The real train from hell

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Amtrak BNSFLast week, Amtrak’s California Zephyr made it onto NBC Nightly News by arriving at Chicago Union Station 19 hours late. Anchor Brian Williams called that blizzard-whipped edition of the Zephyr “the trip from hell.” It’s a good thing for Amtrak that NBC News doesn’t have a Denver bureau, because the real trip you never want to take was that of the California Zephyr going the other direction, toward Emeryville, Calif.
The story you are about to read is told entirely through updates issued by the passenger train operations desk of BNSF Railway in Fort Worth, Texas. I’m telling you this story because when you finish reading it, you will have a far finer appreciation for the efforts BNSF and Amtrak made to get this train over the road than Brian Williams and NBC News did. A tip of my hat to the people of both railroads. Here is the story of Amtrak No. 5 of Jan. 6. All towns referenced in the story are in Nebraska.
BNSF NebraskaFirst update
Train No. 5(06) has been stopped on single main track west of Sutton since at 0310-CT-07 account ground fault relay problems on the lead two units. The crew suspects that the problem was caused by moisture in the traction motors from hitting snow drifts.

The lead two units are shut down and the third unit has one traction motor cut out. The option of adding power from train H-LINDEN9-06 which is tied down at Harvard was considered; however, the crew on No. 5(06) reported to the train dispatcher that the head end of there train was in a 10-foot-deep snow drift and the rear of the train is drifting in.

BNSF light power BNSF 5992 and BNSF 5818 were on duty at Lincoln to retrieve train G-HASBRC8-04 which was tied down at Dorchester. This crew and power has been diverted to assist No. 5(06). The current plan is for the power to tie on to the rear of No. 5(06) and drag No. 5 back to Fairmont, which is the first available clear siding where the switch heater appears to be working. At Fairmont, the above power will attempt to run around and tie onto the head end of No. 5(06) for the westward movement.
Authorization has been issued for the lease of engines BNSF 5992 and BNSF 5818 for assistance from Fairmont to Oakland.
Train No. 6(05) is currently holding at Hastings. This crew will go DOL at 0850-CT-07. Amtrak RFE Andrew Taylor will be transporting the outbound Omaha conductor (On Duty at 0740-CT-07) to Lincoln, where the outbound engineer is already on duty. Due to deteriorating road conditions is expected that this relief crew will have to be transported from Lincoln to Hastings by rail. Authorization has been issued for a pilot crew to assist this crew. Crew N-LINLIN1-07P will be on duty at Lincoln at 0900-CT-07 for this purpose.

BNSF "snow coach" power D-SNOSNO1-07 is currently on duty and being used to pick up the crew on train G-HASBRC8-04 at Dorchester and transport them to Lincoln. It is expected that this power will and crew (DOL 1630-CT-07) will be utilized to transport the out bound Amtrak crew, Amtrak RFE, and BNSF pilot crew to train No. 6(07), which will have been DOL at Hastings for several hours.

At this time it is unknown how much delay will be incurred by No. 5(06) and No. 6(05) due to this service interruption, but it can be expected to be in the 12-18-hour range. BNSF [operations center] is making arrangements with the local civil authorities to be prepared to evacuate these trains if necessary.

Second update
Amtrak train No. 5(06) operating with 5 units (BNSF 5992, BNSF 5818, AMTK 83, AMTK 151, AMTK 121), and 9 cars began experience problems with the BNSF units dropping their load east of McCook. The three Amtrak engines are not providing any tractive effort. The cabs of the Amtrak engines are reported to be full of snow.

No. 5(06) was only capable of attaining a speed of 25 MPH upon arrival at McCook. The crew worked with the mechanical desk while at McCook and made adjustments to the MU cables. The delay at McCook was 25 minutes. Upon departure from McCook, the train was able to make 70 MPH with the two freight units.

Train No. 5(06) stopped again at West Trenton (Akron Subdivision MP 309.2) account the BNSF units stopped loading. The BNSF Mechanical Desk advised the crew on No. 5(06) to separate the MU cables between the BNSF and Amtrak locomotives in an effort to determine if the problem is being caused by the Amtrak engines. The Amtrak crew did this, but then went DOL so they have been unable to determine if this was successful. The Amtrak conductor is going through the train looking for a BNSF crew that is deadheading to get them up to the head end to assist.

BNSF carmen out of McCook have been dispatched to West Trenton to assist.

The Amtrak relief crew out of Denver is estimated to be at West Trenton at 2100-MT-07.
Eastbound BNSF train H-CASLIN1-06 (three units 967/4615/716, 67 loads, 46 empties, 10,120 tons, 6465 feet) is cutting away from their train on single main track ahead of No. 5(06). The crew will bring their power next to No. 5 where they will assist with the mechanical desk. If units BNSF 5992 and 5818 on No. 5(06) cannot be restored to proper operation, the H-CASLIN1-06 will attempt to hand off their second unit (BNSF 4615) to No. 5(06). This is the only west-facing unit in the consist of the H-CASLIN1-06.
No. 5(06) stopped at West Trenton at 1950-CT-07.

Third update
The crew on BNSF train H-CASLIN1-06 has completed the test on the power on No. 5(06) and have reported that BNSF units 5992 and 5818 are loading properly now that they are no longer MU connected to the three Amtrak locomotives. The engineer advises that the BNSF units move No. 5(06) in throttle 7 with the brakes applied.

Due to excessive snow and ice buildup in the locomotive consist on train H-CASLIN1-06 and the current operating status of the power on train No. 5(06), the H-CASLIN1-06 will not set out a unit for No. 5(06) to pick up.

No. 5(06) will depart Trenton once the power for train H-CASLIN1-06 ties back onto their train and departs. The relief crew for No. 5(06) is arriving on site now.

Should additional power problems develop en route, eastbound train U-DENLIN5-07 is by Yuma [Colo.] with 2 engines (BNSF 717/BNSF 4972) and a Jordan Spreader, and is a candidate to hand off a unit to No. 5(06).

Fourth update
Amtrak No. 5(06) derailed engine BNSF 5818 at Denver 31st Street yard on the approach to the wye. Amtrak RFE John Burral is en route. No injuries reported.

Fifth update
BNSF Denver Yard Job Y-DEN3051-07A has been instructed to head to the caboose track where they will retrieve two switch engines. They will then take these engines and tie onto the rear of train No. 5(06) and pull the Amtrak equipment away from engine BNSF 5818, which is derailed on the coal lead to south lead crossover switch. It is expected that this yard power will be coupled onto the rear of train No. 5(06) by 0515-MT-08.

Once cut away from the BNSF power, there will be a route for the Y-DEN3051-07 to shove the Amtrak equipment into Denver Union Station. It is expected that this train will be spotted on the Amtrak platform at Denver by 0630-MT-08.
Sixth update
BNSF Yard Job Y-DEN305-107A has tied onto the rear of train No. 5(06) and will be cutting away from the derailed BNSF power directly.

Amtrak reports that at least a dozen unruly passengers have exited the train and are currently trespassing on BNSF property. Amtrak advises that there are a large number of angry passengers on the train threatening to get off there in the 31st Street Yard.

BNSF ROC advises that the Denver Police Department is arriving on scene.

Fred W. Frailey
Photos:  Crews change on trains 5 and 6 at Hastings, Neb. The BNSF units served to deliver crews to the trains [top]. A very-late-running Denver-Chicago intermodal train waits in the siding for No. 6 at Fairmont, Neb. 

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