Thursday, May 22, 2014

War Stories - Episode 20: It's not a good idea to kill your boss.

Early 1990s.  I'm working as "Mechanical Engineer - Locomotives".  I love my job.  That made it a stupendously bad idea to almost kill my boss.

Quite often, I had to travel to Altoona to visit Juniata Locomotive Shop.  Often it was to participate in some testing at the Technical Services Lab there.

That Spring, I was spending a few weeks there, commuting home on weekends.  Toward the end of this period, I managed to come down with my annual spring cold and sinus infection.  A nasty thing that arrived like clockwork each year and managed to make me and everyone around me pretty miserable for several weeks.  The traveling and living in a hotel for a few weeks probably didn't help things much.  I felt kinda punk, but managed to complete the last week of testing, heading home on a nice Friday afternoon.

This particular trip home, our department head, Gerhard Thelen, was at Hollidaysburg Car shop for the day and wanted to catch a ride home from me. As he lived on the Main Line and I lived in NJ, it was pretty much on my way home, so no sweat. Would I have said "no" if it wasn't?  "Sorry, boss, it's a bit out of my way.  Good luck getting home!"  Ummmm, I don't think so!

Little did he know, I was about to almost kill him.

I usually would have left about noon to try to get home before the Friday weekend shore traffic got too terrible, but Gerhard wasn't ready until 2:00 PM or so.  I swung by Hollidaysburg and picked him up.  He hopped in the front seat of my relatively new 1989 Ford Probe.

I almost always enjoyed driving this car.
Torquey 2.2 L four + 5 speed transmission + comfortable seats = fun

Now, the sensible route home would have been the US 220 expressway south to the PA turnpike, but I liked to take US 22 through Huntingdon and Lewistown.  It followed the railroad, more or less and I would often use my scanner to do some "sharp-shooting" railfanning on the way.   There were lots of good spots and since the speed limit was 55 mph on both routes, and route 22 was shorter, it really didn't take much longer.  Or, that was what I told myself, anyway.

Here are some shots taken along the route on various trips.

Spruce Creek

East of Newport


East of Tyrone

Mount Union

There would be no railfanning today, however, for obvious reasons.  But, I still decided on taking route 22.  I was familiar with it and Hollidaysburg was convenient to it.  

Off we went.  It was smooth sailing.  Traffic was light.  The weather was nice.  Everything was great except for my sinuses - headache and fever rarely add enjoyment to travel.  After we passed by Mount Union, there was a long, straight stretch with farms on both sides.  I was moving along about 60 mph in a 55 zone and was coming up on a slow moving early 80s Lincoln Town Car.  

We were right in the middle of a big, long, passing zone.  I don't want to slow down one bit and just blast right by him without breaking stride.  Zoom! Like a Metroliner passing a Marcus Hook local!  Just before I make a move to pass, I glance up at my rear view mirror, then the side view mirror.  Nothing coming.  I start to signal and move left just as I finish my mirror glances.  Textbook two lane pass.

Except for two things.

One, I am closing at too fast a rate for a safe pass - better than 20 mph difference.

And, two. While I was busying checking my mirrors, he was slowing down and is nearly stopped.  He has his left turn signal on.  He is going to turn into the nursing home on the left side of the road - the only building for miles.  


We were going to occupy the same space at the same time in the very near future!  I hit the brakes and swerved hard right. 

I almost missed him.  


My left front fender catches the right rear corner of the Town Car's massive chrome bumper.  It shreds my left front fender which gets pushed into my left front wheel.  The front wheels lock up and my car skids to a stop on the shoulder.  There was a guard rail along the shoulder.  This was good news because it kept me out of the drainage ditch.  This was bad news because I hit it.  The right front fender gets nicely gouged and just as the car comes to a stop, the right rear wheel tire valve clips the leading edge of the guard rail and it pulls out of the rim.  Pssst.  Flat tire!

The cars are at a dead stop. My heart going a million miles an hour!

It could have been a horrible disaster if I'd continued the pass or swerved left instead of right and broadsided the Town Car.  People could have been badly injured or killed.  All of us, boss included!

Gerhard is looking rather calm and, in his German accent, says only, "I thought you were closing in rather fast."

Wow.  I thought I was going to get a thorough chewing out at least.  It's not every day you almost kill the boss in a car wreck.

I get out. Check on Mr. Orvis Snook, the octagenarian driving the Town Car.  He's fine.  We check his car.  It's almost fine.  Red paint on the bumper and a broken taillight lens.  That's it.  Not a dent or bend or wrinkle anywhere else.  My car is nicely shredded.  We exchange info and he departs.

Ovris Snook's car looked a bit like this one, except his had a splotch of metalic red paint on the corner of the bumper and a broken taillight lens
(photo from

Now, back to my car.  We have to change my right rear tire and put on the space-saver.  We manage to pull the left front fender away from the tire.  Mechanically, the car is otherwise okay. We limp toward  Mattawan, the next town down the road, where we find a garage that fixed up the flat tire and off we go.

Silence rules the rest of the trip.  I navigate to Gerhard's house and drop him off.  "See you Monday."  That's the extent of the conversation.  

It's dusk now and I turn on the headlights.  I get a glow from the edges of the hood.  It looked kind of cool, but was totally useless as a headlight.  The wreck had jammed both pop-up headlight mechanisms.  I had no headlights.  

This is a job for "jury-rig man"!

I pull over and rummage in the hatch and find a coat hanger.  I yank up one of the headlights and, using my mad Mechanical Engineering skills, jam the coat hanger around it to keep it propped up.  It jiggles up and down on every little bump in the road, but gives me just enough to find my way home, slogging my way along the Schuylkill Expressway and Walt Whitman Bridge into South Jersey and home.

Monday comes and I head to work, wondering what the fallout from Friday's adventure will be.

Will I get reprimanded?  Fired?  Demoted?  Sent to Altoona permanently?

Luckily, none of that.  But, at the next staff meeting, Gerhard has a big stack of AAA defensive driving booklets for everyone...and I got a good bit of ribbing from the other guys in the department for quite a while after.

To this day, I blame the cold and fever for my poor judgement.  That's probably only a small part of it.  But, if I'm honest with myself, driving too aggressively was the biggest part.  

I'm older and wiser now, and I've made it my policy to never, ever, come close to killing my boss again!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

War Stories - Episode 19: The Locomotive-sicle

The winters of 1976-77 and 1977-78 were brutal.  Cold.  Snow. Trains stuck on mainlines.  Guys shuffled off to Buffalo in National Guard convoys with shovels.  And, for the Mechanical Department, frozen locomotives.  Long lines of them.

January 30th 1977 was a bitter cold day.  My shutter kept freezing!
TV6 heads east departing Selkirk

Some FAQs, first.

What does it mean to have a "frozen locomotive"?  

It means that the cooling water in the locomotive has frozen somewhere or worst case, everywhere.  Since water expands as it freezes, this usually causes coolant leaks - bad ones - a myriad of ways.  Pipes breaks.  Radiators burst.  Couplings "uncouple".  Heads crack.  Liners explode.  Things like that.

Ever heard of anti-freeze?

Sure.  Ever see what happens if you mix antifreeze with lube oil?  Bearing destroying sludge is what happens.  Locomotives, particularly EMD locomotives, often have slight water leaks.  The leaks are pretty well tolerated as the water that makes it to the hot oil in the oil pan flashes into steam and is sucked out of the crankcase.  The same slight leak with anti-freeze would ruin the crankshaft bearings in short order.  Antifreeze doesn't boil off.

The other problem with antifreeze is that it doesn't cool as well as water which could lead to overheating under extreme conditions.  This was not a deal-breaker, though.

How, exactly, does a running locomotive freeze?

Usually, the locomotive has to shut down to freeze, but in extreme cases, exposed water lines with low flow can freeze even when the locomotive is idling.  Cab heater lines, parts of water-cooled air compressors and the engine intake air aftercoolers are most vulnerable.

So, why not just have a valve that drains the water before it has a chance to freeze?

Now, we're getting somewhere!

And, that's where this story begins.

By the time I came around, Conrail was installing two types of drain valve.  An electrical solenoid valve which would open up provided the water in the line by the valve got near freezing AND the valve had power to it.  Three problems.  One, we didn't know if the spot we were measuring was the one that would get cold first.  Would other stuff line cab heater lines or intercoolers freeze before the water dumped?  Didn't know... Two, shut down locomotives often had their battery switch pulled, cutting off power to the drain valve.  Did we really want to power it off the "wrong" side of the battery switch?  Three, they were expensive!  Several hundred dollars a pop - plus installation and wiring.

The second kind of valve was all mechanical.  It took worked like a thermostat in your car.  It had a small "power pill" made of beeswax and metal - or some such goo - that was formulated to melt or expand at a certain temperature.  When it got cold, it would contract a lot and open the valve.  There was only one problem with this valve.  It didn't work!  Oh, sure, when the water in the drain line got cold, the valve would start to open and some water would drip out, but as warmer water from the engine would trickle down, heat the power pill up and close the valve.  The steady state was a slow drip, accumulating a few gallons over several hours and letting all sorts of freeze damage occur.

We needed to do some decent, instrumented testing.  We needed to find out how fast different parts of the cooling system cooled and, knowing that, what kind of drain valve(s) arrangement might prevent freeze damage.

We didn't want to have to wait through another disastrous winter.

We needed to put a locomotive in a freezer in the summer.

Wait!  What?  Put a locomotive in a freezer? Really?

They have some pretty big freezers at Sears.  Might be able to fit a 1:12 scale locomotive in one...

Fortunately, REALLY LARGE freezers exist.  The Budd company's lab near Philadelphia still had their climate controlled chamber that they had used to to test and qualify the HVAC systems of passenger and transit equipment.  It was for hire and it would fit a locomotive!

I wrote up a test plan and we grabbed a straight SD40 that still had hot water cab heat and fitted it out so that we could easily install any kind of drain valve and then wheeled in into Philadelphia and parked it in Budd's climate chamber.  They set over 100 thermocouples following our direction and connected them to chart recorders.  We were ready to start.

We installed an electric drain valve, started the locomotive up and let it idle until it was hot, then shut it down and turned on the huge bank of refrigeration units.  The temperature started to drop.  Within an hour or two, "pop" went the drain valve.  Parts of the engine were still well over 100 degrees although the cab heater lines were perilously close to freezing, but overall, success.  No freeze damage!

Next we fitted the mechanical valves including a pair in the cab heater lines under the walkway.  Same routine.  Hours later, in late afternoon, a small trickle from the cab heater lines.  Then, a small trickle from the main valve.  A hour or so later, it was obvious that this wasn't going to work.  The air compressor was getting very close to freezing and we were afraid of freeze damage in other places, as well.  We opened the big end doors and started up the engine to warm things up.

Bad news!  We had some freeze damage in the cab heater lines and back by the air compressor.  We shut down the locomotive and drained it all the way.  It was about 8PM at this point and here's where I got myself in trouble.

I went home.  I was thinking we'd fix things in the morning.  Little did I know, the others stayed on to repair the freeze damage that night, finishing hours later. Maybe I didn't want to know?  Boy, did I get chewed out the next morning!

After patching things up, we tried a mechanical valve that would snap all the way open and stay there.  It worked about as well as the electrical valve, but was difficult to reset.

Then we tried a mechanical valve that sensed the air temperature near the valve inside the carbody.  This valve reacted within an hour of shutdown and drained all the water - even the cab heater lines.  To reset, you just grabbed the sensor with your hand to warm it.

Now, we were getting somewhere!

During one of the test runs, I got myself in trouble again.  I got locked in the test chamber while the cooling system was running.  The air was around zero degrees.  I had a winter hat and coat, so I wasn't in any real danger of hypothermia.  I climbed into the locomotive cab, thinking somebody would eventually wonder where I was and come get me.

But, given that I had "abandoned ship" earlier, maybe they didn't give it too much thought?  Either way, after ten minutes or so, I decided to blow the horn - there was still plenty of air in the main reservoir - thinking they might hear it over the insulation and roar of cooling compressors.

They didn't.  I tried again five minute later.

The good news was, they heard it.  The bad news was it was because the same guy who chewed me out before was just coming through the access door and got an earful of horn at close range.  This did not make him happy.

I got chewed out...again!

This time, I was pretty mad myself, since somebody locked the door to the room without knowing everyone was out.  To this day, nobody has owned up to that "crime".

We made one more run with a modified air-sensing valve, insulated to allow some of the heat conducted from the piping to delay the opening a bit.  We wanted to be sure that a running engine that happened to have a carbody door open wouldn't have too great a chance of accidently dumping the water.

Success!  We went whole hog for these mechanical drain valves and freeze damage largely disappeared in subsequent winters.

Into the great, white north...

While the problem was generally licked, there continued to be a string of improvements made to the valve design.  Each major iteration needed some level of testing to insure we were still well protected.  Renting the test chamber and sequestering a locomotive for a period of time was out of the question, so we used "Nature's Test Chamber" - Selkirk NY.  It got bitter cold there and was a fairly easy drive from Philadelphia.

We'd watch the weather forecast and them make a quick trip timed to coincide with the approaching cold front.  We'd install the valve in the locomotive, apply a few well placed thermocouples and then move the locomotive outside for testing overnight.

The testing was fairly uneventful.  One particular trip left a few memories.  My car, a 1983 Escort GT, wouldn't start after we checked out of our hotel, so we had it towed to the shop, where it started immediately and nothing was found wrong.  This was the begining of a chronic problem for that car solved only when Ford changed the material in the distributor cap.

This car must have had some redeeming features, but mostly it was a lemon.
That delayed the start of our trip home so that we would arrive in Philadelphia at the peak of a major, 18" snow storm.  We didn't make it all the way home - only as far as the nearest guy's home in Northeast Philly.

The next day, the sun came out and the roads melted quickly and life returned to normal - except for the locomotives.  No more winter locomotive-sicles!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Arkansas can wait - Special Edition: Versailles: "It's good to be the king!"

Mel Brook's "History of the World - Part 1" was not a great movie.  There are two things about it that stick in my mind, though.  The Torquemada Spanish Inquisition song and dance number and the Louis XVI "It's good to be the king!"  line.

There is no doubt that at Versailles, it was good to be the king, indeed!

Versailles!  Louis XIV out front of his place.
Versailles was always "something".  It was a rural retreat for the royals for quite a while - a "hunting lodge" for kings.  It was quite opulent, but Louis XIV really made it what it became for the bulk of the 18th century, adding on to the "cottage", creating places for the government ministries, and creating the immense gardens.

The total cost of the expansion was roughly 1/2 of France's annual GDP!

We first took a tour of the apartments that Louis XV created for his family.  Prior to this, the King slept in the "public" side of the house.  Louis XV wanted some more privacy so he build out some rooms in what was a large public space.

Our tour guide

A model of the open space built by Louis XIV, converted to apartments by Louis XV

King's desk, complete with secret side door for restocking paper and ink.


Showing flush doors that match the wall

Dining room

Hall leading to private apartments

A barometer.

A clock built to display the correct date and phase of the moon for millenia.  That's optimism! 

The tour included the opera house

The ceiling.  What is going on?  Cherubs and ribbons and a Pegasus and who knows what...

Gilded proscenium

Chandeliers in boxes are only half with mirrors behind them. Clever!

It WAS good to be the king, and there were throngs of folk who wanted a bit of the that "goodness" to rub off on them, so they hung around the palace.  All they had to do was rent a hat and sword in town and appear as Lord Soandso and they were in!  So, every action of the king was a great event, including who got to take his slippers off at night and tuck him in.  Louis XIV liked the attention.  Louis XV, not so much...

The tour dumped us off at the start of the main house tour. It was jam packed - for good reason.  Nothing like this exists anywhere else.  It's easy to see why the regular folk got in a bit of a rage over this lifestyle while food was becoming scarce.

Crowded palace!
Some outrageous scenes from the house

Chapel.  Every house needs one of these....

More ceiling silliness.  Cherubs coming out of a building in the sky...oh, my.

80's hair-band hair was popular on French kings, apparently.

Got enough paintings of yourself around?  Next time, go with the statue.

Decorating theme?  Leave no square inch unadorned!

Enough paintings and statues of yourself?  Try a bas-relief!

Hall of mirrors is also "hall of more crazy ceilings."

Aptly named hall of mirrors

... and from the other end 
King's bed in his "public" bedroom.
It was quite a deal to be one of those chosen to help put the king to bed and tuck him in. 

Queen's public bed

Baroque-ing Bad!
Reflective Patti

I suppose this is Hermes or Mercury doing something or another...or a promotion for Obamacare...or a premium mail order prescription delivery service.  It's not clear to me which. 

The front door

The gate to the palace itself.  Wish I had the gold paint concession...
Busts on the walls and people on the roof

Smiling visitors!

The Gardens.

The house may have gotten a good head start before Louis XIV moved there, but the gardens were all his idea.  Something about showing he could "control or master nature."  Sun Kings do this, I've heard. I guess everyone needs a hobby...

There were a few statues:

...and a few fountains

A dragon?  Sea serpant?  Can't tell if he's winning or losing.

Neptune and his pals.
Impressive even when they're not flowing.

...and a "pond"

This "pond" is the hand-dug Grand Canal.  It's a mile long!
...suitable for boating and the King's life-like model naval battle re-creations

...also good for swans and ducks and row boats

...and some MORE fountains

A relatively unadorned fountain.

Cherubs?  Why not?  Gotta have cherubs!

These dance to classical music - a relatively recent addition to Versailles.
Maybe they got the old "dancing waters" from centerfield in Veteran's Stadium, Philadelphia?

Of course, once you name yourself "The Sun King", you have to have a stylized image of yourself rising from the mist, headed to you house on your chariot.

...surrounded my mermen?
 Was Versailles in a good place for powering all these fountains?  Of course not!  It was a constant struggle to find and pump water for the canal and fountains.  There was a large cistern for holding fountain water in the north wing of the house - also handy for fire fighting should it be needed.

It was good to be the King - and probably not too shabby to be the queen, either.