Monday, November 15, 2010


As those interested in trains know, railroads are primarily "background" in the United States. Only when an individual is halted at a crossing by a slow train, or there is a derailment that causes impact on a community -- both negative events -- does the average citizen even consider the presence of railroads in their towns or cities.

In that vein, there aren't many movies produced by Hollywood in which trains have something of a starring role. Two come immediately to my mind: "Runaway Train" with Jon Voight and Eric Roberts (1985), and the ever-classic "The Train" with Burt Lancaster (1964).

Move over; there is another train film in town in which a newer General Electric locomotive -- and an older EMD as well -- shares stardom with Denzel Washington and Chris Pine (Star Trek, 2009). The film was inspired by this incident.

And, if you as a railroad enthusiast can overlook the obvious technical faults, it's an excellent film showcasing great acting, great pacing and non-stop action. Bottom line, even if you're not a rail or locomotive enthusiast? An exciting action movie well worth your money for the big screen.

But of course, being the equivalent of the pejorative "foamer," I cannot stop the review here. I have to be the one to point out a few such aforementioned technical faults.

The film begins with a yard's hostler instructed to move his train in order to clear it for another. In the process he fails to connect the glad-hands from the locomotive set to the rest of the train (good overview of train air brakes here). His failure to make this connection helps, in part, to allow the train to move from a simple "coaster" to a full-on runaway (see BNSF Air Brake & Train Handling Rules -- 120 pages -- here).

Further, he has placed the reverser into the forward position and added throttle (it appears to be Run 1 if I recall). He decides to physically exit the cab in order to throw a yard switch ahead of the consist but fails to reach the switch in time. He also fails to regain the locomotive as it starts to pick up speed and leaves him on the ground. Ooops.

Cut to a close up of, magically, mystically, the throttle somehow swiping itself fully into Run 8 -- the highest throttle setting available in current diesel-electric locomotives.

Two techno Train Geek points:
  • Throttles don't do that by themselves. As someone who has manipulated throttles in a cab, watched by an engineer, throttle levers are very "notchy" and their accompanying detents are very clear. It take much more than a casual touch to move the throttle lever from one detent to the next. They don't simply fall from one position to the next;
  • Even if the train were to somehow be on the move, the Alerter system would stop the locomotive consist which, in turn, would slowly stop the runaway.

Look at my cab photo below. In this framing you can see the Alerter button is circled. After a period of time in which no input has been made by the engineer to any control, a loud alert begins to sound. It becomes progressively louder if the engineer does not carefully push the reset button. In truth, because they are so annoying, the engineers customarily mash the reset button with all the aplomb and care usually reserved for sledgehammers.

If the Alerter is not reset, the locomotive and any attached locomotives would be thrown into the equivalent of "emergency" and the locomotive brakes would be applied immediately. Because the air had not been connected to the rest of the train, the locomotive "independent" brakes would apply. The train would be stopped, but not as quickly as if the rest of the brake pipes on the trailing cars were connected.

Absent these and a few more tidbits, the movie is thoroughly enjoyable.

As always, comments or questions?


An EMD SD40-2 rigged for filming, painted in fictional "Allegheny & West Virginia" colors.

Point "star" is former Canadian Pacific GE AC4400CW #9782, built in 2003, rated 4,400 hp.


dmurray said...

Thanks for this post! Keep up the good work.

I like your point about trains being in the background in this country.

Current events question: they don't grope you on Amtrak yet, do they?


Milepost 154 said...

No, DM, they do not yet "grope" you on Amtrak.

That in itself would create MASSIVE problems on "commuter" lines. And commuters would totally ABANDON the rails if that feature were to be instituted.

Their transportation is all about TIME as opposed to security.

If those edicts were to ever fall down to trains -- commuter lines would be essentially KILLED.


dmurray said...

"Their transportation is all about TIME as opposed to security."

Bingo! Time and money. I wish I could get rid of a car and get on a train to save both out here in the West, but no.

The locals in Washington D.C. told my wife and I summer before last about outages and accidents on the Metro that sound a lot like BART out here.

Would that the promises made about "mass transit" could be delivered by our green elite betters. But they cannot and will not deliver because power is their goal, not transportation efficiency.

Well Seasoned Fool said...

Good to see you blogging on this site again.

Milepost 154 said...

WSF: I'd blog more, except that the photos I capture are large, and the videos I shoot (I have a LOT of cool ones now) take 1.5 years to upload into YouTube.

My "ideal dream" is to have actual employees from UP use the blog as a forum to discuss, anonymously, how railroading really works. I think the public needs to know the frequent terrible conditions and long hours railroaders work, and what it takes to keep freight moving in our country.

I know things are a tad slow these days, but my goal is to increase posting frequency with more photos and accompanying videos.

Blogs are wonderful mediums. I'm just such the blithering HTML idiot, however.


Milepost 154 said...

DM: but, I'm sure you already realize that the west is FAR different from the east.

Nor'easterners have been in the "mindset" of public transportation for a century. IMHO, high speed rail out west and, specifically, in Fornicalia is an absolutely unrestrained waste of time and, more importantly, BILLIONS of dollars.

Fornicalians are into their cars and it would take thousands of tons of C4 to blow them into any real worthwhile form of public transportation.

The long distances, coupled with the lack of population compaction, coupled with the ridiculous costs of new rail, coupled with the HUGE security issues to be tackled with high speed rail, coupled with what will = a minimal ridership -- well, that's just a MASSIVE losing proposition.

Consider for a moment: HSR canNOT exist on current lines. With some exceptions, the bulk of lines exist and are utilized and would have to be SHARED with freight. HSR simply CAN'T be "shared" with ANYthing. Track, gauge, tangency, ballast, security, must be PERFECT. You cannot, you just CANNOT allow people to be able to access ANY HSR point. The lines would have to be kept apart from access by elevation, isolation or by secured prison-type fencing and MORE. How easy can you imagine it would be to derail a lumbering freight train at 20 mph as opposed to HSR at 200+ mph?

I'm sure you can feature the applicable laws of physics.

And that's just the beginning. . .


Walt Uotinen said...

I'm a big time rail fan with no real experience. Question: When the independent brake is set, doesn't that automatically disengage the alerter ("dead man's switch")?

Walt Uotinen

Anonymous said...

thanks for this great post wow... it's very


Anonymous said...

Nice post. Thanks

Milepost 154 said...


The "independent" brake system -- the individual loco brakes -- (the lever on the far right on a desktop unit) is fully disengaged when the lever is in the down position (towards the engineer). For the locomotive to roll, in the real world, the lever would have to be in this position, fully released. When released, the alerter would sound if there were no changes to any input within a period of time.

If the independent brake is applied (up position, meaning locomotive brakes are set) then the alerter is disengaged.

Walt, thanks for reading.

Anonymous and anonymous: thanks for the kind comments!


Jonathan said...

First of all, thanks for this great post, I searched all over the internet until i found an intelligent post to comment on- here we are, and now my comment:

I thought that the way air brakes work is like this: apply air pressure - brakes release. Take away the air pressure, or disconnect the air pressure hose then your train will brake like there is no tomorrow. This train wouldn't have moved an inch unless that air pressure hose was connected - and the air pressure was on!

Also, in the event of some strange runaway problem where the air brakes were disengaged, a carefully aimed shotgun could burst the air pressure line and thusly engage the brakes from a distance.

Please let me know if my thinking here is correct.

Anonymous said...

The alerter is disabled on a locomotive when the independent brake applied to the point that 26 lbs of brake cylinder pressure is achieved. It does not have to be fully applied to disable it. At full independent application it produces 72 lbs of brake cylinder pressure. With only 26 lbs of brake cylinder pressure needed to disable the alerter it would be easily over powered by the locomotive.

Milepost 154 said...

Good to know. But did the guy have the independent applied at all? In the film I can recall the throttle "magically" clicking into advanced RUN positions. . .


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your professional experience on the DMS switch (alerter reset) on locomotives. It contributed to my talk about how locomotives still use the classic DMS.