Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Metro-North crash and the push-pull argument

The tragic crash of the New York Metro-North train, which derailed coming into a sharp curve last weekend and killed 4 passengers, is likely to renew concern about the push-pull system.  The train was cab-car forward, with the engine at the rear.  It looked from the photographs like a Gennie, which is the GE-Genesis model used by Amtrak on its long-distance lines (and different from our usual Pacsurfliner F59s).

In discussions with non-train-riding friends on line, I had to explain that no, the engineer is not in the locomotive facing backwards when it is pushing.  People find it scary to think there's no one in the locomotive, but I reminded them that when they see a big freight with 4 engines, the followers aren't staffed either.

I also had to explain that trains live in a one-dimensional world, and can't simply turn around.  Instead, they must find a wye and jockey back and forth to reverse direction.  This isn't very practical for most commuter runs, a complication compounded by "stub" stations like LA Union, which dead-end in one direction.

Why did the Metro North train enter a sharp 30mph curve at 82mph?  The news today suggests that the engineer had dozed off.  I thought the throttle used a "dead man's hand" system, where a loss of tension would slow it down;  if it does, the engineer didn't loosen his grip while he dozed.  By all accounts he was a solid engineer.  It's a tragedy however it happened, and our thoughts are with the injured and mourning.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The haunting of 763: the Curse of the Coaster?

It's Halloween, so appropriate to talk about curses.  The last few weeks have been tough on the 763 (the first northbound departure of the day from San Diego), with frequent delays.  This Tuesday it was 40m late, and then on Weds it was annulled completely, having broken down south of Sorrento Valley.  The grumpy passengers were accommodated on the next train, 565.

Alas, it was an Amfleet day (the loathed single-level Amfleet set is on a rotation that puts it on the 565 every other day), which adds considerable delays as the doors must be manually opened and the stairs folded down.  By the time 565 lumbered into LA, it was over 20 min late itself, which added insult to injury, making the 763 passengers almost 1.5h late into Los Angeles.

Normally the 763 goes up to Goleta, and turns to come back down as the 784.  One of the regulars who tweets train stuff (@Twitamtrak) suggests that the real curse is on the 784.  As I've complained, 784 is now making coaster stops between OSD and SAN, which @Twitamtrak points out, involves anything from 0-3 people getting on or off the train, but makes the 784 20 minutes later into SOL than it used to be back in the good old days.  Maybe the 763 is breaking down because it doesn't want to come back as the 784 and do the Coaster stops.

More likely, the 763 is breaking down because all these trains and their locomotives are tired, and need proper investment.  The commuter-time trains are pretty heavily used, particularly 763, 582, and 784, although @Twitamtrak thinks there are fewer people in the Solana Beach parking lot now.  Are they driving up to Oceanside to pick up the Metrolink?  It's a cheaper ticket.  Or maybe just getting off the Amtrak there.  After all, you can drive from OSD to SOL in less time than the 784 takes to make the run, with those extra stops.

Monday, September 30, 2013

How can you add three stops and no time? #nonctd

I've argued strongly that having Amtrak make Coaster stops in San Diego is a Bad Idea.    It is a feat of astounding stupidity to have several Amtrak trains including the commuter-heavy 784 making Coaster stops, adding three stops (Carlsbad Village, Poinsettia, and Encinitas) between Oceanside and Solana Beach.

Let's have a little thought game, shall we?

How long does it take to get from OSD to SOL? And does the fact of making intermediate stops make a difference?

Let's look at some schedules.
Friday night coaster 664 dep OSD 6.35 arr Sol 7.02   (27 min)
Amtrak 580 dep OSD 556  arr Sol 612  (16 min)
Fri night Amtrak  784 deep OSD 7.03   arr Sol 7.25 (22 min)

The  scheduled arrival time of the 784 in SOL  is 7.25pm. If we look at its arrival time over the last few weeks,  it's getting there right around 7.25, and on occasion, even a few minutes early.  So, the schedule is pretty accurate.

9/30 7.26
9/27 7.28
9/25 7.27
9/24 7.24
9/23 7.24
9/20 7.23
9/19 7.22
9/18  7.28

BUT here's the thing.  The schedule actually includes the stops, even though the 784 is not making them right now.  So, WITHOUT stopping, 784 gets to SOL at the scheduled time of 7.25.  Do you really believe it can slow down and stop 3 times  between OSD and SOL and still get to SOL at 7.25?   I'm thinking not, but time will tell.

Expect some hot-under-the-collar commuters from LA and the OC, when they find their long day is even longer, thanks to the Coaster.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Station to Station: the train

So, often I see private train cars in Union Station, usually hooked onto the end of a long-distance Amtrak.  I've been taking photos with the intent of doing a piece here on the Surfliner Stories blog.  Imagine my surprise today to find a consist with two Gennies, entirely made up of classic cars!

From The Huffpo  
Turns out it is an "Art Happening" called Station to Station, which explains why the only people I saw around it were cool hipster types.  I don't think I'm cool enough.  In fact, I know I'm not, because I was much more interested in taking pictures of the train cars.

Originally, the artist Doug Aitken whose idea this is, wanted the train to look something like the picture at the right.  Yeah, well, I guess that didn't work out.

Instead, they are using a consist made up of private train cars, mostly classics.  They have a description of most of them on their web page that includes a lot of interior pictures.  Quite a few of these cars are from the old Hiawatha service of the "Milwaukee Road", which was a famous streamliner-style passenger train.

They ARE pretty neat. Here are a few pictures:

Lambert's Point is a luxury sleeper/lounge car dates from 1914, and
has carried many famous political candidates on their "whistle stop" train tours. 

See those 3 rows of sparkly dots along the side?   Those are color changing LEDs
that are flicking on and off. MOst of the cars had them.  I guess this is part of the art.  

Nice dome.  Apparently this is the dining car;  downstairs is the kitchen. 

This is the classic "Skytop" lounge car, built in 1948.

Another view of the Skytop. Looks oddly modern in a retro way.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Another specialty paint job: Amtrak 42, honoring veterans

Here is locomotive 42, which is painted in a specialty scheme to honor veterans (more info here).  It was sitting at the Middle Track of Indignity at LAUS on Weds, which is where they tend to drop off mis-behaving locomotives.  I don't know if it was misbehaving, but an F59 hooked up to it right as I took these pictures, and took it back to the yard.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Updated: The Surfliner is not the Coaster: #noNCTD

I am reposting this from last spring, because apparently they are actually going to do this starting in October.  As I said then, this is a TERRIBLE idea.  The 784 can seldom make its schedule as it is, and now they think they can throw in 3 extra stops between Oceanside and Solana Beach without affecting anyone?  784 is a commuter-heavy train, and as I said previously, if I can drive between OSD and SOL faster than Amtrak will do it, why shouldn't I just get a (cheaper) Metrolink monthly and leave from OSD?

With the new Amtrak schedules, we regular Surfliner commuters were shocked to learn that there's a plan to have some Pacific Surfliner trains make Coaster stops, particularly the heavily used, commuter-popular 784 (the 5.10pm departure from LA south), and the later trains.

The Surfliner is an inter-city service that carries many long-distance commuters in the San Diego-Los Angeles corridor (known as LOSSAN).  The Coaster is a local commuter train that effectively stops at every lamp post, like a dog.  As we sang to the children when they were young, "one of these things is not like the other...."

If you are going all the way to downtown, you will be arriving at least 15 minutes later.Normally, it takes 13min to go from OSD to SOL on the Surfliner.  Now, it will be more than 20.  I can drive between those stations in less than that time.

The RailPac blog has a letter to Caltrans about this.  Among the points they make:
Eliminating the opportunity to regain lost time by adding 4 stops on certain trains can only result in reduced reliability and worsening of the consequences of an incident on the line.
There is also lost revenue--from the cost of stopping and starting a train,and  mis-estimates of passenger usage:  that is, will there be enough Coaster butts on seats to cover the costs and inconvenience?  And this:
Study after study both within the USA and overseas has demonstrated the correlation between improved speed and patronage. This proposal reduces speed and decreases reliability and punctuality, and will drive away the business and end point to end point passenger.
That would be me, and a lot of my fellow commuters.  If we can drive up to OSD in less time than the Amtrak will cover the distance, well....let's be honest, Metrolink passes are cheaper.

And as a CA taxpayer, should you be funding local service?
The rolling stock and locomotives for the Surfliner were purchased with funds both from the federal government and voter approved bonds for intercity service. This is also true of the cars ordered under proposition 1B to be delivered in the next few years. This new rolling stock is specified to operate at up to 125mph, with business and café cars. Both the existing and new build cars are neither designed nor appropriate for multiple stop commuter service. It could be argued that this proposal represents a misuse and possible illegal diversion of funds from state intercity service to a local commuter agency.
Here's how they finish their letter, and I think they are right.
What the Surfliner service needs is a long period of punctual, reliable service, together with low cost route and station specific advertising to maximize high fare patronage. This needs to be followed by continued incremental improvements that reduce journey times. One of the biggest complaints I hear from people who have tried the Surfliner once but don’t want to go again is the number of stops and the overall journey time. We must hold the line and not permit any further deterioration in the competitiveness of the product.
When they open up the Surfliner in Pendleton and it cruises by the traffic on I-5 faster than any driver--well, that's what will bring people to the train.  But you can't move at speed if you keep stopping (a lesson for the HSR folks, but that's for another blog).

People also critique the plan at this discussion board.

If you have an opinion on this, let CalTrans know.  Really, it's worth printing out a letter and faxing it or mailing it!  Here's the address:
Mr. William D. Bronte,
Chief, Division of Rail
Department of Transportation
1120 N Street MS 74
Sacramento, CA 95814

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Racing Season, and a Dome Car

An ominous sign, passing through the LA yard today:  a whole slew of Amfleet and Horizon cars.

Must be racing season!!  As I've mentioned previously, the increased crowds headed to Del Mar racetrack ("where the Turf meets the Surf") provide us commuters with our yearly summertime Hell on the Pacific Surfliner.  Generally, the effort to increase capacity means that Amtrak breaks up a regular Surfliner consist to add its cars to the others;  the "missing" train is replaced by the loathed Amfleet/Horizon single-level cars, known with derision as "Am-cans".  I don't know quite what they will do this year as a single-level consist has been in the regular rotation even outside of racing season, providing me with discomfort every other day on the 565.

Because the first day of Racing Season this year overlaps with the spectacle of San Diego Comic-Con, all the trains on  Friday, July 19 through Sunday, July 21 will be reservation-only.  And, unlike most holiday reservations, that includes those of us using monthly or 10-ride tickets.

From the SD Transcript:
Additional equipment is being added to accommodate passengers, and similar to last year, an exclusive Cross Country Cafe Dining and Lounge Car will be available to those upgrading to Pacific Business Class. The Cross Country Cafe Car will operate on trains 774 and 595 on Friday, July 19, and trains 768 and 591 on Saturday and Sunday, July 20 and 21.
Now, based on the consist I saw in the Yard, that "cross country cafe car" is The Great Dome, Amtrak 10031.  Yes, folks, she's baaaaaack....  the blast from the past, the last true dome car on Amtrak.  This year, it sounds like mere mortals  in coach will not be allowed on her, just business  class.  You can read about my earlier encounter with the Great Dome here (and I'll try to get you a photo of her in the yard.)

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Be Train Safe

Several suicides and at least one car strike in the last few weeks in the LOSSAN corridor remind us that trains are big, fast, and dangerous.  Be Train Safe.


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Mules of Panama: how rail built, and runs, the Canal.

Recently I was on a cruise through the Panama Canal.  I accompanied it by reading David McCullough's excellent history, The Path Between the Seas, from which I learned that the Canal was started by the French, before being sold to the Americans.  In an era of "anti-government", it is nice to read an example of what American government can really do--it couldn't have been done without marshalling the resources and know-how of a nation.

The tracks along the Miraflores lock
The first problem in building the Canal was logistical, and the utilization of the small Panama railway that crossed the isthmus became essential.  It was rail that allowed them to move in the big steam shovels to cut through the Continental Divide in the infamous Culebra Cut.  It was rail that allowed them to move men and machines from Atlantic to Pacific.  Only after they managed the rail, were they able to build the canal.

And it is rail that works now!  Unlike many river locks, when big ships enter the canal, they don't tie up to the side.  They are attached to funny little locomotives, called mules, which run along a track at each side of the lock.  You can see the tracks them in the image at right--and note how they run up an incline as they go to the higher locks.  (This is Miraflores, on the Pacific side, which has two locks.)

Each mule has two lines to the ship, which are brought out by rowboat (!) and thrown to a crew of Canal linesmen who are on the ship.  Our ship had three mules on each side. We picked up the mules on one side first, and then on the other.

You can see the two pulleys on the side of the mule in the picture at left, although it's not under tension yet.

Once the mules are attached, they maintain the position of the ship within the lock.  The ships go through under their own power--the mules do not pull them. The mules adjust its lateral position.  The lights on the top of the cab, along with bells, allow the mules to communicate with the Canal pilot who is in charge of the ship in the locks.  So the pulleys are constantly adjusting tension so that the ship is positioned accurately.

The ship we were on was well under the maximum size (Panamax) so there was plenty of space between the ship and the walls of the locks.

Incidentally, the locks function by gravity feed, with the water from the lake in the middle running down into the locks on the Atlantic or Pacific. The water feeds through concrete channels into the bottom of the locks.  They still work elegantly, 100 years after they were built.  New locks that will admit bigger ships are being constructed.  They will save some of the water, but as a result, they will need power to run them.

The mules are made by Mitsubishi, in Japan.

Hope you enjoy!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

New schedule: Good bye Express, Hello Coaster?

April 1st (no foolin') brought a new Surfliner schedule.  Fortunately, someone on Twitter linked to it on Sunday night, which led me to discover that the 599 express is no more, replaced by the 565.  Seems ridership is down and people were frustrated at missing stops.  Well, thanks for warning me, Amtrak. At least I found out in time to to catch the 763 on Monday morning, leaving 1 hour earlier than i wanted.

 I remember the bad old days before the express, when the scheduled 9.50 arrival of the 565 was usually closer to 10.15. This generally meant I missed my shuttle, and had to resort to Metro to get to work--much longer.  The express, with its 9.35 arrival, was workable for me 2 days a week.  Now, I have to catch the 763 instead, which means getting up at 5.40 every morning.  So, I'm not happy about this.

The other big change is that the evening trains (from the 784 on) are scheduled to make Coaster stops--that would be the San Diego County commuter service, hitting stations like Carlsbad, Poinsettia, and Encinitas.  However, according to my Twitter pals, that did not happen last night, and rumor is that the contract hasn't been worked out.  I'll be on the 784 on Weds so I'll see what happens.

coming up soon:  a photo esssay on the locomotives of the Panama canal!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

BNSF to the rescue!

i snuck (sneaked?) out of work early today to catch the 3pm Surfliner from LAUS and got there just in time to see Train 03 (Southwest Chief, Chicago to LA) pulling  into the station. Normally train 3 gets in around 8am, so it was over 6 hours late.

Up in front was a big BNSF locomotive, followed by two Gennies and then the rest of the consist. It looked like one of the Gennies wasn't running (I didn't see exhaust coming out of the top), so i assume that there was a rescue involved.

We don't often see these big freight locomotives in the station, though we often see them racked together in the big freight yard just south of LA.  Wikipedia tells me that BNSF 4590 is a GE_Dash_9-44CW, with 4400 HP.  Not surprisingly, given the obsessiveness of railfans, its picture decorates the internet.

You can see it hooked up to the Gennie at platform 6, at the left.

I would guess that train engineers are like airplane pilots and are qualified on specific equipment. So does that mean a BNSF engineer has to drive the big orange locomotive?  And how does Amtrak call for help? Presumably on a long route like the Southwest Chief, there can be quite a delay if the power goes out in one of the regular locomotives.  I imagine the rescue locomotive chugging along for hours to stage the rescue, but that may simply be imagination run amok.

Incidentally, you can see in the picture below how close the trains are on tracks 12 and 13.  You can also see that the Pacific Surfliner is just as tall as the long distance cars.  Interestingly, however, the Gennies are shorter.  One of the conductors told me that east of Chicago, the tunnels are lower (hence the single level cars, like the Amfleet/Horizon trainset that we suffer on one consist on the Surfliner).  The Gennie can fit into them but the F59s and double decker cars cannot.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Is the departure board on time?

Interesting article about the departure board at Grand Central Station in New York:  the times are all wrong.
Grand Central, for years now, has relied on a system meant to mitigate, if not prevent, all the crazy. It is this: The times displayed on Grand Central's departure boards are wrong -- by a full minute. This is permanent. It is also purposeful. 
The idea is that passengers rushing to catch trains they're about to miss can actually be dangerous -- to themselves, and to each other. So conductors will pull out of the station exactly one minute after their trains' posted departure times. That minute of extra time won't be enough to disconcert passengers too much when they compare it to their own watches or smartphones ... but it is enough, the thinking goes, to buy late-running train-catchers just that liiiiiitle bit of extra time that will make them calm down a bit. Fast clocks make for slower passengers. "Instead of yelling for customers to hurry up," the Epoch Times notes, "the conductors instead tell everyone to slow down."

You might call this time-hacking; you might call it behavioral engineering; you might call it comical. Regardless, it seems to be working. Grand Central boasts the fewest slips, trips, and falls of any station in the country -- quite a feat given how many of its floors are made of marble. And given how many of the passengers treading those floors are, despite their grace period, cutting it thisthisclose to missing their trains.
You mean, Amtrak is DELIBERATELY late? ;-)