Monday, August 18, 2014

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

This is my favorite war story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some interesting rememberances from the meetings...

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

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

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

No more fun meetings to go to.  Rats!

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

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

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

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

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

Testing radial trucks against four axles on Elsworth Secondary

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

Time to get to work!

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

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

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

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

Here's the test routes as executed:

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

* trains that tested adhesion close to design limit

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

Some testing stories:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two big questions:

1. Was the 32% adhesion real?

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

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

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

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

The report made four specific recommendations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

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

The unfortunate case of CR 1625.

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

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

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

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

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

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

In 1988, we decided to try one.

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

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

Here's what the story:

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

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

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

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

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

What the heck was that rock and roll action?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 11, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some trips I made included:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No flying?  No problem!

War Stories - Episode 23: How to Scare a Child in an Airport Without Really Trying.

Cabooses were iconic.  Still are.

Wait a minute!  What does this have to do with scaring kids in airports?  This isn't another railroad story, is it?

Yes.  Another railroad story.  Really.

Back to cabooses.  (cabeese?) Or cabin cars, if you prefer.  Or waycars.  Or vans, crummies, hacks, buggies, etc. There were lots of proper names and nicknames for them.

Everyone knows what a caboose is, even 25 years after their demise.

Cabooses just aren't really part of the railroad scene anymore. Sure, caboose-like things now known as "shoving platforms" still exist.  Whenever a train has a long shoving (i.e. backing up) move, you need one for the trainman to ride.  The doors welded shut and the are interiors are gutted.  It's just a bit better than having to hang on the ladder of a car.  You see them here and there occasionally.

You also see old cabooses scattered around as museum pieces, tourist offices and as ornaments at fast food joints.  They also exist on tourist railroads as a fun place to ride.

But cabooses as the ubiquitous period at the end of the freight train sentence are gone.  I miss them.  I understand all the good reasons they are gone.  Railroading is a better place without them, but, trains still seem incomplete to me without them.

Coupla or bay window?  Old NH and new CR at Selkirk

In Spring.  Old PRR "cabin car" on the Southern Tier

...or Fall on the Hudson Line. night in the rain - transfer caboose headed back through Albany-Rensselar station to West Albany.

When one isn't enough - repositioning - westbound at Herkimer NY.

A Boston and Maine "buggy" crossing the Hudson River in Mechanicville, NY

Cabooses have been replaced by the "end of train device", usually referred to as an EOT these days.

How'd we get from there to here?  I'll tell you.

Freight cars move stuff from A to B.  Along the way, they're likely to ride on several different trains.  Before the days of data communication, the information about the shipement was carried by the conductor on a waybill.  It told where the car was coming from, where it was going to, what was in it, who shipped it and who was going to receive it.  It also contained the route which told each railroad along the way which interchange point they were supposed to use to transfer the car from one railroad to another.

Carrying the waybills was very important.  You could not possibly jam all that information over telegraph wires or even telephone lines.  The conductor had to had carry them from one place to the next so that the next yard knew what to do with the car when it arrived.  Should the train stop along the way an pick up or set off cars, the conductor had to direct the work and handle the waybills with the station agent.

He needed a place to do this work.  Finding a good spot on the train was tough.  A full train crew in the 19th century would have the following people working:

Engineer - his job was to run the locomotive so that the train was where it needed to be when it needed to be there, following the timetable and train orders given to him.  Make the train go and don't hit any other trains - that was his job.

Fireman - his job was to make sure the locomotive had enough steam for the engineer to operate the train.  This involved shovelling coal into the firebox and putting water in the boiler.

Head and rear brakeman - Before airbrake systems were implemented, these guys applied the brakes on the cars in the train.  They did this by turning the brake wheel on the top of each car, walking along the roofs of the cars whenever the engineer signalled for a stop by blowing the whistle.  The headend brakeman typically rode in the locomotive and the rearend guy in the caboose.

Flagman - When the train stopped somewhere it wasn't supposed to, his job was to protect the train from getting hit by a following train by carrying a flag the proscribed distance from the where the rear of the train stopped.  He typically rode in the caboose.

Conductor - He was in change of the train and the employees working on it.  He kept the waybills and supervised the other workers.

The steam locomotive pulling the train was a dirty, noisy, crowed, cramped, busy, open air place - a lousy place to care for vital paper work!  So, conductors started commandeering empty freight cars to use as an office.  Over time, these repurposed freight cars evolved into the caboose.

Over the years, much work got automated.  The work of the flagmen was replaced by electric signal systems.  The brakemen were replaced by automatic airbrake systems.  The fireman was rendered surplus when steam locomotives were replaced by diesels.  The changes in staffing occurred somewhat slower than the technology advanced with state "job protection" laws and labor agreements often slower to change than the techonolgy allowed.

The caboose changed with the times, too. More than just a place to keep the paperwork safe, it developed into an important part of safe operation, particularly as trains got longer and longer.  It had an airbrake gauge and valve to allow the conductor  to tell the engineer what the brakepipe pressure was and so he could stop the train if something went wrong.  It had a coupla or bay window to allow the condutor to keep a eye on his train - looking out for mechanical defects and other trouble.  It also had heat, lighting, a toilet and, finally, a two-way radio.  It had a marker light on it so following trains could plainly see when they were approaching the end of train ahead.

By the early 1980s, a typical freight train had three men on it. An engineer in the locomotive, a conductor in the caboose and a single brakeman - who functioned as the conductor's assistent - typically sitting in the locomotive.  The conductor still carried paperwork about the contents of the train - important if something were to go wrong along the way - but the waybill information was routinely being forwarded from place to place electronically.  On a through freight train operating from one place to another - when nothing went wrong - it wasn't unusual for the conductor and brakeman to have almost nothing to do.

Cabooses were a big pain in the neck for railroads.  You had to make sure the light, heat, radio and toilet always worked.  You had to keep them supplied with water, fusees and tools.  You had to switch one onto the end of every train you built in a terminal.  You had to make sure you had enough on hand plus en route in order to cover the trains that you need to dispatch.  You had to repair and overhaul them when they got worn and tired.

If you could move everyone up into the locomotive cab, and cover the function of the caboose with some electronics, maybe you could eliminate cabooses.

Southern Railway got the ball rolling.   They built a battery powered device that you could hook up to the brake hose on the rear car of a train.  It could transmit the brake pipe pressure to a receiver on locomotive.  They tried it out.  It worked!  This shouldn't have been a huge shock.  NASA got telemetered data from the moon in the 1960s.  How hard could it be to do a single pressure transducer in the 1980s?  The Southern quickly started building their home-grown devices for expanded testing.

Everyone noticed.  Soon the push was on and outside suppliers started building end of train device systems.  Conrail purchased a few from Dyanamic Sciences Ltd. (DSL), a Canadian company, to try out.  They had a big NiCad battery that could run the transmitter for a couple days, a clamp to hold them onto the coupler, an accelerometer to tell you when it's moving and a button to test the radio link on them  For a marker, you were supposed to use an old battery powered one that fit in the coupler flag stick hole.  The EOT device just relayed the brake pipe pressure and movement sensing to the locomotive.  That's it.

Modern EOTs have added an LED marker light, an air turbine to charge the battery, a GPS receiver, an AEI tag and the ability to apply the brakes by command from the locomotive.  Much fancier than the original DSL model.

Meanwhile, back in the 1980s...

Conrail equipped SD50 6750 with the head end box and started running trips between the Whiskey Island ore dock in Cleveland to Mingo Jct in the summer of 1984. No caboose. The conductor rode in the locomotive.  These trains had no brakeman.  We typically accompanied the trips to educate and keep an eye on the equpment.

My turn to ride came on Friday, August 24th. I was happy to have scored a train ride!  I flew to Cleveland Thurday evening, rented a car, practice the route to Whiskey Island and went to the hotel for a short, fitful, night of sleep.  The call came at 4:00 AM.  I hit a convenience store, grabbed some sandwiches, snacks, soda and a coffee and headed for Whiskey Island, where the train was waiting.

The crew arrived and boarded the train about 7:00 AM on an overcast, somewhat foggy morning.  The power was SD50 6750 and a nearly new C36-7.  The engineer did his walk around.  He wasn't happy.  He wanted the power bad ordered because he thought the independent brake was not operating.  I investigated and insured him it was fine, the piston travel was just very short because of new brakeshoes.  He still wasn't happy, but away we went with our 100 cars of ore and EOT happily trailing along.

We pulled up to the mainline, got a medium clear signal, went accross the drawbridge, diverged onto the Cleveland line across from the Amtrak station on the lakefront on a limited clear and ground our way up the hill away from the lake.

The conductor was reasonable chatty, but the engineer still had a scowl.  It was smooth sailing to Alliance. We snuck up on the 40 mph limit in a few places, but the engineer was generally playing it safe.  We rattled across the diamonds there and proceded down the Bayard Branch which had a 25 mph limit.  The engineer was happy to regulate the speed in the 17-18 mph range.  I didn't care - it was still a pretty decent day for a train ride.

The EOT was doing it's thing without a hitch.  The voice radio crackled.  It was the Road Foreman who had been hiding in the weeds.  "ZWW-501 - are you having trouble with your power?"  "No.  The power is fine".  "Then why aren't you moving at track speeed?"  The engineer replied, "I'm running this train.  If you'd like to run this train, come on up and do it yourself."

Sort of.

Actually, he stood up, put his mouth inches from the radio microphone and screamed, "I'MRUNNINGTHISTRAIN!  IFYOUWANTTORUNTHISTRAIN, COMEONUANDDOITYOURSELF!" *

(* PG version of actual rebuttal)


The engineer had snapped.  I have no idea what the back story was, but, clearly, some line was crossed.

He sat back down.  Silence.  We continued down the line.  Steam stopped coming out his ears.  Only the scowl remained.  I guess the road foreman wasn't going to push it.  That was pretty much the end of the "conversation".

Fortunately, shortly after, the sun finally burned through the clouds and everyone's mood lightened.  We tootled down to Bayard Juntion at 17-18 mph, then hung a left and headed for Yellow Creek.

Yellow Creek was still a manned tower and they gave our train a CT-501 (in NORAC-speak, a Form D) that allowed our train to use the track from Bayard Jct. to Yellow Creek.  For the uninitiated, there are no electrical signals on this line.  Trains operated on the "Mother-may-I" system know to railroaders as Manual Block operation.  There were stakes in the ground with names on them.  These were block stations.  The engineer and conductor got instructions telling them how far the train could go.  There was a line on the form that could be filled in if the crew was to report clear from any of the intermediate block stations along the way.

Normally, this was no biggie.  As the caboose passed the block, the conductor would report clear. The conductor took down the CT-501 over the radio and then asked the operator at Yellow Creek if we needed to report clear of the intermediate block station.  Silence.  Then, "ZWW-501, yes, report clear."  It seemed the operator did not know about our lack of caboose and/or what it meant to require us to report clear and the train crew was strictly operating on "don't ask, don't tell" even before that was a thing.

We ground up another hill at full throttle and 8 mph.  I could jog faster, but it was quite a show listening to the locomotives work up the grade.  The EMD was blasting out it's high pitched turbo whine accompanied by the sharp, bass "whop, whop, whop" of the C36-7 trailing.  The SD50 had EMD's new Super Series adhesion control and the GE had their response - Sentry Wheelslip Control.  Both worked well as the locomotives maintained a good grip on the rail as the load meter moved steadily upward and edged into the red.  We crested the grade had then braked down the other side.

We approached the intermediate block station.  The engineer and conductor had a quick conversation about what it meant, excatly, to report clear.  It was becoming clear that they were not supporters of EOTs replacing cabooses and this was a bit of passive-agressive "we'll show you, Conrail!" behavior.  We stopped at the block station sign.  The conductor got off.  The train pulled slowly by until we cleared.  The conductor radioed the engineer who radioed the dispatcher.  The conductor walked back up.  Off we went.  A wasted 30 minutes.

Soon we were at Yellow Creek where we turned right and headed down to Mingo Jct. We rolled by a power plant that caused the cab signals to flip up to approach a few times.  That was wierd - but not dangerous - we weren't in cab signal territory - but it was weird to see the cab signals flip up and down like that.  We rolled by a steel mill with some hot, molten steel cars on the adjacent track.  They were radiating blazing heat, even with all that insulation.  Finally, we yarded at Mingo Jct. with an hour or so left on the crew's hours of service.  They found their jitney and headed for rest.

I went into the yard office, got a car inspector to go fetch the EOT with me and found out about a return trip.  "Tomorrow or Sunday" was the answer.  You can ride back to Cleveland on an empty ore train headed back in a few hours if you like.  "Can you swap power and run it with the set I just came in on?"  "Hmmmm.  Maybe. Let me check".  It turned out "yes".  They did a quick servicing and got the power ready for the return to Cleveland.

About this time, I was starting to feel the effects of a short night's sleep.  I was getting tired, a bit grungy and a headache was taking root.  The train was assembled and we hung the EOT on the rear car and ran the test to make sure it linked with the head end all right.

The crew came on duty about 4:00 PM and we got out of town about 6:00 PM.  By now, I was nicely dirty, had finished my sandwiches and snacks and the headache was full blown.

We had 206 cars.  Six coil steel cars to set off at Alliance and 200 empty ore jennies for Whiskey Island.  Despite the big train, we had no trouble getting over the road at close to track speed.  The set out at Alliance went without a hitch and we headed up the Cleveland Line at roughly 10:00 PM.
Now, I was tried, dirty, hungry and the drone of the locomotives and blare of the horn for all the road crossings hurt my eyes, ears and head.  I was starting to look forward to the end of this train ride.

As we approached Cleveland, the radio crackled with the voice of the dispatcher.  There had been a derailment somewhere.  We weren't going to be able to make it back to Whiskey Island.


Worse yet.  The derailment was burning up potential relief crews as pilots somewhere and the jitneys were busy ferrying crews hither and yon.  We were to pull down to where the Cleveland Line joined the Chicago Line and wait.  They'd get us a jitney as soon as they could, but didnt' know when that would be.

We crawled down the grade in Cleveland came to a stop just passed the Amtrak Station just past midnight....and waited.  I closed my eyes and dozed a bit.  That helped.

Finally, at 4:00 AM on Saturday, the crew expired and asked the dispatcher again about a jitney.  They were still busy working around the derailment - he couldn't promise anything.


I had an idea.  I could walk a short ways back, and across the tracks to the Amtrak station and call a cab.  I said my good-byes, grabbed my stuff, and headed out.  The EOT would just have to take care of itself for the last few miles back to Whiskey Island.

The station had just opened for the arrival of the westbound Lake Shore limited, so I went inside and dialed up a cab company.  A few minutes later, I was on my way back to Whiskey Island to pick up my rental car.  The Whiskey Island ore dock was not a typical destination for a Cleveland taxi driver and I wound up having to give him direction along the way.  I think he was somewhat relieved when we finally go there and I paid him his fare with a nice tip.

I headed for Hopkins Airport just as the sun was peaking up over the horizon.  I ditched the rental, went inside and bought a ticket for the 7:00 AM flight to Philadelphia.  I headed down the concourse for the gate.  Along the way, I passed by a family.  The parents leading and a young girl, about 7 or 8 years old, trailing.   The girl glanced at me and then moved ALL THE WAY TO THE FAR SIDE of the corridor.  She just stared at me with a big-eyed, scared look on her face, quickly running to catch up with her folks.

I was puzzled by this until I made a restroom stop.  I was dirty from head to foot, including my well worn steel toed boots.  I had a permanent scowl from the headache and probably reaked from a day's worth of dried sweat.  I was a mess.  Pretty scary looking!  Not a whole lot different from a homeless person living under a bridge, I suppose.

I might have brushed my teeth an splashed some water on my face and even changed my shoes, but I didn't really care.  I was going home and there was nothing a shower and a nap couldn't fix!

I did exactly that and even made it to a wedding and reception that afternoon.  Twenty five years later, all that remain of that trip are fond memories.

Both my headache and the cabooses are long gone.  At least I think all that remains are memories....

But, maybe that little girl was scarred for life!  Wonder what she thinks of cabooses?

Friday, August 8, 2014

War Stories - Episode 22: L'il Abner's got nothing on me!

L'il Abner was carried by the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin when I was a kid.  It was getting a bit long in the tooth by the time I started reading it, but it left a few lasting impressions.  Pretty much everyone knows about Sadie Hawkins Day.   Even my kids know, even if they don't know its origins.  L'il Abner's mother, Mammy Yokum used to say, "Good is better than evil because it's nicer".  Almost theological...

L'il Abner himself was employed as a mattress tester.

For a day, so was I.

After Stanley Crane came aboard as CEO, he began building up the business car fleet, making it easier for management to get out on the road and actually see and feel the railroad.  Conrail purchased some, older, cheaper equipment and then overhauled or rebuilt it at Reading Shops.  One of them was an old Southern Coach that was converted into a bedroom car in 1984 and numbered CR8.

In 1985, it was retrucked from six wheel trucks to four wheel ones.   To make sure that the new suspension gave a good ride, we did some ride quality.

At that time, I was one of the experts at Conrail for performing ride quality testing.  Normally, this involved mounting seismic accelerometers over the bolster centers and running cables to a massive, 80 pound chart recorder that was equipped with low-pass filtering.  You want to measure vibrations in the range of the natural frequency of the suspension laterally and vertically, typically in the <5 Hz range.

Fortunately, I had become acquainted with the Ed Lombardi at Amtrak who worked at and later ran their test department.  They had a couple of handy devices that helped to make this job a bit easier.  One was a Japanese two axis accelerometer - strictly mechanical - that had the right low frequency pass filtering built in.  If I remember right, it even had a wind-up clock motor drive for the chart recorder.  It was a brilliant little piece of mechanical engineering!

The test involved measuring the lateral and vertical accelerations and recording them on a chart.  Later, I'd analyze the chart looking for highest peaks per mile and number above a threshold per mile.  It allowed a measure of how well the suspension isolated track inputs.

Amtrak also had an electronic human vibration exposure meter designed to provide a frequency weighted measure according to an international standard (that I have forgotten...)  It came with a seat cushion accelerometer - that looked a great deal like a "whoopee" cushion - designed for measuring passenger comfort.  This was a more sophisiticated way of determining passenger comfort but not as easy to understand the relationship between accelerometer input and meter output.

I borrowed both from Amtrak, making a quick round trip to DC on Metroliner Service trains to pick them up.  A hard day's work!  Being curious about both, I gave them a quick workout during my train ride and later driving to Reading.  It also gave me some basis of comparison for the results from testing passenger car.

We had established a nice test route for these business car trips.  We'd head out of Reading, down to Philadelphia, wye at West Falls and then back onto the connector from West Falls to Zoo tower.  From there, we'd head west on Amtrak to Harrisburg.  There were some nice stretches of 90 mph running as well as a nice mix of welded and jointed rail on Amtrak's Harrisburg Line.  We'd wye at Harrisburg, then head back to Reading.

I drove to Reading early on Tuesday, July 16, 1985 to do the testing. We had a locomotive, CR 8 and an open-end platform business car in the consist - Car 14?  Car 10 Car 4? Not sure which.   The bolster centers were in the middle of the bedrooms, as I recall.  I set up the accelerometer and got ready to manually annotate the chart with milepost data as the train moved along.

I got set up and the train headed for Philadelphia.  We wyed and headed for Harrisburg.  About this time, one of the suprevisors from Reading shops mentioned that they had purchased both soft and firm mattresses and wondered if there was a difference in comfort while the train is moving.

I can do this!

I lie down on one mattress and put the whoopee cushion under the small of my back, fire the meter up and give it 5 minutes.  Then I move to the other room and repeat.

Bottom line?  No discernable difference.

The four axle trucks?  Nice ride!  Well sprung and damped.  Nothing dangerous.

I had all the data I needed by the time we reached Harrisburg so I enjoyed the trip back to Reading at 50 mph from the open rear platform of the business car.

Lying down on the job?  Yep. Mattress testing! Just like L'il Abner!...and riding on the rear platform of an observation car on a nice sunny, warm summer day. Tough work, when you can get it!