasn't always so easy to make global changes to documents.   I spent a good bit of time with the laptop and VHF scanner or Walkman going as we rolled along between Florida and Philadelphia.  I could get used to this!

I don't travel much in my current position, but I do have a trip to Philadephia coming up in a month.  I've booked a roomette on the Crescent.  (even though it's a couple hundred bucks more then flying - don't tell my boss!)  I'm bringing my cell phone and laptop.  

I'll let you know how that 21st century mobile office thing works out.  But, if it's even half decent...

No flying?  No problem!