Friday, August 16, 2013

War Stories: Episode 2 - "Independence Day"

Moving Day #1

June 19, 1978 was getting close.  That was my first day of my job as Mechanical Trainee at Conrail.  Further correspondence from Conrail told me that 16 of us were to assemble in Six Penn Center, Philadelphia that morning, but we were free to leave later in the morning to head for Altoona, our location for the next four months.  We had to arrange our own lodging and report to work the next morning.  (Gee, how generous!  Not even one night's hotel stay and a half day to apartment hunt?)

Armed with this information, my mom and I had made a trip out to Altoona a couple weeks earlier to apartment hunt.  How hard could it possibly be to find a decent place to stay in Altoona?

It was hard.

I was figuring on a plain-old, modern garden style, one bedroom apt.  I had a real job.  I wanted a real place to live. There were zillions of them around the Philadelphia suburbs.  There had be some in Altoona, right?  Wrong, or nearly so.  Altoona is not Philadelphia.  Altoona was not growing - it was shrinking.  There was no transient population at all.  People who were born there, died there.  Not that they couldn't leave, they just never really considered it.  So, no need for new apartments.

Not what a boy from the 'burbs was expecting!

What was available was typically the space over an storefront or the top floor of an old framed house. There was one such place just across the street from the Juniata shops, above a turn-of-the-20th Century vacant storefront.  With time and money, it could have been fixed up to "slightly less dingy and depressing".  There was another in a hotter-than-hot attic of a "newer", i.e. 1920's vintage house, out on old US 220.  It needed some paint and repair.  With a little work, it could have been fixed up to "a hot attic over an old house."

Ugh.  This was not going very well.

Finally, we wandered down to Duncansville.  It was about a 30 minute drive to Juniata, but only about 5 to Hollidaysburg.  There, tucked away behind a block of houses, was a development of very nice looking garden apartments!  Like a shining beacon on a hill!

They only had a two bedroom, one and a half bath available. I didn't care.
I'd get stuck eating the one month security deposit.  I didn't care.
They were unfurnished.  I didn't care.
They were $240 a month - I signed a lease.

June 19th came.  I went to Six Penn Center and met the other 15 trainees.  "I've rented a two bedroom apartment.  Anyone want to share?"  I had a roommate in 10 seconds flat.

It was great.  Utilities were included in the rent, so the AC ran a lot and kept cool.  We furnished it with the bare minimum of hand-me-downs and an old B&W TV.  A mattress on the floor and an old desk, about all I could fit in the parent's borrowed station wagon, were enough for me.

In the end, was it REALLY any better than any of the other choices?  Probably not.  The other guys wound up in some interesting places, but none seemed any worse for the wear.  It was an interesting summer in an interesting place - and I learned more than just locomotive and freight car repair.

But, that's another story.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

War Stories: Episode 1 - "College boy gets a job"

If you have two or more believers gathered in one place, that's a church, according to the Bible.  If you have two or more railroaders gathered in one place...that's not defined as anything special in the Book of Rules anywhere that I know of.  But I know what will happen.  You'll get stories.

Lots of people like to tell stories.  Railroaders are no exception, in fact, they are probably worse than most.  Lots of strange things happen on the railroad.  If you gather railroaders in one place with nothing to do for a while, the stories start coming.

This is my 35th year around the railroad.  I've told a few stories.  Some are dumb.  Some are funny.  Some are interesting. Some are commemorative. Some are just strange.

Here the first one. Enter at your own risk.

This is a Job Interview?

The fall of 1977 was the beginning of job interview season for the class of 1978 at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY.
Quad dorms at RPI after 1978 snow storm

 It was time to start job hunting.  If I didn't screw up the last 30 credit hours, I would graduate with a degree in Mechanical Engineering in the spring. The placement office had all sorts of employers lined up.  Conrail's Mechanical Department was one of them.  I was always fascinated by locomotives. Always.  For longer than I could remember.  My very first memory was seeing the Yankee Zephyr on display in Massachusetts.  My first career ambition at age 3 was "to make a locomovis."  This might just be the thing for me!  I signed up for an interview.

I had heard and read all sorts of horror stories about how railroads treated their college hire trainees to the point that I thought this might not be such a good idea.  Sending them off into blizzards to shovel snow.  Breaking strikes.  Laying ballast in the dead of night. Eating railfans alive.  I was pretty wimpy about taking abuse of any kind.  Still, what the heck - if I didn't try, I might regret it.  This was Plan A.  If I hated it, I could always go back to the Naval Ship Engineering Center in Philadelphia where I'd worked the past two summers.  They liked me.  And better yet, they didn't eat anyone alive. This was Plan B.

So, armed with Plan A and Plan B, I headed for the interview....and waited...only to find out Conrail had forgotten to send someone to keep the appointment.  Maybe the interviewer was in Chicago shoveling snow or munching on a railfan somewhere.  Either way, not a good sign.

However, soon after, I got a letter from Conrail, apologizing for standing me up and inviting me down to Philadelphia for an interview.  A good sign?  Since I was going home to South Jersey for winter break, I arranged the interview for early January.

I put on my best clothes and hopped on the PATCO High Speed Line for the ride into Six Penn Center.
PATCO station in Lindenwold NJ in the 1970s
 There I met Mr. E. T. Harley. He took me to lunch - Stouffers - in one of the other Penn Center buildings. Have no idea what I ordered.  He talked for an hour.  Solid.  I don't think I got 10 words in edgewise.  I'm not even sure what he talked about except he did mention the challenges the Mechanical Dept. had getting the equipment back in shape after years of deferred maintenance. And, very briefly that the training program included four months in Altoona/Hollidaysburg, four months in a terminal, and four months in commuter territory.

At the end of the lunch, he said, "Oh, by the way, we'll be sending you a job offer."

Wow.  That was easy.

Later, I found out Mr. E. T. Harley was quite the railfan back in his day.  Published pictures in Trains magazine and everything. An actual railfan thriving in the railroad culture.  Who'd a thunk it?  Plan A was looking better.  (Read about Tom Harley here:  - click download to read PDF.  Funny, he doesn't mention hiring me...)

A few weeks later, the offer came in the mail.  Mechanical Trainee.  $16,275 per year.  Start June 19th, 1978.

I took it!  Interesting times were ahead....

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Phew....It's not just me.

Always a good read, Fred Frailey talks about Amtrak and their political masters - John Mica in particular in his latest blog post.

Fred Frailey's Trains blog: "The Tragedy of John Mica"

Of note:

"There are a lot of things wrong with Amtrak, some of them of its own doing. It’s almost impossible to get anything done, so hidebound (and scared) are its managers. The reorganization that (Amtrak) President Joe Boardman wants is almost two years in the making and still not finished. Onboard employees are unsupervised and bad habits are proliferating, particularly on the long distance trains. service on Amtrak trains loses too much money."

"Amtrak needs critics...What it needs are critics, particularly in Congress, who want to make it better and are willing to pick nits or even pick fights with Amtrak to make it better"

The most notable critic of late is Congressman John Mica, but he just wastes everyone's time grandstanding.  Fred concludes: 

"Like I said at the start, the man is not stupid. He just wants us to think he is."

So, there's the problem statement.  What's the solution?  Fred says:

"It (Section 210 into the Passenger Rail Investment & Improvement Act in 2008 ) instructed Amtrak to examine each of its 15 long distance routes and come up with ways to shrink the deficits. Many good ideas came forth, but very few were adopted; like I said, it's very hard to accomplish anything at Amtrak today. If anything begs for an Inspector General's report, it is Amtrak's refusal to take Section 210 seriously."

(A typical Amtrak update report is here)

Railfans tend to fall into two categories when it comes to Amtrak.  Some think Amtrak should just be killed.  They are a proven failure and in the way of profitable freight trains and innovative market financed High Speed Rail.  The other group think Amtrak is highly functional organization whose only problem inconsistent and chronically short funding.

Both groups have a bit of truth in their reasoning, but are missing the whole picture.  Amtrak, is not a highly functional organization.  A good chunk of the blame goes to their political masters who routinely whip-saw them and cut them off at the knees with funding.  However, Amtrak has been a great "enabler" of this behavior and in my opinion, have lost sight of what they are really supposed to be doing.  They are largely dysfunctional and because they have a "good excuse" just perpetuate the status quo.  This has gone on so long they don't even realize it.  It's just "how things are".

The "let the market build high speed rail crowd" has a point.  As long as Amtrak owns the passenger rail franchise in the US we don't get solutions driven by market forces.  We get what ever Amtrak thinks up on their own plus whatever Congress dictates.  Exhibit A is Acela.  It's a success just about every way you'd care to measure it, yet the trainsets are too heavy, overpowered, overpriced, too wide to take full advantage of their tilt mechanism, and rely on Amtrak's clunky, home-grown, backward-focused,  ACSES signal system.  But, don't be fooled!  Removing Amtrak would not have allowed a better version of HSR to occur in the Northeast Corridor.  There would have been zilch.  Nearly every attempt at privatized, profitable rail service in the world engages in a clever game of "hide the subsidy".  The rail operator may turn a profit because the the government owner of the track leases it out at below full cost.

Passenger rail is a useful tool in providing overall mobility in the US.  But, like it or not, the path forward is straight through Amtrak.  If we want better trains, we need a better Amtrak.  As advocates, we need to demand accountability from Congress AND Amtrak. ...and we need to start right now.