American Railroads

News each weekday of American railroads. Our focus is on freight rail, but Amtrak and commuter rail are also essential ingredients. Nothing published on holidays.

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Location: Middleburg (Jacksonville), Florida, United States

Published in Trains magazine, Railfan & Railroad, Passenger Train Journal

Monday, September 04, 2006

Dead battery? Let Metra help

Hopping off a train on a subzero night and finding a car with a dead battery likely tops many commuters’ list of horror stories – but starting this fall, thousands of Metra riders who could find themselves in that predicament will be able to get some free, and fast, help.

A Canadian firm that is taking over management of Metra’s parking lots will not only assist with such problems as flat tires and empty gas tanks, it will pay stranded motorists $50 if it takes more than 45 minutes to respond to a help call.

Metra officials think the service will be a boon to commuters.

“It’s something that we know is helpful because in all of the parking lots, we’ve had someone in that situation,” said Metra spokeswoman Judy Pardonnet, who got off a Metra train one wintry night to discover her car wouldn’t start, wrote the Chicago Tribune on Friday.

Such a program would have been a great help to Mazon resident Nancy Schuma a few years back. Battling the flu, she left her job in the Loop early one wintry day to get off the train in New Lenox and discovered her car battery was dead. She had to walk to a gas station, call for help and then wait.

Just this week, Schuma said she spotted a female Metra rider sitting in her mini-van with the hood up in the same parking lot waiting for help.

“Wow,” Schuma said when told of the vehicle assistance program. “Something like that, I think people would definitely use if they don’t have a towing service.”

Unfortunately for Schuma, the program won’t apply to her lot. The feature, known as Parker Pete, will be available at all 37 Metra-owned lots, which is less than half of the lots on the six-county system.

The program appears to be a first of its kind in the region.

Metro-North electrics are 100

On September 30, the Metro-North Railroad will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first electric train that ran on third rail power from New York City's Grand Central Terminal to the Bronx. The agency will commemorate the event by offering a day-long excursion that includes presentations, tours and train trips.

The day will begin at Grand Central Terminal where Metro-North officials will give a presentation on the history of the 1906 New York Central Railroad Harlem and Hudson electrification system, and Metro-North's current electrification systems. Officials then will provide the first-ever general public tour of M-42, an underground facility that houses original rotary converters and controls boards.

Later, visitors will board a new M-7 electric train and travel to the largest original substation at Mott Haven Jct., followed by stops at Highbridge yard, an original power plant in Glenwood, N.Y. and the Ossining substation, Progressive Railroading reported last week.

Rail execs predicting

peak season to be smooth

Railroad executives and the railroad industry’s trade association are optimistic that heavy freight volume will continue through the industry’s peak season and that the movement of freight will be smooth.

The traditional start of the holiday shopping season isn’t for more than another two months, but the shipping industry typically sees an increase in freight beginning in September. That is the time when Asian exporters put items ranging from clothes to toys onto containers to be shipped to ports in the U.S. Depending on the items’ destinations, they then continue their journey by rail, truck, air or a combination of the three.

The arrival of those exports often coincides with the fall harvest for some commodities, further straining the system, the Dow Jones News service reported on Sunday.

The railroad industry had its busiest week in history for intermodal freight – goods that are in trailers or shipping containers – when it moved 251,000 trailers and containers the last week of July, Association of American Railroads spokesman Tom White said.

“If history tells us anything, it will get busier as we get into October,” he said.

“We’re definitely seeing an increase, but things are moving through fine. It may not come without any problems, but there aren’t any choke points or logjams or anything like that.”

As it has for the last few years, the Surface Transportation Board (STB) in late June requested that railroads detail their plans for the peak shipping season. The board began requesting the information after the industry encountered congestion problems in 2003, brought about by factors that included inaccurate freight volume estimates.

The board resolves railroad rate and service disputes and reviews proposed railroad mergers.

Executives from Union Pacific Corp., BNSF Corp., CSXT Corp., Norfolk Southern Corp. and others told the board in July that they expect freight volume to remain strong for the rest of the year and that congestion should not be an issue. Many of the companies reiterated their outlooks in their second-quarter conference calls later in the month.

BNSF CEO Matthew Rose estimated last month during an earnings conference call that third-quarter revenue will increase 17 percent to 18 percent from the year-earlier period. Half of the increase is expected to come from volume.

UP CEO Jim Young said in a July 17 letter to the STB that traffic volume during the first half of the year rose 5 percent compared with the year-earlier period, and that all indications are that the demand “will continue at a record pace” for the remainder of the year.

Unions, carriers battle

over one-man crews

Railroads are pushing for the authority to cut train crews from two to one, which would cut jobs and create hazardous conditions, a union official told the Youngstown Vindicator on September 3.

Cutting train crews is one of the issues in contract negotiations going on between the railroads and its unions.

The railroads, represented by the National Carriers Conference Committee, want to eliminate conductors from trains, leaving only an engineer on board, said John Hill, local chairman for Division 565 of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

Negotiations are continuing but little progress is being made, Hill said. National contracts that cover staffing issues expired in July 2005 for the BLET and in December 2004 for the United Transportation Union.

“I can’t say we aren’t out to protect the employees; we are, but the other big concern is public safety,” Hill said.

Railroads are busy these days and more hazardous chemicals, such as chlorine, hydrochloric acid and sulfuric acid, are being transported, he said.

With two workers on a train, the crew can more easily spot derailments or other problems with the cars behind, he said.

Tracks now are equipped with sensors to spot derailments or overheated wheel bearings, but those devices are too far apart and they won’t catch all problems, he said.

“A lot of things can cause a derailment. Operating a train is like running an 11,000-ton Slinky. It always goes in and out,” said Hill, a Norfolk Southern engineer who lives in Hubbard.

Hill estimated that about 40 percent of conductor positions could be eliminated with one-person crews. Conductors would be used only in rail yards, he said.

There are about 65,000 conductors and 45,000 engineers in the unions nationwide, he said.

Locally, the UTU, which represents most conductors, has about 130 members.

The BLET represents about 100 workers, most of whom are engineers.

Joanna Moorhead, a spokeswoman for the carriers bargaining committee, said she didn’t want to talk about specifics but added that one-person crews would be used by railroads where they made sense. Some trains would continue to have two-person crews, she said.

In a letter released in March, the committee said no workers would be laid off because of the changes. Thousands of employees are expected to retire in the next few years, giving the railroads the opportunity to add new technology to improve operations, the letter said.

The railroads explain their position on the negotiations on a Web site – http://www.raillaborfacts.org. They said new technology will prevent collisions and reduce opportunities for human error, the most common cause of train accidents.

New technology should warn locomotive engineers in advance if the train needs to slow down, is about to exceed the distance required to come to a stop or is about to go beyond its approved travel area.

The devices are intended to stop the train before it passes a stop signal, exceeds the speed limit or goes outside its approved travel area.

Also, to use satellite or wireless positioning technology to give dispatchers the precise location of trains at all times.

The bargaining committee said the new technology needs to be coupled with new work rules and staffing requirements so railroads can operate efficiently and make the best use of investment money. Hill said new technology already has allowed railroads to reduce crews. Trains had five-person crews 30 years ago.

One of the newest devices allows trains to be operated remotely. Now, railroads are using remote control to operate trains in some yards.

When trains stop at customer locations to drop off or pick up cars at customer locations, the conductor handles the switching. If conductors are eliminated from trains, the engineer would do the switching, or a utility conductor sent out for the job or by a remote-control device, Hill said.

This device would allow the train to be started and pulled forward without an engineer at the front of the train.

Railroad wages and benefits also are higher than most industries, the railroads’ committee said. The average annual wage of union employees at major railroads is $62,600, and the railroads pay 88 percent of the total cost of medical, dental and vision health care costs, the committee said.

The committee said it does not expect a strike based on previous negotiations, which are normally protracted. Only six transportation days have been lost in the past 30 years due to strikes over nationally bargained issues, it said.

Federal law sets up a system for negotiations, which includes a National Mediation Board to oversee talks. If necessary, a Presidential Emergency Board can be appointed to investigate and recommend solutions. Congress also can step in and prevent or terminate a strike.

Simulators teach train handling

With a wink, Shawn Smith applied far too much power to the locomotive, deliberately risking ripping the 15,000-ton, 135-car coal train in two.

“If this were real, the folks around there would be getting quite a show right now,” said the engineer at No. 1 U.S. railroad Union Pacific Corp. as the train simulator screen in front of him shows dangerous pressure building rapidly in the couplings between the cars he is hauling. Too much pressure and they will snap.

Shawn, 32, and Alan Smith – no relation – are using the simulator at this UP facility in a Chicago suburb to test different, often extreme, scenarios on the route they have traveled daily in real life for more than a year.

“We’ve had everything thrown at us today,” Alan, 39, said, “including a bus.”

Throwing the bus is Paul Fessenbecker, a 40-year rail veteran and one of the trainers UP has assigned to transform new engineers into old hands.

“We don’t have much time,” said Fessenbecker, who will retire in February.

Nick Carey, a Reuters writer, wrote from North Lake Ill last Sunday that U.S. railroads face a major challenge over the next decade as tens of thousands of highly qualified staff meet requirements to earn a full pension.

This leaves the industry with many young engineers who lack the experience that comes from spending decades on the rails. So, the railroads are embracing modern tools like simulators to teach accelerating, braking and fuel conservation.

Logistics experts say the railroads are doing a good job of tackling the problem, but should plan better to avoid a similar situation 30 years from now.

The last major wave of engineer hiring was in the 1960s and 1970s, before rail deregulation in 1980. In a poor state financially, the railroads spent two decades pulling up track and cutting jobs to raise productivity and stay in business.

In the last three years, railroads have witnessed a reversal of fortune. U.S. imports are up, driven largely by the outsourcing of manufacturing to developing nations such as China. Coal demand has jumped as utilities switch from expensive natural gas to this cheaper fossil fuel.

This has boosted profits, but while railroads must haul more goods, they face an exodus of workers with 30 years service and eligible for a full pension at age 60.

Union Pacific alone will need to replace 40 percent of its staff in the next decade.

The railroads have started hiring thousands of new workers, men and women, but operating a train is harder than it looks.

“It takes time and experience to operate a train properly,” said Tom Mentzer, a logistics expert at the University of Tennessee.

It is a skill that is changing as freight trains get longer and heavier. Coal trains, often weighing up to 15,000 tons, have three locomotives – one at the front, one at the rear and sometimes with one in the middle to distribute power.

“Handling trains with multiple locomotives is a real challenge,” said Bill Faulhaber, a training manager at railroad Norfolk Southern Corp. Railroad officials compare accelerating a train too fast to cracking a whip, where the whiplash can snap couplings.

Even experienced engineers can have trouble handling large coal trains and are prone to breaking them in two.

“We call them scrap iron kings and queens,” said Cameron Scott, who runs Union Pacific’s Powder River Basin operations.

A split train can take hours to repair and is unwelcome at a time when rail networks are congested, so the railroads are working with inexperienced engineers to minimize problems and maximize savings.

New engineers often overuse brakes, using up too much fuel, which can cost millions of dollars annually. The locomotive burns diesel to run a generator that provides power to accelerate and brake. Inexperienced engineers tend to go too fast then apply the brakes to slow down, instead of maintaining speed.

All the major railroads have simulators and are relying on technology to iron out problems.

“Simulators allow us to train engineers on any network route and simulate all weather conditions,” said Calvin Hobbs, assistant vice president for safety and technical training at BNSF.

“We can teach them how to conserve fuel and operate trains without snapping them in two.”

BNSF locomotives use computers that record everything from fuel use to train speed, which the company downloads at random to check up on new and experienced engineers alike. Engineers with problems braking or speeding are sent for more training.

Norfolk Southern uses black boxes – similar to those used on airplanes – to do much the same thing as BNSF.

The Univ. Tennessee’s Mentzer said although the railroads have adopted a sound training strategy for thousands of new workers, he added, “this is history repeating itself.”

“People keep these jobs for years and every few decades the railroads have to hire thousands of people,” he said. “It would be better to plan for this turnover further in advance than rush to train thousands of people.”

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