Railroads, believe it or not, eagerly provide their officers with opportunities, seminars, courses, to study and learn the latest innovations in...management philosophies, best practices, etc. etc. etc.
I remember once, back in the day, Conrail sent a vice-president to Harvard for some reason, and then, upon his return, agreed to post him to China in some sort of professional exchange.
Many on the New Jersey division were confused by this turn of events. I was not. It was clear to me that the United States had declared war on the whole of Asia, and was sending Conrail's VP to China, aping the actions of the German High Command which had sent Lenin to Russia in 1917, in order to force China's to sue for peace.
The only seminar, course, school I ever wanted to attend was the Westinghouse Air Brake school, and so of course, in its infinite wisdom, Conrail sent (almost) every operating officer, or so I thought, to the school except me.
Finally, after leaving Conrail for the greener shores of Metro-North, I cornered the VP Operations of that railroad, made my case, and found myself on a plane to Hamilton, Ontario (in March) to attend the school of my dreams.
I was alone on the plane, but not in Hamilton, having the good fortune to be in the class, and at the same hotel, as MNR's General Road Foreman of Engines, one of the two or three most talent operating officers I've ever encountered, and someone who definitely could match me crazy for crazy.
The hotel that put us up, and put up with us, the Royal Something-or-Other, had a swimming pool and a water slide, and we wanted to slide. Any adult can swim. It takes a certain kind of adult to slide. We were, and are, that kind of adult.
The class itself was... brilliant. I loved it. Correction: The instructor was Gordon Proudfoot [thank you, JD]and he was the zen master of air brake valves.
We received our own boxes of colored pencils, and our individual workbooks with diagrams of locomotive air brake valves, the chambered air brake valves, and freight car air brake reservoirs and valves, and brake pipes. With colored pencils and workbook diagrams we could track the path the air took, and the changes it exhibited moving from main reservoir to equalizing reservoir to brake pipe to emergency reservoir to service portion to brake cylinder, and back again.
When examining the locomotive brake valves, the chambered locomotive brake valves, it struck me that the entire apparatus resembled...the "gate arrays" on a microprocessor-- depending on the alignment of "chambers" or paths, the "signal medium," whether electrons or air molecules would travel specific routes, would produce specific, desired results.
It was all "if...then" "on...off" logic to me. It was signal logic in another form, with the signal medium, air, being both the messenger and the effecting force. Cool.
Cool but slow, because the effecting force couldn't activate completely until the messenger had traveled the entire length of the brake pipe, so we're talking possible miles here. We're talking unevenness in application, and release. We're talking delay, diminished force, delayed releases, wear and tear, and......the art of train handling.
If only...there were a way to transmit the signal independently of the shared, common brake pipe. And of course there was. We had it on passenger trains. We had it on electric multiple unit consists. Service braking was signaled electronically, by changes in current. Of course the cars had to all be connected electronically, sharing, along with the common brake pipe, a common electronic brake "messenger" line, but that's the beauty of passenger consists. They can. They do.
We know that electronic signaling allows for almost instantaneous set-up, and release of the brakes, on the entire consist for service braking.
We know that more rapid, and consistent, set-up and release is essential to "smoothing" in train forces, to preserving the comfort of passengers, to reducing wear on couplers and connections, to improving stopping distance, to more rapid rates of deceleration.
We know that everything in the commuter business is about repeated, rapid cycles of acceleration and deceleration.
I bring this up because the US Department of Transportation has seen fit, in its finite wisdom, to order that "by January 1, 2021 each rail carrier operating a high-hazard flammable unit train (HHFUT) comprised of at least one tank car loaded with a Packing Group I material, at a speed exceeding 30 mph must ensure the train is equipped with ECP [Electronically Controlled Pneumatic] brakes..." A HHFUT is defined as a single train with 70 or more tank cars loaded with class 3 flammable liquids with at least one car loaded with Packing Group 1.
Other types of HHFUT trains not described as above (apparently without any Packing Group 1 liquids) have until 2023 before the ECP mandate is effective.
The HHFUT is distinguished from the HHFT, the high-hazard flammable train. The HHFT is a train that contains a continuous block of 20 or more tank cars loaded with flammable liquid, or more than 35 tank cars loaded with such liquids dispersed throughout the train. There is no requirement to equip or operate HHFT trains with ECP brakes or in ECP braking mode.
Make sense? Well, not to me. First and foremost the effectiveness and advantage of ECP brakes in reducing stopping distance and impact energy when emergency braking is initiated from any of a number of sources (locomotive engineer initiated, conductor initiated, train parting, EOT initiated) is much less than the advantage of ECP braking in service braking, that is to say locomotive engineer planned and initiated braking.
So if the notion behind this requirement is that ECP braking will reduce catastrophic impact force, minimize the follow-on derailments of successive cars, and mitigate the chances of tank car rupture.......well those are possibilities, not proven, quantifiable results.
The impact ECP braking has on safe train operations is not in reaction after an immediate catastrophic event, but over the "long haul" of operating trains many miles over repeated cycles of brake and release, deceleration and acceleration.
The NTSB, in apparent response to the December 30, 2013 derailment of a CBR train at Casselton, North Dakota commissioned a train braking simulation study of ECP braking.
It's a strange study to say the least. The overview states: "The scope of this simulation study is limited to scenarios with train line emergencies initiated at the head-end locomotive on uniform grade, tangent track with clean dry rail. The trains are assumed to have no inoperative locomotives, no inoperative brakes, no wheel or car derailments, no collisions among cars or with other obstacles, and no loss of communications among electronic devices." A cynical person, which I am not (see earlier posts) might conclude therefore that the study has little if any relation to actual railroad operating conditions.
Once issuing the disclaimers, the study then attempts to calculate stopping distances for trains for both emergency and service brake applications and compare those numbers for trains with conventional, distributed power, and ECP braking systems.
And what is the obvious conclusion to be drawn by a careful reader? First conclusion: Why does the study not include train consists with EOT devices, capable of communicating with the head and initiating simultaneously with head end signals, or independently, an emergency brake application from the rear of the train?
Secondly: Why does this study, supposedly limited to train line emergencies initiated at the head end include simulations and calculated values for service braking?
Third conclusion: The advantage provided by ECP braking is minimized in emergency brake activations and actual stopping distance reduction may not occur (see pages 3, and 17 of the study).
Fourth conclusion: If the Casselton, ND derailment was the "model" for the study, why weren't the specific details of this derailment simulated, why aren't the simulation results for the "Casselton-type" train with and without ECP compared to the actual data derived from investigation of the derailment; data derived from locomotive event recorders; and measurement of travel of cars after emergency braking was initiated?
Fifth conclusion: "The reported benefit may be limited to trains with lower trailing tonnage operating on less grades, and/or at lower speeds." [emphasis in the original, page 17].
Should I say that again? Once should be enough. DOT is mandating ECP braking operations for trains with higher trailing tonnages (and greater train lengths) and for higher operating speeds-- exactly the scenarios where the benefits may not be significant. Now that does bear repeating:
DOT is mandating ECP braking operations for trains with higher trailing tonnages (and greater train lengths) and for higher operating speeds-- exactly the scenarios where the benefits may not be significant.
Look, I know this is all part of crash-energy management. And I remember that FRA was right and I, or we, were wrong, more or less, when FRA proposed crash worthiness standards for locomotives, and we countered with train control systems that would prevent such accidents (on which of course we then neglected to follow through).
And I'm all for better train control, in both micro and macro scenarios. But we're trying to mitigate the forces unleashed in an emergency braking situation. We're dealing with the laws of physics. We can only design and install systems that achieve our goals in conformity with those laws, and not in conformity with wishful thinking.
So, given the Casselton derailment, given what we know about energy, mass, velocity squared, and negative acceleration, how many fewer cars would have derailed in the train had been operating in ECP braking mode? How many fewer tank cars would have ruptured after the emergency initiation if ECP, rather than EOT would have received and relayed the emergency brake request?
If those questions cannot be answered, then DOT is not being guided by the physics of safe train operations and thus is not doing what a government is supposed to do in any of its actions from establishing a currency to establishing voting laws, to mandating braking requirements: creating viable, uniform, consistent, efficient, universal, observable remedies to those conditions that threaten the common good.
August 10, 2015
Lease this space.