Posts Tagged trains

Amtrak Philadelphia crash, Positive Train Control, and the tech zeitgeist

NJ Transit commuter trainAfter the horrific Amtrak crash in Philadelphia earlier this week that killed eight people, it’s natural for railroad officials, regulators, and the public to reflexively search for something to do.

Tragedies like this shouldn’t happen, and it’s natural to want to respond with some sort of action that ensures they don’t.

A lot of discussion in that regard seems to focus on the implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC), a technology that’s designed to slow or stop trains when crews ignore signals and speed limits, and that railroads are already mandated to start using soon.

The general consensus is that a functioning PTC system would have stopped Amtrak Northeast Regional train 188 from entering a 50 mph curve at the 100 mph investigations indicate it was traveling at.

That seems fairly definitive, but the discussion shouldn’t end there. Today we’re used to jumping to the conclusion that technology is the only answer, but perhaps as much because of its flashiness as its superiority.

PTC uses sensors, wireless, signals, and control computers to determine a train’s position and speed, decide whether said train is operating within acceptable parameters (i.e., obeying speed limits and signals), and can slow or stop a train if necessary.

The Federal government requires all major railroads to put PTC systems into operation by December 31, although the industry has repeatedly said that deadline is unrealistic. Legislation has been introduced to extend the deadline by varying amounts.

Congress passed the mandate as part of the 2008 Rail Safety Improvement Act, and it’s been vigorously debated by politicians and industry personalities since then. But it’s only recently been brought to the attention of the broader public by the Amtrak crash, as well as another deadly crash back in December on the New York-area Metro North Railroad.

That’s led to headlines like “Could technology have prevented the crash?” (CNN) and “Speed control technology could have stopped Amtrak derailment (NPR), which appear to frame the debate purely in terms of why a life-saving technology wasn’t available.

In an age where we look to Apple and Google to save the world, and our phones, tablets, smartwatches, and other digital ephemera to run our lives, that’s a comfortable perspective. But it’s also problematic.

Because while Congress requires railroads to deploy PTC, the regulations don’t comprise a technical standard. PTC systems exist–Amtrak already uses it on the Northeast Corridor where the crash occurred–but none that have proven to be interoperable across all railroads and all pieces of rolling stock.

In 2013, former National Transportation Safety Board Chair Deborah Hersman remarked that it took NASA less time to land a man on the moon than it’s taken railroads to implement PTC.

At that’s despite the major freight railroads spending over $5 billion to date on PTC. Amtrak and state and local government-operated passenger carriers are getting massive infusions of cash as well.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Transportation tentatively approved a $976 million loan to New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority to cover PTC installation on Metro North and the Long Island Railroad, according to Trains magazine.

Over the past few years, Congress has shown consistent hostility when it comes to merely approving a budget for Amtrak. PTC will likely require additional infusions of cash into railroad infrastructure; will it really show enthusiasm for that?

But there is an alternative to the technical and financial challenges of PTC.

The crashes that sparked interest in PTC all have one thing in common: lone engineers in the cabs of speeding trains who all got distracted or otherwise incapacitated. So why not just put a second person in the cab?

Like a copilot in an airliner cockpit, a second crew member in a locomotive cab could act as a backup. And unlike PTC computers, railroads already have a pretty good idea of how to train humans for this job.

But adding ensuring that there are two people in the cab of every train will still cost money, and like most other businesses, railroads don’t generally like to hire more people than they feel they need. Two-person crews are still required for freight trains, but there’s already talk of eliminating that requirement when PTC goes live.

So in a way, PTC and expanded crews sit in opposition to each other. Regulations and the constant search for costs to cut mean the public could have to pick one or the other. And even though it’s the simpler solution, expanding crews will likely lose out to PTC.

Positive Train Control is simply the more dramatic solution. It makes for a better story, fits in with the current technological zeitgeist, and catches the public’s attention. Simply hiring more people isn’t very dramatic, or disruptive, or any other Silicon Valley buzzwords, even if it might be the better solution.

We’ll probably never know. Congress has already committed to a PTC mandate, and railroads have already spent billions of dollars on it. It’s also much easier to sell the public on a magic technology than the competence and effectiveness of multiple human beings working together.

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CDOT MULet me tell you a little about railfans. These people–who spend most of their spare time photographing, riding, and talking about trains–are a highly sentimental lot.

Growing up obsessed with all things vehicular, I quickly learned that not all trains are created equal. The old, obsolete, and rare are always more interesting to fans.

This makes a lot of sense: older fans are nostalgic about the trains of their youth, and everyone is nostalgic for a time when railroading was more romantic.

Just like classic car enthusiasts who love 1950s Chevys and Buicks, railfans love the streamlined E-Unit and F-Unit locomotives GM was producing around the same time. Their shape is easily as recognizable as a tail-finned Bel Air; it even adorns railroad station signs in the New York metropolitan area.

Rarity is also a factor. It’s just too easy to take a piece of railroad equipment for granted when it’s common, but as older things are retired, they become more of a catch.

Which brings me to the Metro North Railroad electric-mulitple unit (EMU) cars I found humming away in the caverns of Grand Central last week during rush hour.

These older cars are quickly being replaced with new M7 and M8 models, but will anyone miss them when they’re gone?

Metro North Railroad MUThese cars never generated much enthusiasm among railfans when they were new, nor do they have much historical importance.

Younger generations also aren’t as prone to sentimentality when it comes to vintage machinery as their predecessors.

Still, they’re becoming increasingly hard to find on the commuter runs into and out of New York City. Will that rarity make them more attractive?

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A little blue caboose in Grand Central

Metro North cabooseI love finding old things, so I was pleasantly surprised to see this caboose sitting on Track 14 at Grand Central Terminal as I was catching a rush hour commuter train out of New York.

It’s easy to recognize a caboose from children’s books and model train displays, but they’re actually quite rare. They were mobile offices and living quarters for freight train crews, but these days most trains run with two-person crews that can easily be accommodated in a locomotive cab.

Hauling around an extra car that doesn’t produce any money for the company may be romantic, but it doesn’t make business sense.

That makes this caboose a survivor. Perhaps it was forgotten in this dimly-lit corner of Grand Central, or left because it was too difficult to move it through the terminal’s web of tracks to a scrapyard. Maybe it’s been sitting for years, like a time capsule.

Actually, there’s just no point in throwing away something that you still have a use for. Metro North, the commuter rail agency that serves points north and east of New York City, keeps this caboose for physical plant maintenance.

The letters MNCW on the side of the car are the “reporting marks,” basically official initials, used for Metro North’s maintenance equipment. That explains why this caboose isn’t in a museum, and why this freight car is sitting on the platform of one of America’s most famous passenger rail terminals.

It was coupled to some flatcars with garbage dumpsters on them. Apparently, it’s part of a train that hauls trash out of Grand Central.

This old caboose won’t become a subject for moody urban explorer photos just yet, and that’s fine with me. There’s nothing wrong with admiring historic objects for their oldness, but they were designed to serve a purpose, not to be gawked at.

Countless buildings, railroad cars, and other artifacts have outlived their usefulness, but this caboose hasn’t.

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Quality publications

I love the British. Not for the way they put on an Olympics or their highly efficient empire, but for their periodicals. While everyone in the States focusing on distilling media down to 140 character bursts of self-referential viral data, the British are still putting out thick magazines on every topic you could imagine.

I just picked up the July issue of The Railway Magazine at Barnes & Noble. It’s nearly twice the size of a comparable American magazine, with 114 pages to the colonists’ 60-70 average. And this is a magazine just for trains.

Granted, you do pay $9.99 for the privilege, but that’s only because of exchange rates; it only costs four pounds in the U.K.

American magazines sometimes publish items of comparable quality, but usually as expensive annuals or “collector’s editions.” It’s because magazines are expensive to produce, especially when you give up some advertising space for actual content.

The chances of every American hobby magazine morphing into its British counterpart is pretty slim, then. However, there is one part of this particular issue of The Railway Magazine that I think Americans should try.

Included with the new book was a reprint of the magazine’s first issue, from 1897. Back then, railways were only 50 years old and the magazine cost sixpence. It’s pretty cool to see how technology has progressed since then.

What if Motor Trend or Popular Mechanics reprinted their first issues and handed them out to readers? It would show how good modern journalism, and the things it covers, really are. Now might be a good time, since no one is going to want to go through the trouble of printing a promotional item on dead paper when the digital assimilation is complete.

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Wisconsin Talgo a no-go

Wisconsin Talgo train. Photo by Angela Peterson.

Wisconsin Talgo train. Photo by Angela Peterson.

Sorry for the week of no posts; even lazy bloggers need a vacation sometimes.

A couple of weeks ago, I ranted about mass transit and mentioned Wisconsin’s high speed Talgo trains. Two trains were about to enter testing, so it seemed like Wisconsin had the right idea. Apparently, they don’t.

Wisconsin’s two Talgos will still be tested, but then the 14-car trains will probably be put into storage. According to Trains magazine, the state reneged on a 20-year maintenance contract for the trains, which involved the construction of a maintenance facility and employing Talgo workers to repair the sets. The state doesn’t want to spend the money, so those workers will be laid off and passengers will continue riding 25-year-old coaches on the Chicago-Milwaukee corridor.

Before the 2010 elections, Democratic governor Jim Doyle secured $810 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding to upgrade tracks and build new trains. When Republican Scott Walker took over, he decided that improved rail service and potential jobs at Talgo’s Milwaukee facility were not worth the cost. He returned the federal money, and his administration says the state is saving $10 million by not running the trains.

I’m not an economist, or a governor, but this still doesn’t make sense. Republicans hate to see the government spend money, but what are they saving it for? The economy is supposed to be the nation’s primary political concern, yet Talgo is laying off workers because the Wisconsin GOP will not follow through on a predetermined contract. The state may be saving $10 million, but it has already wasted $70 million on two trains that will do nothing but gather dust.

The Talgo project should have been a no-brainer. The trains, which can tilt to take corners at high speeds, have proven popular on Amtrak’s Cascades route in the Pacific Northwest, and Talgo went to great lengths to bring them into compliance with current Federal Railroad Administration crash standards. Wisconsin needed new trains, and Talgo need customers. What went wrong?

Republicans like to think that completely eliminating government spending will solve America’s problems, but Walker’s actions show that frivolous spending cuts can actually make things worse. Who benefits from Wisconsin’s reneging? Is it the people stuck on worn-out trains, or the people without jobs?

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Next Time, I’ll Take the Train

Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, how to get from one place to another is not a problem. The problem is figuring which mode of transportation to use. We have plenty to choose from: planes, automobiles, buses, bicycles, boats, hovercraft… In my opinion, one of the most underrated forms of mechanized transportation is also the oldest: trains.

I’m a huge petrolhead, but sometimes cars aren’t the perfect solution. I recently took a trip into Manhattan, a place where cars do not belong; parking spaces are just like any other Manhattan real estate: highly sought, and very expensive.

Instead, I took the train. The Metro North Railroad’s Harlem Line is a short drive from my town, and in a little less than driving time (even with one train change), I was on Fifth Avenue and 42nd.

I don’t want to romanticize rail travel too much; looking out the window, I wasn’t sure if I was in Westchester County or the Ninth Circle of Hell, and people can be somewhat rude. However, it’s still a pleasant experience. I wasn’t sitting in traffic or being herded onto a tube-shaped bus or plane.

That is not surprising, because even today’s utilitarian commuter trains have an impressive pedigree. Rail travel used to emphasize class as much as convenience. Transcontinental lines like the Union Pacific tamed the West, and “name trains” like the Twentieth Century Limited and Empire Builder offered their passengers luxury as well as speed.

While today’s commuter and Amtrak trains have lost some of that luster, they still have a bit of class. You get on when you want, get off when you want, and actually get to see what you would normally miss through large windows, from (relatively) spacious seats.

With current concerns over emissions and the price of oil, America’s original mass transportation system may be a good alternative. The national rail system still covers most of the country, and if railroads brought back dining cars it would be hard to explain why eating microwaved food at 37,000 feet is so much better. The next time I take a big trip, I’ll probably be riding the rails.

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Steampunk railroad

Models in steampunk garb pose with Baldwin No. 60000. Photo by Kyle Cassidy.

It’s time for nerds to save history. One of the biggest recent developments in the science-fiction/fantasy world is the subculture known as steampunk. The name is a play on cyberpunk, a type of sci-fi that takes computer technology as it’s main theme. Steampunk does the same thing with 19th century steam technology, imagining a pseudo-historical Victorian world where everything from computers to airships is steam-powered.

Like many other nerd subcultures, steampunk enthusiasts enjoy dressing up in costumes and role-playing. When the sci-fi convention comes to town, don’t be surprised if you see a few people sporting top hats, corsets, or goggles.

Steampunk may be a relatively new trend, but interest in steam technology is not. Since railroads began retiring their steam locomotives in the 1940s and 1950s, railroad enthusiasts have been trying to preserve them for future generations. Today, there are dozens of museums and “tourist lines” across the U.S. with steam locomotives, either in operation or on static display. Among the best are the Strasburg Railroad and Steamtown National Historic Site, both in Pennsylvania, and the Essex Steam Train in Connecticut.

The same is true of other steam-powered machinery. The Connecticut Antique Machinery Association (CAMA) in Kent, Connecticut has several buildings full of industrial steam engines and tractors; they even have a steam motorcycle. Kinetic Steam Works, an art collective based in San Francisco, has a steam contraption called Hortense, but it wasn’t the fruit an artist’s imagination. Hortense is a steam tractor, similar to the ones at CAMA.

Hortense. Photo by Kinetic Steam Works.

I often wonder if steampunks and steam preservationists know each other exist, because it seems like the two groups could help each other out. Museums are usually not-for-profit organizations that rely on volunteer labor, so money is usually in short supply. On the other hand, steampunk cosplayers like to pose for photographs, and what could be more theme-appropriate than a restored steam engine? Just check out the above photo. An influx of steampunks would generate revenue for museums, and having a bunch of costumed people around might add a little period ambiance (or scare all the non-nerds away, but let’s try to be positive).

Hortense's cousin at the CAMA Fall Festival. Photo by the Author.

Volunteer labor is another issue at most museums and, once again, steampunks could be the solution. Groups of artists, like Kinetic Steam Works, specialize in steam-powered kinetic sculpture, so maybe they could lend a hand on some restoration projects. If they already have (or are looking to gain) a working knowledge of steam, their enthusiasm could be channeled into some productive work. By getting involved, steampunk artists could also help ensure that the skills needed to work on steam (locomotives or sculptures) are preserved.

Museums like Steamtown and CAMA are usually run by diehard gearheads and railfans; groups that isolate themselves from mainstream society, just like many sci-fi fans. Both groups are also fanatical about the amazing things, both real and fictional, that can be done with vaporized water. That’s plenty of common ground, considering that most people think steam is only useful for cleaning carpets.

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