Monday, November 2, 2015

Why are there BNSF locomotives at LA Union Station?

A couple of weeks ago I was surprised to see 5 BNSF locomotives on Track 15, at the east of LA Union Station.  We don't generally see these big boys in the passenger terminal unless they have provided a rescue to a long-distance Amtrak.

A little internet research reveals that Metrolink is leasing these at great expense to hook up in front of their new Rotem Cab cars.

So, bear with me.  The commuter rail (and Amtrak's Surfliner) run a push-pull configuration with the locomotive at one end, and a cab car at the other.  In one direction, the locomotive pulls the train as usual.  But in the other direction, the locomotive pushes with a cab car in front, running the loco indirectly.  Generally, the locomotives push the trains into LA and pull them out, for both Metrolink and Amtrak.  This means they don't have to try to turn the whole train around (which requires a wye of track, to allow a three point turn) or  move the locomotive from one end to the other.

Metrolink upgraded their cab cars a few years ago to a hardened form from the Rotem company that was supposed to be more crash-worthy, if they hit something.

But then there was a hideous crash in Oxnard, where some idiot got his truck stuck on the tracks, and an early Metrolink hit it.  The Railpac blog:
aAlmost 8 months after the Metrolink accident at Oxnard this year, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) asked Metrolink to stop using the Rotem Cab Cars to operate trains in push mode. These cab cars can still be used in passenger service, but leased BNSF freight locomotives will be coupled to the cab cars and and used to operate the trains in what would have been push mode. So far the NTSB has not publicly given the reason for this decision. The most likely problem would be with the Pilot, which on locomotives and cab cars is the plow at the front which is used to push away debris off the tracks to prevent derailments. It appears that a major problem during the February 24th crash in Oxnard may have been from debris from the crash with a large pickup truck and trailer on the tracks. It is likely that debris got under the wheels of the leading Cab Car at speed causing the Cab Car to derail. This resulted in the Cab Car going out of control, uncoupling from the rest of the train, spinning 180 degrees and rolling over on its side.
What is the Pilot, or plow, you ask?  It's the little strip of curved metal you can see just above the tracks in this picture I took last week, a modern-day cow-catcher that is supposed to prevent the car from riding up over debris and derailing. Apparently,  it failed in the Oxnard crash. IF you were to look behind it, you would see that it appears suspended on vertical posts.

For comparison, here's what the rather heftier plow on the cab car of a Pacific Surfliner looks like. From the back, you can see a heavy bar across the bottom of it, and big braces  going up at a 45° angle.  College physics was a while back but this seems like a more substantial structure.  

And here's what a plow looks like on an F59 Surfliner locomotive. 

SO Metrolink is leasing at great expense super heavy locomotives essentially to protect the cab car from structural failure. 

In block letters, Metrolink should emblazon each BNSF locomotive with the words, "BNSF MEANS TONNAGE".
No kidding, those things are HUGE. In another blog,  McGillis notes the engineering and environmental complications and safety implications of  adding these locomotives, suggesting a cabbage car might be more effective. 

Thing is, I haven't seen any Metrolink trains going in or out of LA Union Station with one of those big orange guys in front of the cab car.

Or as we commuters call it, the Death Cab. I never sit in the cab car  if it's leading the train.

The problem in all of this is the number of at-grade crossings where trains and cars share an intersection.  There are many of these throughout the LOSSAN corridor, with many stupid people (and a few suicidal ones) making collisions  inevitable.

And meanwhile, the Rotem cabcars apparently aren't what they were hyped to be.


Damian Clement said...

Metrolink must be burning $'s whilst these locos sit around not turning a wheel. I wonder what they delay is as they were first quoted to start by the end of September.

Damian Clement said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Metrolink chose these locomotives (Vs. surplus passenger engines which are available for lease from other commuter agencies and leasing agencies) because they're already equipped with a Positive Train Control system which is compatible with Metrolink's. Metrolink has apparently decided that PTC is more imperative for safety than the potential safety issue the NTSB flagged with the Rotem cars. As such, they won't place them into service until they've been certified to operate on Metrolink's PTC system. PTC certification is a long, convoluted process and it's been made extra complicated by other factors (such as testing for the new Perris Valley Line which is supposed to be less than a month from opening, but I think it's also behind schedule because the manpower being devoted to projects such as BNSF PTC certification).

At this point I think I've heard that Metrolink expects to have these in place on trains by the end of the year (Originally I think they'd said end of September). Unfortunately, I'm of the belief that if a serious derailment occurs with a Rotem car on the point before these BNSF engines are certified and placed into service, Metrolink will be in some serious trouble. Even no official announcement has been made by the NTSB about the safety of the Rotem cars, Metrolink has made it clear that they understand there is a problem which needs corrective action.

As for why the safety of the Rotem cars is being called into question, you pretty much summed it up very well. Apparently the NTSB held a private meeting with Metrolink toexpress concern over the design of the pilots. The pilots supposedly don't have enough support structure behind them, and thus could fail in a collision which would allow debris to get under the car and cause it to derail. If this is true, then following the release of the NTSB's report it's likely the FRA will step in and outlaw the cars from leading a train. Metrolink, Trirail, and Rotem will have to design a fix for the cars, which will probably have to be approved by the FRA, and implement it before the cars can lead again.

I'm assuming that when all is said and done they'll end up looking similar to the Surfliner or Bombardier cab car pilots.