Friday, 25 November 2016

EMD F40PH- Powering America

Metra is the largest operator of the F40PH in the USA with the type working on most of its commuter routes out of Chicago. #115 is seen heading out of town at the CP Morgan crossing shortly after leaving from Chicago Union Station.

Built from 1975 until 1992 the General Motors Electro-Motive Division F40PH was once the mainstay of long distance routes across the USA with Amtrak. While the type was withdrawn from Amtrak service in the 1990's the locomotives are still in use crossing Canada with Via Rail and can be found on many commuter railroads across the USA.

For me personally the F40PH is what an American locomotive *should* look like. The locos have a clean, powerful and stylish look and I have always liked them. It is perhaps therefore not coincidental that on my recent trip to the States many of the cities visited had commuter rail operations with F40PH power. Below are a few of the locations where I was able to catch up with these American railroad icons:

New Jersey Transit/Metro-North-
4914, one of the Metro-North F40PH fleet approaches Secausucs Junction in New Jersey with a train believed to be heading towards Port Jervis.

NJT's own F40PH's are now confined to the history books having been replaced by more modern diesel and bi-modal locomotives from Alstom and Bombadier. However the locomotives have not disappeared from NJT metals entirely as a limited number are owned by Metro-North Railroad for their West of Hudson operations (sub-contracted to NJT). The small fleet of locomotives have recently been re-painted and look very smart. Most typically they can be found working trains on the Port Jervis line from Hoboken Terminal.

A 'squashed' F40PHM at La Salle St waiting to work an off-peak service to Joilette.
The majority of the Metra locomotive fleet is made up of F40PH-2 and the slightly less common looking F40PHM-2 locomotives which differ in appearance with a squashed front missing the characteristic 'nose'. The locomotives can be found on all of Metra's diesel routes originating from Chicago Union, La Salle St and the Ogilvie Transit Centre. Metra operates a very intensive peak service and a large number of locomotives can be seen in a short space of time. Discounted day tickets are available at weekends when a less intensive service operates. All locomotives are currently in Metra's blue livery however over the next 4 years 42 of the fleet are to be overhauled and painted into the newer livery sported by the MP36PH and ex-GO Transit F59PH locos.

Grand Canyon Railway-
237 and 295 rest between duties at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Both locomotives are ex-Amtrak and are working hard in their 'retirement'
A rather different operation to the commuter railroads of North America the Grand Canyon Railway operates up to two trains each way per day between Williams, AZ and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The majority of the railroads fleet is made up of ex-Amtrak F40PH's which provide reliable and efficient power for its tourist trains.

NPCU 90229 is seen at the rear of a Pacific Surfliner as it skirts the beach at San Clemente, CA.
Despite dispensing with the F40PH as motive power in the 1990's in favour or the GE Genesis series locos the class has retained a purpose with Amtrak. 22 locomotives were converted to Non-Powered Control Units (NPCU's) to enable push-pull working of Amtrak trains. These vehicles had their engines removed and large roller doors fitted to allow their former engine space to be used for luggage. NPCU's can be seen on various Amtrak routes including the Hiawatha (Chicago to Milwaukee) and some Pacific Surfliner services in California. 

One of the most scenic sections of the Coaster route is at Del Mar where trains run high above the beach and Pacific ocean below. 2103 is seen heading northbound with a late afternoon service to Oceanside.
One of the most scenic routes one can travel behind the F40PH's is undoubtedly the 'Coaster' which runs much of its route along the Pacific shore from Oceanside to San Diego in California. F40PH's make up the mainstay of the fleet running with Bombadier Bi-Levels.

Altamont Commuter Express-
Unusually 3102 and 3103 double head the final arrival of the morning into San Jose, seen here crossing the salt marshes at Alviso.

Typical of the North American commuter routes which offer only a limited service the ACE runs just 4 trains each weekday in each direction between Stockton and San Jose. The entire fleet is composed of F40PH locomotives which operate with Bombadier Bi-Level coaches.

911 approaches South San Francisco with an afternoon service to San Jose Diridon.

Another large operator of F40PH locomotives is CalTrain which runs the busy route from San Jose to San Francisco. Regular trains run throughout the day seven days a week and there are exciting plans to develop the line with funding secured for full electrification and new trains. F40PH locomotives work most trains along with MP36PH locomotives which additionally working limited stop 'Baby Bullet' services. In July 2016 contracts were signed for the modernisation of the line with Balfour Beatty providing electrification works and Stadler to provide new EMU's which will offer a step change in the service and likely the end of the F40PH's on this route.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Across America with Amtrak - Part 4 - One more night on the Southwest Chief

Our final night on the train begins in the lobby of the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel (for it is the railway which provides the bus). We already know that the Southwest Chief is running late as James tracked its progress on WiFi over dinner. Indeed I have two email alerts on my phone detailing the increasing delay to Amtrak's train #3. We suspect this means that the bus from Willimas will run late also but neither of us are confident enough to order another cherry cola in the route 66 diner where we have eaten.

'Route 66' roughly parallels the Southwest Cheif and is very
much in evidence in the town of Williams. 
We are correct- staff on the desk let us know that we have 'time for at least one drink' in the 'pub' attached to the hotel. To tell the truth we are both stuffed from dinner so instead wait it out on the comfy chairs in the lobby. About an hour later than planned Clay the driver turns up with the peeling minibus and the four passengers (ourselves included) set off into the darkness to Williams Junction. Not even the singular station light is illuminated to greed us and with just the minibus providing light the night sky is perfect for stargazing- it is cold though! Within moments lights appear down the track and I comment to Clay on the precision of his timing, 'Oh no- this is just a freight train' he replies. 'The train has been further delayed.' 'Is it often on time?' I question. 'No' is the simple answer. 100% of our Amtrak trains have been late so far and with our final one 90 minutes down before we have boarded this figure is unlikely to improve. The large black lady sitting opposite me warns her husband not to stand out in the cold 'You will catch flu'- I feel this is slight over-reaction but they are obviously not used to the chilly temperatures being from Southern California. Every time I see lights approaching I walk out hopefully to the platform and several times I am greeted by the roar of a huge freight train thundering past- Up to five locomotives motor up the grade pulling their payload of over 100 wagons stacked with containers two high. After the train passes silence returns to this dark clearing in the forest somewhere in Arizona.

Eventually a different pattern of lights appears on the horizon, the station light is switched on and the Southwest Chief pulls into view. I half expect to see Philip waiting for us at the door but it is of course a new attendant. He shows us to our roomette and informs us that breakfast is served from 0500. That is terribly early given that it is now almost midnight but he doesn't know when the last sitting will be because of the delay. We set the alarm for 06:30 and I give up on the idea of a shower tonight. I enquire about the delay and the attendant informs me that it was due to police attending the train to remove a passenger at Albuquerque and then getting stuck behind a freight which had 'killed it'.
Breakfast is enjoyed as we traverse the Cajun Pass. BNSF's GE ES44C4 #7063 is seen climbing one of the tracks through the mountains with a long intermodal train. This section would have been in darkness were it not for our 90 minute delay.

I could have slept worse but am already semi-awake when my alarm sounds. Looking out of the window I can already tell it is warm. I elect to pop down to the diner to find out what the deal is with breakfast and return with the good news that we can snooze for another hour. When we do go go down to breakfast the train is traversing the Cajun Pass, a busy stretch of railway through the mountains which surround LA. The landscape here is very dry and has been tarnished by the devastating Blue Cut Forest Fire which had ravaged the area just months earlier. Several passengers we had spoken to talked of drought in California and the fact that there had not been significant rainfall for 5 years. I elect to have the omelette which is one of just a couple of options still available. There is much discussion about yesterday's delay. It turns out that it was our rather camp waiter who called the police to the train as there was a drunk making threatening remarks towards staff and passengers. The story goes that when he was refused travel he clung on to the train and they had to call the police- who evidently were in no hurry. This was the third person the dining attendant had had to remove from the train this week! Other passengers who had seen the unruly man expressed their thanks that he was not permitted on board, 'anything could have happened'.

Journeys end for the Southwest Chief- LA Union Station a mere
2265 miles from Chicago.
With the diner closing and the observation lounge also shut 'to prepare for our arrival in LA' -(what do you have to do to prepare some seats for arrival that takes over an hour?) we have no option but to return to our room. With a little while still to go and the scenery of the mountains now behind us I elect to have that shower that I abandoned the night before- for the novelty as much as anything. I had never taken a shower on a train before! It was pleasant actually- warm and quite frankly better than the fairly poor facilities at the cheap hotels we had stayed in so far. Feeling refreshed I headed back to the roomette for the view of the low relief cityscape as we made our final approach to LA Union station. Los Angeles had been described to us as a group of suburbs looking for a city, and I can't disagree as we passed towns of San Bernadino and Fullerton. Somehow we had made up 45 minutes of time in the last 45 minutes of the schedule, quite how I do not know, but being just 45 minutes late seemed pretty good going.

So that was it. Coast to coast with Amtrak completing and as I often find on these long journeys I had surprised myself with how little of my magazines I had read and how my i-pod had remained largely untouched.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Tragedy in Croydon- Fatal Tramlink derailment

It was a dark, cold and wet morning on November 9th when a tram from New Addington to Wimbledon derailed killing at least 7 passengers and injuring more than 50 more near Sandilands. The vehicle involved was one of the original Bombadier built CR 4000 fleet number 2551.

A Croydon tram on the streets in the town centre.
When you get up in the morning and begin your journey to work, school, or wherever you are heading the last thing on your mind is probably whether or not you will make it (Especially with the result of the controversial US election having recently been announced)- unfortunately for passengers on the 05:55 tram this morning (9th November 2016) from New Addington to Wimbledon, their journey came to an abrupt end shortly before Sandilands station when the tram derailed killing at least 7 passengers and injuring many more.
This is the first fatal accident on London Tramlink in its 16 year history and the first fatal tram accident involving a passenger since 1959. Furthermore today's accident brings to an end almost 10 years in which no passengers have been killed on board a rail vehicle in the UK- the last fatal incident being the derailment of a Virgin Trains service near Greyrigg which killed one in 2007.
Today's derailment is the worst loss of live since a Great Western HST struck a car on a level crossing at Ufton Nervet in Berkshire in 2004.
A google map showing the derailment site on a sharp curve.
Britain should still be proud of it's almost unrivaled rail safety record but today's derailment is a reminder that safety must continue to be at the forefront of all that we do. Two independent investigations have already begun into the cause of today's derailment, by both the Police and the Rail Accident Investigation Branch. Initial suggestions have centered around the suggestion that the tram may have been travelling too fast around a bend between Sandilands tunnel and Sandilands station. At this point the track negotiates a sharp 90 degree turn with a maximum speed of 12mph. There has been some suggestion that the tram may have been greatly exceeding this speed (the top speed on Tramlink is 50mph). Rail conditions may also have been a factor in the accident- almost half of the typical rainfall for the whole month of November had fallen overnight, and the line at this point has heavy tree cover. The problem of leaves on the line is common at this time of the year, with leaves squashed into a slippery paste which can cause trains to slip and make their brakes ineffective.

Whether these factors played a part we do not yet know and must wait for the full RAIB report.

Thoughts go out to all those who set out this morning and did not complete their journey.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Across America with Amtrak - Part 3 - The Southwest Chief

Not our train, but a similar long distance Amtrak Superliner service departs from Union Station beneath the Chicago skyline.
James had made a rookie error at the hostel breakfast in choosing a table which was far bigger than the two of us needed. I returned from collecting my second croissant to find him sitting bolt upright surrounded by no fewer than five teenage German girls who had taken up residence at our table. We had until 3pm to board the Southwest Chief for the next leg of our journey to Williams (for the Grand Canyon) so headed out in to the gloomy day to get a better feeling for Chicago. A racing walk along the shore of lake Michigan followed by a cruise of the cities rivers filled the time nicely, and following a final walk through the city via a bit of clothes shopping and a Seven Eleven hot dog it was time to pick up our bags and head for the station.

Some hours before departure train #3
The Southwest Chief is on the boards.
No taxi ride this time but somehow events still construed to make time very tight whenever I have a long distance connection. This time it was a long queue at the hostel reception to pick up our bags followed by a slight worry at the 'L' station- a train in the platform with its door shut, a green signal, but going nowhere. People on the platform looked confused and while we were only going 3 stops we did not need this delay now! The train did get moving quite quickly and we arrived at Chicago Union in time for our train. We had almost 15 minutes in fact before departure (you are supposed to leave 30) and having found Amtrak staff at our platform announced that we were intending to pop upstairs to grab some food. 'The door will shut at 14:55 Sir!' the steward said somewhat taken aback by our proposition. We knew we could visit 'Dunkin Dognuts' in less than the 11 minutes we had and fortunately we were right. 'That was quick' the steward responded as we joined the other passengers making their way onto the train from the Amtrak lounge.

As the train begins its journey west there is one final view of the Chicago skyline from the right hand side of the train before we brace our selves for 'Prairie Day'. Before entering the prairies there is time for our first delay of the trip- only 13 minutes, caused by a Metra commuter train performing 'station work' in our path.

Philip welcomes passengers aboard.
We are settled into our Superliner Roomette by our attendant Phillip, when he can get a word in between Jean in the cafe car who is making a loud and seemingly endless announcement about how she will be running the cafe and train policies. Philip shows us the features of the room- light switches, power points, AC and the PA volume switch to 'shut her up'. We meet our nearest roomette neighbour, a well dressed lady who is approaching elderly but is clearly still very active. She has the look of a lady who was clearly very glamorous in her day but whom age appears to have fixed a permanent frown upon her face. She informs us that she is LA bound and after welcoming us aboard the 'slow train' reminds us that the best feature of the train is that you can shut the door- and she promptly does 'Goodbye'. Was it something we said or were we simply being too noisy?

After booking our slot in the dining car for dinner it is time to explore my favourite part of the train, the lounge car. The coach features comfortable seats around tables at one end with the remainder of the car formed of seating in on es and twos which face out of large floor to ceiling windows. Freight trains and ranches pass by as we continue our journey at a good speed across the prairies of Illinois.

Why fly when you can enjoy a comfortable seat and amazing views from the Superliner Sightseeing Lounge?

Dinner in the diner- one of the pleasures of an Amtrak trip.
Shortly after we are called to the diner by our host Kimberley we cross the mighty Mississippi River into Missouri. We meet our dinner companions for the night (Smaller groups will be put together around tables of 4). This couple are travelling through to Albuquerque as the husband won't fly- the trip is to see a relative and they make it several times a year on Amtrak rather than spending close to two days on the road. I order the seafood special- crab fishcakes as I've yet to have anything fishy since landing in the US. The fishcakes are very tasty and are washed down nicely with an exuberant glass of wine (non-alcoholic drinks and meals are included in the fare for sleeper passengers). My only criticism of the Amtrak diner is the insistence on using plastic tableware- much of it is clearly re-used, so, Amtrak, could we please have some china? A glass glass would be nice also as there is always a dissatisfied feeling at being served a 1/2 bottle of wine in a plastic cup- particularly when you are paying $16 for it!

Having studied the schedule for the train we decided that the long layover in an hour of two at Kansas City is worth staying up for. The train is on time when we arrive here and there is amble time to walk to the front of the train for a look at the engines. Quite a lot of passengers change here and once we depart after 22:00 it is time to ask Philip to lower the bunks to convert our seats into beds. This time I have drawn the short straw and have the far less comfortable upper bunk- my sleep will suffer as a result.

A pause in Kansas City- 120 and 837 prepare to head train #3 through the night.
It is an earlier wake up call than I would like from Kimberley in the diner who informs passengers that the breakfast service (open from 05:30) is now full and anyone else wanting breakfast should give their names to be called when space is available. Kimberley couldn't advise how long the wait would be but did agree that getting up properly would be a good plan.

It isn't long before 'James, party of two' is broadcast by Kimberly across the train. Our breakfast companions are Stephen and Rebecca- who has just returned to the US from a vacation to London to see her son in Islington (small world). Stephen comments on how they had picked up our English accents passing through the train and had hoped to be paired with us for a meal, and 'here we are'. I am again thwarted in my efforts to order French Toast for breakfast as it appears the train is part way through a menu change and it has been replaced by pancakes. 'French Toast that is really Pancakes' however is very good, as is the breakfast conversation. Stephen and Rebecca are well travelled themselves and as it happens met in London as students. Like us they see the train as part of their holiday and like to take a long Amtrak trip once a year. We discuss journeys we would like to make when Kimberley kindly reminds us that the table is required by more guests waiting for their breakfast. We retire to the lounge car to continue the conversation.

A pause for a leg stretch at La Junta, CO
Our first opportunity to step off the train since Kansas City last night is a brief smoking/leg stretching stop at La Junta, Colorado. The brief relief from the train is welcome though there isn't time to stray from the platform. Back on board the scenery becomes more varied and interesting and there is precious little time to be bored as we cross the Santa Fe Railroad's Raton Pass, including the only tunnel on the route and the highest elevation of our journey as we cross into New Mexico. The sightseeing lounge has now become busier and although seats are now at a premium there is room for everyone who wants one. Passengers from all classes and parts of the train are welcome here and this morning we have gained an interesting character- a tall black Afro-American man who must be in at least his 60's. He wears a cap, carries a stick and despite his mouth full of gold fillings is clearly high on life, singing to the coach 'You know 'ts going to be, a lovely day!' He seems blissfully unaware, or blind, to the fact that the seats near to him quickly vacate. He claims to be a comedian heading to LA, but I and others seem unconvinced. More likely from his loud and unprovoked proclamations 'I've had my Snap , Crackle & Pop', and 'Tony the Tiger ain't got nothing on me!' is that he is perhaps some sort of ambassador for Kellogs?
Watching the Colorado scenery from the lounge car.

The Santa Fe Raton Pass provides stunning morning scenery.
Still full from breakfast (you are kept well fed on Amtrak) we opt for one of the later lunch sittings at 1:30pm. One of our companions is the lady from across the corridor who had initially seemed somewhat cold to us. She sees pleased to be sharing a table with her neighbours so perhaps we hadn't made such a bad first impression after all? While the lunch options are slightly limited (my first choice of both main and desert has run out) the conversation is flowing well. The usual topics are discussed; 'Why are you taking the train?', 'Why wouldn't I want to see this view' is the response. The UK's Brexit and the currently looming US Presidential election are also discussed. Everyone we have so far spoken to has been open minded and fearful of what a Trump vote could mean- even Kimberley in the diner hints that she feels problems could be around the corner if a certain candidate gets the vote- she can't say it loudly thought as the group on the table behind us have been proudly wearing their 'Pumped for Trump' badges for the whole trip. Just an observation, but they didn't seem to be making as many friends on the train as some of the other groups. Frances, as she has now introduced herself bids us farewell and thanks us for the great company- I think we have established ourselves as friends now.

Albuquerque is our major stop for the afternoon and although the train is running some 40 minutes behind schedule due to 'Signalling Problems', how familiar that sounds, we still need a good 35 minutes here for a crew stop and for the train to be serviced - This includes a fuel top up for the locomotives from a road tanker as well as trash collection and a chance to clean the windows. For the passengers it is also a chance to re-fuel from the somewhat underwhelming station cafe, or to peruse through the offerings of several stalls on the platforms which are selling local crafts. Of course I don't need any of this tat and a Mexican hat is unlikely to travel well in my bursting suitcase anyway. Despite this I am relieved of $27 which I have spent on soap. I seem to have a weakness for buying soap as this isn't the first time this has happened. Maybe I should get a t-shirt; 'If you're selling soap, I'm your man.' I chat to Frances on the platform who is thriving among the craft stalls, though I see she hasn't brought soap-  or anything else for that matter. I also manage to pick up a postcard for home at the station and just before re-boarding I am cornered by the 'Pumped for Trump' ladies who have thus far forgotten to have their picture taken with the train.

New Mexico scenery from the sightseeing lounge.
Back on board the Southwest Chief it is a simple case of whiling away what remains of the afternoon in the sightseeing lounge until we are called by Kimberley into the diner for our final meal sometime after sunset. We arrive to see a somewhat disgruntled student at the far table who seems less than satisfied that this 7:45pm sitting has been delayed- we are left feeling slightly uneasy as we are sat across from him, making no attempt at conversation. Luckily we are soon joined by Bill to make up the full compliment of the table. Bill is chatty and inquisitive and after a while we do get Joshua to relax and join in the conversation. he is studying education at university in New Mexico and doesn't appear to be enjoying this- or the train ride. 'I'm not travelling with Amtrak again- this is terrible customer service.' I feel that possibly he has missed how hard the dining cars staff of two have been working all day to get everyone who wants a meal in up to five sittings per meal. As we order my mind is set more at ease as the beef steak I had been looking forward to is not sold out unlike some other options. I order it medium-rare and must say that it is delicious. Consider that a recommendation if you are on Amtrak any time soon. Joshua even enjoys his steak and concedes that he is glad to have ordered it 'medium-well' rather than 'well done', or 'burnt' as Kimberley described it. Conversation moves on to the state of rail travel in America and in particular the current plans for high speed trains in California. It isn't going to come cheap but all agree it would be a great step forward for the state which is one of the top 5 most populated areas of the world, yet has gridlocked roads and precious little public transport infrastructure.

Our train has been alone for much of the day, but by late afternoon the
landscape is littered with lengthy freight trains of the BNSF.
Our final destination on this leg of the train is Williams Junction, a short throughway bus connection from Williams and the Grand Canyon Railway. We should be approaching by now but with our delay there is a good hour and a half to spend in our room after dinner. It is a good opportunity for me to catch up on my notes as it is now dark outside. The train continues to loose yet more time at Flagstaff for no more apparent reason than people taking their time and checked luggage being removed from the train.

Eventually the train slows for Williams Junction from where we will be getting off for our pre-booked bus to Williams itself. I seek reassurance from Philip our car steward that the bus will wait for the delayed train - I already know it will be but it I still feel reassured to know for certain. Frances bids us farewell and best wishes for our trip ahead as we pass in the corridor to collect our bags. Williams Junction turns out to be somewhat of a 'nothing' location from what I can see in the darkness. I'm not even sure if it is a junction- I must check that on Google maps sometime. [edit: I did, and it is.] Indeed the halt here is so diminutive that the train must follow a rather arduous procedure to set down and pick up its passengers; the platform (if you can call the piece of concrete and solitary lamp such a thing) is only long enough for one coach of our train, so each car with passengers for the stop must pull up individually, causing some initial confusion as to why we are not let off when the train first stops. On the second stop Philip opens the door, we bid our farewells and disembark. What awaits is not an air conditioned coach with Amtrak branding as I suspected, but a minibus pulling a luggage trailer. It is actually getting a bit cold so we give our luggage to the driver and take a seat in the somewhat dilapidated bus from which the paper is peeling from the walls. Some passengers are already on board and enquire whether we forgot to get off when the train had first stopped. As we explain, the train draws forward one final time to allow seated passengers off from the rear. With that the Southwest Chief is gone, the station light goes out and our bus is left alone in the darkness of the woodland. The driver, Clay, does a headcount and although we are one short there is no prospect of them arriving now the train has gone so the engine is started. The passenger light is flicked off and we start on the gravel road for Williams. The 10 minute journey is a rather un-glamorous end to our 30 plus hours of travel from Chicago.

Read the final part here.