Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Fed at Union Station (updated)

Two funky train cars from the Federal Railroad Administration showed up on track 15  at Union Station (LA) the other day.  Actually, this one looks as though it is powered, with the windshield wipers and lights.

However, when I saw them this morning in the yard outside of Oceanside, they had an Amtrak locomotive hooked up at either end.  (The second one is a baggage car of some sort).

Do FRA employees criss cross the country doing inspections? What do they inspect?

The windows were pulled so I couldn't see anything inside.

Update from Anonymous in the comments:
[T]hey visit on average twice a year or so. I've worked the trains twice, it's actually very boring once you get past all the interesting gizmos in the car. The car is equipped with scanners which check the cross section of the track, x-ray it for fractures, and generally make sure it's balanced and everything is within tolerance. Usually the railroads have a gang ready, and as the car buzzes over the railroad they'll spot defects which are quickly reported to management and addressed.

This year they came down the Coast from the Bay area via San Luis Obispo, then went to San Diego, spent a night inspecting the San Diego Trolley lines (I believe under their own power, as a matter of fact, since there are different operating rules in place), they then went up to Oceanside where they made a round trip to Escondido on the Sprinter Line, then went back to LA where they traveled around the LA Basin before heading East.

The current generation of cars are capable of being self-powered, and initially were when they first came out, however for several reasons they stopped doing this (The week before the first time I worked one of these it had struck a pickup truck in the Bay area, The second time it had blown the transmission two months earlier and their schedule didn't allow time for repair. They also have problems defining whether the cars qualify as a train, or "On-Track-Equipment" when they operate on their own power, so there have been arguments over who is supposed to operate the controls, and how the dispatcher is supposed to dispatch it, so it's become operationally easier just to attach a locomotive and call it a train.)

Thursday, October 4, 2012

A heritage-livery engine comes to LA

Lately, Pacific Surfliners trains have frequently had non-Pacific Surfliners locomotive up front, usually the "Genesis" engines that pull the long distance trains.  I can tell when we do, as I walk up the ramp at Union Station, because the "Gennies" have a much louder rumble as they idle at the platform, with an occasional "whoosh!"  so they just sound different from the tall F59s.  We've talked more about the different locomotives here.

Today we had a famous one, #184, which is painted in an historical or "heritage" color scheme to commemorate Amtrak's 40th birthday in 2011.  It's much nicer looking than the boring grey that the Gennies usually sport.  #184 looks like it's new in the area because it has a very new looking "shoe" for the ATS system.

I like the look of the paint, and I bet it looks very smooth when it's pulling the superliner cars (which are painted similarly, with red stripes).  The engine's paint is in great shape, and it looked positively sparkly in the late afternoon sunlight.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Almost ready! The new platform at LA Union Station

Yesterday, they opened up the connection to the tunnel (although still not using the platform). It looks very light and fresh. The only thing missing is the sign over the opening with the Track numbers. 

More pictures below.

 When's the grand opening?

Monday, September 24, 2012

Remote Control

With the new track construction at union station, and with the help of the railroaders and hard core railfans who write Wikipedia articles, it has been possible to identify components of the remote systems that regulate passenger trains. I'm sure that  our Anonymous Amtrak reader,  or others more knowledgeable, will correct my mistakes.

As trains leave  LA Union Station, they pass a box with a  light that says "CTC begins".  I believe CTC stands for Centralized Traffic Control, which essentially means there is  a dispatcher who functions like an air traffic controller to regulate signals and switches remotely.  This  ensures the smooth running of trains particularly through regions of single track, without relying on the train crews or local towers to keep track of the traffic individually  to manage the switches.

I assume that the blue structures bolted onto the new tracks at LAUS are magnets associated with the CTC, since they are right next to the light box.

Or are they part of the Automatic Train Stop system?  That is required on passenger trains in certain regions to allow them to go as fast as 90miles an hour. It works via a magnetic shoe on the front right of the locomotive (or cab car) to pick up a remote signal.   This conveys a  signal d to the engineer who has 8 seconds to acknowledge that he got it, before the brakes automatically deploy. 

You can see the shoe in the picture to the right--it is the lowest structure you see, hanging off the truck to run at the outside of the track.

Apparently this is found in only parts of Amtrak's service area, including the Pacific Surfliners.  So, any locomotives from elsewhere in the system that "sub in" for the PacSurfliner engines, have to be fitted with this shoe. The long distance locomotives from the Southwest Chief also have ATS shoes, so that's probably where our "Gennies" come from.

This is what comes of walking up and down the platform while waiting to board the train, and noticing odd things on tracks and engines.

Update:  our friend Anonymous in the comments says that the blue bits are
 insulated joints. The signal system functions via low-voltage electrical currents which run through the rails, each "block" of track is independent, so at each signal the tracks need to be segregated electrically to differentiate the blocks in the computer.
Otherwise, he says this is pretty accurate.  Praise from the Pro is praise indeed!  :-)

Thursday, September 20, 2012

More woodpile haiku

The train sits and waits
While the sun sinks down
Shadows drift o’er the woodpile

Previous entries in the waiting-at-the-woodpile series here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Progress on new platform at Union Station (updated)

I've told you before about the renovation of Union Station is underway to facilitate its conversion from a "stub" station to one with "run through" tracks for more efficient travel. Right now, all trains, whether coming in or leaving, must pass through a narrow "throat" and if headed south, navigate a 180° turn.  This is part of the reason why the Amtrak operates in a push-pull configuration, where essentially it reverses into the station from San Diego or Goleta, with the engine pushing rather than pulling.  (The other reason is that there is no wye in Goleta or San Diego to turn the train around, so it's not clear that this will eliminate push-pull trains, which are not popular.)

The raised structure on the left is the old cap over the ramp
 The first step is the rebuilding of platform 7 and reactivation of tracks 13-15.  This has been fun to watch as they have done a brilliant job of recreating the look of the other platforms with their "butterfly" canopies.  You can see more pictures on my previous post.

 The original ramp and stairways were "capped off" when the platform was inactivated, so they've also had to re-open the connections to the tunnel below.  I wonder how many people noticed that there were archways over the walls at the east end of the tunnel, indicating that there used to be more platform?  Based on the arches, it also looks like there was an 8th platform with connections below.  (Update: Mark, posting in the comments to this post, says that was indeed the case.)

Along with building the platform, they also had to lay the track, and that was fascinating to watch.  But yesterday, I noticed that all the big track machines are gone, so the tracks must be ready.  There's still some painting going on but the benches are in place and it looks close to finished.  The attention to detail is nice;  for example, the light fixtures on poles at the east end of the platform have the same elegant design with spiky finials as the ones on the street below.

The picture below was taken yesterday from track 12, and shows the new platform looking clean and fresh next to the old one.  Of course, once this activates, there will be more construction as they begin the biggest part of the project, building run-through tracks over the 101 freeway.

The new platform as seen from Track 12.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Station update: cool machines

They are finishing up the new tracks at Union Station.  Laying track is interesting--first a deep trench, then rock ballast;  the ties (sleepers in the UK) are adjusted first by hand with long poles and a tape measure,  and then the long rails are welded together to create continuous rail.  Finally,  these wild machines run along and dig in and push rock around.  Maybe a railfan will tell us what they are doing.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Locomotion (updated)

Normally the Surfliner is pulled by the matching Surfliner locomotive,which according to Wikipedia is a General Motors EMD F59PHI. Sure it is. ;-) Anyway, it's tall and sleek and makes for a very smooth looking consist.

Conversely, when they hook it up to the sad old Amfleet set, this locomotive looks too tall and as though its a thoroughbred pulling a wagon. Which in some respects it is.  Metrolink runs some of these too.

Recently, some of the trains have been pulled by the long distance Amtrak locomotives, which Wikipedia tells me are of the GE Genesis class.  Big trains like the Pacific Coast Starlight  or Southwest Chief will be pulled by a couple of these.

These are noticeably lower than the regular Surfliner engines, so that the surfliner cars stick up above the top of the locomotive.  When I walk through the tunnel in Union Station below the platforms, I can sometimes tell if there's one of these on the track above because it makes spitting noises and its idle is a much louder roar than the regular ones.  I think they are kind of ugly with the flat grey nose and plain sides.  And of course they look squat next to the surfliner consist.

Our helpful Anon from Amtrak (in the comments) tells us that the Surfliner locomotives are designed for commuting stop-and-start, with about 3000 HP while the "Gennies" are tuned to cruise long distances, with about 4200HP.  He says they are a "blast" and I'm sure they are.

This one is a GE Dash 8-32BWH .  I  don't know what it was doing at Union Station that day because I usually see it in the yard (though it does pop up now and again pulling a consist).  There's also a little yard switcher you see sometimes (not in the station), which someone told me is called a "hog" but our friendly Anon in the comments tells me is actually called a "goat".  A "hog" or "hoghead" is the nickname for an engineer.

And sometimes, mysteriously, there is a big Union Pacific freight engine sitting on one of the middle tracks at Union Station. (Wikipedia informs me that this is a GE AC4400CW with 4400 HP). Anon tells us that those are generally borrowed when there's a need (it seems there's a real community amongst railroaders) and they hang out till their UP crew comes to get them. They are very noticeably bigger and really loud with spitting noises when they are sitting idle.

And what's with leaving those engines in the middle tracks anyway?  Here you can see the Surfliner engine just sitting on the central spur, not adjacent to a platform.  Is that to have a spare around when they break down?  (You can also see it's taller than the long distance engine.)  Yes, or else it DID break down.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Amfleet Cabbage: we may be safe yet!

A helpful Anonymous commenting in an earlier thread fills us in on the Amfleets:
Additionally, there are 9 trainsets; 7 Bilevel (Surfliner) sets and 2 single-level (Amfleet) sets. The Amfleet sets work opposite each other on a two-day cycle which does trains (1)761-(1)790-599(565 on weekends)-572-583. Unless things get haywire they shouldn't be on 763, 784, 580, or 582 at all this year.
Yay!  That means as long as I stay off the "express" (599), I should be able to avoid the Amfleet trainset.  Speaking on behalf of my fellow commuters, thanks for this news, Anon!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Imitation is flattery? Maybe not so much

There is someone taking the material I write on this blog and posting it to a Rancho Santa Fe digital press.   While imitation is said to be flattery, passing off someone else's work without formal attribution is called "Plagiarism".  And without permission, it's just rude.  

So, if you are coming to this blog from "Ah-Ha Rancho Santa Fe News", welcome. Look around a bit.  Say "hi" in the comments.  But don't quote me without attribution, and you may want to review the standard copyright policies on "fair use".

How many are there? (updated)

Last time we discussed the fact that the cab cars all have names, and those names are all geographic points in California.

Here are the ones collected so far:

Point Buchon
Point Conception
Point Dume
Point Estero
Pointe Hueneme
Point Loma
Point Mugu
Point Piedras Blancas
Point San Luis
Point Sur
Point Vicente

(Updated) We've now got all 11, according to a helpful commenter.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The naming of things

It took me awhile after I started riding the surfliner to realize that the cars were named, and that the names had a pattern.  Of course, first of all, they are all California place names.  Second, they correspond to the type of car named. For example, the Business Class Car is always named for a Park, the Cafe car is named for a Canyon, and the regular cars are named for Beaches.  The three Superliner cars that are repainted in Surfliner colors are named Sequoia Grove, Redwood Grove, and Sycamore Grove.

And, proving that someone at Amtrak has a sense of humor, the cab cars are named for Points.  Point, get it?  Since half the time, the Cab Car leads the train (being pushed by the locomotive).

Here are three of them.  Collect them all!  Post the names of any others in the comments.  :-)

Friday, May 4, 2012

What's happening at Union Station?

Construction of new platform 7
There is a construction project at the historic Los Angeles Union Station,  which is now languishing in that half-complete way of large projects.  It is the reconstruction of platform 7  which has been fascinating to watch as they have to re-open the sealed up stairs in the tunnel, and rebuild a "butterfly wing" overhang.

This is the first stage of large construction project that will eventually lead to the temporary closure of tracks 3-6 which will be converted to through tracks.

You see, Union Station is a stub station:  the tracks are dead ends and all traffic comes from one direction. Trains from the south come in on a long sweeping 180 turn, and then essentially reverse out of the station on the same route (hence the consist has a locomotive at one end, and a cab car at the other, leading to a push-me-pull-you sort of trainset). The plan is to connect several tracks over the 101 freeway and link them to the mainline along the river.  That way, through trains from San Diego to Santa Barbara will just keep going, and trains going/coming south won't have to make that long turn into the station.
Union Station at night

It's a big project, though, and since those eventual-through tracks will be out of commission for some time, it's essential to increase track capacity.  Hence, Platform 7 is being  rebuilt.  At the rate they are going,I'm not expecting to see through trackage any time soon.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Promontory Point? The Triple Track Project

@Amtrak_CA published this yesterday on their twitter feed, in celebration of the ground breaking for the next phase of the Triple Track Project which will add a third track north of Fullerton.  This region has heavy freight usage, and a new track will reduce the Pacific Surfliner delays by increasing capacity.    And this is ARRA funding:  putting people to work.  Yeah!

That's a Surfliner locomotive on the left, and a BNSF freight locomotive on the right.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The latest schedule tweak: 763 gets it together, and Old Town is hopping

Recently, even as 582 has been stopping at the Woodpile every night, the often plagued763 seems to have a new lease on promptness. It leaves San Diego a little early, adds in a new stop at Old Town Transit Center (which is a great connection point to the San Diego trolley system AND has lots of parking), and arrives at Solana Beach 3 minutes earlier than before. But what's really remarkable is that 763 is now nearly ALWAYS on time, or even early, into Los Angeles Union Station. Plagued by tardiness no more, the latest tweak seems to have given 763 a magic slot. I, for one, am enjoying it-- getting to work on time is a good thing. Incidentally, several other trains also now stop in Old Town, so if you are a San Diego rider who had to go up to Solana Beach to park, you may want to see whether your train of interest makes an Old Town stop.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Woodpile Haiku

Every evening for the last few months, southbound Pacific Surfliner 582 (the 4.10 departure from LA) comes to a sighing stop at the woodpile just south of San Juan Capistrano. Despite all our tweets,and a recent schedule tweak, it sits there waiting for the Northbound 785 for 10 or 20 minutes.

I've taken to writing Haiku.

Silver wheels now still
As @Pacsurfliners train stops
Yet time keeps moving

Remember Haiku is supposed to have a twist in it, as you compare two unlike things.

Metal rails stretch
into the distance
yet we stop by the wood

The themes are obviously limited, but at least it amuses me.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Meet you at the woodpile?

I try to catch Pacific Surfliner train 582 from LA at 4.10pm every evening.  Generally, it's far more reliable than 784 (5.10pm) which has to come down from Goleta and is usually late.

582 traditionally is close to on time.  It used to have a meet with a Coaster train down in San Diego County, near Carlsbad at a site called Ponto (after the creepy old storage unit on the west side of the track). But that got better and we were doing great.

Then, things really went to hell.  Actually, where they went is the Woodpile.  I don't know the proper name (all crossing points have a name) but it is just south of San Juan Capistrano, and marked by a large pile of wood in a construction yard on the west side.  And every night, 582 comes to a long sighing stop at the Woodpile and waits.

And waits, and waits, for Amtrak 785 coming up from San Diego.  Apparently 785 gets tangled up in Coaster traffic (San Diego having lots of single track where trains have to wait for each other) and 582 and its tired and hungry commuters wait sometimes 20 or 25 minutes until we can get going again.

Naturally, we complain.

But there's hope!  The new schedule coming in April will ahve 785 leave 5 minutes earlier.  Perhaps it will be able to evade the Coasters and make the meet at the woodpile more efficiently.

So we won't have to meet you at the Woodpile.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A failure in management

Things have been rough for those of us on Pacific Surfliners 763 lately.  This is the first train out of San Diego, and is very heavily used by commuters.The big stop is Irvine, but a surprising number of us are power commuters going all the way to LA on a daily basis.

From LA, 763 goes on up to Goleta, where it turns around and comes back down as train 784.  This is the 5.10 departure out of LA and is also a heavily used commuter service.  Of course, if 763 is late going out, 784 is late coming back.

For the last few weeks 784 has been a disaster, mainly due to trackwork north of LA.  Finally, Amtrak decided to have 763 terminate in LA, and use the Amtrak coaches to bring everyone down from up north.  (This was suggested by one of the regular tweeters some days before they did it.... did Amtrak listen to him?)   That helped. Now the trackwork is done and 763 is again going up to Goleta.

But 763 has been having problems.  There have been cancellations, mechanicals, and a trespassing incident last week (= railspeak for fatality, probably suicide) .  This last caused me to get a ride to Irvine from a fellow commuter, D;  he dropped me at the Irvine station so I could get on Metrolink.  My mother would be horrified that I'm getting into cars to drive 50 miles with men whose last names I don't know!  ;-)

Monday this week 763 was 30 min late which had me really peeved.  But yesterday, it exceeded even that, by throwing a mechanical just before it reached the LA river, about 15 min outside of LA Union.  We came to a stop and sat waiting.

Normally, if there is a locomotive failure, they sweep it up by coupling the dead train to the next Amtrak coming by, making a double-length train that limps the rest of the way into LA.  The yard is there and they can swap out the engine.

Foolishly, we assumed that since we were at most 2 miles from the yard, they would just send out a locomotive and pull us in.  Right?

Wrong!  Turns out the worst place it could have happened was near the yard.  We waited, and waited, and waited.  Apparently they drove some mechanics over who couldn't fix it.  They offered to let people off and walk them to the street, but we were in industrial east LA/Vernon, in the middle of the freight yards-- not exactly a place where you can catch a cab, and not easy to direct a colleague with a car.  We watched as Amtrak 599 (the express) went by an hour later, and then, another hour after that, we saw 567 go by. Finally, FINALLY, a rescue locomotive arrived and took us into LA Union, 2.5 hours late.

A conductor told me today that the problem was that the rescue locomotive didn't have a conductor and they had to have one to leave the yard. (Conductors are the commanders of the train; the engineer is the driver).  If that is the case, why didn't they just hook us up to 599 when it came through, and go in together?  Yes, 599 would have taken a 20min delay to do that, but the hundreds of people on 763 would have gotten to LA much earlier and 599 is often late anyway.

Whose brilliant idea was it to leave 763 sitting there stranded for 2.5 HOURS?   

The first goal should be to get passengers where they are going.  Especially for 763, which is not full of vacationers, but full  of people trying to get to work.  I should have been at work at 9.15;  I needed to be at work by 10;  I got there at 12.

 If we'd thrown the mechanical in San Juan Capistrano, we would have been to LA by 10 and I'd have been to work by 10.30--not good, but not nearly as awful as it was.

Every morning when I get on 763, I feel like Dorothy Parker:  What fresh hell is this?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Time to move the train

They built some extra trackage outside of LA so that the Metrolink trains can lay over there.  I think this has to do with the platform construction at LA Union (which I'll blog about shortly).  In any case, this one trainset on a dead-end track appears to have been here for a bit too long!   Yes, there IS tumbleweed along the tracks on the LA river.   Sometimes it even blows into the station.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Schedule Changes: the commuter's view

Yes, there is a schedule change coming! But you wouldn't know it because Amtrak isn't telling you. Given it's a mere 4 days away, this seems--unfortunate. Not sure what the point is of their social media accounts since they never actually tell you what's going on.

Good for us that @Rail_Tweet and his gang have the inside info, down there in the cafe car, and send out the news by tweets.

And, fortunately the automated ticketing system has the new schedule in place. (Which makes it even more incomprehensible that they haven't put it on line as a timetable somewhere).

For those of us commuting between San Diego County and LA, the morning trains are only different by a minute or two (though the #563 "express" is now #599).

There are bigger changes for the afternoon trip back from LA Union Station. Train 578, the 2pm departure from LA, is now train 580, departing at 3.05.

Train 582 (4.10pm) and Train 784 (5.10pm) remain.

But train 592 (8.30pm) is now replaced by train 790 departing at 7.30pm.

 Now, do notice that this is a 700-number train, which means it's coming down from Santa Barbara, and thus will be more prone to delays. It appears to replace the former train 798, which connected with 592. If you miss #790, the next train is the last train of the night, the 10.10pm departure.