Sunday, June 26, 2016

"Second World Amtrak" - or "Not-quite-the-Blue Train"

My daughter took a year long job in Cape Town South Africa.  We went to visit her last March and April - a four week long trip.  One of the nice things about being retired is not having to worry about "saving vacation days"!

Cape Town with Table Mountain as back drop

During the visit, we rode a passenger train cross-country from Cape Town to Johannesburg.  First, some background, then a travelogue, and finally a "compare and contrast" with Amtrak.

South Africa has an extensive rail network that was built out in the late 19th Century.  It links all the major ports and cities as well as supports major commuter services in Cape Town and Johannesburg.  It's all built to "Cape Gauge", 42 inches, which is unique to South Africa and a many other African countries on the Indian Ocean coast.  Cecil John Rhodes (he of "Rhodes Scholar") original goal was to built a railroad from South Africa to Egypt use Cape Gauge.  Pieces of the effort are still in place.  In fact, there is a renewed effort to get some of these pieces linked up and operating again.

At the end of steam, the lines were nearly all electrified and remain so.  It's a mixture of DC and AC with DC dominating the local commuter lines.

Because of apartheid, the commuter train network is extensive and heavily used.  The partitioning of land by race created a need to bring service workers into the cites from the newly created townships out in the countryside.  That flow of commuting remains and commuter trains are heavily used.

Between the major cities, there is still a skeleton long distance train service - much like Amtrak in the US.  The Shosholoza-Meyl service runs coach and sleeper service with full dining cars on most routes several days a week.  It it is safe and very cheap, but pretty bare bones.

One the other end of the spectrum is the Blue Train.  It is world renown for it's high class - and high price.  It runs once a week between Jo'burg and Cape Town.

In the middle is the Premiere Classe train.  It also runs once a week between Jo'burg and Cape Town.  It was an attempt by the passenger train operating authority to try to make some money from the tourist trade by appealing to western sensibilities and middle class budgets.

More about the these trains here:

(Also read on about the state of commuter services further down on the page)

Another thing to know is South Africa recently consolidated all passenger operations under a single operating agency, Prasa, which not only has the long distance trains, but the commuter trains as well.

They have a huge task of modernizing pretty much everything related to rail passenger travel.  Equipment, stations, fare collection...everything.

Now, on with the trip.

We booked the Premiere Classe train from Cape Town to Jo'burg.  It's an all sleeper train with lounge car and full diner. The train also takes automobiles, too.  It's a 28 hour, nearly 900 mile trip.  Fare was about $200 a person for two people sharing a bedroom.

We arrived at the train station in Cape Town via Uber.  The station was built during apartheid to support the flow of commuters from the townships to the city.  It's utilitarian-modern.

Mosaic saved from some previous station in floor of station
Modern commuter equipment in Cape Town
Auto carrier being switched after loading.  GE switcher doing the honors.
Patti and Anna in Premier Train lounge before departure
The train backed into the stub end track after being put together in the yard.  It was a long train - some of it deadhead equipment, but some of it just unsold. We boarded the train, were directed to our car and room.  There were about four sleepers in service plus a lounge car and a diner.  As soon as everyone boarded, we mustered in the lounge car for snacks and champagne.  There were about 35 passengers.  They introduced the staff.  There were a lot of them about 20.  No uniforms.

Lounge car
The train rolled out of Cape Town through several large rail junctions and finally into the wine country to the east. They grow A LOT of grapes in South Africa.  (and make A LOT of good wine with it)

Scenery in the Western Cape.  Mountains and vineyards
The cars were air conditioned but retained windows that you could open.  This was apparently a vestige from the recent past when the train was not air conditioned.  I quickly figured out that I could open them and stick my head and camera out.  Maybe not the wisest thing, but if you're careful...

The train was air conditioned, but you could open the windows! (and stick you head out and nobody said "boo!")

More scenery in the Western Cape

Climbing through a small canyon
The train rolled through valleys of grapes then through some canyons that would open up to another farm valley.  As we rolled east, the terrain got more and more arid.

...looks a bit like western Colorado on the D&RGW

The fabled Blue Train.  In the hole.  For us!

We roll past the Blue Train

Rolling along at 90 kph (about 55 mph)
In some respects it was a bit like rolling through the canyons on Amtrak's California Zephyr.  Finally the we started up a fairly decent mainline grade - the electric locomotives hardly breaking a sweat - and then entered a mile long tunnel.
Through a cut and then rolling into another agricultural valley.

Into the long tunnel that separates the Western Cape from the Great Karoo
The cars in the train were in good shape mechanically.  The cars were 9 feet wide.  Only a foot less than standard gauge equipment even though the gauge was 14.5 inches less.  They rode very nicely at 90 kph mile after mile on the concrete tie and weld rail that was ubiquitous in South Africa.  However, the interior was starting to show some wear and tear.  These cars appeared to be about 5 years out of overhaul and needed a bit of TLC.  For example, the seat back in our compartment that became the bed was cracked, making the bed un-level.  The dining car seat cushions were very nice, but could use a good upholstery cleaning.  

Each compartment came with a full set of supplies, including some disposable slippers, but only one bath towel.  There were no more to be had.

Dinner in the diner.  Very fine
The food on the train was pretty good.  Meals were included in the price, including a five course dinner with a choice of entrees.  The quality of the food ranged from fair to excellent.  After eating at places with first rate food for a few weeks in South Africa, we judged the train a notch below the city restaurants.

Rebuild shop for commuter equipment far, far from the big cities.

Scenery in the Great Karoo.  Arid.  Hundreds of miles of it.

Passageway in our sleeper
The quality of the interior build of the cars was really pretty good.  Not quite up the standards North America or Europe, but generally solid.
Each sleeper had a nice shower at the end of the hall
The train made three stops along the way.  At each, they changed crews and power.  Why did they change the power?  I have no idea.  I thought it might be accommodation of terrain, but I really don't think that's the reason.
Motive power sits at Beaufort West

Our sleeper in new Prasa colors

Vacuum brakes!

Changing crew and power at Beaufort West.  Train had HEP diesel engine gen set at each end of train.

Outbound power

Beaufort West.  Almost ready to depart.  Fences everywhere.  The norm in South Africa due to the huge gap in wealth between the "haves" and "have nots"

Ag is big industry in South Africa.
The arid Great Karoo gave way to the high plains and ranches of the Transvaal.  As we rolled east, the towns got closer and closer together and soon we were in Johannesburg.

Sunrise in the Transvaal.  Closing in on Jo'burg

Our train

Sunflower farm in the high plains

Commuter equipment laying over at the outskirts of the metro Jo'burg

Freight power
Along the way, through the great Karoo, we passed no trains at all.  Hours and hours of travel and nothing.  In fact, the only train we passed once we left the Cape Town commuter district until dusk other than the Blue Train was a short intermodal train with marine boxes.

However, at our middle-of-the-night stop in Kimberly, I spied a freight yard.  And from there to Jo'burg there was quite a few grain silos and some heavy industry with evidence of significant freight activity.

Crossing over
One of the distinctive aspects of South African life is the existence of townships.  The ruling party moved all of the non-white people out into the country side with minimal housing at best.  These townships grew and often have areas of sheet metal shacks for the poorest of poor.  Seeing these areas was mind numbing.  Many were visible from the train.

Township housing.  Good and bad.
The closer we got to Jo'burg, the more frequently we passed commuter stations and trains.  There was visible evidence of Prasa doing work to modernize the stations including more security and automated fare collection.

Roaring by a commuter train
We arrived at Park Station in Jo'burg about 2:30 late, but that was fine.  The train manager had arranged for our taxi from there to Sandton, where we were staying.  The taxi was waiting at the end of the platform.  Simple and easy.

Overall, it was a great trip and I'd do it again if I had it to do over,  but I'd give the overall experience a "B".  Just a few too many things not quite up to par and a few too many thing suffering from lack maintenance budget.

So, now for "compare and contrast."

Labor is VERY cheap in South Africa, so having a large service staff really wasn't all that surprising.  They all were friendly and did a first rate job - also typical of South Africa.  I don't if it's because it's expected or because it's the way the people are, although I'm hopeful it's the latter.  Either way, Amtrak would do well to emulate the friendly, efficient service on the train.  Heck, Amtrak would do well to emulate Chic-fil-A.  I'd estimate that labor rate on the train was probably 1/20th what Amtrak pays, so obviously Amtrak can't staff a train of 35 passengers with a staff of 20 and break even.  But, still, Amtrak's on board service is rather uneven compared to the Premier Train.

Uniforms.  The Premier train needs them!  Badly.  It was hard to know who was who.  Never a problem on Amtrak.  Amtrak employee uniforms look sharp!

Division of labor.  All the staff pitched in for all events.  There weren't car attendants vs. dining car staff.  There also wasn't any sign of any conductor or trainmen on the train.  Just the train manager and his staff.  It was run more like a cruise ship than an Amtrak LD train.  I would be difficult for Amtrak to change their current arrangement which focuses more on "who is going to do what, when" rather than "what really needs doing".  Short of a wholesale contracting out of on board operations, I think Amtrak is stuck with their status quo.

Track speed and ride quality.  The South African track was smooth, and all the cars road well.  But, since the top speed was 90 kph (about 55 mph), that really doesn't ask much of the track or equipment suspension.  Running 9' wide equipment on 3' 6" gauge track may limit what the maximum speed could be.  Having vacuum brakes might also be a limiting factor on speed.  Not having a lot of heavy freight traffic apparently keeps the track geometry in good shape.  Amtrak's issues with ride quality seem to stem mostly from the freight railroad's trend toward more and more 286,000# cars knocking the track geometry out of whack plus Amtrak's ability to keep up with wheel profiles/wheel truing.

Hope for the future?

Hard to tell for South African trains.  The country has such dire needs in so many places such as getting electric power and water and sanitation to their citizens that it's hard for them to devote too much money to rail infrastructure.  Still, they have organized a passenger rail authority around doing just that.  Will it work or will Prasa devolve into Amtrak solving political problems ahead of real world problems?  Hard to tell, but one incident may be telling.  Prasa recently purchased a bunch of new electric locomotives from Spain.  Great!  Maybe not.  Two problems.  They don't fit South African clearances and they were equipped with regular air brakes, not vacuum brakes.

Here's a snippet...

New electric locomotives sitting in the yard in Johannesburg

On the other hand, the province of Gautang, which includes Johannesburg, Sandton and Pretoria, did a design, build, operated deal that resulted in a 100 mph rapid transit line, the Gautrain (pronounced "how train")  It is one of the nicest transit lines I've ridden anywhere.

Gautrain interior is geared to seating, not standing.

Stations are modern and safe.
South Africa is not the United States.  Things are still quite messy as the country recovers from a long history of apartheid.  Still, it's a fantastic place to go visit and there are plenty of opportunities for railfans to enjoy railroading.

I do have one regret. There is an active group running steam excursions out of Cape Town every other weekend.  Mainline steam with wooden, open air coaches.

We had tickets, but I wound up under the weather for a couple days.  My wife and daughter did get manage to get some pictures without me, but chose not to ride.  
My daughter on the pilot of "Katie".  (Yes, they allow this.  They even encourage it!)
Maybe next time?

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Pulling the Pin

"Pulling the pin" is a railroad term that means to uncouple. It's an ancient term going back to the beginnings of railroading.

Early couplers were simple.  The first standard was a link that was held to each car with a pin held in place by gravity.  Some nice pictures illustrating the link and pin coupler are here:

The knuckle coupler which could automatically couple was invented after the Civil War and was the new standard by the end of the 19th Century.  It has a "pin", also held in place by gravity, that locks the coupler knuckle in the closed position.  Sometimes the pin is lifted from the top (right side, below), sometimes it's lifted from the bottom (left side, below).

But, it's still called a pin, and when you "pull the pin", you uncouple the cars.

"Pulling the pin", is also used as slang for going home at the end of the day, or for retiring.   

I am "pulling the pin" on January 29th, 2016.  

I asked for, and received, one last freight train ride.  On January 20, 2016, I rode train 212, an Atlanta to Croxton NJ intermodal trains, from Atlanta up to Greenville, SC.  Here are some pictures and impressions.

By random chance, the lead locomotive was the NYC heritage unit, an EMD SD70ACE.  The only thing better than this would have been the Conrail unit.   The train was about 5000 feet long and didn't have any multilevels on the head end this day.  The crew plus road foreman and me boarded the consist and maneuvered into the forwarding yard where a yard crew tacked the train together with a couple cuts recently pulled from the intermodal ramp.

The yard has quite a few powered and signalled switches, so getting through the yard tracks to the main at the yard limit was fairly quick.  We stopped only once for the utility man to hang a pre-tested and linked EOT on the the last car and it was off to the races.  We departed Inman yard at roughly 6:00 AM and quickly zipped though suburban Atlanta at rush hour.  It was a bit unnerving that there were so many cars waiting at every road crossing along the way.  

"Diverging Clear" for us on the new PTC compliant signals 

211 zips by at track speed

Here we are meeting 211 on a stretch of double track.  211 was following a very late Amtrak 19 (The Crescent) just north of Toccoa.

Creeping by the surfacing gang in SC.

There was a rail gang, plus a surfacing gang out this day, as well as a bridge timber gang.  We got through all three work zones in pretty good order and arrived in Greenville at 10:30.  I would have ridden another train back to Atlanta if it weren't for the track work. The timber gang was getting big slot of time and the trip back would have been greatly delayed.

The locomotive had an isloated "Whisper" cab and a nice climate control system.  It was warm and comfortable the whole time.  The noise level was very low and the ride was pretty smooth with not much jiggling.  Sometimes the cab would bounce a bit on the rubber suspension, but that just made picture taking a bit tough.  All in all, it was a far cry from riding an old SD40-2.

I stepped off in Greenville and deadheaded back in a jitney, but the train continued on toward Croxton NJ.  

I've "pulled the pin" and am headed to the enginehouse.  My "day" of work is done, but Norfolk Southern continues on.


Tuesday, January 5, 2016

My view from the cheap seats....

I started working at Conrail in 1978.  I'm retiring from Norfolk Southern this year.  I've basically been a staff grunt the whole time working in Mechanical, Intermodal and Transportation Planning, in that order.

It was a time of great change in the industry.  Here's my view from the trenches - and a bit about where things stand right now.

In the beginning, there was tyranny.  And they liked it that way.

On the first day, railroads were dominated by operating men. The top guy could keep whole operating plan in his head and he ruled with that knowledge and an iron fist.  Conrail was ruled by the SVP of Operations and his henchmen.  They kept things moving by cracking the whip at the slightest transgression.  It wasn't abnormal to get scolded over this or that.  Even staff guys like me felt the whip from time to time... Everybody knew their place and their part.  Woe to those who deviated!  The railroad ran because the top guys knew what to do and held tight reins.  It was the only lever railroads could pull on during the days of regulation - and they got good at it!

On the second day, there was a new law and a new tyrant.  Deregulation occurred and Stanley Crane arrived at Conrail.  He was a benevolent tyrant, but for Conrail, this meant a crash diet.  The whip cracking continued, but the big fear was getting laid off.  Employment went from over 100,000 to roughly 20,000.  Finally, things levelled off and a half-decent steady state was reached.  The railroad was fit and trim.  The operating men knew how to make things go.  The government sold their stock.  Fighting off purchase by NS to remain independent made a closer-knit, proud organization.  Peace and relative prosperity ensued.  Crane retired.  The tyrants were now dinosaurs.  The game had changed.  Growing the revenue and service were becoming more important than cost control.  There was no future without this change.  Only slow decline.  Railroad's networks and operating plans were getting too large for the top operating guy to keep in his head.  More change was ahead.

One the third day, there was light.  The age of the tyrant was over. A marketing guy took over. Jim Hagen.  What was next?  Faster, better cheaper!  In order to do this, you have to engage everyone's brain and everyone has to row the boat in the same direction.  How? Culture change!  At Conrail, this took the form of "Conrail Quality".  Conrail purchased a continuous quality program from Corning and then everyone got training on everything.  Well, just about everything.  Everything from how to hold a meeting to how to write, to how to problem solve, to how to understand personality styles, to how to work in teams.  It worked, at least at the staff level. What made it stick? Hagen reorganized the company along product lines which took nearly all the execs out of their comfort zones and caused them to form new working relationships.  Nearly all of them bought in to this new way of working.  It really was different and it worked.  Consolidating into one, new building in Philadelphia sealed the deal.  Were things perfect?  Of course not.   But, we generally worked in teams, collaboratively, and incentive was no longer punished.  David Levan replaced Hagen and things were good, mostly, until...

On the fourth day, there was war and betrayal and then chaotic tyranny.   Conrail was chopped in half like a giant pinata cleaved with a sword.  It rained money on us for a while.  Call it "Levan's revenge".  Chronicled here by another: The Book of Acquisitions.  Some of us ex-Cons went to work for NS, some for CSX, but many took the money and ran.  Culturally, NS was about a decade behind Conrail.  No teams.  Not much collaborative work outside your immediate work group.  Suits and ties!  Tyranny again, except in a more genteel, southern style.  And, it didn't work.  The Conrail folk were not in a mood to managed by tyrants.  The NS culture of "just keep pounding away" worked poorly.  The railroad crashed and burned.  Even when it started running reasonably well, it wasn't making much money.

Desperate times often lead to change and it did on NS.  The push to redesign the merchandise operations around scheduled train service took hold.  It was a big change from the local control - tonnage based operations NS was built upon.  For example, NS only cared and measured the performance of a handful of their merchandise trains.  The rest were run "as needed" and not measured against the clock.

The redesign, known as TOP (Thoroughbred Operating Plan), worked.  The train service was optimized and scheduled.  Service soared.  Costs dropped.  The top operating men - the last of the dinosaurs - retired and were replaced seemingly more enlightened folk.  A problem remained.  TOP wasn't well suited for local control. It really needed some central authority.  But, even without it, the railroad ran well, most of the time, and the good service made increasing amounts of profit possible.

On the fifth day, there was peace.  David Goode retired and Wick Moorman took the throttle.  On the horizon, the average age of employees was creeping up and going to cause a tidal wave of retirements.  There needed to be lots of hiring just to keep the status quo.  But, who wants to work for a railroad these days?  And, how do you keep all the institutional knowledge from leaking out the door?  There needed to be a way to navigate through the change.  Step one:  Culture change.  Again, for me....

Lots of time and effort devoted to values, how to communicate, how to manage, how have a meaningful conversation.  All good stuff.  The problem was, the organizational structure remained the same.  Nobody could really tell if this was for real and was going to stick or if it was just a wolf in sheep's clothing.  It didn't help that the senior execs still wore suits and ties to work.  But, all in all, new blood, new attitudes, changing culture was taking hold.

On the sixth day, rapture.  The rate of retirements accelerated.  People were leaving at a great rate leaving vacancies all over the place.  Nearly all management jobs at all levels became a game of musical chairs.   The level of specific institutional knowledge for specific locations crashed.  Toss in some operating challenges and the stage was set for disaster.  By the fall of 2014, the network was on it's knees and nobody really knew what was wrong or what to do about it.

The new breed of managers had been well trained on HOW to manage, but they didn't know WHAT to manage, nor did they have the experience to know what was important and what was not.  The railroad had lost it's focus on railroading.

Now we are
in the seventh day - end times.   Can NS regain it's focus on railroading?  I think so.  The right questions are being asked, and answered.  People are gaining experience.  Increasing focus and guidance is coming down from the higher levels of management.  There are enough "old heads" still around to help shape the new managers.  The "musical chairs" game is slowing down.  The metrics are headed the right way.

But, just as this is starting to take shape, a corporate raider appears.  Pershing Square, part of owner of Canadian Pacific wants to buy NS and install preeminent railroad fix-it man, E Hunter Harrison, as CEO.  Hunter Harrison is an old school operating man who knows how to handle a whip, but also completely understands the modern notion that service and asset utilization are the key to "winning the game".  He has successfully taken  three broken-down railroads, Illinois Central, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific, and transformed them into solid  - in fact - world class performers.

Can he, as CEO, work his transformational magic on NS?

Probably not.

First, Hunter Harrison is an old school guy who knows who to whip because he keeps the whole operating plan in his head.  The railroads he has run are all much smaller than NS and have simple, linear networks.  No amount of simplification on NS would yield an efficient plan that on brain could hold at any level of detail.

The CEO job at larger railroads require much attention to things other than operating details.  There is no time to pick up the phone and ask why "the block swap to 211 at Atlanta was missed today".  That's not the CEO's job.  That's the VP Operation's responsibility.  Hunter Harrison might be a good fit in this role at NS.  He could really help whip the focus around to the things that matter.  But, he's not asking for that job.  He wants the CEO job.  A bad fit, in my opinion.

Second, NS is not a fixer-upper.  It's not a shabby property like IC, CN and CP were when he arrived.  There was a lot of upside on those properties.  NS doesn't have much upside but it is just a bit raggedy around the edges. It has embraced many of the basic tenets of  Harrison's "Precision Scheduled Railroading".  There is a fixed operating plan that schedules all the assets and NS values velocity to gain asset productivity.  It was the focus of TOP, way back in 2002.  It has been studied and validated in parts and as a whole.  NS doesn't need a make-over.  It just needs a coat of paint and some new shutters.

All of the claims of benefits Pershing's Ackman makes are based on NS achieving national averages for productivity and the level of change that occurs when Harrison takes over a broken-down railroad.  It sounds compelling, but it lacks perspective and detail.  The productivity potential of every railroad is different because of routes, length of haul and traffic mix.  The comparisons are interesting but tell more about the different nature of each road rather than the potential for change.

Ackman's claims are not backed up with any detail nor even meaningful anecdotes.  Harrison is neither magic or superhuman.  The six large North American railroads are all now operating well in the post-deregulation, enlightened era.  Harrison did well with his three fixer-uppers, but there are no more shabby houses on North American Railroad street that need his skill set - at least not for the position he seeks.