I know that my children, and all my family for that matter, think I’m not a gamer. But they don’t know what I do at work. While one son is at home playing Star Wars Battlefront, and another is buried in StarCraft or Call of Duty Black Ops, I’m immersed in the game I call “Quick like a Fox”. I named it after the last instructor I had before I got my Engineers license.
At the end of my training, I thought I was pretty good at driving the train and managing the Cab Signal System which has a short temper and can stop the train anytime it’s not happy. But Sam Fox inspired me into thinking that “pretty good” wasn’t really good enough. His question, “Do you like to ride the beeps, or are you afraid of the Cab Signals?”, shamed me into not wanting to be afraid of them.
The Cab Signal System is a safety device designed to keep the engineer from exceeding the speed limit. These speed limits which vary up and down our alignment must be followed to exactness. It’s not like driving your car out on the roads and hi-ways, where “five-over” is ok. This Cab Signal System starts to beep a “happy chirp” when the train is approaching the speed limit for that stretch. There is a fine line between this “happy chirp” and the “angry beep” that suddenly shuts off all power to the locomotive while applying full brakes to stop the train.
The problem is, with our single track for trains running in both directions and our very tight schedule from station to station, we can’t afford to go anything slower than maximum authorized speed. Those few seconds here and there add up to minutes, and then five, and ten. Cumulatively down the whole length of our alignment this really adds up. Because we run on a single track, the other trains have to wait at the meeting point for the late train, which eventually makes all the trains late.
So every time I drive the train, the game “Quick like a Fox” is on. I don’t want to be that one engineer that single handedly destroyed our reliability rating for the day.
Riding the beeps
So this is how it works. The Cab Signal beeps the “Happy Chirp” when I get up to it’s approved speed for that particular stretch of track. If I go any faster, the system beeps the faster “Angry Beep”. When it sees that I am not complying with it’s warning, it quickly takes over and the shut down sequence is activated. At this point, there is nothing to do but sit there and wait for the train to stop. Then penance is paid as systems are reset, the radio call of shame is made, and we are on our way, now an additional 2 minutes later than before the penalty.
“UTA Train 6, northbound at south 7.5, to UTA Warm Springs Control. – Over”
“UTA Warm Springs Control. – Over”
“UTA Train 6 was penalized on a 45 Cab Signal. I have recovered and we are proceeding into the station – Over.”
At first, these cab signal beeps and chirps all sounded the same to me. When Sam Fox would try to explain the difference in the sound of the beeps, it all sounded like gibberish to me. Kind of like listening to the popular novelty song “What does the Fox say?” by the Norwegian comedy duo Ylvis.
“What does the fox say?
What the fox say?
What the fox say?
What the fox say?
What the fox say?
However in time, I could understand what the Fox says… Sam Fox. I learned to distinguish the “happy chirp” of that’s fast enough, from the “angry beep” of “I’m going to shut you down.” He told me that he learned to ride the beeps, because he was too lazy to keep looking at the speedometer. With the constantly changing grade of the track going up and down, going too slow on the “up grade’ is a problem. So when the Cab Signal System isn’t beeping at me, I have to keep a close eye on my speed to ensure I don’t drift slower and slower.
Once I learned to speak “Fox”, it wasn’t hard to also learn the cab signal system algorithms with it’s automated reasoning systems. Once I could think like a the cab signals, it was relatively easy to keep them happy so they could beep at me but not get angry and shut me down.
Some Engineers get nervous when the Cab Signals start beeping at them for fear of being “Shut down”. But now I get nervous when they stop beeping at me. I do have to keep my head in the game though. The margin of error is too close for sloppiness. Another factor that complicates this is that everything you do when driving a train is time delayed. Trains don’t respond like your car does.
Playing this game is also how I beat the boredom that can cause mistakes when driving up and down the same 88 mile stretch day after day.
The rules of the game
Beat at the meet: I give myself the most points for beating the other train to our meeting points. I win at the meet if the other train gets his signal upgrade allowing him to proceed past me before I get my signal to proceed. There is also more method to my madness here. If the other train gets his signal to proceed quickly enough, he doesn’t have to slow down, thus he clears the track ahead of me more quickly and I get out of the meeting point more quickly too. It’s a win, win.
Keep the Beep: I also get lots of points if I can keep the Cab Signals happily beeping all the way from when I get up to full speed until I have to set brakes to slow the train for a slower speed stretch of track or for a station stop. This can be tricky with the elevation of the track constantly going up and down. But on good days, when my head is in the game, I can do it the whole distance of our alignment in both directions. That’s a lot of “Beeping”.
I also give myself bonus points if I can shave a little distance off of how long it takes to get up to full beeping speed. I have self imposed check-points all down the track where I need to be at full speed for that stretch.
Quick Stop and Go: Additional bonus points are earned by gliding into the station quickly and exiting exactly on the departure time. Braking is challenging when coming in quickly, yet smoothly. Feathering the brakes back to a smooth stop is much harder on a train then in your car. When I do it right… bonus points. When I screw it up, I lose points.
Losing Points: One enjoyable challenge is to avoid taking a “reliability ding”. Even when the system is bogging down, and other trains are making me late, my challenge is to keep my train less than 5 minutes late in leaving each station. With anything more than 5 minutes late, our commuter rail takes a reliability ding. So I’m watching my watch very closely to make sure I can depart in time. If I don’t make it out in time, and incur the “reliability ding”, I lose all my points and have to start over.
Losing the Game: Sometimes I’m trying to make up for lost time and pushing my luck just a bit with the Cab Signal System. Of course this increases the threat of a penalty. No matter how well I’ve done that day up to this point, if I get shut down I loose the game for the day.
Is it cheating that my opponents don’t know the rules, or even that I am playing against them? Just like my when my children loose all track of time when they are wrapped up in one of their games, my work day playing “Quick Like a Fox” goes by so fast that it’s not really work to me. But don’t tell my Beautiful Wife or she might want me to go out and get a real job.