Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Snow in Altanta: Live by the car - die by the car

Dusk falls - roads freeze

You may have seen it in the news.  Or, you may have lived it.  "Two inches of midday snow destroys Atlanta!  Film at 11, and 6 and 7 and 8 and 9..." You'd think General Sherman had come back!  Thousands of people trapped in traffic in their cars for over 18 hours - not moving an inch.  Six mile commutes taking six hours.

The morning after - still not moving

Two inches of snow.  That's all.

How does this even happen? It's really pretty simple. 1-2-3.

1. City not built with robust transportation infrastructure.
2. State not equipped for bad weather.
3. Hidebound bureaucracies - creative solutions not explored

Let's take'em one at a time.

1. City not built with robust transportation infrastructure.

Atlanta grew up and arranged itself around automobiles.  That's not necessarily a bad thing, it's generally how things worked in the second half of the 20th century.  Cars are remarkably flexible.  They go where and when needed.  No schedules to worry about.  No limit to origins and destinations.  No worries about first and last mile of the trip.

The flip side of this is it creates sprawl where there are very few people ever travelling from the same A to the same B at the same time.  Further, while there are lots of common links in all the trips being taken, it's hard to build highway capacity to keep up with growth.  Another way of saying this is, the easier you make it for someone to get from A to B, the more people will show up to make trips that use this link.  Highway planners call this "induced traffic".  Nearly all highway traffic in Atlanta is induced.

Consequently, on a good day, Atlanta has lots off traffic moving between a very diverse set of As and Bs and the common links, like I-285 on the north side, get jammed very easily.

Older cities that grew up along transit lines tend to have high density population clusters arranged linearly along the transit line.  Highways were added to the already-developed corridors and things sprawled out in between, but by-and-large, transport along the corridors is strong and many people use transit regularly - often with short first/last mile trip by car or foot.  Sure, there are lots of people who drive instead of using transit, usually because the transit trip is too complicated, but a nice chunk of them can make their trip using transit if they want to.

Think of the commuter rail lines radiating from Chicago, or the heavy rail transit lines into South Philadelphia and Northeast Philadelphia.  Lots of folk there can make their daily commute by rail, should they desire - and lots do regularly, as well.

So, what happens when snow is predicted?  In transit oriented cities, most earnest workers will go to work, but some will hedge their bet and ride rail transit that day.  They are known as "snowbirds" to regular transit riders (and often scorned for not being "regulars").  It lightens the load on the highways so that when the bad weather hits, the salt trucks can get out and things still move -even if quite slowly.  The trains are packed - they aren't carrying everyone, just enough to ease the burden on the highway.

In Atlanta, most earnest workers drive to work and figure they will be able "bug out" if things get bad.  When things do get bad, they all "bug out" at the same time, creating rush hour, just earlier in the day.  The already heavy highway links bog down and jam up.  Highway planners can tell you that a jammed highway carries less traffic than a free flowing one.  All it takes is an accident here or an overly cautious driver there to create a jam.

That's what happened in Atlanta on Tuesday.  Every major highway jammed up by early afternoon.  Normal flow was down to a trickle. Then it got cold and the roads iced over.  The trickle of flow became zero several places as traffic couldn't negotiate even slight grades.  No flow means no salt trucks.

Game over.

Could Atlanta become more robust?  Maybe.  It would mean developing rail transit into the sprawl and this would serve only a very small number of existing trips.  Remember, Atlanta developed around cars, not trains in the past 50 years.  The transit lines would eventually attract higher density development, but it would be an expensive proposition at the start.

Can it be done?  Yes.  Two recent examples are Washington DC where the Metro was built out into city and suburban sprawl to the point that there are definite corridors with high density business and residential areas along the line.  Los Angeles is, surprisingly, another.  They have developed commuter rail operations along existing rail lines and built heavy and light rail lines to support them.  LA survives and grows even though there is little highway expansion of late. An interesting development in LA is that there are commuters who keep cars at each station they use to do their first/last mile - doing a car - train - car commute each day.

But, you have to want to do it.

2. State not equipped for bad weather.

Georgia has a pretty mild climate.  It's part of what attracts people to the region.  Another attraction is fairly low taxes.  Consequently, Georgia has little snow fighting equipment.  You don't "built the church for Easter Sunday" so, you don't gear up for "once a decade" snow calamities, do you?  Atlanta has just enough salt trucks that, in a day, they can salt all the overpasses on the city streets.  It's about a half dozen trucks.  They can't salt or sand all the roads - they just don't have that kind of capacity - and they don't have the money to go get it.  Is it really a good  idea to buy trucks you'll only use once every other year when your sewers are leaking an water mains are sprouting every day?

The state has more equipment - about 100 trucks - for the largest state this side of the Mississippi.  You'd probably need that amount alone to service just the interstates in Metro Atlanta.  Once again, who pays?  The gas tax can't keep state highway department funded as it is.  If you raised it a couple cents a gallon, you might raise $50-100M a year.  That would buy a few trucks and drivers.  But the voters just nixed one cent sales tax to improve transportation - mostly highways - in the region.  Think they'll do it for snow-fighting equipment?

3. Hidebound bureaucracies - creative solutions not explored

So, the state and city aren't up to the task for these rare snow events.  They just don't have the equipment and manpower.  But, there are thousands of trucks and millions of people in Metro Atlanta.  Maybe they can help.  For starters, the state gov't has rather cozy relationship with highway construction companies - they've done A LOT of business over the years.  These folk have lots of vehicles that could be used for snow fighting.  They have dump trucks that could be fitted with salt spreaders.  They have water trucks for dust control that could be fitted as brine sprayers.  Why not use them?  They can't be out building roads when it's snowing, after all.  All the state would have to do is stockpile enough salt, sand and brine.  That stuff doesn't spoil, so a big stockpile would have little ongoing cost to maintain.

But, there would be contracts to write, performance to measure and logistics to figure out.  None of this is what the state DOT is good at - except signing contracts - to build roads. And, once the snow melts, so does the political will to force something new to happen.

All the politicians have appeared on TV and been forced to "eat a bug" in public - but that can't and won't change much of anything.

So, the next time we have a daytime snow event, guess what's going to happen?

Deja Vu.  All over again.

Live by the car - die by the car.  We wouldn't have it any other way.

P.S. to give an idea of the numbers:

A highway lane can move 2000 vehicles and hour when it's flowing.  So, 5 lane I-85 can do 10,000 commuters an hour.  The METRA commuter rail line parallel to I-55 west of Chicago carries about 30,000 commuter round trips a day (1.3 M riders per month).  The much-talked-about, but never-close-to-funding "Brain Train" from Atlanta to Lawrenceville (and Athens) would have carried 7000 commuter round trips a day.  MARTA carries about 150,000 riders a day (individual fares)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014



There have been quite a few advances in technology applied to railroading in the past several decades and several more are in the works or are being talked about.  Each has pretty much been a single application to a single situation.  PTC for signalling. ECB for braking.  DPU for locomotives.  I've always wondered what it might look like if all the technology, and a bit more, worked together.

Additionally, railroad are constantly changing.  The current trend is toward more intermodal freight and less coal.  This will likely require rethinking of how railroads operate and what the purpose of their track network is.

I've taken both these thoughts and welded them into the narrative below.  It's a real snoozer unless you like thinking about technology and railroads...even then...beware.

Friday, May 18, 2040. 8:00 AM. Harrisburg Pennsylvania.

It was quiet, except for the faint hum of an occasional electric motor.  The Harrisburg Mega-terminal was busy, though.

Charlie pulled his car into the parking lot and plugged it in.  Amazingly, he could still charge his car up for free at work - something about offsetting greenhouse gas credits.  He really didn't understand, but free is always good!  Most places these days would bill you through your car's e-VIN - every car had an RFID tag in it these days.

The lot hadn't changed much since he hired on in 2010.  It had been repaved a couple times, but the gravel addition that was put on in the early 2020s had since gone back to weeds.  The terminal itself had kept expanding.  At the east end, was a vast, parking and storage lot for containers.  It reached almost to the ancient, but serviceable train shed at the Harrisburg passenger terminal to the east.  On the west end, the parking and storage reached nearly to Rockville Bridge.  In the middle of this were the two mile long loading track, four of them, straddled by 16 loading cranes. Compared to 2010, nearly three times the traffic was moving to and from the terminal these days.  The terminal superintendent had recently posted a chart in the crew room showing that growth of intermodal freight had kept up a pretty steady 4% growth rate this century.  In the past couple of decades, about half of it was from the growing economy and the other half was conversion of carload traffic.

He walked into the crew room and his "electronic timetable" put him on duty and started downloading the latest updates, bulletins and other required information.  It also uploaded the "wheel report" and job profile.  Charlie didn't even give this a second thought - even if the company still used clunky-old local WiFi to do the uploading.  Wireless cell/satellite data was universally available and super-cheap these days.  They could just push the update as soon as it became available.  But, no, he still had to come to the crew room to get it.  Someday, maybe, the railroad would enter the 21st Century, he thought.

The Electronic timetables started out as an app for an iPad and the old paper timetables faded into history.  Eventually, a lot of other functions were added until there was no more need for computer terminals and printers.  Strangely, Charlie missed the sound of the printer.  It was just too quiet these days. (do we even need a tablet?  All the same info was on the locomotive....)

Speaking of quiet, the room was nearly empty.  Not like the heyday of 2020 when there were usually a bunch of folk coming and going and telling war stories.  Some days, Charlie was all alone.  Today, Bill was there.  He was going on duty for the "Baltimore coal turn" job.  He wasn't happy.  The job was to take loaded steam coal to Baltimore for export, dump it, and return empty.  Africa was hungry for steam coal and the port was still pretty busy dumping coal onto vessels.  The job almost never made it back in the required 8 hours.  Something usually got fouled up.  Charlie remembered when he hired on, there was a steady stream of coal coming off the Mon Valley - mostly moving in big, "bathtub" gondolas, 135 to a train.  A couple of locomotives on the head end, and a couple DPUs on the rear to Altoona where they would cut off.  Now, those gons were long retired, replaced with some nearly as ancient rapid discharge hoppers that formerly moved Powder River Basin coal from Wyoming to power plants around the country.  There were still some coal fired plants in the country, but coal usage was way down from the peak in 2020. A lot of rapid discharge cars were made surplus in the past 20 years.

The train for the "Baltimore coal turn" had come into Harrisburg directly from the mine, just barely making it in 8 hours.  These trains were dogs.  Typically 360 cars long with a single DPU every 40 cars.  30 year old 4500 HP, AC locomotives.  Still straight diesel - no electric or LNG-hybrids on these trains!  Even though the route from Harrisburg through Pittsburgh to Cleveland and Chicago had been electrified 10 years ago, these trains still ran with ancient diesels because the route from the mine to the mainline and from Harrisburg toward Baltimore was not.

Invariably, one or more locomotives would quit, or stop "talking" to the head end, or otherwise be cranky.  On top of that, these trains had a hard time getting to track speed and were constantly being run around by the speedier, electric powered intermodal trains.  Further, these trains had old-style "stupid" airbrake.  The original brake valves from when the cars were built in the first part of the century were mostly still in place and the train still carried an ancient end of train device they called FRED.  Charlie had no idea why they called them FRED.  Maybe it was the name of the inventor?  An old head had told him a story about a rather vulgar acronym.  That couldn't be right.  Railroaders didn't use that kind of language.  Anyway, you only used the air at your own peril.  A brake application was almost always trouble.  You'd either wind up in emergency or some car or another would fail to release.  What a pain.  And, no graduated release!  Stopping smoothly and quickly was out of the question.  Lots of coasting and dynamic brake was the rule.

The "Baltimore coal turn" was the worst of the worst.  Even if you made it down to Baltimore in good shape, dumping the train was an adventure.  The rapid discharge mechanisms failed like crazy.  In each group of 40 cars, there was always at least one car that wouldn't open, or close, or got stuck half way.  Charlie thought some new equipment might not be such a bad idea, but with coal in decline, he suspected the company was just trying to run the wheels off this old crap and then get out of the coal business altogether.  Even now, the metallurgical coal movement that would remain after steam coal finished dying was starting to be converted to container service.  Many of the metallurgical coal mines weren't producing enough volume to require mine spurs these days.  Instead, coal was loaded into 45 foot open top containers which would then be trucked to the nearest intermodal terminal.  The stuff loaded out before it cubed out, so the only thing you had to watch for was overloaded containers. (08-04-2014 update:  They are moving grain in containers...why not coal?

Good thing the rapid response Mechanical Flying Squad is around.  Literally.  They flew in semi-automated quad-copters that could hover automatically and put down just about anywhere and lend a hand. (Jan 2017 update - I thought this prediction was far-fetched.  Maybe not!) Rarely did it take them more than 20 minutes to get to you and they usually could get you patched up and moving in minutes.  Not like the old days, when he had to sit and wait for his conductor to trudge back to the trouble spot and to do his best.  Without the Flying Squad, they'd never make it over the road. Charlie did miss having a conductor in the cab with him, though.  Eight hours alone can be a long time.

Charlie got his electronic timetable out.  It was actually an iPad-flex. As soon as it saw he was looking at it, the small display powered up.  The battery was nearly fully charged and would last the better part of a week, thanks to WiFi trickle charging and ambient light solar cells. He unfurled the windowshade-like main screen and locked it into place, (Jan 2017 update - ) looked at the "current job" icon and double-blinked.  He though about the days of dusty mice and smudgy touchscreens and broken phone glass.  Ancient history!  A window popped up.  "TVHARCHE18_2".  He had an intermodal train that was being built on the yard at Harrisburg and was going to Chicago-Englwood on the 18th day of the month, second section.  He looked below the symbol and navigated his way through the job briefing, wheel report, bulletins, safety rule of the day and the menu at the crew hotel at the other end of the line.  Yum.  Lasagna for dinner, and French Toast for breakfast. He could deal with that.  The device noted that he did these things....

He noted that  there was a PTC section out around Conpit Jct, a slow order in Latrobe proper, nothing crazy in the consist.  All "smart DPU gen V equipemnt"

Charlie had the train as far as Cleveland.  He could normally make it in about 6-1/2 hours, thanks to some major curve straightening, realignment and electrification.  He could hold at least 30 mph all the way up and around the fabled Horseshoe Curve, and 60 mph most everywhere else.  There were a couple of 35 mph curves that were still being worked on, and some slow going through Pittsburgh proper, but that was it.  There were even a stretch of 80 mph  from Alliance to Cleveland that was being tested.  There was some talk trying to bump up speeds elsewhere on the route, but there was some internecine "discussion" going on at high levels about this. always.

 There'd even been some talk of a "Big Tunnel" project to by pass the Horseshoe curve.  The main proponents were the HSR passenger crowd, looking shave more time off the Phila-Pittsburgh route. If the tunnel could be constructed with a 1% grade, it could be used for freight, too, but that would cost more than a steeper passenger-only tunnel.  So, far, the project was more of a dream than a plan.

The new, lightweight stack cars couldn't take the pounding of the older equipment, so the power was distributed every 3000 feet through the train.  On the head end was an 6000 HP, four axle, AC electric locomotive with an aerodynamic cab on each end.  This unit was only two years old, built by GE....  NS had purchased three boosters for every cab.

Today's train is 14,000 feet long.  There's a block of 1500 feet on the end for Pittsburgh and a block of 3500 feet for Toledo.  The rest are for Chicago.

3000' Chicagos
booster loco
3000' Chicagos
booster loco
3000' Chicagos
2000' Toldeos
booster loco
1500' Toldeos
booster loco
1500' Pittsburghs

36,000 HP, 12,000 tons nearly 3 miles long.

The cars in the train were all less than 10 years old.  They were very light weight - about half of what a late 20th century stack car weighed.  And, they were smart.  Each car had computer on it whose function was to "talk" to the cars it was coupled to.  What did they talk about?  Who am I and who else is on the train?  What train is this? Where am I (yes, each car had GPS and 'dead reckoning'). Are my roller bearings happy?  Am I riding okay?  Is the track smooth?  Where am I?  What are my brakes doing and what does the engineer want them to do?  To I have enough air pressure in my reservoir?  Is my handbrake on? How fast am I going? What do those boxes on my back weigh?  Are my wheels round?  How's my battery charge?

It was a virtual trainline powered by "ultra-violet" wireless, the current version of "Bluetooth" micro networking, only much more robust and much faster.  The battery that kept it all going charged from small solar cells mounted on the car plus a small generator built into one of the roller bearings.  It was extremely rare for one to go flat.

(current info on ECP braking)

The other big change was in the car structure itself.  Distributed power and a "smart" trainline meant that the forces between the cars could be kept very low, so the cars were designed accordingly using half the steel - and half the buff strength.  This made them cheaper to acquire, which allowed the old fleet to go to scrap in a big, economically justified, hurry.  The newest cars were even lighter - made mostly of aluminum.  Charlie had heard that the expected life of these cars was only 10-15 years.  That seemed strange to him.  Most freight cars in the past lasted 40 or more years, but these new cars were so cheap, they didn't need to last as long.

The things that hadn't changed was the standard, three piece freight truck and the coupler.  What was new, was these new intermodal cars had much lighter draft gear and machined couplers with much less free slack.  There was still some "play" in the train, but there was never any violent slack running in or out like the old days.

The three piece truck still had it's issues.  It was prone to hunting at higher speeds, but the difference now was the "smart" car could detect incipient hunting and kill it with a brief, light brake application.  These new cars had been tested at speeds up to 125 mph, although nobody was regularly running faster than 80 mph.

Time to go.  Charlie walked out the door and got a quick ride in a crew shuttle up to the head end.  It was a two mile ride.  The yard crew had built the train entirely by remote control from the tower.  He climbed on to the locomotive.  It recognized him from his electronic timetable, verified it with the in-cab camera, and greeted him, "Hi, Charlie!"  Charlie had never really gotten used to that.  It was still a bit unnerving.  Reminded him of HAL in that ancient sci-fi movie "2001 - A Space Odyssey".  Even though the rest of that movie was far and wide of the mark, it nailed the "talking AI machines".  They were everywhere!

The locomotive "shook hands" with the info on his timetable and told him the train was in order.  He radioed the tower and asked for permission to depart.  Kind of weird that this tradition still stood.  A minute later, his PTC display went green and showed he had a route out of the yard on to main all the way across the bridge to Marysville.  Seconds later, the yard tower said, "TVHARCHE18_2, have a safe trip!"

He notched out rather rapidly at 8:47 AM and the train slowly began to move.  The DPU units were set to "automatic", meaning they would figure out what to do based on what the engineer was trying to do with the train and what was best for smooth train handling.  When accelerating  from a stop, it took tens of seconds for the train's slack to sort itself out, so the train just crept along for a few hundered feet.  After that, the train started accelerating rather robustly, reaching 30 mph "yard speed" in a matter of a couple minutes.  Having Electronically Controlled Braking (ECP) made all the difference.  Stopping distances at all speeds were greatly reduced.  No more, "it takes over a mile to stop a train from 60 mph!".  Trains could now stop at the rather uncomfortable rate of 6 mph/sec, bringing a 60 mph train to a halt in 10 seconds and a little over a quarter mile.

The train cleared the yard limits at 8:55 AM - five minutes early. Charlie could have set the train speed control on "automatic" and let the train follow the maximum authorized speed along the route, but today, he decided to set it at 40 mph manually.  As the head end was approaching the west end of Rockville Bridge, both the rear car and the yard reported the rear end clear of the yard.

The PTC display chimed as it updated the movement authority all the way to Lewistown.  Charlie set the speed control to automatic.  As the rear end of the train exited Rockville bridge and cleared the curves into Marysville, the maximum authorized speed display changed to "60" and flashed a few times to let Charlie know it had changed.  Charlie felt the train accelerate.

He set the auxiliary display to show the status of the DPU units in the train.  The information was fed thorugh the "ultra-violet" trainline back to the head end.  For a while, the DPUs also carried radio equipment to use as a back-up to the trainline data feed, or on trains not fully equipped with "smart" freight cars, but the radios came off 5 years ago.

The display showed all the DPUs running at nearly 7000 HP, 115% of their nominal rating.  Electrification was a wonderful thing!  In short order, the train was approaching 60 mph. Charlie watched as the DPU  power backed off closer to the continuous rating of 6000 HP, and then as it backed off gradually, rear to front as the speed indicator nudged 60 mph.

Every restrictive curve between Harrisburg and Spruce Creek Tunnel except Jack's Narrows had been re-engineered for steady 60 mph running.  Charlie settled in an watched the scenery go by.  He never got tired of the hills, farms and windmills along the Juniata River valley and could pick out remnants of the old Mainline Canal here and there.

Charlie's train rolled through Denholm, where the PRR had a giant "mainline fueling plant" a century ago.  A huge bridge, with coal chutes slung underneath to fill the tenders of steam engines,  Hopper cars were pushed over the bridge and dumped directly into bins above the chutes.   You had to know where to look to see the remnants of it - just a few rock walls peeping out from the vegetation.  There was still a weigh-in-motion scale on the controlled siding. On it sat a coal train.  The engineer was on the ground talking to a couple of mechanical department folk.  Their quad-copter had landed in the wide spot between the two main tracks and the siding.  They were looking in the direction of a hopper about 20 deep that had coal spilling out from under it.  It was amazing where those things could put down, thought Charlie. (Jeez...I make up something like like this and then I see this:  on 1/7/16)

What a mess!  Charlie guessed they would cut away from the train on both sides of the disabled car, then use the DPU units on the back part of the train to back the train out onto the main.  The head end would pull ahead, then back down onto the rear portion, couple up, get an "air test" - actually, the air brake computer did the test all by itself -  and go.  Might take 20 minutes to do all that.  Would have taken 3 hours in the "old days".  PTC, DPU and "the flying squad" made things much easier these days.  Charlie gave them two "toots" on the horn and a wave as his train glided by.

As the train slid through the curves at McVeytown, the morning "Keystone Service" train flashed by at 90 mph.  On NS, it was known as AMPITHAR18_1.  On Amtrak is was simply train #660.  Amtrak kept a rather simple train symbolling system that had it's roots in the ancient Timetable and Trainorder train operation days.

In 2030, Pennsylvania had purchased some "off the shelf" Talgo X equipment.  It wasn't the "latest greatest", but it did allow 7" of cant deficiency, meaning it could handle curves set for 60 mph freight service at 90 mph.  It was built to European crash standards, but PTC and other technology applications had improved the railroad safety record an order of magnitude in the past two decades, so the FRA decided the old crash standards weren't needed and they adopted the international standard....finally.  It always took them a while to catch on.

The state of Pennsylvania was "funding" 5 round trips, Pittsburgh to Harrisburg extensions of Amtrak's New York to Harrisburg trains.  Truth was, these trains were more than covering their operating costs since the running time had been shaved over two hours over the past couple of decades.  Pennsylvania just had to come up with the equipment.  Ohio had purchased a few sets of their own to be able to continue a few trains a day out to Cleveland and one to Columbus.  There were rumors Ohio was interested in more.  The HSR crowd was grumbling about 90 mph not being fast enough and "the rest of the world is embarrassing us - we only have 500 miles of true HSR". "Rumors and grumbling.  The railroad never changes", Charlie thought.

He watched the Amtrak train fly by. At at relative closing speed of 150 mph, it was hard to get a good look at anything, but Charlie saw nothing amiss. He keyed his radio, "TVHARCHE18 to AMPITHAR18.  You look good on the north side, Harry."  Charlie had known Harry Muntz since he hired on.  The both got "cut off" in the recession of 2019 and Harry had hired on with Amtrak. Charlie rode it out and had been with NS every day since.  There hadn't been much hiring since then until recently.  One man crews and long, DPU trains reduced the man power needed to run the railroad.  Long crew districts from electrification were pushing man power down to new lows. Only as those a bit older than Charlie started retiring had the railroad started hiring again in earenst. "Roger, that, Charlie. AMPITHAR18 out."  Less than two minutes later, Harry returned the favor.

One thing Charlie missed were the talking defect detectors.  They were gone.  The "smart" freight cars now knew more about their "health" than the detectors ever knew.  If there was a problem, Charlie would know about it.  The locomotive would tell him.

The lading could "talk" over the "ultra-violet", too, but Charlie was blissfully unaware of this data. It streamed over the locomotive data radio and was distributed to the shippers and receivers of the lading.  They could know the temperatures inside the containers, the ride quality, the location and speed and the estimated time of delivery of their goods.  Almost too much information.

Right behind the Amtrak train came MRBELENO18_1.  A merchandise train from Bellevue Ohio to Enola Pennsylvania.  Two electric locomotives and one hybrid diesel electric.  One at the head of each block.  On the head end was the Baltimore block, then the Morrisville block, and finally an Oak Island block.  The diesel was on the Oak Island block.  The catenary had only been strung as far as Reading, on the way to Philadelphia, on that route, so a non-electric was needed to get to Oak Island.  That this train was using a diesel electric hybrid was a bit strange.  The standard non-electric locomotive these days used LNG for fuel.  Nearly everything was a hybrid, storing the dynamic braking energy and using it to accelerate later.  Once GE got the energy storage technology figured out, even the older units were modified to be hybrids.  It turned out that a combination of super-capacitors and storage batteries did the best job.

In the "old days" they just would have traded power at Enola on this train, but now, the philosophy was "power goes with the block".  No more shuttling power around the yard, cutting and coupling all over the place.  DPU enabled the change.  Life was much simpler.

The train would be block swapped in Enola, each block being paired up with a similar blocks on the trains from Chattanooga TN and Decatur IL.  With the DPUs being remotely controlled at the yards, the whole block swapping operation was pretty simple.

There wasn't much car classification at hump yards going on.  In fact, NS was down to just five major hump yards.  Macon, Chattanooga, Enola, Bellevue and Linwood, with Bellevue being the largest, by far.  It was the major hub in the network in the north.  Chattanooga was it in the south.  The other humps were basically regional hubs and the whole network was really a fairly simple to understand hub and spoke network.  It was a bit more circuitous than the "old way", but it made up for it with faster trips, on the average.

The traffic that moved on these trains had once been the "bread and butter" of the railroad business.  Now it was almost strictly "boutique" business. Chunks of raw materials for manufacturing.  Stuff that wouldn't fit on the highways.  Low value finished goods.  Most of the higher value stuff was moving in intermodal service service and the economic dividing line between the two kept moving in the favor of intermodal as economy of scale and frequency and speed of service kept driving intermodal costs down and value up.

Interestingly, unit trains other than coal and crude oil had pretty much dried up.  The unit train sized "chunks" of traffic now moved in the merchandise "hub and spoke" network.  For example, what was a 75 car grain train was now just two 40 car blocks moving in merchandise trains service, each with their own DPU locomotive.  For example, grain moving from Illinois to Georgia would get picked up at the grain elevator by a passing train and taken to Bellevue.  There it would block swap to a Chattanooga train.  The dwell was only 4 hours, on the average.  At Chattanooga, the same thing would repeat.  Finally, at Macon, each grain block would move as it's own train to the feed mill.

Crude oil trains, unlike coal, had a much more modern fleet of cars.  The flow of crude from the oil fields to refineries was steady and expected to remain that way for quite a while.  The techniques for getting oil out of the ground kept getting better and cheaper.  Charlie's morning "paper" had a nice article about energy.  World consumption of oil was steady.  Coal was declining - slowly.  The balance was being made up by a combination of wind, solar, natural gas and nuclear.  Conservation efforts had kept the growth rate down to "a dull roar".  The CO2 concentration in the atmosphere had started to decline in the past decade, but there was still great concern over global warming.  Charlie wondered, "Whatever happened to blissful ignorance?"

The trick to keeping the railroad fluid these days was to keep the merchandise trains powered up to go with the flow of the intermodal fleet and keeping the coal trains out of the way of everything.  There were still too few Amtrak trains to cause much trouble, even though their number was growing.  Most days this worked fairly well.

The PTC display had been getting updated regularly with new movement authorities, usually keeping "the virtual brick wall" about 20 miles ahead of the train.  Charlie suspected he was following a merchadise job out of Enola and he wasn't gaining or losing ground to him.  Usually, that guy was behind the TVHARCHE_2, but, apparently not today.  Charlie was bored and decided to find out.  He toggled his auxiliary display away from the DPU screen to "apps".  He selected "track line view" and it popped up with  the "Northern Division" (one of five divisions on the railroad) , "Pennsylvania Middle" display.  He was looking at a dispatchers view of the railroad from Harrisburg through Pittsburgh.  Sure enough, there was a train about 25 miles ahead.  He zoomed in.  It was tagged with MRENOCHI18_2.  Just as he thought.

He looked again at the screen.  He was lined to pass the train ahead. MRENOCHI18_2 was to cross over from track one to track two at CP-Hunt and then run into the yard at Atloona to work. He'd have to slow down to 40 mph to make the crossover since it was one of the few interlockings on the division that still had #20 switches instead of those long #26.5, moveable frog jobs.

That was quite a ways away, though, and there were several eastbounds headed this way before that.  The train dispatching system was generally operated by the "Movement Director" application.  It figured out the smoothest, fastest way to get traffic over the road, protecting commercial schedule times and connections in the process and would dispatch accordingly unless the train dispatcher intervened.  It had greatly increased dispatcher's territories.  The "Pennsylvania Middle" dispatcher had the railroad all the way from Harrisburg to Conway.  Charlie still marveled at all the information at his fingertips.  Back when he hired on, the company only told you as much as they thought you needed to know.  Getting information from the dispatcher about the trains around yours was nearly impossible. All you needed to know was your territory, the train consist and the signal aspect.  Period.  Then, came the big push to save fuel, and some on-board "smarts" about how to handle a the train smoothly to minimize fuel consumption.  Nobody liked that, at first -  engineers were proud of their knowledge of train handling! Slowly attitudes changed.  Later, the train dispatching systems started giving "advice" about meets and passes so you could reduce train speed to arrive at the meet point at just the right time.  This was nice, but often the dispatcher was too busy to pass the info along, or too busy to give you an update when one became available.  Then, came the "Walmart affair."

The US economy in the late 'teens was stagnant.  Wages for the lower end of the labor pool were actually shrinking while the upper end continued growing.  The "class warfare" gang were turning up the volume every year.  Walmart continued to be the "poster child" of low end labor, and, pardon the pun, the number one target of organized labor.  "Occupy Wall Street" which started in the late aughts had morphed into "Occupy Walmart".  After a long and very messy period - several Walmarts burned to the ground - labor won the vote and Walmart became a union shop in 2021.  Right on the heals of this, McDonalds was organized in 2022.

Despite the rancor that occurred before the vote, the first contracts at both places were put in place rather smoothly. Wages would roughly double over the first five years and management standard benefits were extended to the hourly employees.  Part time work was also limited.  In exchange, there were almost no division of labor requirements put in the contracts.

Nobody could have guessed what would happen next.

Five years later, Walmart was still the low cost leader, with prices even lower than five years prior and McDonalds was still selling $1 burgers.  How was this even possible?  Everything about the stores was on it's head!  The stores became highly automated.  There was a revolution of applied technology. It was the "perfect storm" of technology and materials developed over the past several decades.  Smart machines, with vision, heuristic "smarts" and "tactile hands" could do everything from cooking and assembling burgers to stocking shelves to loading your car. Stores were rearranged and redesigned to take advantage of the automation technology.  It only took a small handful of workers to keep the machines operating decently and in order and a few more for customer service.  Employment at Walmart and McDonalds was down 70% from the peak.

Interestingly, the mass exodus of jobs from these companies did not increase unemployment.  The creation of an entire industry based in automation of service jobs pushed the economy into a new growth spurt as the US became the leader of the "service automation" industry. (

This changed everything at the unions.  It was the end of "fighting for wages and benefits".  That ship had sailed.  It was the beginning of "make my members valuable" era.  Now, the unions fought for making information and education available.  It took a while for all of this to sink in at the railroad, with their centuries old adversarial relationship with labor, but changes occurred rapidly.  All the unionized employees were now treated more like "owners" and less like "mercenaries".  There were company paid opportunities for educational sabbaticals and information was shared on a "why not?" basis instead of a "need to know" basis.  Getting to see the "track line view" of the railroad was just one small indication of the sea-change in the service industry.  Life was good!

The train proceeded through Mount Union.  The East Broad Top was running today.  Their ancient steam locomotive was all polished up and was being turned on the turntable there.  Out of the turmoil of the late 'teens, came a neo-Victorian era.  The "well to do" became more interested in putting their wealth to charitable work (out of guilt?  who knows?)  and even architecture and fashion were following late 19th Century England.  Things of the 19th Century were in great demand.  The confluence of these two trends occurred on the East Broad Top Railroad.

In his late 80s, Warren Buffet bought his second railroad.  This one, just for fun.  The East Broad Top. A complete, fully functional - or nearly so - 19th Century railroad.  His sprinkled a tiny bit of his enormous wealth into the property had had it running and looking exactly like it was in 1910, just hauling people instead of coal. Although 1910 was really post-Victorian, it was close enough in most people's minds and the road enjoyed a swell of popularity.  There were at least a couple hundred people riding the train - some dressed in frilly dresses with parasols!  Many of them were watching the locomotive turn and were taking pictures.  A few turned their cameras around and shot Charlie's train as it slid by.  "Foamers never change", Charlie muttered to himself, although he had quite a collection of train pictures from when he was younger somewhere "in the ether."

Even photography had changed a great deal over the past couple of decades.  Where people used to joke about being about to put every minute of their life up on YouTube, now, not only was it possible, many people were doing it. Small, wearable cameras could upload video and audio on a near-real time basis. (update 2/26/14:  I had no idea! Don't remember what you were doing on April 13th, 2037 at 2:12 PM? Just pull up the video! This technology had dropped the crime rate for personal crimes down to nearly zero.  Most crime these days was electronic.  The old arguments about data security and personal privacy still raged, however.

There were cameras mounted all over Charlie's train.  The locomotives had several looking forward and backward outside.  There were even a few freight cars equipped - mostly to monitor the lading.  His cab had one aimed at Charlie himself.  Being watched every second of every day just seemed pretty normal, Charlie thought.  Every step forward with technology brought a host of new, unanticipated questions and issues, it seemed.  Things seemed to happen before anyone had a chance to fully think them through.

Beyond the personal video cameras, popular amateur photography was nearly completely 3D these days and there was no difference between still and video. It was all video.  If you wanted a single picture, you just selected a frame from the video.  You could create small bas-relief replicas of any scene you captured using a 3D color printer.  It was a popular way to decorate your home and make personal jewelry.

The latest thing was Google WorldView.  If enough people shared their video with the service, Google could create a virtual reality of the scene, complete with sound.  You could view a 3D version of the event from any view point you wanted.  There were even Google Rooms where you could immerse yourself in the virtual reality based on the images collected, processed and stored - sort of like the "holideck" in the old Star-Trek TV show -  though some thought this was just a passing fad.

The last of the eastbounds for a while passed and Charlie gave them the once over as they passed.

The PTC display flashed and showed the maximum authorized speed dropping to 50 for Jack's Narrows, along with the braking curve that outlined safe operation.  Considerably before that, Charlie heard the switch gear in locomotive snap and hiss.  He pulled up the DPU screen.  One by one, the locomotives had gone into dyanamic braking, from the rear to the front and were gently reducing the speed, keeping what little slack the train had stretched out.  All the DB energy was directed back up into the catenary.  The speed dropped right to 50 mph right as the train entered the curve, and then, nearly four miles later, as the tail of the train left the curve, the locomotives went back to motoring, one by one, from front to rear.  

The train ahead had slowed down to make the crossover at CP- Hunt and the distance between the trains was narrowing.  The PTC display showed authority only as far as MP 201.5 about a mile short of CP-Hunt.  The "Movement Director" knew what was going on and allowed Charlie's train to decelerate.  First by coasting, then with some gentle dynamic braking, gradually slowing as it approached the end of the movement authority.  When the speed had dipped to about 45 mph, about 2 miles from the intelocking, the PTC display flashed and the movement authority moved all the way to Cresson. Soon the train was passing CP-Hunt and headed back up to 60 mph.

Shortly after leaving Huntingdon, the train started slowing to 40 mph.  This was the only slow section of the route, other than the climb over the Alleghenies, still left.  The rest of the slower curves to the west had all been superelevated or eased to allow steady  60 mph operation.  The head end entered Spruce Creek Tunnel at 40 mph and held steady at that speed as the train wound around the curves along the Little Juniata River through a river-grade gap in the mountains toward Tyrone.  Heading south out of Tyrone, the train quickly got back up to 60 mph.

Charlie glanced back at the mountain ridge to the east.  As far as he could see, the top of the ridge was peppered with windmills, all of which seemed to be turning all the time.  He wondered how many of those windmills it took to power his train.

Passing through Bellwood, Charlie took a glace at the Bellwood tunnel project.  They were using one of those huge tunnel augers to bore through the mountain into the valley to the east.  There was a line of ancient open top hoppers being loaded with the excavated material.  The new tunnel would allow a straight shot from Spruce Creek Tunnel to Altoona - 60 mph all the way.  The new route was supposed to open in 2042 and shave another 30 minutes off the running time, as well as provide some more of those "carbon offsets".

The train cruised into Altoona.  Charlie peers deeply into the Juniata shops to see if there is anything interesting lurking at the backshop.  It was getting harder to see now that they had catenary strung up all over the place.  He did spot the nose of one of the "Executive F7s" peaking out of the E&M building.  He heard they were converting it to a hybrid, with super capacitors for energy storage located in the B units and 3000 HP LNG fueled engines in the A units.  It would be the first to solely use super capacitors instead of mostly batteries.  Interesting, Charlie thought.

The speed started dropping as the train approached "the brick yard curve".  There hadn't been a brick yard there in all the time Charlie had been working.  He wondered about the origin of the name.  Something to look up some day.  Couldn't do anything like that while working!

The headend hit the grade and started digging in.  Charlie switched to the DPU screen and watched as the DPUs started powering up as their portion of the train hit the grade.  It was all so smooth.  Charlie had run DPU train manually here in the past and it was tricky.  He marveled at how smoothly the locomotives did it by themselves.

The display flashed and Charlie switched to the bulletin order menu.  The PTC outage was over, so he wouldn't have to take any Track Warrant style movement authorities this trip.  Charlie still had to do some "manual running" to do, however.  Every trip had some to keep train running skills sharp.  Most times it was on pretty easy territory, but a few times a year it was over the mountain. Charlie did not look forward to those times!  It was nerve wracking.

The train cruised up and around the Horseshoe Curve right at the 35 mph limit.  It was quite a change from the pre-electrification days.  Charlie had run trains back then that were lucky to break out of the single digits going around the curve, although 12-15 mph was more typical.  Looking at his DPU screen, he saw that all the locomotives were running at 108% of capacity.  The locomotives knew how long it would take to get to the top of the grade and adjusted their output to match.  Charlie used to be amazed that they could do this, but it was getting to be "old hat" - whatever that meant.

There were only two tracks on the mountain now, the third track came up with the electrification.  Trains could get up and over the hill so fast, the the extra capacity of the third track was no longer needed.  There were just about the same number of trains a day as 40 year ago, but those trains were longer and faster.

The headend rounded the apex of the curve and Charlie waved to the 25 or so railfans and families in the park.  Most not taking his picture, waved back.  On display there were the two ancient NS "heritage units".  One was painted "Pennsylvania" and the other "Conrail".  The old GP9 that was there for 50 years had been donated to the state railroad museum about 10 years ago. The display had been upgraded to include a roof that was supposed to keep the locomotives from weathering.  That old GP9 was pretty rusty when they moved it out.

Shortly after that, an eastbound approached going down grade.  It was a long intermodal train similar to Charlie's.  As the locomotives passed Charlie, heard the whine of the invertors, but no dynamic brake cooling fan.  The train was pumping energy back into the catenary and was, in fact, helping get Charlie's train up the mountain.  At the times the the power regeneration was greater than the consumption, there were big sets of batteries and capacitors that stored the energy for later use.  The company news release said the system paid for itself in a matter of months. The scream of the dynamic brake blower was almost a thing of the past.  Charlie couldn't recall the last time he heard it.  Must have been a couple years now.

Soon, they reached the top of the hill.  There, the tracks split, one on the left going to the "new" tunnel, the one Charlie's train was on, to the old, double track tunnel.  With the electrification and the size of the trains these days, the short steep "slide" section just east of the "new" tunnel was nearly a moot point.  It didn't matter which tunnel they routed you through.  Electrification was a bit tricky here.  The tracks had been shifted to the center of the double track tunnel and the floor undercut just a hair in order to sneak the catenary through.  The "new" tunnel had to have the floor undercut a great deal to fit the wire.  There was some talk about daylighting both tunnels, but cost and local opposition stopped that idea cold.

The train coasted away from the tunnel, the DPUs smoothly going from motoring to slight braking as the headend entered Cresson. On the right, where they used to service helpers, there were a few older diesel locomotives- battery hybrids - that were occasionally used to assist trains in trouble on the hill as well as serve the few local customers that still had direct rail access.  Next to them was the sub station with one of the energy storage systems.

The train gently accelerated to 60 mph leaving Cresson. From Cresson toward Pittsburgh, there were big changes over the past couple decades.  Many curves were eased and had increased superelevation.  The goal was to get the speed to 60 mph the whole way to Pittsburgh.  They were close. So far, there were only a few curves left to ease.  There was ongoing work on one of these now.  Charlie grabbed his iPad and took another look at the bulletin order.

At Bolivar - MP 295, he had to reduce speed to restricting to pass the work crew.  The PTC system should handle it automatically, but Charlie was ultimately responsible.  It was not unknown for there to be times where the locomotive did not know about a work zone and would sail through at track speed.  The manual data entry that defined the work zone was not infallible, after all.  He checked the PTC data on his route by zooming out on the PTC screen.  It had the work zone in there properly.

Next, Charlie took a look at where he was to run manually.  It was departing the work zone all the way to Pitcairn TV, the intermodal yard just east of Pittsburgh.  The toughest part would be negotiating the hill at Latrobe.  Keeping the train forces under control as with the train moving through a sag or draped over the top of a hill was always a bit tricky.  Fortunately, he could see that status of the train forces on his display and adjust the DPU power and braking accordingly.  Charlie thought about the stories the "old heads" told when he hired on about when then guessed wrong and the slack ran in and out with teeth-rattling results.  He couldn't even imagine how they got over the road with a train back then.

The train rolled through what was left of Johnstown at a steady 60 mph when the auxiliary display started flashing and sounding an alarm.  The last locomotive had a fault displayed -  "#3 inverter fault".  Charlie silenced the alarm and looked at the DPU screen.  Sure enough, that locomotive was only putting out 75% of the power of the others.  Charlie called the dispatcher, "TVHARCHE18_2 to the Pennsylvania Middle dispatcher".  "Go ahead Charlie," was the reply.  "Rear unit just lost an inverter.  Am I in good shape to proceed?" "We see that. Standby for a minute."  "Roger, that. TVHARCHE18_2 out"

On automatic control, the loss of power by the last locomotive would be taken into account, but it couldn't look ahead to the whole route of the train and see what the impact of the loss would be on the schedule performance of this train in particular, and on the network, in general.  Would the running time be longer?  By how much?  Would it leave locations short on power?  Crews?  Would it cause congestion because the train was not in the right place at the right time?  For these answers, they needed to run the network tactical model.

The network tactical model took the current status of the network and then simulated the future to see what would happen.  There were three primary dimensions to the model - trains, locomotives and train crews.  The trains portion worked like the movement director and predicted where trains would be when.  The locomotive and crew portions took the train information and then forecast forward the availability of crews and locomotives for the next 72 hours, looking for surplus and shortages and providing actionable feedback to keep things balanced.

For example, if it predicted Charlie's train would arrive late into Chicago, and therefore the power wouldn't be available for the currently planned next departure from Chicago, it could suggest that the rotation of power at Chicago be altered, that extra locomotives start moving from a surplus location to Chicago -and what train to move them on, or it could suggest that the planned departure at Chicago just be set back a little.  It was a great help to management to keep things running smooth.

The current status and projection of the network was also fed to commercial side of the house, as well, so that customers could be kept informed of precisely when their shipment would arrive.  This was work that was started piece-meal at the start of the century, and even a bit before that, but only in the past decade or so had it all come together.  Big Data, abundant wireless communication, cheap data storage and fast parallel processing made it all possible.

"Pennsylvania Middle to the TVHARCHE18_2."  "Go ahead, Bill."  "Charlie, you're okay to go.  That unit stays with the Pitcairn block.  Mechanical has the part headed there already."  "Roger. Thanks, Bill. TVHARCHE18_2 out."  "Pennsylvania Middle dispatcher out"

The train was only a mile away from the work zone when it started to decelerate.  It used to be that, in the interest of saving energy, the proper technique was to try to coast into lower speed zones, avoiding braking.  But now, with regenerative braking and wayside energy storage, there was little energy penalty and the improved running times were worth it.

The train dropped down to 20 mph and Charlie changed the operating mode from "automatic" to "manual".  Restricting speed meant he had to be able to stop in half the line of sight.  Even with this 3 mile long trains, the ECP braking reacted almost instantaneously, and full braking could stop the train rather quickly.  Still, Charlie had to be ready.  Nothing eventful occurred.  Charlie noticed they were moving a lot of earth from a blasting zone where they were straightening a curve.  It was nice to see the company investing so heavily in right of way improvements.  Longer trains meant that the time penalty of slower speed zones was amplified.  A one mile long train meant travelling slow for two miles, not counting slowing down and speeding back up.  A three mile long train meant travelling slowly for six miles.  No wonder they were working so hard at straightening curves!

Charlie's display showed he was clear of the work zone and he'd gotten confirmation over the radio from the work crew there.  The train was still passing through the curves that were in the process of being bypasses, so Charlie held the speed to the required 40 mph.  Charlie had the DPUs in "synchonous", for now.  They were following a river grade so train handling was pretty trivial.

They were clear of the work zone.  Charlie switched over to "non-schro" mode.  The DPU display showed the controls for each locomotive.  Since it was a touch screen, Charlie just had to increment the "throttle" on each locomotive by taping the "+" button next to that locomotive.  He worked from front to back, tapping the "+" for each successive unit in order, about 5 seconds apart.  This kept the train forces nicely sorted and the train firmly stretched.  In a couple minutes, they were all humming at full throttle, except that last unit, that was operating at 3/4 capacity and shortly after, they were back at 60 mph track speed.

Soon, the train approached Pitcairn yard.  Charlie was still in manual mode.  He throttled back to idle and applied the blended braking as he was taught.  The train glided into the  five mile long controlled siding that served as the yard lead.  Charlie set the ECP brake control in "park".  This applied the brakes to each car and then activated a motor-driven "handbrake".  The display flashed yellow "PARK" while this was happening and then steady green "PARK" when it completed and "heard back" from each car. The yardmaster called him on the radio and told him to release control of the last locomotive on his train.  He worked the touchscreen and did exactly that.  "It's all yours, Charlie told the trainmaster.

Out of Charlie's sight, a utility man rode up to the rear of the train in a glorified golf cart, got out and cut the train just ahead of the last locomotive.  Despite all changes, an integrated, automated coupler hadn't appeared yet.  The industry still used the "Janey" style coupler and rubber air hose to physically connect the cars of the train. The utilityman was going to use his handheld controller to operate the locomotive and make the set-out for him.  The whole process took less than 10 minutes.

While this was going on, Charlie watched the terminal work.  This was the pilot location for terminal automation.  It was somewhat derisively refereed to as "Robo-Terminal".  There basis of it was a smart vision system that coordinated and operated all the machinery of the terminal.  There was a ring of cameras around the periphery of the terminal that kept track of all the hostlers, cranes and rail cars.  It worked like a 2-D PTC system, giving each piece of equipment permission to travel on a defined space in defined direction.  As the equipment moved, the space became open for another equipment route.  Even the men in the terminal wore a device to show them where is was safe to travel and warned them if they were in danger.  The cranes used visions systems to grab and load the boxes on the train.  There was even an interbox connector robot that would set and and lock the connectors.

The truckers pulled through the gate, but dropped their load just on the other side.  The automated hostler then took the load and either parked it or took it for loading on the train.  On the outbound side, when the trucker arrived for a box, a hostler would get if for him and take it the receiving lane.  There the trucker hitched up, and got rolling.  The equipment was all electric.  Mostly battery powered.  The equipment itself knew when it was time to charge and would automatically route itself to the charging station and plug itself in.  It looked to Charlie that about 1/3 of the equipment was on charge.  About the only trouble he'd heard about was a disruption during a particularly heavy snow squall, when the cameras couldn't see equipment position and movement. Things ground to a halt in short order.  He wasn't sure what they could do about it, but progress in this area seemed inevitable.

Charlie watched with amazement.  It all looked a bit like "Rollercoaster Tycoon", a computer game from his youth, although a bit less exciting.

The pick-up was a bit trickier.  There was a Toledo block and a Chicago block to pickup and they had to be spliced in.  First, the utility man made the cut just ahead of the locomotive that headed the Toledo block in the train and had Charlie pull ahead a mile and a half.  Then he brought out the pick-up block.  It consisted of a locomotive, 1500' of Chicagos, another locomotive and 2000' of Toledos.   He backed them onto the rest of the train, then had Charlie back down and couple up.  In a matter of minutes, the consist integrity and health was confirmed.  Charlie put all the DPU locomotives back under his control, did the required air brake test to make sure the brakes applied and released on the rear car, and go underway.

Since electrification, they couldn't make the move directly to and from the loading tracks, instead they had built some long support tracks with catenary strung over them and they moved the cars to and from there using battery-powered, hybrid switchers.  A concept that had been in development since the early 2000s was now commonplace in the industry.

The whole stop at Pitcairn had taken less than 20 minutes - a far cry from the "old days" when this would have taken an hour or more.  The smart trainline and ECP really simplified things!  Pumping air and tying on handbrakes were things of the past.  Good riddance!  If "time is money", then these changes were worth their weight in gold, Charlie thought.

The train rolled out of the controlled siding at 40 mph and was soon up to 60 mph, heading for Pittsburgh.  Although it didn't seem like anything much had changed in the past 25 years, the intermodal world had shifted a great deal.  Commerce around the globe had shifted as cheap labor shifted.  Massive container ships now plied the seas from the coast of Africa carrying consumer goods to all points on the globe.  Africa was the latest and final stop on the global migration of cheap labor.  For the US, this meant traffic a lot of stuff that used to come in through west coast ports, now came through the east coast ports, to be distributed inland.  There was still plenty of traffic at the west coast ports, too, and it all had to be distributed across the nation.  The result was goods flowed in both directions, from coast to coast, and fewer container moved empty. This lowered costs and improved profitability for the railroad, at the same time.

Traffic volume, increased, too, as the economy grew, plus a bit more.  As the traffic grew, the number of lanes that could be served profitably increased, and traffic was converted from highway to rail.  As the traffic base shifted from bulk to intermodal, the demand on the right of way changed.  Steady speed, not low energy consumption became the driving force.  River grade routes with lots of lower speed curves fell out of favor.  Straighter routes, even with undulating grades, gained favor.  Everywhere, routes were being reshaped for this new world.

As the average speeds came up, railroads started competing for even more highway traffic.  In some lanes, they were meeting or beating team drivers.  Further, they were able to compete on shorter and shorter distances.  For example, there was quite a bit of Baltimore and Philadelphia import traffic moving by rail to Pittsburgh - just 300 miles away.  Speed also meant fewer crews and locomotives needed to get a train across the road.  It only took two crews to get from Harrisburg to Chicago and only three to get from Harrisburg to Memphis, down from three and six just a decade ago.

 The train rolled through downtown Pittsburgh at 40 mph and then resumed it's 60 mph cruise up along the Ohio River. Charlie looked out across what once was sprawling Conway yard.  All that was left was the old hump tower, the car shop that had been converted from the diesel shop built in 2015, and a dozen or so tracks used for local service.  The track were mostly filled with bad-order hopper cars.  Scenes like this always left Charlie a bid depressed. It was soon behind him.

The train rolled over what was left of the flying junction with the former line toward Youngstown and Lake Erie.  It was all gone, as was the coal traffic to the lake.

It was just past noon and Charlie was getting hungry.  He usually brought some food from home and put it in the locomotive's cooler, but not today.  There were no good leftovers at home this morning.  So, he decided to order on-line and have it delivered.  Just 15 years ago, this was a "fire-able" offense.  Now, some limited internet use was allowed, but it was strictly monitored and filtered.  The most useful thing he was allowed to do was order "take out.".

He picked a Chipotle that was 20 minutes away in East Palatine, Ohio.  They did a regular business with train crews and he could count on them to meet the train.  As the train rolled into East Palatine at 60 mph, he could make out the delivery van adjacent to the new Market St overpass.  Charlie put on his safety goggles and opened the cab window.  The delivery person was there with his lunch.  He had hoisted the lunch wrapped in it's insulated lunch box.  It was suspended by lightweight plastic rope attached to "Y" shaped rod fashioned out of fiberglass, like a strange fishing pole.  He stuck his arm out and through the loop of rope.  The rope popped off the Y shaped pole as the lunch box was quickly accelerated to 60 mph.  Charlie felt the rope jerk in the crook of his elbow, the reached across and "reeled in" his lunch. "Hooping up orders". 150 year old technology, repurposed!   His burrito and can of coke were in good shape, but he had to let the soda sit for a few minutes before opening...for obvious reasons!

Charlie was just finishing that Coke, when the train started slowing for Alliance OH.  The junction there require reducing speed to 40 mph to leave the old PRR mainline for the old PRR branch to Cleveland.  NS still used the Conrail names of "Fort Wayne Line" and "Cleveland Line" for these lines.  Charlie's trains was one of the ones set for regular testing at higher speeds on the Cleveland Line.  Seven minutes after beginning to slow down, the train was accelerating toward 80 mph.

The test consisted of having each freight car gather, store and spin-off more information about the ride quality as well as having the locomotives furnish information about energy consumption.  Charlie knew one of the big concerns was the stability of the trucks and suspension systems on the cars.  The data included accelerometer readings to measure forces on the carbody as well as the frequency and severity of the anti-hunting brake applications.  There wasn't really anything much extra for Charlie to do.  He was to keep a log of what he felt and saw in the cab but he wasn't sure anyone actually ever read it.

As the speed indicator was just creeping up on 80 mph, an Amtrak Talgo train flashed by on the opposing track with an audible "whoomp!"  Charlie saw it was Davy Chew on the mid-day departure out of Cleveland. He guessed it was up to track speed of 110 mph.  He had just under two seconds to glance and inspect the other train.  He keyed the mic, "Everything looks good, Davy!"  A minute later came the reply, "You look good, too, Charlie.  Have a safe trip.  Amtrak #864 out."

The scenery flashed by at 80 mph.  It really didn't look that much different from 60 mph, thought Charlie.  Still, in 40 minutes they were slowing for the approach to Cleveland.  The train slowed to 60 mph and swung onto the flying junction to the "New Belt Line".  The new belt followed the general alignment of the old belt line around Cleveland that the New York Central had built, but it had high speed flying junctions at each end and one in the middle, where Charlie was. It was a joint project of the the state of Ohio, CSX and NS and it had done quite a bit to smooth traffic and speed trains through Cleveland.  The state got what it wanted, too.  110 mph train operation on shared right of way.  Money had a strange way of "adjusting positions" thought Charlie.  How long ago was it the freight roads say "no way, no how" to anything over 90 mph?

At the other end of the New Belt in Berea, the train swung over the Chicago line and then joined it from the right hand side, all without slowing down even one mph.  However, the crew change point was coming up.  It was out on a wide spot on the mainline just this side of Elyria.  The train started slowing as the regenerative/dynamic braking came on from rear to front.  The train glided to a stop at 3:52.  This was three minutes early.  The time by the slow order was reason.  That usually was worth about 5 minutes, although the 80 mph test section typically saved seven or eight, netting out the three minutes.

Charlie had no sooner put his grip down on the high-level crew change platform when outbound engineer Anna Blaha walked by and said "Hi!" to Charlie.  She was in her mid-twenties, just a three year veteran of the railroad.  They were hiring so many young folk these days it made Charlie feel old.  Charlie's iPad-flex tied him up as soon as he exited the crew platform.  He used to have to wait until he got to the lodging to go off duty, but the railroads had negotiated some minor changes about 15 years ago when the rules were changed to fight crew fatigue.  The big change was call times had to come within a four hour window.  When the rule was put in place, you'd have thought it was the end of the world for the railroads, as much as they fought it and moaned about it.  In the end, it was no big deal.  The push to scheduled trains, plus automation made the whole issue moot.  Just about everybody held scheduled jobs these days - "carded jobs" like the old heads he knew used say.

The third locomotive on "his" train roared by at about 50 mph as he approached the crew shuttle.  Anna was on her way.  She should be into Chicago in less than 5 hours, if the terminal was in good shape to take her train.  It usually was - expansion notwithstanding.  There was some talk about, if they could get the speeds up to 80 mph for these intermodal trains, they could make the Cleveland to Chicago pool a "turn".  "Faster, cheaper, better" was the mantra.  Charlie wondered if it would ever end.

The crew shuttle turned into the 25 year old crew hotel. Charlie remembered it when it was brand-new.  It was still in pretty good shape, for as old as it was, just like Charlie liked to think about himself!

The lobby was decorated with pictures and icons of railroading-past.  A steam locomotive, N&W 611, posed on a turntable, a signal tower with the operator on the ground "hooping up" an order, a caboose with the conductor's head hanging out of the cupola window, an EOT hung off the rear coupler of a box car, paper train sheets with penciled stringlines, a signal bridge with three-headed signal masts all at stop except for a lone "high green".

"High green".  Charlie remembered calling signals when he started.  He must have said "high green" 10,000 times!  He hadn't said it once in the last 5 years.  Almost unimaginable.  What was next?  Charlie had no idea. Change had had a "high green" his whole career, he decided.  No reason progress was going to stop now.  Charlie walked past the entrance kiosk that checked him in on the fly and headed to beans.  Lasagna.  Yum.