Kevin Standlee (kevin_standlee) wrote,
Kevin Standlee
kevin_standlee

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Christmas in Oregon

This afternoon, we carried the computer over to my father-in-law's house where the internet connection is and where I'll be working Tuesday-Thursday of this week. Obviously, the connections work. I was able to clear the large amount of spam out of the mailbox. Nothing urgent appears to have come up while I've been out of contact the past two days.

When the Amtrak computer system said that Lisa's train was leaving Oakland, I headed off to San Jose. I later learned from Lisa that she'd tried to telephone me from the trainphone around Emeryville that I should come get her in Oakland, but the call didn't get through to my cell phone -- and my phone never even registered an attempted call.

It was raining so hard that I worried that Lisa would beat me to San Jose. Little did I know how wrong I was. I arrived at San Jose about the time that "Julie," the Amtrak computer, said the train should arrive. No train. No updates from Julie, either. I turned on my railroad-band-capable radio, and a few minutes later heard the dispatcher telling trains heading that way that a car had crashed a grade crossing in Newark and that all train traffic was being held until the signal maintainers could fix things. In fact, train 11, the southbound Coast Starlight was sitting at the platform at Fremont (not normally a stop for this train, which was why I'd gone to San Jose). Had I known this was going to happen, I could have simply waited at Fremont and (Lisa told me later), they would have let her get off the train there. Instead, I waited another hour before they eventually let her train loose and they arrived in San Jose, more than seven hours late. (She did get an extra meal out of this.)

After Lisa arrived and train 11 departed, I rolled my heavy bag into the station and checked it for our northbound departure, scheduled for later that evening. The agent said that train 14, the northbound Starlight, was running about an hour late at that point. Julie-the-computer insisted that the train would only be five minutes late out of San Jose at that point, but the station agent said that the train would almost certainly be at least an hour late. (Julie is an optimist.)

I had carefully arranged our train tickets in the order we would be using them: Fremont-San Jose; San Jose-Salem; Salem-Oakland; Oakland-Fremont. The station agent's eyes crossed, he complained about the tickets being in the wrong order, and he reshuffled them into the order he wanted, putting the Fremont-San Jose leg last and stapling the tickets together to suit him. Sigh. The idea of riding Fremont-San Jose to board a northbound train made no sense to him, so he had to rearrange the tickets so that they started and stopped in San Jose. I held my tongue, as I don't want to antagonize someone who can lose my luggage.

We then went off and bought a present for Lisa's father, and we drove back to Fremont. It's a good thing I didn't chance trying to park at San Jose, as the Amtrak lot was completely full. (While waiting for her, I parked in the Caltrain lot, which is only for day-use parking or monthly Caltrain permit holders -- or Sharks games parking.) Fremont is free and had plenty of spaces. We had enough time to get something to eat -- an hour-late train out of San Jose means the dining car would be closed.

Now for the nerve-wracking part. I had intentionally scheduled a minus-20-minute connection at San Jose, assuming train 547 (the Capitol) would be on time and train 14 would be late. As we waited at Fremont for 547, I watched the real-time display show 547 get several minutes late. Julie-the-computer kept insisting that #14 would be not more than ten minutes late even though it was still more than 50 late at Salinas. If 547 lost much more time, we'd be in trouble.

547 arrived less than five minutes late -- which means there was a good chance it would be on time to San Jose, because there is at least five minutes' padding between Santa Clara/Great America and San Jose. We hopped aboard for the short trip to San Jose and showed our tickets to the conductor. He looked at what we were doing and said, "That may not work! The Starlight leaves before we arrive, you know."

I said, "Number 14 was 50 minutes late out of Salinas."

The conductor relaxed. "Oh, that's okay, then. I used to work that train. There's no way it could make up that much time between Salinas and San Jose."

That made me feel much better, but I still prepared, as we arrived in San Jose, to dash from our arrival platform (4) through the subway to platform 1, the only one long enough to hold the Starlights. To my relief, our train had not yet arrived, but did arrive not too much later. We left San Jose a bit over an hour late.

We were in car 1431, the second of the three sleepers, in compartment 13 -- one of the four roomettes on the lower level. Lisa was a little disappointed because the view on ground level is not as good, but I pointed out that being on the lower level gives us better access to the bathrooms and the shower, and means we don't have the constant through traffic outside our room of people coming and going.

Although the latest repaint job on our car had removed the car name from the exterior, the name was still on the interior doors. We were riding Arkansas, the first production Superliner II sleeper. (There were fifty cars in the Superliner II production run, named after states. The names were supposed to be issued in alphabetical order, but at the last minute they named the first one Arkansas instead of Alabama as a political gesture to then-president Bill Clinton's home state.)

Although the diner was closed, the lounge car with its snack bar was still open, so after settling in to our sleeper and stowing our bags, we headed down to the lounge and bought a small late snack. Although we did have to buy the food (meals are only free to sleeper passengers in the diner, not the snack car), we got free drinks in the Pacific Parlor Car, the special lounge for sleeper passengers that is a feature of this train not present on most Amtrak routes.

Speaking of the Pacific Parlor Car, Lisa had wonderful things to say about the Parlor car attendant on her southbound journey. His name was Richard, and Lisa tipped him $5 for the cheerful mood he set in the parlor car. He brought his own personal sound system complete with microphone (because he can't make announcements to just the parlor car -- if he uses the PA, it's broadcast to the entire train, from the coaches to the dorms). He played low, pleasant music, the kind of background music that still permits conversation. Lisa is now disappointed that we won't be going back on December 31, because Richard will be working that southbound run as well and plans to stay up late -- the parlor car attendant normally goes off-duty at 11 PM -- and hold a New Year's Eve party on board, which sounds like fun to me.

Anyway, by now it was after 11 PM, and we returned to our room around the Oakland Jack London Square stop and turned our room from daytime to nighttime configuration. For those of you who have never ridden this sort of train, this works by folding the two compartment seats down to make a lower bunk, then lowering the upper bunk, which also has stowed in it the bedding for the lower bunk. Lisa did this herself, although you can always have the car attendant do the work. When we boarded, we reassured our attendant that we were veteran rail travelers and he (thankfully) left us alone, recognizing that we knew what we were doing. (We later tipped him $5 for having done so.)

Back in August, Lisa and I took the overnight sleeper train from Glasgow to London Euston after Interaction. The British sleepers have the beds crossways to the direction of travel, with one sleeper compartment wide and the corridor on one side of the train. The Superliners, which are built to the much more generous western North American loading gauge, have two compartments with a center corridor, and the beds are parallel to the direction of travel. Lisa and I always prefer to sleep with our feet pointing in the direction of travel.

Shortly after Martinez, I drifted off to sleep. Lisa took longer, lasting until after Sacramento. Around 4 AM -- continuing to lose time -- I awoke briefly because the train had stopped, making its Chico station stop. I stayed awake long enough to watch my old apartment (which fronted onto the railroad) go by as we continued north, then dropped back off to sleep.

I could easily have slept longer, but breakfast runs from 6 to 9 AM, and I didn't want to miss it, so when I woke up at around 7 AM, south of Dunsmuir, I figured I'd better get up and around. Besides, the earlier you get up, the more likely you are to be able to use the shower (there's only one shower compartment for the use of those of us in the roomettes -- the five full bedrooms upstairs have their own shower/toilet compartments), and indeed, I was able to shower without worrying about someone else impatiently waiting for me outside. Lisa was ready herself soon afterwards, and we headed down to the Parlor car, where we put our name on the waiting list for breakfast. (If you want a meal without waiting, you need to be there when they open at 6 AM.) It was going to be a while, so I asked for a cup of coffee.

"I've just put a new pot on to brew; it will be a few minutes." Lisa had some tea. I should have done so. She got a sweet roll from the free parlor car spread, and we sat down to wait in the parlor car while the train rolled up through the upper Sacramento River, including Cantara Loop, one of the places we've visited on our railfanning expeditions.

The coffee took a long time to brew. Just as the attendant poured me a cup, they called our names for breakfast, and the attendant said he'd take the cup, as they had coffee in the diner already. (I should have held on to my cup, but never mind.)

Breakfast was okay, although I think I will order something other than the Bob Evans Breakfast Scramble when we head back. I should not really eat pancakes, I think -- too many carbohydrates, especially when I add maple syrup to them.

After breakfast, we spent a pleasant morning in the parlor car watching the scenery go by and socializing with other riders. I had my radio with me, so periodically I'd hear track speed indications from the automated lineside detectors and other information about how our trip was going. I commented that we were running just about the right amount of time late, because it meant we were getting good scenery in daylight.

At Klamath Falls, we had a 15-minute service stop while they refilled the train's water tanks, changed crews, and so forth. The on-board-service crew (diner crew and coach/snack bar/parlor/sleeper attendants), stay with the train through its entire trip from Los Angeles to Seattle, but the train crew (locomotive engineer and conductors) may not work more than twelve consecutive hours, by law. We had a new conductor and engineer at Klamath Falls, and apparently the outbound crew didn't discuss the train handling with the new crew, which was going to cause trouble later on. Lisa and I took advantage of the stop to make a couple of brisk laps up and down the platform, walking the length of our 1100-foot train to get some exercise. You can't walk quickly inside the train while it's moving -- the train's motion will not permit it.

We continued to lose time. The train's schedule is based on the listed track speeds, but there were a significant number of long stretches of temporary speed restrictions imposed by Union Pacific. This is annoying. UP needs to get their track repaired, and if they're going to continue to leave the track in slow condition, Amtrak should rework their schedule to take the slower times into account. OTOH, if they did that, they'd have to officially admit that they need another trainset to maintain the schedule, and they simply don't have the equipment to do so.

Beyond Chemult (and after Lisa and I had lunch), we headed into the most serious climb -- or in our case, descent -- of our trip other than the portion climbing up out of Dunsmuir. After we crested Cascade Summit, I heard the engineer radio back to the conductor, "Archie, one of the traction motors on this lead loco is cut out, and the dynamic brakes aren't working. I'm having to make a service brake application to hold 'em back." (The passenger speed limits in this area are in the 25-33 mph range.)

A bit about how trains work here. Modern locomotives are equipped with dynamic brakes, which turn the motors into generators and convert the momentum of the train into heat, slowing down the train. Much of the braking capacity of a modern train is based on being able to hold back the train using dynamic brakes, with the train brakes used only for stopping the train in stations. (This is roughly akin to downshifting an automobile.) The train's brakes are applied by air; however, unlike the brakes in your car, you can't do a "partial release." If you're driving a car down a hill, you can apply the brakes and then let off slightly to let the car speed up slightly. In a train, you can't do this. You can apply the brakes slightly, but you can only release them completely.

A consequence of not being able to use dynamic braking is that in order to keep the train from going too fast, our engineer was effectively "riding the brakes" down Cascade summit. The conductor back at the rear of the train complained that we were starting to smoke the brakes pretty badly, and told the engineer to stop the train as we were passing through a convenient siding. It's a sign of how much downhill momentum we had (and how hot the brakes were) that the engineer did stop us, but we were "fouling the interlocking" -- that is, the front part of our train had gone past the end of the siding, so it was impossible to get a train past us.

(I digress here to point out that we were on the main line, not in the siding itself. The UP main line at this point is single track, with passing sidings every few miles. We'd come to a stop with our train fouling the connection between the siding and the main line.)

The smell of brakes, which had been present for a while, became overpowering. After the train stopped, the engineer cut the power back to the train as he took everything offline so he could troubleshoot. The air in the cars becomes foul pretty fast, and our car attendant opened the window on the left side door, and told me to open the window on the other side. Carefully peering out, we could see a lot of smoke coming off our wheels, as well as those of the baggage car at the head of the train and several other cars.

The conductors (there was at least one lead and one assistant conductor) got off and started inspecting the train. One of them radioed the other and told him to bring the fire extinguisher, although as it turned out this was only a precaution; we had not actually caught fire. After a few minutes, they decided that they were going to need to stop here for a while and let those brakes cool; however, fouling the interlocking as we were, we were apt to tie up the entire railroad. One of the conductors went to the rear of the train while the engineer radioed the dispatcher in Omaha, explained the situation, and obtained permission to do a backup move so that we would be clear of the siding switches. The dispatcher okayed the move and said he'd call the Oakland Amtrak shop and have them contact our train.

With a conductor keeping watch at the rear end, we carefully backed up about ten car lengths, clearing the switch and allowing traffic to go around us if necessary. (As it turned out, there were no conflicting moves in the area after all.) At this point, it was only the air brakes holding us in place, and the engineer asked the conductors to tie down some of the hand brakes so he could release the air and recharge. (You can't recharge the air-brake tank while the brakes are applied.) After the crew had done that, we lurched forward a short distance and stopped again. The engineer radioed back, "You haven't set enough brakes!" and the crew set several more, allowing the air brakes to be released.

Oakland Mechanical came on the line and discussed the situation. The crew that had left the train at Klamath Falls had cut out one of the traction motors (each set of wheels has its own motors, so there are several on each locomotive) and left cryptic notes about the faults that the onboard computer had detected. After listening to this, the Oakland mechanic said, "And the dynamics on the other two locomotives aren't enough to hold you back?"

"We only have two locomotives here," said the engineer, "and no, there's not enough dynamic; we're burning the brakes off here, with a full train and extra cars."

"Hm, it says here you have three locomotives," the mechanic said. "Well, that error you reported is usually transient and will fix itself. Try resetting the error; you may need to go in with the password and override it. If that doesn't work, restart the computer."

Meanwhile, one of the conductors made an simplified announcement about why we were stopped on the mountain, because with the smoky smell of brakeshoes and the train having stopped, backed, bumped forward, and stopped again, speculation was apparently running riot on board. I think they should have made the announcements sooner, but at least they did eventually tell people why we were stopped.

The engineer up front said, a few minutes later, that resetting everything seemed to do the trick, and that he'd call them back if it tripped again. Now the question was how soon could we be on our way.

One of the conductors used a test stick that they used to measure temperatures of axles, and said that the stick continued to melt on some of the wheels, but not the axles. Having given the brakes about thirty minutes to cool, they decided to give it a try. The conductors reboarded, the car attendants closed the windows (I secured our window by direction of our attendant), and we headed on down the hill.

"How are the dynamics?" asked the conductor.

"Humming right along just fine," the engineer reported.

A short distance after we headed out, we passed one of the many automatic defect detectors located on the railroad. These devices measure the temperature of the axles as the train passes and report the train's condition. The detector reported "no defects," so apparently we were not too hot to handle; however, we'd lost more time.

I calculated at this point that we should probably be in Salem (originally scheduled for just after 2 PM) sometime between 6 and 7 PM if we didn't lose more time. The dining car attendant came through asking people for dinner reservations. (Unlike breakfast and lunch, you can reserve a specific time for dinner.) I started to ask for the earliest (5 PM) seating, but was tricked into admitting that we were scheduled for Salem. He said, "You won't have time," and refused to give us a seating. Lisa lambasted me for telling the truth, saying I should have lied and said "Portland" when asked where we were going. The attendant was going off the official schedule, which always assumes the train will never lose any more time and ignores the axiom that "late trains get later," which was about to be proved true again.

Just before 5 PM, we approached Eugene. The train crew had called for paramedics to meet the train, after having earlier asked if there were any doctors or nurses on board. I didn't get the full story on this one, because the conductors switched to a different channel -- one I didn't have programmed into my radio and couldn't find on short notice, there being 96 FRA radio frequencies -- but it appears to me that there was one passenger having some medical difficulties. As we pulled into Eugene, there were indeed paramedics and an ambulance. It appears the medical emergency was in the diner, because the medical crew went there, and the 5 PM dinner seating was delayed. Lisa and I did another lap of the train at this extended stop, where we lost another fifteen minutes as (I think) they eventually removed the distressed passenger through the dining car lower level.

Even with this, it was later clear that had we gotten the 5 PM seating, we would have had enough time for dinner even though they had to delay the first seating to resolve this medical issue. We could easily have packed up our bags to be ready to go quickly, then have dinner and dash if necessary. It's not like we had to wait to pay a bill! I was sort of looking forward to the fish dinner that was on the menu. Oh, well, a lesson for a future trip.

The final delay (and another sign of late-trains-get-later) happened after Albany. That's the final stop before Salem, and normally only about thirty minutes separate the two. As we approached the final siding before Salem, we heard that our train was ordered into the (10 mph) siding. We crept into the siding, and soon afterwards a freight train passed on the main. However, the freight train also stopped, and we weren't let go back onto the main. The reason became clear shortly afterwards. There is only one track at the Salem station, and thus only one train can be there at at time. Amtrak train 507, the Cascade, was approaching Salem, and the dispatcher intended on holding us and the freight, then let 507 ease in behind the freight (507 being a relatively short train), let us go, then have 507 back up and go through the siding we'd vacated.

I think this was a stupid move, personally. The next siding behind us was only about five miles south. The dispatcher could have let that freight continue south, let 507 pass us, let us go, and then have 507 pass the freight at the next siding. OTOH, it's possible that freight train was longer than the next siding south and where we were was the only place in the area that this maneuver would work. The only reason the dispatcher had to try this was because our train was so late that we were well outside of our booked slot, anyway, and having played a number of train dispatching simulations, including one that covers this specific section of track over which we were traveling, I'm sympathetic. (I think that if I'd gone to work for the railroad, I would have probably have ended up as a dispatcher, not a train-service employee.)

So we finally arrived at Salem at almost 7:30, over five hours late, and clearly we could have had the dinner for which we had paid. (We missed the dinner that was technically included had the train been on time out of San Jose, so it seems only fair that we get the one on the other end.) Still, I don't count it as that bad a trip. I enjoyed myself a great deal, and I never travel on a long-distance US train unless I have a lot of time on my hands. It's sad that things have come to this, however; I do wish people could treat the schedules as more than a rough suggestion of when the train is going to be there. The Capitols, with a shorter run, have managed >90% on-time, but the Starlight and the other long-distance trains' schedules are bad jokes.

Lisa had left her father's VW van at the Salem station, so after reclaiming my luggage, we stopped for groceries and headed out to Mehama. While we both had a good time on the trip, we were a bit tired, and I know I fell asleep without any trouble. We went into Albany on Christmas Eve to buy a last-minute present, and spent Christmas Day itself quietly here at home. The weather has been relatively free of rain, for which I'm grateful as it has allowed me to take some longer walks and get my blood sugar levels back into the area where I want them.
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