Driver’s Training – Train Edition

A few weeks ago I took my youngest child down to the DMV to get her learners permit. This is the 9th and final time that my Beautiful Wife and I have to go through teaching our child to drive a car. Way back when, I blogged about teaching my first child to drive (here).

But this time, as my Baby’s driving instructor, I expect I’ll be more patient than usual as I remember my most recent experience of “Driver’s Training – Train Edition” with me as the student.

Let me start out by saying that there are very few similarities between driving a train and a car. Almost everything you do while driving a train is time delayed. They say that with a freight train you are driving 3 miles ahead and 2 miles behind. The reality is a freight train often needs to react 3 miles before an anticipated event. Of course a freight train can be up to 2 miles long. So the engineer’s immediate area of concern can be this 5 mile range. Our short consist passenger trains don’t operate in this wide of range, but they are closer to that than they are to the operating range of a car. For example, our Commuter trains generally start slowing about a mile before making a station stop. If we were to wait to see the station before hitting the brakes, we’d miss stopping at the station almost every time.

And just the brakes themselves are completely different animals then the brakes on your car or even an 18 wheeler. The train brake systems include; Dynamic Brakes (like the noisy engine brakes on big trucks only different). Air Brakes (With many settings that have descriptive names like Minimum Reduction, Service Zone, Full Service, and Emergency. It also has a few non-braking settings with less descriptive names to the layman like Release, Handle off, and Suppression.) Blended Brakes incorporates both Dynamic Brakes with Air Brakes into the same braking action. Independent Brakes and Hand Brakes are also completely separate braking systems utilized constantly on any train in use.

Of course on your properly operating passenger car, the primary instrument gauge that you monitor while driving is the Speedometer. Besides that, there are many other instruments that need to be monitored (and complied with) on the locomotive. Two Duel air gauges with four needles (all displaying something different yet very pertinent to the condition of the train’s braking capability), along with an amp gauge reading the dynamic braking or power being applied to the train – all must be understood and utilized in the proper handling of the train.

Like I said, it’s a little more involved to stop a train than a car. As you might imagine, accelerating and steering a train don’t have any similarity to operating a car either. For example, our trains also have cab signals that can be more brutal than the toughest backseat driver you have ever experienced. (It nags at you all along the way, and if you don’t comply as quickly as it deems reasonable, it will activate a separate braking system and shut you down immediately.)

I might not admit that the first part of actually driving the train was stressful. (I’m sure that my 56 year old wisdom teeth, which have never bothered me, that now became infected and needed emergency extraction after being clenched in a death grip for too long is just a coincidence.) But it wasn’t the easiest thing I’ve ever done. Here is real life dialog (and my thoughts at the time) from just a few of those training runs.

The operating ends are changed at the end of the line and we depart Provo Station northbound:

Instructor: Lock up your doors… got a loop? (We get “a loop” when all passenger doors are properly closed, closing the lockout circuit and illuminating a green indicator light in the control panel.)

My thoughts and actions: Reverser forward… notch 1… release the Automatic Brakes and the Independent Brakes… Bell on… (I’m fumbling because I just switched operating ends and now the brakes are in my right hand and the throttle is in my left… opposite of 15 minutes ago.) … I need to just creep out to activate the crossing gates, but I can’t proceed into the intersection until the gates lock down.

Instructor: Make your radio call to control. Come on you need to learn to multitask.

Me on the Radio: “Train 8 to Warm Springs Control”

Instructor: You are UTA Train 8… and what Warm Springs are you calling, Warm Springs California? Also you need to say “over” so they know you are finished talking. You need to work on your radio protocol.

Me: “UTA Train 8 to UTA Warm Springs Control – over”

UTA Warm Springs Control on the Radio: “UTA Warm Springs Control – over”

Me: “UTA Train 8 is departing Provo Station with operator 8050 and LPI 4151 – over”

Instructor: “Departing Northbound… You need always state the direction of the train… come on, didn’t they teach you anything in class? Come on we need to get going… notch up.”

Me: I’ve now got the train up to about 11mph as we move through the intersection and out of the station.

Instructor: Don’t forget your running brake check… you could get both of us decertified.”

Me: While all of this is going on, I’m also thinking about not exceeding my 15 MPH cab signal speed, which has shut me down at 14mph before.

Instructor: You’re only going 11… your cab signal is going to upgrade right up there. We need to get going to the full cab signal speed or we’ll never make the schedule.”

Me: As we move through the many crossings on this south end of our alignment at progressively increasing speed, I’ve got to turn on the bell for each crossing, and then off again. The Locomotive is so noisy, especially while accelerating, that I can’t hear if the bell is actually on. Meanwhile, each time the cab signals upgrade with it’s associated “Beeps” from 15 to 30, then to 45 or 60, and finally to 79, I need to quickly speed up to those speeds. My instructor wants to hear the “happy” slower beeps. These beeps are from the Cab Signal system warning me that if I go any faster, the Penalty Brakes will automatically apply, shutting the train down completely.

My lack of experience makes it difficult to know when those “Happy” slower beeps become “Angry” faster beeps that will stop the train and require me to make the radio call of shame. (This is especially tricky going over the top of a slight ridge in the alignment, thus starting downhill. The Cab Signal alarm can go from “Happy” to “I’m shutting you down fool” before I can adjust my power setting if I’m not anticipating it.)

Me (over the radio): “UTA Train 8 to UTA Warm Springs Control – Over”

Control (over the radio): “UTA Warm Springs Control – Over”

Me (over the radio): “Train 8 was shut down with a penalty brake on a 79 Speed. We have recovered and are proceeding – Over.”

Instructor: “DIRECTION AND LOCATION… You have to state your direction and location!”

It’s stressful enough to go shooting down the rails, chasing the Cab Signal beeps, approaching grade crossings (Bell on), knowing if someone pulls in front of me, I won’t be able to stop (Bell off). Shooting around blind corners at 79 miles an hour, hoping there are no trespassers to surprise. All while the intensity of the Cab Signal alarm beeping in my ears is increasing my internal stress. But for me, making proper station stops caused my tightest lock-jaw death grip against my former wisdom teeth.

Since we have to begin slowing so far in advance of the station, landmarks are used to know when to begin slowing. At additional landmarks, speed is checked to ensure that I am on track for a proper station stop. It all sounds easy, but my hang up was keeping it all straight. Before I knew the entire rail alignment by heart, many of what we would use as a landmark to “Set Air” to begin the mile long breaking process would look like many other “Non-landmarks”. For example, I could easily confuse a power pole or a highway overpass that is our landmark location to set air with many other power poles or highway overpasses that were not landmark locations. So as I wiz past a distinct pole along the alignment at 79 miles an hour, I’d wonder, “Is that my spot to set air? Isn’t it too soon? Or did I pass it already? Am I now going to blow past the station? That was S-T-R-E-S-S-F-U-L. There are 16 Stations, 14 of which I needed to learn landmarks to approach from two directions. Plus there are several non-station slow-downs for curves that could have an even bigger potential for disaster than just blowing past a station.

Instructor: “You’d better give it a little more air or you’ll miss the stop. This station is downhill.

Me: I increase the pressure on the air brakes while fretting about where exactly I need to bring the train to a stop so that passenger doors line up with the marks on the platform.

Instructor: “Not too much, now you’re going to stop short!”

Me: I back off on my break pressure.

Instructor: “Release the brakes completely. You’re stopping too soon.”

Me: I release the brakes completely and begin notching up the power to get the train moving again.

Instructor: “Not too much! Now you’re going to miss your stop.”

Me: I swing the brake valve handle into “Full Service” and then watch in humiliation as the train ignores my feeble command and cruses passed the door locations painted on the station platform, along with all the people who were expecting to board the train. The train eventually stops about 50 feet beyond the intended marks.

Instructor: “You used up all your air with all those releases and applies. Look, your Dynamics didn’t kick in because you weren’t in Idle. You’re still in Notch 1. Come on, go to Idle, center your reverser, and apply the independent brake. ‘Set and Center’ and make an announcement to your passengers before you enable the doors. Then you need to call control. Hurry up! Oh, and your bell is still on.”
Me: Now frustrated and fumbling, I complete the process to “Set and Center” and key up the PA system. “Ladies and Gentlemen, may I have your attention please? Please watch your step as you… I fumble for words.

Instructor: “Exit the train…”

Me: “… As you exit the train.” (This announcement is needed because our platforms are split leveled to accommodate the two different styled passenger cars within our consist. Some passengers stepping off the train will now have an unexpected deep step down.)
I then make the other radio call of shame (besides the Cab Signal System shutting down the train for going too fast).

Me: “UTA Train 8 at Lehi Station to UTA Warm Springs Control. – Over”

UTA Warm Springs Control Room (over the radio): UTA Warm Springs Control. – Over”

Me: “Train 8 stopped one door long. – Over”

UTA Warm Springs Control Room (over the radio): “Did you make an announcement? – Over”

Me: “affirmative – Over”

UTA Warm Springs Control Room (over the radio): “Copy… Control out.”

Training in the dark.

Just when I thought I was getting my bearings straight and could do everything right, I was quickly humbled once again with my first experience of operating at night… well actually in this case it was at 4:00am, but visually it was the same difference.

Nothing on the alignment looked the same. All my reference points of where I needed to speed up or slow down seemed to be gone. I was once again unsure of where the “At grade crossings” were. And inside the Locomotive itself, I once again lost my way around the controls panels. I fumbled in the dark to turn the bell on or off.

When I try to “Notch up” the power, my wrong hand activates the Air Brakes instead.

Instructor: “What are you doing?”

Me: “Sorry”

Instructor: “Dim your lights for that train.”

While fumbling in the dark over the side control panel for the correct switch, I’m also looking up ahead trying to see the train he is referring to. The rail alignment ahead is splattered with various lights shining back at me. I can see street and yard lights, headlights from the interstate beside us, and lights on building and other structures up ahead. But I don’t see the familiar four light pattern and resembles a triangle with it’s top chopped off that I’m looking for.

Instructor: “See! It’s right there.” (He points off to the distant near-left.)

Me: The Train had already dimmed his lights for me. So now it looked just like the many industrial yard lights that spatter the sides of the alignment. I wonder how he even picked out that relatively dim light as an oncoming train, I couldn’t fathom. As I twisted the switch two loud clicks counter-clockwise to dim, my new stress was trying to remember how soon I would need to switch back to full bright for the next crossing. If I missed this, it was a DE-certifiable offense… one of the 6 deadly sins that can get my license revoked.

UTA Warm Springs Control Room (over the radio): “UTA Warm Springs Control to Train 4. – Over”

Me (over the radio): “UTA Train 4 northbound at… (long pause while I try to figure out where I’m at.)

Instructor: “North 5.5”

Me (over the radio): “At North 5.5 – Over.”

UTA Warm Springs Control Room (over the radio): “Train 4, UP is in Emergency Stop at North 5.5 – Over.”

Just as this information is coming over the radio we come upon the Union Pacific train on the rail beside us. (The one I had just dimmed my lights for.) My brain is now going into over speed trying to remember all the G-COR rules suddenly in play.

• Sound “Men and Equipment” warning sequence on the train horn.
• If a train is reported in emergency on an adjoining track proceed at ??? Is it restricted speed?
• The long UP train in emergency stop may be de-railed because of the excessive slack action caused in emergency braking with their long consist.

Instructor: “Remember the rules? We’re the first train through, so we move at restricted speed and inspect the train in emergency.”

The instructor quickly pushed me out of the Engineer’s seat and took over as we now proceeded to move along at 20 MPH, looking for men or equipment, or any of a whole list of things that would require us to stop for. All the while, sounding the “Men and Equipment” horn sequence. At the end of the train inspection, my instructor made the call back to Warm Springs Control to report the condition so they could continue with the established protocol of dealing with “a train in emergency”. I knew that there were additional rules for how fast the second train through could go, and what he should be doing. I would need to review this part of my G-COR training. Out here in the real world, I needed to know all of this stuff by heart in the heat of battle.

There were many more “firsts” in my training. In time even these additional “first time experiences” seemed routine as my confidence increased.

So at the beginning of my training, I was totally dependent on my Instructor to know what to do and where to do it. But just like my other children that I’ve taught to drive cars, and as will happen with Julianna soon enough, before my mandatory training hours were completed, I could easily do all these things that at first seemed so hard. And I wished that the trainer would just go to sleep and let me drive the train.

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