Monday, April 29, 2013

Stalled BNSF train in Gold Run

And not just any BNSF train; a BNSF train with the very newest GE power: two ES44C4s up front.

The story goes something like this:

I was coming back up to my cabin from having worked my week in Sacramento.  I customarily cruise by Colfax, Gold Run and Alta to see what, if anything, is occurring on the tracks.  I happened to catch a stalled BNSF train on the Gold Run siding, a mixed manifest.  As I got closer, I noticed the nearby block signal went green, which meant an eastbound train was approaching from the west.  I scurried back to the SUV and acquired my Flip HD camera (though actually my stupid Samsung Galaxy Note II frigging telephone takes better video), just in time to capture the below event (see it here on YouTube.  Please expand and listen with headphones for the best experience):

On point is UP 7647, a GE C45ACCTE, one of 325 such 4400-hp locomotives manufactured between 2007 and 2008 and, if you look closely in the expanded video, you can see the friendly conductor waving to me as the train approaches and passes.  In second position is UP 6214, a C44AC with 4390 hp, one of 167 such engines manufactured in 1995.  Third place heralds UP 6600, a C44AC with 4390 hp, only one of which was built for UP in 1997.

There are two DPUs mid-train, UP 5262 and UP 5277, both manufactured between 2005 and 2006, both C45ACCTEs with 4400 horsepower, of 301 such units built.

After the UP train had passed, I was waved up by the engineer, who invited me into the cab.  This was about to be a unique experience as I'd never been in the cab of any BNSF locomotive, much less a new GE ES44C4.  I knew UP locomotive cabs were absolutely filthy; I was therefore curious about BNSF cabs.

The first two BNSF units are 6508 and 6563, two of 92 such ES44C4 locomotives manufactured by GE in 2013, both with 4400 horsepower.  The third unit is BNSF 7680, an aging and fading GE ES44DC WarPumpkin with 4400 hp, one of 194 such units built in 2005.

Armed with my monster Flip HD and my phone, I placed my right foot on the bottom step, wrapped my hands around the white rails, simultaneously pushing with my foot and pulling with my hands.  I felt an immediate, white-hot and excruciating pain in my right foot and almost fell backwards off the ballast and down about a fifteen foot drop.

It took me roughly a half hour to hobble my way over the three tracks and back to my Tahoe, only about a hundred yards away on a side road.  The engineer thought I was kidding when I told him I believed I'd broken my foot trying to climb up.  Until he saw the look on my face.  I made my way, the next day, down to Auburn for a visit to a local doc-in-the-box who confirmed: yes.  Foot broken.  Hairline fracture adjacent the tuberosity of the 5th metatarsal.  Stay off foot for at least two weeks.  We don't have crutches.  You can buy them next door.  Stay off foot.  No boot.  Buy ibuprofen.

So how did BNSF 6508 move ahead?  It called for ancient power.  As you can see above in the video (again, after I'd fractured my foot, I still stayed to record this helper set), BNSF units 147 and 139 responded -- both being elder EMD GP60M B-truck units, two of 59 such 3600 hp units manufactured for Santa Fe in 1990.  It was like watching a '59 Corvette respond to a 2013 Vette.

Before I fractured my foot, however, I was able to take the below photographs with my Note II:

A photo taken just before I attempted to climb up into the cab.

(Right click on each photograph to enlarge.)

A little bit about the General Electric ES44C4:

This is a new model whose purpose is to try to make an AC unit as affordable as a DC unit, with roughly equal traction.  BNSF is, to date, the only major railroad to have purchased the C4.  ES44C4 data sheet is here.

GE indicates that, in general, the ES44 locomotives are "powered by GE’s 12-cylinder diesel engine, with the Evolution Series producing the same 4,400 HP as its 16-cylinder predecessor — using less fuel. This 45-degree, 12-cylinder, 4-stroke, turbocharged engine provides efficiency, lower emissions and extended overhaul intervals. The engine also uses enhanced cooling and higher-strength materials that dramatically improve reliability and allow for future increases in power and efficiency."

 4-cycle Model GEVO 12

GE also writes: "In North America, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway is using Evolution Series ES44C4 Locomotives as a cleaner, faster, safer and more reliable alternative to DC-powered locomotives. The advanced technology of Model ES44C4 reduces fuel use by 17% and emissions by 70% compared to existing DC locomotives."

The model indicates C4 because one axle -- the #2 -- is unpowered in each truck.  The ES44C4 has a variable traction control system onboard, whose software adjusts the pressure in the air cylinders and linkages on the truck side frames (see photos above) in order to vary the weight on the four actual drive axles and yield adequate traction under various grades and traction conditions -- where wheel slip may occur.  It is said that each center axle lifts for speeds below 15 mph so as to improve adhesion and get optimal tractive effort from the four AC traction motors.

GE mid-axle lifting linkage on ES44C4, close up.  Note on truck photos above.

 One quote from a railroad forum:

"My dad caught 3 of those here awhile back on a grain load, I've never heard him bitch so much about a motor. Apparently they're slippery and like all GE's, don't load worth a *. These were supposed to be a better alternative to the ES44DC's, but what I'm hearing is most would prefer a 6 axle DC over these C4's."

What people may not realize, regarding AC locomotive power in general, is this: if one traction motor goes offline, more power can be applied to the other motors.  DC traction motors can't handle the transferred load and aren't designed to do so.

This is, at least, the "argument" for producing double-truck, six-axle locomotive power with only four axles possessing traction motors. 

EMD also began production of their own version of a C4 unit, called the SD70ACe-P4.  As best I can determine, this locomotive (see photo of EMD Demonstrator #4223 by Karl Rethwisch below) likewise has two unpowered axles.  However, instead of the mid axles being unpowered, the axles closest to the fuel tank are unpowered.  Also, no axles will be physically lifted, as with the C4.

My question: did this BNSF train stall because the two locomotives on point failed to produce sufficient traction due to the design of the ES44C4s utilized?  I simply do not know.  I can't help but wonder, however.

In closing, one very interesting business point, from

GE locomotive plant plans to cut 950 jobs in Erie

GE Transportation is dealing a huge blow to the Erie economy, moving nearly 1,000 jobs to Texas with its AC locomotives and mining vehicle lines.

For GE Transportation, it apparently comes down to economics. The market for locomotives isn't as strong as it has been and the two new plants, in Fort Worth, Texas, is more productive. Plus, the Erie Times-News said the Fort Worth plant, unlike the one in Erie, is nonunion. The Erie employees earn about twice as much on average as the Fort Worth employees and the workers at a competing Caterpillar Inc. plant.

Here's the unspoken fact as well: Texas provides tax incentives and reduced regulations that Pennsylvania doesn't.  Or, on the other hand, is it simply the result of the purposeful decline of coal via onerous restrictions by the Obama Administration?

Thanks for reading, please weigh in, and be safe near the tracks.