trains, locomotives

The View
Through The Windshield

About Cars ... and Everything Else I See
by Joe Sherlock

Big Trains
To read about toy & model trains, go here.

Rail Upgrades: The retrofuturistic Zooliner, one of the park trains from the Portland Zoo, is in a shop in Ridgefield, WA, getting a restoration and a power upgrade. As is another Zoo locomotive and tender, the oil-burning Centennial 4-4-0 steam loco, a scaled-down replica of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad's 1872 Reno locomotive.

Built in 1958, the Zooliner is a scale replica of the ill-fated General Motors Aerotrain, a mid-1950s 'train of the future'. Both trains run on the Zoo's 30-inch railway. The rail line is being expanded and upgraded; the trains will soon run along a new route "designed to provide unique views of animals," according to an Oregon Zoo news release. It will circle on an elevated trestle in the forest north of a new elephant habitat.

The line is expected to reopen in late Fall. (posted 9/18/14, permalink)


Iron Giants: Ol' Remus recently wrote about long-gone huffing, puffing steam locomotives. "A baleful headlamp glowered out from tons of hunkered-down malevolence, a cyclops with a steady stare that suggested retreat as the prudent option. They came in black with numbers on their flanks announcing there are more where it came from. No fancy paint jobs with swoopy logos proclaiming 'Quality' or 'Safety'. Black, like the livery of a Victorian hearse. Moriarty would drive one."

They were inefficient, cantankerous and high maintenance. That's why they were replaced with modern, efficient diesels or electrics. But, when I run steam locomotives on my model railroad layout, little boys' eyes come alive. They enjoy seeing the drivers go around on the wheels and they want to hear the whistle. And see the smoke. It's amazing to me that all children love dinosaurs and steam engines. Both are long extinct, so kids can't relate to the real thing. But they love them anyway.

"Steam locomotives challenged the daily order with their insistent, measured chant and riverboat whistles. They were civilization's phantom of the opera, prompting approving grins on boys and men, and thousands of country tunes with home spun lyrics of travel and tragedy, preferably by dark of night.

Towns reproved them not merely because steam was intrusive and loud, which it most satisfyingly was, but because steam was a fire-and-brimstone colossus that, alarmingly, moved of its own accord, a perpetually impending but useful disaster, a Frankenstein's monster, unnatural life beyond appeal or persuasion, a necessary neighbor that crushed hapless haywains caught out at crossings."

As for today's more civilized diesels, Remus quipped, "They look like the box a real locomotive might come in. They're not alive." (posted 12/11/13, permalink)


Train Of Thought: Randal O'Toole, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, has written about getting the U.S. government out of the passenger rail business.

"Before Amtrak took over the nation's passenger trains, average rail fares were a third less than average air fares. Today, thanks to four decades of government management, average rail fares are more than twice average air fares.

Moreover, subsidies to passenger trains are nearly ten times as great, per passenger mile, as subsidies to airlines (and more than twenty times subsidies to highway travel). When fares and subsidies are combined, Amtrak spends nearly four times as much moving one passenger one mile as the airlines."

This is another example of government waste due to incompetence combined with Congressional meddling.

O'Toole continued, "Still, there might be a case for Amtrak if it were a major transportation provider. It is not. The average American travels about 1,900 miles a year by plane, 15,000 miles a year by car, and around 20 miles a year by Amtrak. Despite Amtrak's brags about record ridership, last year's average of 21 miles per capita was less than in 1990, when it was 24 miles per capita."

In rail freight, the government exited the regional Conrail business and let Norfolk Southern and Chessie take over. The same should happen to Amtrak. Let private industry and the marketplace decide which passenger routes should live or die. (posted 11/15/12, permalink)


Photos: A selection of full-size train photographs by your truly has been posted here. (posted 4/30/12, permalink)


See America By Rail: Recently, we had house guests - old friends who had traveled cross-country by rail. They said they'd never do it again: chronically late trains, food and restaurant seating shortages, hard-to-book sleeping accommodations and Amtrak personnel ranging from wonderful to indifferent to rude.

train travel

We picked them up at the Vancouver (WA) station which - despite a $650,000 renovation in 2009 - already needed a coat of paint on the building's exterior. (posted 8/3/11, permalink)


Driving Away Prospective Customers: U.S. Senator Charles 'Chuck-the-Loudmouth-Idiot' Schumer has called for "the creation of an Amtrak no ride list. That would take the secure flight program and apply it to Amtrak trains."

Mitch Berg has written, "Of course, except for the tiny fragment of America living in the congested mid-Atlantic strip, Amtrak is largely on Amerca's 'do not ride' list. Amtrak is an epic money pit.

In vast swathes of the U.S., terrorists would be the only person on an Amtrak train."

On the West Coast, Amtrak trains usually run so late, how would terrorists know when to blow them up?

Dennis Miller has said that we should build a cross-country wall along the Mexican border and put a high-speed rail line on top of the wall, so that TSA has to patrol and protect it. That may be the best use of high-speed rail yet. (posted 5/12/11, permalink)


Irony Alert: On Saturday, Amtrak's Wilmington train station was renamed in honor of Vice President Joe Biden "following major renovations made possible with stimulus funds."

Amtrak CEO and chief ribbon-cutter Joe Boardman got stranded when the high-speed Acela train was stuck in Baltimore. So, he ditched the train and arrived by car. (posted 3/21/11, permalink)


And They Want More Subsidies For What Now? In 2008, Amtrak carried almost exactly the same number of passenger miles as the private railroads carried in 1970, the year before Amtrak took over passenger trains.

"So after 38 years of government ownership - years in which the nation's population more than doubled - intercity rail patronage is right where it was in 1970 (but declining). By comparison, over the same period driving increased by 125% and transit ridership grew by 43% - anemic compared with driving (or almost anything else) but huge compared with Amtrak."

Randal O'Toole (The Antiplanner) has asked, "Doesn't that make you want to blow a few hundred billion dollars on moderate-speed rail?" (posted 6/4/10, permalink)


Derailed: U.S. taxpayers spent about $32 subsidizing the cost of the typical Amtrak passenger in 2008, according to Subsidyscope, an arm of the Pew Charitable Trusts. Forty-one of Amtrak's 44 routes lost money.

Leading the list was the Sunset Limited, has less than 72,000 riders per year, grosses $9.3 million in revenue and loses $31.4 million every year. It lost $462 per passenger. In order to break even, ticket prices would have to be increased more than three-fold.

car blogThe premium priced, high-speed Acela train makes money as do other trains along the populous N.E. corridor. Such trains carry several million riders per year. But the Virginia-to-Florida, car-carrying Auto Train loses over $10 mm per year.

The California Zephyr, which runs from Chicago to San Francisco, had the second-highest per passenger subsidy of $193 and carried nearly 353,000 passengers in 2008.

The Cascades - with Talgo cars which tilt on curves - runs from Vancouver, BC to Eugene, OR. It produces $41 million in annual revenue but loses $32 per passenger. Prices would have to be raised by 14.3% just to break even.

The Coast Starlight (Seattle - Los Angeles) loses $136 per passenger. Prices would have to be increased by 123.4% just to break even. The Empire Builder (Chicago to Seattle) is a big loser, too. Ticket prices would have to increase by 63.3% just to break even.

These dismal figures should raise several questions: Should governments subsidize U.S. railroads at all? If so, should they be subsidizing them to this extent? Should the biggest losers be terminated, especially those which carry less than 150,0000 riders per year? (posted 11/2/09, permalink)


Your Tax Dollars At Work: Amtrak has received $58.5 million in federal stimulus money to refurbish some of its passenger cars.

The first car, Amfleet Coach 25103, has just been finished at a cost of about a million bucks. The passenger car, built in 1982, had 1.4 million miles on the clock when it was sideswiped in a Florida yard wreck. It was rehabbed in Delaware by workers who used to be employees at now-shuttered area auto plants - Chrysler in Newark and the General Motors plant in Wilmington.

About half the cost of each car's $1 million refurbishing goes toward workers' salaries, officials said. Amtrak runs about 1,500 passenger cars in 46 states on a 21,000-mile route.

A million bucks for a rebuild seems very high to me - as does two million dollars for one new passenger coach - but I'm not an expert in railcar construction/reconstruction. You can get a really nice, detailed O-gauge (1:48 scale) coach car for $100 or less. Multiply that by 48 and you've got - what? - $4,800. I'm just sayin' ... (posted 7/22/09, permalink)


the view through the windshield trainAlcohol Fueled: So, you think the use of ethanol as a fuel source is a 21st Century wonder?

Recently, I watched 'Daylight: The Most Beautiful Train in the World', a 2005 railroad documentary hosted by Michael Gross. The film tells the story of the famous Southern Pacific Daylight trains which traveled the Pacific Coast between Los Angeles and San Francisco from 1937 to 1971.

The trains had tavern lounge cars built by Pullman-Standard. Railroad historian Richard K. Wright said that revenues from the tavern car paid for the entire operating cost of the of the Daylight on every trip in the 1930s and '40s. All other revenues - tickets, dining costs, etc. were pure profit.

All hail the power of alcohol! (posted 6/1/09, permalink)


Train Wreck: Randal O'Toole, the Antiplanner, has referred to the Obama administration's high-speed rail plan as "Obama's Recycled Moderate-Speed Rail Plan," noting that it is neither a proposal for Japanese-style bullet trains nor for the Eurostar or trans-Europe TGVs. "Instead, it is conventional Amtrak Diesel-powered trains running a little faster - up to 110 mph, but averaging only 60 to 70 mph - than Amtrak runs today."

We traveled to and from Paris under the English Channel on the Eurostar train - top speed: 186 mph. I took the photo at St Pancras Station in London.
He pointed out that passengers now pay $69 to ride conventional trains from New York to Washington and $99 to ride high-speed Acela train. Those fares are already subsidized since Amtrak loses money every year.

"By comparison, an unsubsidized bus is $20 and unsubsidized airfares are $99. This means only the wealthy and those whose employers pay the fare will ride high-speed rail. All taxpayers will end up paying for rides of bankers, bureaucrats, and lobbyists."

In other words, people like Joe Biden.

Randal also noted that "Obama's moderate-speed trains will run on the same tracks as existing freight trains. Since many of America's rail lines are near capacity today, there is a real danger that moderate-speed trains will push freight onto the highways."

"Europe's rail network carries 6 percent of passenger travel, while ours carries only 0.1 percent. But European trains carry less than 17 percent of freight, while 73 percent goes by highway.

By comparison, American trains carry 40 percent of our freight, while only 28 percent goes on the highway. In other words, to get 6 percent of passengers out of their cars, Europe put nearly three times as many trucks on the road." (posted 4/22/09, permalink)


Challenger: The Union Pacific Railroad's mighty 'Challenger' locomotive No. 3985 visited Portland in September 2005. The 4-6-6-4 articulated monster was on a 2,800-mile tour to celebrate railroad heritage.

the view through the windshield blog

I took numerous photos and have posted three pages of them starting here. (posted 9/20/05)


End of an Era: General Motors is selling its LaGrange, Ill.-based Electro-Motive Division to an investment group led by the Greenbriar Equity Group of Rye, N.Y., and Boston-based Berkshire Partners LLC. This is a historic milestone.

PRR E-8Electro-Motive produced many of the famous diesel 'streamliner' diesels for railroads across America. Famous passenger trains like the California Zephyr, Super Chief, Trail Blazer, Capitol Limited, Empire Builder, North Coast Limited, Southern Crescent, City of New Orleans and Texas Special were at some time or other headed by an Electro-Motive E or F-Series diesel. An Electro-Motive diesel powered the futuristic GM Aerotrain of the 1950s.

In the early days of locomotive-building, the chief engineer of each railroad had his own idea of how a steam loco should be made. And wrote his personal specifications for every purchase. This drove locomotive manufacturers nuts (or loco?) because it was impossible to offer a stock line of locomotives or build for inventory during slow times. (A very good book, 'The Baldwin Locomotive Works, 1831-1915: A Study in American Industrial Practice' by John K. Brown, offers details.) Baldwin, the largest builder of steam locos, made over 25% of its sales outside the U.S., because foreign railroads didn't have such egotistical engineers and were willing to purchase standardized, more-profitable products.

In the 1930s, GM's Electro-Motive Division developed diesel-electric locos which they offered to various railroads. The chief engineers harrumphed, demanding modifications to their custom specifications - just like they did with steam locos. General Motors - accustomed to building standard products - refused, limiting customization to minor items like marker light location and paint schemes. The diesels were so superior in performance and cost of operation compared with steam that railroad managements ignored their engineers' advice and purchased off-the-shelf diesel-electrics from GM. The steam locomotive soon became a thing of the past.

General Motors changed the locomotive industry forever. But now, the worm gear of progress has turned again and GM is exiting the locomotive business. (Sigh.) Time changes everything. (posted 1/17/05, permalink)


sherlock train blogBook Review: I recently read 'Crosswords of Commerce - The Pennsylvania Railroad Calendar Art of Grif Teller' by Dan Cupper. A description: "Each year, starting in 1925, the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) commissioned a striking oil painting of a PRR engine in a dramatic setting, which was featured on a large wall calendar that the company distributed by the hundreds of thousands to customers and the public. Grif Teller painted 27 of the 33 scenes. This book reproduces his paintings in full color and recounts his life and career."

Teller also did work for other railroads and transport companies and did privately-commissioned paintings on various subjects. Surprisingly (since the conventional wisdom is that the 1940s and '50s were times of great job stability working for benevolent, womb-to-tomb employers), he was unemployed several times in his life because the companies he worked for would go out of business. He made ends meet during those times by free-lancing, sometimes using non de plumes on his paintings.

There are a couple of stories about fussy, hard to satisfy customers. ("The box cars need to have more rivets painted on them." ... etc.) We sometimes think that such jerks are something unique to today's economy. Nope. They've been around forever.

There were probably minor functionaries in ancient Rome who got their jollies from hassling some poor chariot maker about the shape of the wheel spokes.

I found this book to be most enjoyable. If you like trains even the slightest bit ... go buy it. (posted 5/22/04, permalink)


PRR Rail History: The above book review has prompted comments bemoaning the decline of "old-time railroading." Unfortunately, America is a land of change and, when changes happen, industrial icons sometimes can't adapt - they wither and disappear.

sherlock trainblogThe Pennsylvania Railroad suffered from declining health for many years. Passenger operations never contributed much to profits and the Pennsy never made a dime on passenger service after 1946. Passenger trains were killed off by better highways which made automobile travel more practical for distances up to 300 miles and by air travel, especially after jet airplanes became commonplace.

Freight revenues declined too, especially after the proliferation of Interstate highways facilitated fast delivery of goods by truck. LCL (less-than-carload) shipments by rail peaked at 50 million tons in 1919; by 1958, it had declined to 4 million tons. Trucks were faster and more cost-effective for trips of two days or less, especially for LCL shipments.

In the 1960s, Pennsy management attempted to diversify into more profitable markets - investments in commercial real estate, theme parks, oil producers and even acquiring Strick, a manufacturer of truck trailers. But, it was too little, too late.

By the time they merged in 1968, the Pennsylvania Railroad, New York Central and New Haven were all on the ropes. The merger was a marriage of desperation. And it never worked because each participating company had different cultures and values and the merged entity fought with itself all the time. The Penn Central Railroad entity declared bankruptcy in June of 1970.

In May of 1971, quasi-government entity Amtrak took over Penn Central's passenger service. In April, 1976, Conrail was formed as a for-profit freight railroad. Owners were the creditors of the seven bankrupt railroads within Conrail - Penn Central, Erie-Lackawanna, Reading and others.

1999: At Frankford Junction in Philadelphia with Conrail diesel locomotive in the background - my dad used to work out of Frankford Junction for the Pennsylvania Railroad (later Penn Central, then Conrail).

Frankford Junction is where the Northeast Corridor line from Trenton connects with the 2-track Atlantic City line. The junction, located in lower NE Philadelphia near the Kensington and Port Richmond sections of town, has a freight switching yard. Rails have been at/near the junction since the 1830s.


Conrail eventually became profitable by dumping unprofitable routes and services. In 1999, Conrail was split in two - half went to CSX (Chessie); half went to Norfolk Southern.

Almost all large U.S. railroads now focus on long-mileage, point-to-point haulage of carload lots of merchandise. They leave the shorter routes, smaller shipments and intracity delivery to the truckers. (posted 5/25/04, permalink)


Amtrak: We rode the Acela from Boston to Washington in October 2004. It was a most pleasant experience.

The rail upgrades are still in progress, so the train had to go slow in spots and the ride was not nearly as smooth as the Eurostar Chunnel Train, but the staff were friendly and the service was very prompt. (Special thanks to Manny the Boston ticket agent who got us on an earlier train with only minutes to spare and made all the changes with a smile.)

train blog

It was a thrill to go up and over the Hellgate Bridge into New York City.

The four-track section of the old Pennsy line (south of NY) has been mostly upgraded and we flew through New Jersey. I got jolts of nostalgia from seeing the familiar Philly railscape roll past - Holmesburg Station, Frankford Junction, the Zoo, the stately Art Museum and the spectacular 30th Street Station. The beautifully restored Union Station in D.C. is a sight to behold. And to wander around.

Our Acela train also offered a "quiet car" where cell phone use and loud talking were prohibited. (posted 10-14-04, permalink)


copyright 2004-14 - Joseph M. Sherlock - All applicable rights reserved


Disclaimer

The facts presented in this blog are based on my best guesses and my substantially faulty geezer memory. The opinions expressed herein are strictly those of the author and are protected by the U.S. Constitution. Probably.

Spelling, punctuation and syntax errors are cheerfully repaired when I find them; grudgingly fixed when you do.

If I have slandered any brands of automobiles, either expressly or inadvertently, they're most likely crap cars and deserve it. Automobile manufacturers should be aware that they always have the option of trying to change my mind by providing me with vehicles to test drive.

If I have slandered any people or corporations in this blog, either expressly or inadvertently, they should buy me strong drinks (and an expensive meal) and try to prove to me that they're not the jerks I've portrayed them to be. If you're buying, I'm willing to listen.

Don't be shy - try a bribe. It might help.


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