Every boy wants to be a locomotive engineer at one point in his childhood, or maybe that was just me? It’s one of those exciting jobs like astronaut or fireman or race car driver. I had an opportunity to reach back to my childhood dreams and get as close as humanly possible to driving a train without actually endangering the public.
My wife thought I might enjoy a chance to operate a train simulator. It’s not an opportunity that’s generally open to the public. Nonetheless she was able to make arrangements through a local connection for my older son and I to do just that. He skip school for a day and we rationalized it as an educational opportunity. When would he ever get another chance to drive a train, simulated or not?
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The day began at Union Station in Washington, DC. We met our host, an Amtrak railroad representative, and climbed aboard a Northeast Regional train. This came with certain perks. We boarded before the other passengers, had an opportunity to meet the conductor and other staff, and heard great train stories as we rode the rails north. For instance, we learned that professional sports teams in the northeastern United States often travel by rail when they have games with nearby opponents. The Washington Nationals baseball team goes by train when it plays the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League East, as an example. Amtrak will stick a couple of first-class cars together with a locomotive and create a luxurious rolling private charter.
We were destined for Wilmington, Delaware and the real Twelve Mile Circle. This was the same route we’d replicate later in the day with a simulator. We received a verbal overview of speeds, curves, stations and other features as we rode along to help prepare us. I also followed the route on Google Maps using my mobile phone, being the undeniable geo-geek that I am.
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The Northeast Regional arrived exactly on time. We waited briefly outside of the Wilmington station, just long enough for me to spot the Christina River and tell my son all about New Sweden whether he wanted to hear it or not. I think he was relieved when our ride arrived to take us to the nearby Amtrak Training Center. Appropriately, the center is tucked against the Amtrak train corridor along a street named High Speed Way.
Amtrak has only one training center. This one. Amtrak crews from all over the United States come to Wilmington to learn and polish their skills. I soon discovered that I will probably never be a train engineer. Amtrak generally hires for those coveted positions from within. One has to serve as a locomotive mechanic, conductor or some other position, and gain sufficient seniority before applying. You’re not likely to see a Help Wanted advertisement and walk-in to an engineer’s job off the street. Sorry to disappoint you if you’d had your heart set on that.
Classroom training doesn’t replace on-the-job training of course, it’s only the beginning. Prospective engineers are assigned into the field for another year or eighteen months before they’re ever allowed to operate a train with passengers. That’s because engineers have to understand intuitively every feature of their route, every curve, straightaway, elevation change or whatever. An engineer has to earn individual certifications for every track segment. Someone certified for track between Washington and New York, for example, couldn’t simply point a train towards Richmond and start heading south. He wouldn’t know the track and something terrible could happen. Engineers need to be able to anticipate terrain beyond the line of sight and that’s only possible with years of experience.
I learned a few other interesting facts. Hopefully I got these right, or if not, I’m sure someone from Amtrak will stumble across this post someday and provide a correction:
- Track switching is handled remotely from a dispatch center. An engineer keeps a constant watch for green lights though just to make sure a red doesn’t appear directly ahead unexpectedly.
- Speeding isn’t tolerated. Ten miles per hour over the limit results in a thirty-day suspension. Engineers are expected to know the speeds without signage too.
- The proper evasive action for wildlife is … nothing. Bambi will get splattered if she’s standing on the track.
- A sign with a "W" means "Blow the Horn." The W refers to whistle, an artifact of days-gone-by when steam engines ran along the rails. They also use specific cadences when encountering different situations like approaching a station or crossing an automobile road.
First we tried a diesel locomotive simulator. The route mimicked an actual stretch of track somewhere in Texas. It was a nice, straight route. Even that simple scenario presented a degree of difficulty because of minor elevation changes. Speed had to be built up long in advance for hills and then pulled back in anticipation of declines. The weather would change to different conditions, say foggy or snowy, and various other hazards appeared on the screen. My favorite was a typical Texas redneck pickup truck running a crossing directly in front of the train. He escaped. I didn’t smash his fictional hide although it would have been impossible to stop even if I’d been able to anticipate his actions.
Then came an opportunity to use the Acela Express simulator. The Acela is Amtrak’s only true high speed train and it is capable of reaching 150 miles per hour (250 km/h). We simulated the trip from Washington (the image on the screen above) to Wilmington. Then we continued to Philadelphia. Finally the simulator jumped further north to Providence, Rhode Island where we got to experience the Acela on a full-speed segment at 150 mph. It seemed pretty amazing even simulated. The machine replicated the interior of an Acela’s driving compartment in exact detail to create a faithful virtual reality environment. Every length of track between Washington and Boston could be reproduced on the screen with an accuracy of a foot or less. There are only a handful of these machines, I think they said somewhere around a dozen or so, anywhere on earth.
The Acela simulator was easier to control than the diesel. It’s an electrically-powered locomotive so it’s more responsive. Also it has cruise control. That still didn’t stop me from wracking-up four speeding violations which would have earned 120 days worth of job suspensions in the real world. I’m not suited to being a locomotive engineer apparently, and I was humbled that my son did considerably better than I.
We rode the train — the real one — back to Washington and called it a great day.