Just another crappy day on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, April 19, 2010

How many things can go wrong in one day on a railroad? If we’re speaking of Amtrak’s Baltimore Division, from Wilmington, Del., to Washington, D.C., as it existed one-third of a century ago, the answer is ... a lot. From 6 a.m. on April 6, 1977, to 6 a.m. on April 7 are the 24 hours in question. I’ve just read the typewritten log kept that day by the assistant chief dispatchers. Shall we get started?
Back then, dozens of Conrail freight trains shared the corridor with Amtrak passenger trains. By and large, it’s the freights that get into trouble. And the first to do so is NE-2, running very late out of Potomac Yard in Virginia toward Selkirk, N.Y. As it passes the interlocking tower at Edgewood, Md., 24 miles north of Baltimore at 4:30 a.m., the operator sees fire flying from the second of two GG1 electric locomotives. The train is stopped and reports that the wheels are locked on the rear truck, with eight-inch flat spots. Talk about a derailment waiting to happen.
During the next hour, the crew runs around the train with the lead GG1 and pulls the freight cars into the east siding at Magnolia, leaving the disabled motor on Track 2. Baltimore’s Bay View Yard dispatches two other GG1s to pick this train up. Amtrak’s bad luck was that this occurred on one of the few two-track portions between New York and Washington, so now everything has to share a single track over a four-mile stretch. Not until 9:48 a.m. is GG1 4859 pulled off the main track, as mechanical people oil the rails in front of it. Six Amtrak trains are delayed.
Less than two hours later, another train really does derail. PE-3 has just entered the Northeast Corridor from Potomac Yard at 11:37 a.m., en route to Enola Yard in Harrisburg, Pa., when its brakes go into emergency. Just north of Landover Tower, on Track 1, the conductor discovers car 72 of 94 off the rails and fouling Track 2, leaving Track 3 as the only way in or out of Washington. The conductor of PE-3 blames the derailment on rough track.
It takes half an hour to determine that the Baltimore wreck train is needed, and only another half hour to have it on its way south. At 4:36 p.m., the wayward boxcar is back on the track, and at 6:08 p.m., Track 1 is again placed into service. Sixteen Amtrak trains and numerous Conrail freights are delayed. PE-3 is finally on its way again at 7:22 p.m., now almost 24 hours late.
Minutes after midnight, the fireman of a radioless Amtrak locomotive en route from Baltimore to Washington to power a wire train the next day walks into the station in Odenton, Md., after a three-mile hike to report the engine stalled on Track 3 because its fuel pump quit working. But half an hour later, the locomotive appears out of the darkness at the tower in Bowie, Md., seven miles south of Odenton. The engineer had determined that the real problem was a blown fuse, which he replaced. No mention is made of the fireman’s whereabouts by this time.
Just as that was happening, the next day’s edition of Conrail freight NE-2 has come off the freight line at Landover onto Track 2 with two GG1s and a 7,436-ton train and grinds to a stall. The log notes: “Four more [catenary] poles and he would have had it made.” The engineer is instructed to back up onto the freight line and try again. But Conrail says the train needs to be re-crewed first. While awaiting a new crew, the dispatcher is reminded by the engineer going off duty that Potomac Yard gave his train nearly 500 tons more than two GG1s are able to pull over the grades south of Baltimore. “When questioned about giving it another shot,” the log reads, “the engineman said it would be useless.” So the B&P Tunnel helper in Baltimore is ordered south to lend a hand. NE-2 gets underway 4:41 a.m.
But meanwhile, at 3:46 a.m., the fifth car of northbound freight WA-4 sets off the hotbox detector at Charlestown, Md., 28 miles south of Wilmington. The train won’t respond to a radio summons, so the tower operator at Newark, Del., sets the remote signal in North East, Md., to stop. When the crew is finally contacted, it is told to inspect the fifth car, and reports back that nothing is amiss. After a 30-minute delay, WA-4 is on its way.
But 13 minutes later, the same car on the same train kicks off the next hotbox detector, at Elkton, Md. Again, no answer to a radio summons (the crew only has a portable radio, it develops), so once more a signal controlled by the Newark operator is set to red and halts the train. This time the friction bearing of the fifth car is found to have failed. Why wasn’t it discovered the first time? I’ll quote from the log: “The front brakeman was Mr. W. R. Lawson, and a similar case happened on Train AW-5-A at Perryville on April 3, at 2:49 a.m. Mr. Lawson has a bad habit. He counts from the lead engine.”
These are merely the highlights of 25 unexpected events chronicled by the assistant chiefs on five sheets of legal-size paper. Reflecting on the day’s events, I’m struck by how much has changed. No more GG1s. No more through freights on this trackage, either, except for Norfolk Southern trains between Perryville and Baltimore, and CSX coal trains between Washington and Bowie. Then, maximum speed for Metroliners was 105 mph; today, Acelas do 130 mph. The operators in 11 interlocking towers between Wilmington and Washington were the dispatcher’s eyes and ears. Today the towers are closed, and so is the old dispatching office above the waiting room in Baltimore’s Penn Station; dispatching is done from the top floor of 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. For all of that, however, communication with trains is more assured.
I would rather have the Northeast Corridor of 2010 than the one that existed in 1977. On the other hand, it was a more colorful, interesting, and eventful era back then, wouldn’t you agree? — Fred W. Frailey

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