A Little Bit of Everyone

I’ve just completed another stint as the driving instructor for a new batch of FrontRunner engineers. Since the beginning of this year, this is the third time around, training members of a group of duly licensed student engineers, each class for about 6 weeks. It shows how little a chance I’ve had to drive my own train in 2019.

Another group is now working through their classroom portion of training, ensuring that I won’t be alone for long. But for now, I’m left with my own thoughts as I help move passengers up and  down Utah’s Wasatch front.

The first time I rode in a locomotive was after I had almost completed my own classroom portion of the training. That morning, we’d just successfully finish one of the big tests, and so for the afternoon session, the training department finally allowed us a real peak of what we were getting into.

At the closest station, three of us students piled into the cab of the locomotive, and a quick introduction was made. Keyleigh, engineer 7451, wasn’t expecting the “ride along” any more than we were, but she is a “people person” and comfortably chatted with my fellow students, Jeremy and Stew, who had quickly taken the front and center positions around her, as she guided the train northbound.

From my more conservative position, standing behind the others, and also with the surprisingly loud noise and rattle of the locomotive roaring 79 miles an hour down the track, I couldn’t hear much as she described what she was doing and why, as the train proceeded smoothly, yet quickly along from station to station. So I didn’t hear the context of one comment, yet the part I heard made me smile. “I can usually beat the other train to the meets.”

That was the only time I ever watched Keyleigh drive a train, but a little piece of her rubbed off on me that day. My latent competitiveness awakened, and though I’d never yet driven a train, I now wanted to beat the other train to the “meets”.  That little bit of Keyliegh is still in me.

My first time ever actually driving the train was in our railroad yard, with a speed limit of 10 mph. My brand new student license was still warm from the laminator and I had been rehearsed and drilled on the mortal sin of exceeding the speed limit by even just 1 or 2 mph.

Train engineer Rob (6473), who was authorized as an instructor, watched me closely. “I see you are watching your speed very closely. That’s good, but you need to look up too. You need to keep an eye on everything around as well.”

MJ (1089) my first instructor out on the mainline also enforced this. “You need to be in the habit of constantly looking around. Scan the whole landscape.”

Here’s a little secret for everyone out there on our alignment. Yes, we can spot a trespasser a lot quicker than they think we can, but we also see a lot more then you think we see. We have everything along our alignment, that is within sight, committed to memory. This is a natural result of 100’s and then 1000’s of times we go up and down the same 88 miles of rails. So if there’s a pallet leaned up against that fence that wasn’t there before, I know someone has used it as a ladder to enter our alignment. And that backpack that wasn’t hiding behind those bushes yesterday tells me someone has set up camp where they think they are out of sight and mind, so I know there’s another trespasser wandering around next to our rails.” We frequently make radio calls such as, “Control, there is a small hole in the chained-linked fence, on the east side, at mile-post south 4.5 that wasn’t there yesterday.”

MJ taught me a lot besides making it a habit to always scan the alignment for anything out of place. It was from her that I first learned about what you need to do so the train can make a feathered stop. This is something we all do when driving cars, but in cars it’s a lot easier and so we don’t even realize we’re doing it.

The next time you come to a stoplight, don’t back off on the brake pedal, as you normally do. Right at the end of the stop, that whiplash you get is the result of NOT properly feathering your brakes out at the end of the stop.

When driving a train, it’s a lot trickier to it get right. That’s because there’s a time delay between setting and releasing the brakes and when they respond. Then once you back off the brakes, if you’ve misjudged your timing and are forced to go back into it to actually bring the train to a stop, you will now go past the correct mark on the platform while causing a very jerky “slack action bang” stop. To make it even more difficult to teach, and to get right, because of the weight of the heavy locomotive, the engineer can’t really feel the slack action jerking and banging that the passengers feel.

Now when teaching my own student engineers, I call the perfectly timed feathered stops, “M.J. Stops”.

Back in my first few weeks with my own instructors, I fumbled and struggled like you would expect. The whole time my instructor’s voice was ringing in my ears. While fumbling in the 4:00am darkness of the locomotive cab, Francis (4151) barked, “You need to know your cab… where things are… even in the dark.”

He also transformed my “book learning” into muscle memory and practical knowledge as I did my “walk around inspection” before departing the yard, and as I responded the first time to a Union Pacific “train in emergency.”  

Under his tutelage I learned how to glide in more quickly to make fast station stops. He taught me how to respond to a cab signal speed reduction, by releasing the automatic brakes proportionally earlier, depending on how deeply those brakes are set, so we can continue at the new required speed instead of dropping too far below that speed.

He also gave me a quick practical lesson in using the independent dynamic brake system, which is somewhat comparable to the semi-truck’s “Jake Brake”.

Mike (3114) was my instructor for just a few hours, but the lessons I learned I still use daily, and now teach my own students.

He masterfully taught smooth “split service braking” coming into a station. “Make a minimum set a little earlier so they can take up the slack action before you go in deeper… See how the dynamics are now working… So you can now go in a little deeper with the automatic brake… Think of your grandmother coming down the stairs from the upper-level of the train to get off at this stop. You don’t want her to fall down the stairs with a slack-action jerk.” Combined with what MJ had earlier taught me, I was finally able to start making nice stops. In fact, Mike was the one who taught me to call those smooth stops, “M.J. stops”.

Mike also taught me little tricks to make up the “lost time” spent making those “Grandma injury-free stops”. “The island circuits that ‘call the gates’, activate earlier if the train is moving faster. So you want to get your train moving to a faster speed as quickly as you can. Then you need to back off so you don’t over run the gates before they lock down.”

Mike taught the concept that everything I do with the train is time-delayed. “You need to brake before you need the brakes to work, and you need to ‘notch-up’ (accelerate) before you need more power. You have to learn to drive the train a half a mile ahead and behind you.”

Instructor Sam (7198) also taught me how to finesse the brakes in controlling downhill speeds. “Just do a minimum set for about 2 seconds. That will be just enough. If you wait until you can feel the brakes, you’ve set too much, and you’ll end up slowing more than you want to.”

Sam also taught me the useful hack of killing-off the dynamic braking, which tends to hold on after the air brakes release. This causes over-slowing and a bit of a bumpy braking transition due to the slack-action between the coach cars. “Just take a ‘notch’ as soon as you release the brakes.” I learned that “taking that notch into power” would cause the dynamic brakes to drop off evenly along with the air brakes.

A few years ago, I wrote a whole blog on how Sam taught me to “ride the beeps”, which has become my favorite way to maintain maximum authorized speed. (See my blog “Quick Like a Fox”)

I loved listening to Ananda (5976) telling me of his experience watching young boys in India, who were hired to hang out on the locomotive and sand the rails for traction while those old trains climbed steep mountain grades. He told me about this while showing me how I could push a button to drop a little extra sand on wet slick spots while our train was accelerating.

If you ride our trains, you can still hear Ananda’s smooth Sri Lankan/British accent. It’s his voice that makes certain passenger safety announcements.

Back then, I gleaned many other little tidbits, which are now in my own “training tool box.” I drove under Mark (3418) only once for about 2 hours, but his voice is echoed in mine constantly as I teach the up and down grades of the alignment. “Through this stretch, I find that between notch 4 and 5 works well.” I now use this teaching tool constantly when teaching my own students how to maintain maximum authorized speed through the ups and downs of the alignment.

Keller (7341) gave the words of wisdom, “Generally, if you take care of your cab signals, they’ll take care of you.” I now use his words, while teaching my own students, and then follow up with focus and emphasis on where the few exceptions to that statement can be found.   

Bob (7126) was a master at efficient work in our railroad yard, with assembling train consists, and moving trains around, along with throwing all the switches that are needed to do this work. My “Checkers and Chess” story reflects what I learn from him.

Kindly recognizing that my verbal skills are even more dismal than my writing skill, he also helped me better verbalize my radio calls. “You need to think through what you’re going to say before you key up the mic.”

Derrick (5425), an all-around train enthusiast, gave me a peek into how our commuter rail interfaces with our railroad neighbors, Union Pacific, and their local freight system. Full of trivia, he  helped me remember the strangely numbered Intermodal 7 signal, by telling me his theory of why it is named I-7 instead of I-1. I now repeat his theory as I help my own students remember to call it I-7.

These many bits of knowledge, along with many more, are in me as I drive and teach others to drive FrontRunner trains up and down the alignment.

As I have worked to continuously improve my train driving skills, I’ve discovered some of my own tricks along the way. Likely, other Engineers have already perfected and use these refinements daily, but they weren’t around to pass along these skills along to me, so I’ve had to learn them on my own.

I’m enjoying this small break from teaching others, while I continue working on honing my own skills. Just this week I figured out another new train handling trick to slip up my sleeve. I am very aware that when it comes to skillfully driving my train, I’m a little bit of everyone, and just maybe, before I’m done playing on this big-ole train set, Ron (8050) will even leave a little bit of me in some of my students.

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