The commuter train that leaves Acelas in the dust

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Amtrak’s Acela high speed trains cover the 40.3 miles between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore in a brisk 29 to 33 minutes at speeds of up to 125 mph. But MARC, the Maryland commuter-rail agency, has some Acelas beat. One of its trains, No. 406, gets from D.C. to Baltimore in 32 minutes and did it today in just 31, at an average speed of 78 mph. This has to be the fastest commuter train in the world on the fastest commuter railroad in the world.
When I blogged a month ago about the amazing sensation you get watching from the front window of a Caltrains “Baby Bullet” express doing 79 mph in push mode from San Jose to San Francisco (see “As Good As a Cab Ride,” Feb. 6), I immediately heard from my friend Ira Silverman. Ira is an executive in the Maryland Transportation Authority, which oversees MARC. He suggested I ride No. 406 on its nonstop run to Baltimore, where it quickly turns to make an all-stops trip back to D.C. Can a passenger see from the front window either way, I asked? No, Ira admitted. So I blew him off. But Ira was in too deep to back away, so he arranged a cab ride, in the company of Amtrak road foreman of engines Pat Kelly. How can I refuse an offer like that?
MARC’s Penn Line uses Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor and Amtrak crews. And the commuter trainset used by No. 406 is built for speed: a new HHP-8 locomotive made by Bombardier and Alstom and eight bilevel Kawasaki coaches. Everything is FRA-certified for 125 mph.
Off we go at 7:21 a.m., threading through the switches of Washington Union Station at a crawl. But engineer Tony Saunders (top photo) quickly gets us to a trot. And 1.4 miles out, after crossing over to Track 2 at control point Avenue, beneath New York Avenue and adjacent to the commuter-train storage yard, Tony lets ’er rip, going right to Notch 8 and putting all 8,000 horses inside locomotive 4914 to work. Our rate of acceleration is nearly 2 mph per second. There’s a 100-mph curve at Landover, Md., seven miles from Union Station, where a CSX freight line becomes Track 1. After that, you’re in 120 or 125 zones the next 28 miles.
I notice that Tony has us crusing at 110. “That’s what I usually do,” he says. “You only lose a minute. And passengers can sleep easier this way.” But he sees the look on my face and relents. Up, up and away!
At 125 mph, you get the feeling that if anything at all goes wrong, anything, you’re dead. Stuff comes at you faster than you can process it and react to it. That’s Fred the novice talking; Tony would say you get used to it. So-so visibility adds to the feeling of vulnerability. One, we are going into the sun most of the way, and two, the cab windows on our HHP-8 are filmy and appear to be made of high-impact plastic instead of glass.
On the middle track, we blast through Odenton, Md., at 7:36, 22 miles out, like a roadrunner with its tail on fire. Average speed so far: 90 mph. Here is where we can beat an Acela. Some Acelas must slow to cross over just beyond Odenton, at control point Grove, to be on the outside track for the stop at BWI Airport station. But we roar by both Grove and BWI. (Eight northbound Acelas bypass BWI, too, and are scheduled from Washington to Baltimore in 29 minutes; all southbound Acelas require at least 32 minutes.)

Eight miles beyond BWI is West Baltimore, and we begin slowing for the curves leading up to the B&P tunnels, a series of double-track bores bearing a 30-mph limit for 1.5 miles. Leaving the last tunnel, we enter Baltimore’s Penn Station. My trip aboard the world’s fastest commuter train is over at 7:52 a.m., one minute early. I thank Tony Saunders and get off.
But wait. Kelly invites me to ride the cab car as this equipment goes back, as No. 417, at 8:10 a.m. Our engineer now is Bill Woutila (Tony takes about a five-hour break before making his next round trip of the day). Bill is a newbie, having qualified as an Amtrak engineer only a short time ago, after 32 years running freight trains out of Baltimore for Conrail and Norfolk Southern.
If anything, the return trip in the cab car is even more fun than the locomotive ride. This really is the equivalent of the front window of that Caltrains "Baby Bullet," only at speeds up to 45 mph faster.
Bill makes seven intermediate stops and takes an hour getting to Washington. That’s an average speed of 40, and I grant that this isn’t too impressive. What is impressive is what happens between each of those stops.
Two beeps over the communications buzzer by conductor Andy Wyrwaszewski (try pronouncing it), and Bill brings the throttle out a notch as the brakes release. He’s waiting to be nudged from behind by his HHP locomotive on the other end. If you’re not careful, those horses will bump you again and again. When the locomotive is in sync, down goes the throttle lever to Run 8.
Then it’s simply a matter of how much speed Woutila can build before he sets his brakes for the next stop (middle photo). After West Baltimore and Halethorpe, it’s always more than 110 mph, and twice (from BWI to Odenton and New Carrollton to New York Avenue) he gets his local commuter train all the way to 125. At that speed, what you see from the cab car is a motion picture greatly speeded up; everything goes by in a blur. You’re meeting trains at a passing speed of up to 250 mph, so in a few seconds, you see a train and it becomes history. Ditto the people doing work along the tracks. Pity anyone who’s not paying full attention.
Stopping is a story all its own. Being new, Bill keeps a piece of paper with his schedule, and next to each stop the landmark to stop beside so that his train is spotted where Wyrwaszewski wants it. It’s usually a sign on the ground for just that purpose. The poor visibility from an HHP-8 makes it impossible to see those signs, so others are hung from trees at some stations.
So we’re going like a bat out of hell. At about a mile and a quarter from each stop, always before I can see it, Woutila makes a full-service brake application. Bill confesses that he’s still uncertain of himself, and errs on the side of caution. About a quarter mile out, it always seems as if No. 417 is about to stop, although in every instance it is still doing at least 50. Bill releases the brakes and makes a second application coming into the station, easing slowly to the stop marker.
Union Station, three minutes early. Road foreman Kelly wants us off the cab car quickly. Otherwise, we risk being trampled to death by our passengers in their rush to the Metro station (bottom photo).
Well, this has been the thrill divine. I loved every minute of it. You readers who use the Penn Line: Introduce yourselves to your engineer. To do what he or she does, you simply have to be fearless. — Fred W. Frailey


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