Riding the cab of Amtrak's Acela

Posted by E Abbe
on Thursday, March 10, 2011

Guest post from Trains magazine Publisher Elfrieda Abbe

I peered out the windshield of Acela train No. 2212, as Doug Hartig (pictured at right), Amtrak road foreman of engines for the Mid-Atlantic Division, prepared for the noon run from Washington, D.C., to New York City, arriving at 2:55 p.m. Not only was I about to have my first cab ride, but it was in America's fastest train, capable on this route of reaching speeds up to 135 mph.

Hartig, who had engineer duties for the trip, was a genial, informative host and guide. As we went along, he gave me a rundown on all aspects of running this 12,000 hp train. Admittedly, I was so thrilled with the power and speed of the train - the world hurtling toward me, often at 100-134 mph - that my note taking was somewhat sketchy. I decided just to enjoy the ride, note my impressions, and double check information I missed later.

The trip began at Gate A in Washington Union Station, where I met Hartig at 11:30 a.m. on a recent Saturday. We walked out to the Acela on track 19, a sleek silver and blue beauty with a power car on each end, a café car and five coaches. Hartig was already at work. He explained he was inspecting the rear operator's cab to make sure it was properly "cut out" (power off), so that the operater's cab at the front of the train would be able to "cut in" and the train could be controlled from that end. At the head end, he inspected the pantographs, "looking for carbon strips, and other noticeable problems."

We entered the cab, which is tight but comfortable with two seats--similar to but cushier and roomier than an airline seat - on a raised platform facing a control panel with an array of gauges. It looks something like a video game console, Hartig said. Once we settled in our seats, he focused on getting everything in order to depart. Later, I asked him later to give me a rundown of the steps he went through.

"When we stepped into the cab, I made sure I was on the right radio channel, cut in my cab, checked my brake sheets. Checked the windshield wipers since it was raining, and I knew we would use them. Then I performed a brake test with the flagman on the rear of the train. Afterwards I turned on the headlights and ditch lights and went outside to visually check that they were in working condition."

Rain turning to snow as we went north would call for a reduced speeds (even at that we would get up to 100-134 mph) and cutting out the tilt control to prevent ice and snow from getting packed under the hydraulic systems. This means he would have to run at reduced speeds on the curves.

When he pulled out of the station, Hartig did a brake test at 15 mph to make sure the brakes would come on and slow the train down. For engineers, he said, this running brake test is a "feel it in your seat" check to see how the brakes respond under current conditions. Now we were good to go.

In what seemed like a nano-second we up to the 45 mph the limit within cities. Hartig controlled the speeds with the throttle. He used cruise control to set the top speed on the speedometer. That day the top speeds were 125 mph between Washington and Philadelphia and 134 between Philadelphia and New York. But along the way with curve or tunnel restrictions, speeds varied from 30 (the speed limit through major city terminals.) to 100 mph. After going at top speed, anything below 90 mph feels like a crawl.

One of the things I love about trains is riding through the back yards of cities, seeing the industrial underbelly, getting a glimpse of the abandoned old wooden houses along the tracks (what must it have been like to live so close to the trains going by?), the railroad yards, and cast-off control towers. These urban landscapes have their own gritty, muscular beauty and power.

The only other high-speed ride I've had was on the Eurostar, but as a passenger in the coaches. On this trip I had an engineer's eye view. Instead of watching the landscape go by, it rushed toward me, often at exhilarating speeds, straight on.

My favorite sections of the trip: going through the series of antediluvian-looking tunnels coming into Baltimore and literally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel ahead; looking up at the intricate structures of the bridges between Baltimore, Md, and Wilmington, Del. over the Gunpowder, Bush, and Susquehanna rivers; the cinematic trackside views of famous terminals such as Philadelphia's 30th Street Station, cities in the distance, and the snow-covered countryside. Hartig pointed out some landmarks I would have never recognized such as the Philadelphia Zoo and Rutgers University buildings. He noted a Ferrari dealership in what seemed an unlikely spot alongside the tracks in Elizabeth, N.J.

At station stops in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Wilmington, he got out of the cab to check the pantographs again for damage. The engineer's main objective is the "safe movement of our trains and guests. Most engineers, though, also take great pride in running a train smoothly with good throttle control, and easy on, easy off brake applications." I can't speak for the other passengers, but up front it was a smooth ride all the way.

With all the sights and sensations, the three-hour trip seemed truncated as we went through the Hudson River tunnel and pulled out into New York's Penn Station. I thanked Hartig for a great ride, took the escalator up to exit near 7th Avenue, where I hailed a cab to take me to my final destination.

Thanks to Amtrak's Doug Hartig for a great ride and to Steve Kulm and Chris Jagodzinski for getting me on the train.

Tags: Amtrak
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