The Foamer and the Hill
"Foamer..." I'm beginning to hate that name. At first I merely disliked the name that railroaders have given to that sub-species of homo sapiens, observed chasing trains, foaming at the mouth like mad dogs. For over thirty years I have been interested or fascinated by trains, since the end of steam on the SP. But only recently have I started to "chase" trains, frothing at the mouth infrequently. I do not trek miles to find the perfect spot to frame a brace of tunnel motors, unless 4449 is expected that day and some damn diesels show up first and I have some extra film (Roger). While it is true I have treked countless miles along the SP right of way in Northern California, it is only because I've been fishing longer than I've been chasing trains and SP built their railroad along some of the best trout fishing streams in the country. Nobody calls me "fish". Come to think of it, my college room-mates used to call me "fish". I'll probably get used to being a "foamer", but it'll take a while.
What is a "foamer's" ultimate dream? At the throttle of a heavy train sliding down hill with full air brake application? Guiding 4449 over the Martinez bridge? Kicking a string of cars into an interchange track at Port Chicago? (As a Navy employee, I wish Santa Fe would get into the habit of opening the gates at the Weapons Station before inserting boxcars). Whatever the foamer's dream is, the reality is that the real railroads, in spite of news stories to the contrary about Conrail and BN, don't let the unwashed masses run their trains.
Southern Pacific is perhaps better than most in this regard, they train their engineers, in the manner that the Air Force trains pilots, with a simulator. Espee may have a greater need than many railroads; in the West it is not a flat road, grades due to hills or mountains cause operating problems; it is safer to wreck a train on the simulator than it is to wreck a real train out in the public view. The result is Transportation Training Services of Cerritos, California, official trainers for Southern Pacific Transportation Company, the home of the simulator.
The Simulator. Some of the thrill, without most of the danger. As a late blooming foamer, I resisted the temptation for a long time. Unlike many foamers, I had an "in", my cousin was a road foreman of engines for Espee and is an instructor at the simulator, excuse me, Senior Training Specialist with Transportation Training Services. My youngest cousin on my father's side, the Southern Pacific side of the family, the cousin who always seemed to be bruised and punished every time I visited, my little cousin who is now an inch taller and twenty pounds heavier and younger is no longer a disadvantage, my friendly cousin who managed during an all-out water baloon fight to assist me in cutting a free-bleeding gash in my knee, this cousin invited me to "run' the simulator, nothing is without an element of danger.
I accepted the challenge. The alternative was visiting with Ted, his wife Krista, their four kids, two dogs, cats, etc.. As a bachelor the simulator seemed a nice quiet way to spend a sunday afternoon, besides I had already spent saturday night with them and Ted has this smile that seems to be proportional with a guests discomfort. With that ****-eating grin, he said "Let's go."
I have left the smog/sun-filled LA basin behind. I am under blue sky, surrounded by rugged hills covered with golden grass and scrub brush. I'm in the lead unit of four SD-40s, fifty eight cars, 4700 tons trailing. I'm lost. I've never been here before. The milepost says 357. Reassured by the fact that someone else who could count without using his fingers has been here before, I relax. I look around. I study the situation. I'm on a grade, a steep grade, a 2% climb ahead, eastbound on the Mojave Subdivision. I'm not moving. I'm gently reminded that the business of the railroad is to move
freight and I should consider attending to business. Three and a half minutes later, I advance the throttle from idle to run 3. I watch the amps rise to 700. The engines shudder. Eighty seconds pass, I haven't moved. Agreeing with the suggestion of more throttle, it's advanced to run 4. Another sixty seconds pass, I'm moving, I've only gone 50 feet, but a start. Ampmeter peaks at 900, starts dropping to 830. The wheels are slipping, a light application of sand helps. I'm picking up speed, after 6 minutes I'm doing 2.7 mph. I'm a logging fan and West Side used to run'em at that speed, I'm satisfied.
Approaching the seven minute mark I'm up to 3 mph even; the ampmeter is at 800; I'm reminded that I've gone just 500 feet and I'm clogging a very busy main line. Run 5, the ampmeter peaks at 926; the coupler force warning alarm sounds in the instructor's booth, more power and the train could break in two. Minute 10, 2200 feet from the start; 7.3mph, now we're moving. Half a mile from the start, advancing to run 6; coupler force warning again; ampmeter peaks at 932 this time; speed continues to pick up; we're not slipping so the sand is cut off.
Milepost 358, we've gone a full mile; only took 13 minutes 30 seconds; train speed is up to 11 mph; we've just notched the throttle to run 7; as expected the coupler warning level is exceeded; the ampmeter hit 937 this time, but it's dropping; and we're beginning to roll.
Time for a little scenery watching. The scenery is projected video images fed from the computer controlled interactive video disks. Simply, if you don't move the scenery doesn't change; the computer calls up a new image every few feet travelled; the rate of new images (scans per second) is determined by the train speed. At 15mph the scenery is changing, there is a tendency to watch the new countryside and forget what the train is doing. Heck the road foreman of engines (instructor) is seated behind us, quick to remind if we miss something. That is a disadvantage of running the simulator; no fireman to call out signals. Terror, for the first time in our life we're colorblind; we can see the signals; we just can't tell if they're red or green, this is not an unimportant matter; we ask the road foreman what a purple signal means; he assures us that it is actually green; we think we are reassured, although we can't remember confusing green and purple before. In a way the cab is like a cockpit, gages and meters, a good view up front, wide, ample seats matching the wide, ample seats of some of the engineers. The ride is getting a little rougher as speed increases; it was pretty smooth for the first few minutes, but then we started to move forward.
Twenty minutes and we've gone two and a half miles; the ampmeter had dropped to 716; we're doing 16.5 mph; running free. At minute 21 we are reminded that the speed limit is 45 in this area and that we're still holding up traffic. Run 8, the ampmeter only advances to 728, and then starts dropping; speed continues to increase. Twenty five minutes into the shift and we're flying, 32 mph, ampmeter at 499; we're getting the hang of it. Another reminder from the rear, since we're unfamiliar with the subdivision we're on, a grade profile has been provided so that we can track the progress of the whole train, and anticipate upcoming, dramatic changes in the gradient. In other words our train is no longer going uphill; it's on a summit and will soon be headed down a 2% grade. At this point we stop worrying about scenery, or whether a purple signal is really green or red; nothing else matters if we can't slow this thing down. A quick review of the cab layout reminds us of another fact, that the door is on the other side of the cab; you can't "join the birds" as easily from a modern diesel as an old steam engine. We're heading down grade now, through rock cuts; speed is now 40 mph; jumping into a boulder at 40 mph is ruled out; we resolve to stop the train.
First question...HOW? The road foreman wonders if we can still stop the train in routine fashion, or if we're too far gone and it's hopeless. Reassured by the accompanying grin, we take the conservative approach. Applying the emergency air and using dynamics would plaster us all over the canyon, such drastic measures are ruled out. The first step is to regain control of the train behind us. If we attempt dynamic braking now, the slack
in the train behind us would allow the cars to run into the engines and throw them off the track. We resolve to eliminate the slack. A light application of train air brakes, 9 psi, is made. Train speed is up to 50mph. The similarity to the last car of a rollercoaster is now apparent to even the most casual observer. Still in run 8; we must stretch out the train with the brakes before we reduce throttle and use the dynmamic brakes of the engines. Minute 29, engine air brakes applied, thirty seconds later engine air brakes are released with a loud bang under the seat, can't remember why engine brakes were applied in first place.
Milepost 366, 56 mph, the road foreman says we're getting control of the train now, we were completely fooled about this. The train is stretched now, train speed is down to 53 mph. The air brakes are released. If we throttle down at the same rate as the brakes are released through the train, the train will safely compress against the engines. This sounds more like art than science but at 53 mph jumping is less inviting than 40 mph was. Within a minute and a half we've put the throttle in idle. We are told to setup the dynamic brakes; wait about ten seconds, before moving the dynamic brake lever to position 1. We count fingers, thirteen seconds later the dynamics are applied. Milepost 369, train speed is 61.2 mph; road foreman says we still have a chance; maximum train speed before termination (leaving the rails) is 70 mph in this stretch; we are starting to understand why the road foreman doesn't like rollercoasters, something about getting enough thrills at work. It takes us 27 seconds to slowly advance the dynamic brakes to position 8. Light application of air, 10 psi, is made. We are limited to about 700 amps braking power; after 40 seconds of dynamic application, we are at the limit, at milepost 370, and at 68 mph. The road foreman says he has never gone this fast on this stretch before and stayed on the tracks; confidence is slow to return.
Milepost 371, still on the tracks, speed down to 48 mph, off the grade, onto a level stretch, signal approaching, thankful its purple, not that we could stop in time if it wasn't. Reducing dynamics, down to position 4, train speed 16 mph, heading downhill again. Increasing dynamics again, road foreman wants to release air brakes, build up pressure, dynamics in position 8, air brakes are released, speed drops to 5mph, entire train on down grade now.
Milepost 372, speed increases to 9mph, 10mph, 11mph, 12 mph, 16mph, 20mph. Light application of air again, road foreman wants to keep train moving but under control, no disagreement. Dynamics reduced to position 4, train speed holds at 22mph, 43 minutes from the start, seems much, much longer. Remainder of trip seems to be downhill, dynamics and light air most of the time; last stretch a dash for home, 50 mph in run 4 to 65mph in run 6, slight favoring grade, coast home and stop; 92 minutes, 43.5 miles. Road foreman says next time he'll throw the signals from purple to red. Next time we may find out what happens if we can't stop. After all we can't get hurt in a simulated wreck, I look at the scar on my knee from the water baloon fight. Ted, the simulator can wait, I just got a shipment of weather water baloons.