Friday, May 9, 2014

War Stories - Episode 18: "Not Sleeping in the Sleeper"

News Flash:  I like riding trains.  Pretty much any train.  Except maybe those goofy Mall trains.

Working in the Equipment Engineering Department, I got involved in a whole bunch of things.  That was one of the good things about the job.  But the most interesting, most fun, and almost always most engaging involved working with the Technical Services Laboratory a.k.a. "The Lab".  They were the remnant of the once-great NYC lab in Collinwood OH, that among other things, installed jet engines on a Budd RDC and set the world rail speed record in 1966 of 183.68 mph.  (It's still the US record, FWIW, Metroliners and Acelas notwithstanding)

By the time Conrail had come around, they had faded from their past glory, but were still some of the sharpest guys on the railroad.  I owe a lot of what I know and how I went about thing from these guys.  One guy in particular, Ralph Holl, was one of the best mentors I had during my career.  (He actually had a part in the jet powered Budd car thing!)

The Lab moved to Altoona when the Collinwood Backshop closed in the early 1980s and most of my work with them was during their Altoona years.  We did all sorts of work at their place.  Most of the time, it was in conjunction with them.  But, sometimes when the internal political winds in the upper reaches of the adminisphere blew sideways, on our own.

Sometimes it involved work at the lab itself, but, the best work was going out on the road with their converted passenger car.

Conrail car 20 was the ex-NYC Chicopee Falls (or Walton Lake.  I can't figure which source is definitive), a six double bedroom, lounge car that was converted into rolling laboratory test car some time in the early 1960s, I believe.  The blind end had a strain gauged, dynamometer coupler installed to measure drawbar pull.  The double bedroom pair closest to the vestibule end had an engine generator set installed for light, heat and air conditioning that had come from a wrecked mechanical reefer.  The next set of bedrooms was converted into a tool room, but retained the two upper berths.  The third set was left intact.

The original small kitchen was equipped with a sink, overhead water tank, stove, refrigerator and microwave oven. The lounge area had been reconfigured into one open space with a instrument rack at the rear.  Each side of the car also was fitted with a low profile bay window.  Somewhere in the car's history, there had been a sizable water leak that had ruined the original wood veneer interior. The bubbled veneer had been painted over suede gray - the same color as the interior of locomotive cabs.  The train-lined steam heat system had been replaced with some baseboard electric heat - about 10KW worth - about as much as the engine generator set could stand and about half what a locomotive cab has.  The car had a recirculating chemical toilet and gravity fed running cold water in the kitchen, but no hot water or shower.

This was not luxury rail travel - more like camping out in a rail car.  But it was fun!  Here are a few tales:

SD50 vs C36-7 Fuel economy test

The oil shocks of the 1970s created a big push for locomotives with higher fuel efficiency in the early 1980s.  Some of the improvement came from making the diesel engine itself more efficient but a big chunk of the improvement came from controlling the power going to the auxilliary components like the cooling fans and traction motor blower.  Locomotive builders EMD and GE each had a their own bag of tricks and claimed some pretty substantial gains.  Conrail was in the market to purchase some new locomotives and rather than just take their word for it, The Lab was asked to do some real world testing.

Conrail borrowed a "lastest-greatest" SD50 from UP (actually, from the Missouri Pacific, but in full UP Armour Yellow and to UP specs) and a "latest-greatest" C36-7 from Norfolk Southern in 1985.  The Lab installed some power meters and a "day tank" system for measuring fuel consumption and set about making a bunch of round trips between Selkirk and Boston, Beacon Park Yard.  They also used the dyanmometer coupler to measure drawbar HP by integrating force and speed.  I got to be part of their crew for several trips, some during the day, some during the night.  When laying over in Boston, we stayed on the car.

Fuel Pad at Beacon Park at night.  Looking out end door of CR 20.

Some recollections.

CR 20 could keep itself warm under most circumstances, but one trip, half the electric heat quit and the temperature hovered in the low 50 inside the car.  We spent most of our spare time huddled under a blanket or two.

With no one to tell you "no", I got to do a bit of "dutch-dooring" along the way.  This way particularly nice when winding up through the Berkshires.

Attempting sleep in the bedrooms was always a bit challenging.  One particular trip, I was trying to catch a nap while the train was descending Berkshires westbound. All was good until I started thinking about the three big six axles holding back the train with dynamic brake.  CR 20 had a bit of a rust problem.  In fact the vestibule end was a bit of a mess.  Thinking about the rust and the buff forces and listening to the car creak under the pressure made sleep a bit problematic!

Between runs at Selkirk

I learned that you can effectively weigh a train using a dynamometer coupler.  With the train on a steep, steady grade at a steady, low speed, nearly all the train's rolling resistance is due to climbing the grade.  Take the force and divide by the grade (in percent) and 20 (lbs per ton) and voila!  Train weight!  (pretty close, anyway)

In the end, we found that the manufacturer's claims were dead-on.  Conrail continued to purchase SD50s and later sprung for the first production six axle Dash 8s ever built, the C32-8s.

Ride quality testing, B36-7 and SD50

Locomotives are supposed to stay on the tracks.  They are also supposed to be able to pull trains.  All the while, they should try to give a good ride to the train crew.  The locomotive suspension should not be overly complex, either.  That's pretty much the order of importance, too. These four often place conflicting demands on the truck design engineer and problems and complaints can occur.

The most notable was when the Amtrak SDP40F locomotives had a seemingly abnormal number of derailments.  This led Conrail to avoid the truck design under that locomotive, the EMD HTC truck, gaining some ride quality at the expense of adhesion.  I had the job of doing the literature review of all the various tests of the Amtrak SDP40F.  It was very instructive for my understanding how the suspension system worked and how ride quality tests were generally conducted.

That was interesting, but not as interesting as going out and actually measuring locomotive ride quality.

Conrail purchased 60 B36-7 locomotives in 1983.  They were purchased to displace some ancient GP40s in intermodal train service.  Three of them could effectively displace four GP40s on a train and they did! It was a fairly low risk purchase.  They were similar in size and design to a large fleet of B23-7s Conrail already owned.  The B36-7s were heavier with a larger engine and bigger fuel tank and they had GE's new, but thoroughly tested, "floating bolster" truck instead of the old, AAR type B.

Low risk isn't "no risk" however, and it wasn't long before ride quality complaints came pouring in - tales of yawing at speed.  After much discussion with GE, GE developed a modified damper package for the truck and we had The Lab test it.

This time it was a nice day trip from Altoona to Mifflin.  We tested at speeds up to 70 mph on welded and jointed rail on a modified and unmodified B36-7.  Back and forth for hours.  What did we find?  We found that the B36-7 was a lousy riding locomotive, but there was no sign of yawing.  The improved dampers did little to help the lousy ride.

Not knowing what else to do, Conrail installed the improved dampers, claimed victory and moved on.  The complaints continued and only years later, while riding for a completely different reason, would I experience the yaw that was being complained about. At just the right speed, with just the right wear on the wheels, the locomotive would, indeed, yaw.  However, it never reached the lateral suspension limits, so it wasn't a real danger.

The final solution was to downgrade the B36-7s to regular freight service and let newer locomotives handle the intermodal trains.

Still, one person's problem was another person's train ride!

The SD50s posed another problem.

When Conrail decided they didn't want the HTC truck, but wanted the Flexicoil truck, EMD simply kept getting new Flexicoil trucks cast.  However, after several years of no orders in the early 1980s, EMD stopped production of the Flexicoil truck.  When Conrail started ordering SD50's, they were sourced from trade-ins at a substantial savings.

The problem was, Conrail had just burned through a substantial pile of "second generation" Flexicoil frames when they retro-fitted the six axle slugs.  It was necessary to dip into a pile of  "first generation" frames from SD9s and SD35s to supply the middle two orders of SD50s.  At the time, this did not seem to be a problem.

The problem occurred when asbestos abatement became reality in the late 1980s.  One of the differences between the first and second generations of Flexicoils was the spring loaded snubber in the bolster that provides damping for the secondary suspension (the Flexicoils, themselves).  There was no asbestos free snubber replacement for the first generation truck, and developing a source of supply was going to be costly.

So, EMD came up with some external, hydraulic dampers - shock absorbers - and we applied them on one SD50 (6741?)

Modified loco on left, CR20 in the middle, control unit trailing

SD50 riding on first generation Flexicoil trucks from an SD9 or SD35.
Most notable spotting feature is the thin reinforcing ridge over the middle pedestal
We ran out to Mifflintown and then made the same series of runs as the B36-7 test at track speed on both welded and jointed rail.  It was a nice, early summer day and it's always fun to run along the Juniata river valley.

The verdict?  The mod was not effective.  We were going to have to ante-up and develop a new supply for the bolster snubber.

In hindsight, this whole problem could have been avoided one of three ways.

First, Conrail could have just gone with HTC trucks in the first place.  There was no real reason not to.

Second, the slug re-trucking was the result of trying to get away from equalized trucks which made brake shoes changing nearly impossible except over a pit.  Going from Alco tri-mounts to Flexicoils required as small mountain of welding.  It would have been easier and cheaper to do a "carbody" and cabling transplant to some retired GE six axles, but Juniata was short of electricians and over-supplied with welders...

Third, Juniata could have chosen the first generation Flexicoils for the slugs.  They already had the attachment points for clasp brake rigging.  Instead, they chose the second generation ones from SD45s and welded on all the needed material for clasp brake rigging.

Oh, well.  Hindsight is always 20/20.

Clearance testing on the River Line.

The double-stack revolution happened fast.  No sooner were UP and American President's Line running double stack container trains from LA to Chicago than the other railroads scrambling to increase line clearances to handle stack trains.  Conrail got the Chicago Line and River Line in shape to provide a route to metropolitan New York from Chicago.  It wasn't easy, particularly on the River Line where the tunnel under West Point was already pretty close to the high tide level of the Hudson River.  But, the work got done and soon highly profitable solid trains of double stacked marine containers were moving from Chicago to North Jersery.

Then came JB Hunt.  They wanted in on the game, except their containers mimicked regular highway trailers and were a bit taller.

Problem.  Engineering said the West Point tunnel couldn't be undercut any lower and raising the roof would be hugely expensive. After much internal wailing and gnashing of teeth, it was decided to drop the normal clearance margin from 6" to 4", which should be just enough to accomodate JB Hunts boxes in the West Point Tunnel.  The Engineering and C&S departments checked their clearances manually and then The Lab was sent out to verify the clearances with their test car.

As it turns out, they were a guy short and I happily got volunteered to help them out on the last leg of the trip from Selkirk to Croxton, NJ.  The test set-up was rather simple.  A locomotive, CR 20, then a well car with JB Hunt boxes on it.  On top of the containers were some plywood fingers with wire strung between them, making a circuits at one inch increments from the box roof up to 6" above the box.  A video camera with some flood lights were mounted on the roof of car 20 where it could see the "fingers".  The output of the video went to a VCR.

I was riding with Ralph Holl, a veteran of the NYC test lab in Cleveland - one of a very few who made the move to Altoona -  and all around nice guy.

We got an early afternoon call, bought some supplies and headed for Selkirk. We got out of the yard on time and headed down the River Line.  Got as far as the first controlled siding and tucked in behind the frieght already on the siding...and waited...and waited.  There was an MOW curfew on until early evening, so we sat.

Finally, about dusk, we got going again.  While I was looking foward to riding down the Hudson River in daylight hours, it was pretty nice at night, too.  Mile after mile, the clearances were just like we thought they'd be.  No problems.  Then we went under West Point.  "Eeeeeep!" went the alarm.  One of the wires had been snagged.  We had the crew stop the train and rewound the video tape to find the offender.  There was a staybolt end hanging down from the tunnel roof and it snagged the top wire.  Easily fixed.  The bolt could be trimmed.

Ralph then said, "We have to go up and replace that wire."  Really?  I was not fond of ladders - or heights.  The higher, the less fond.  This one went up from the platform on the well car to the roof of the top box, about 20 feet above the railhead.  Yikes!  I really don't want to do this, but I couldn't let Ralph down!

So up I went.  The hard part was navigating from the ladder to the roof without any handholds.  Once up there, it was actually nice!  It was a warm evening with a light breeze.  You could see the lights along the river on both sides - just very pleasant.  We made short work of the repair and headed back down.

That cured me of my fear of ladders.  It wasn't as bad as I thought (like so many things...)

The rest of the trip down to Croxton was uneventful until we got to NX (?) tower at the east end of the yard just before midnight.  The second trick operator had gone for the day and there was no third trick job, so the crew tied us down just outside the yard limit and jitneyed on out of there.  We locked up the end doors on the car and headed for bed.   It wasn't the greatest neighborhood, so there was a tendancy to sleep with one eye open.  A yard crew came knocking on our door just after 7 AM and hauled us into the yard.  Taxi to Newark, Amtrak to Philly and then home. QED.

Pueblo flange lube testing on worm loop.

It came to light in the late 1980s that if you could continuously lubricate the flanges on train, you could save tankers full of fuel.  Not just those curve flange greasers, but a way to get the flanges lubricated continuously.  On approach to this way to squirt grease on the locomotive flanges and let it carry down the rail to the rest of the train.  Conrail bit hard on this technology and one of the ways they tried to determine the cost, savings and overall effectiveness was to do a controlled test on the "worm" loop at the AAR/DOT test facility in Pueblo, Colorado.  I got invited out for a visit during the test.  It travelled out to Denver, visited Woodward Governor in Fort Collins - we were doing a test of their electronic engine governor - and then down to Pueblo.

The next day, I headed out to the test center.  Their driveway is over 20 miles long and not a public road.  The rental car I had was a Sterling - a Rover/Honda model based on the Acura Legend.  It made short work of that driveway - autobahn style.  Once there, I didn't have time for the full rattlesnake safety training (gulp!  Rattlesnake safety training?!?), so I wasn't allowed around the place unescorted.  So, it was out to CR 20 for a day's worth of riding around and around the worm loop.   Got to see some equipment involved in other tests and the occasional glimpse of Pikes Peak.  Not the most glamourous or exciting route I'd ever ridden, but I was still riding on a train, in a full-fledged passenger car, with people who were now my friends and mentors.  A very pleasant day! There are no bad train rides.

Test train on worm loop at TTCI Pueblo, CO

Like I said in the beginning, "I like riding trains.  Pretty much any train."

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