Wednesday, October 3, 2012
The Sherlock Holmes of Delayed Trains
Waiting for 410 on Tuesday (scheduled time: 7:50 AM), the sign gets to 3 mins, and no headlight is visible. Then "The next train to Boston is now approaching," and still the train has not appeared. After a few minutes, the sign drops to "Next train to Boston not moving, please stand by."
Ladies and gentlemen, we have an excrement / fan collision. You are all going to be late for work.
As commuters start leaving in favor of their automobiles, I go over the options for what could have happened.
An unscheduled stop of a passenger train usually means something malfunctioned (mechanical delay!) or the engineer applied the emergency brake for an obstruction on the tracks. On most railroads, an emergency brake application for any reason requires the train crew to visually inspect the train, and repressurizing the train air brake line takes time. I'd guesstimate that the emergency brake application of a six car passenger train takes 10-15 minutes to recover from.
Or they could have hit someone. Just around the bend from the station is Walden Pond, a popular recreation area very close to the tracks. I really hope they didn't hit someone walking his dog on the tracks. Besides delaying my train for hours, that's a real tragedy for both the family of the victim and the train crew. The engineer can do nothing but watch helplessly as her train runs down a pedestrian—even a relatively light passenger train takes thousands of feet to stop—and hear and feel the impact, then the conductor has to get down on the ground and find the body. It sucks for everyone.
Luckily, due outbound any time now is train 453, a South Acton local. Its conductor may know what's going on, and I'll be able to tell whether there was an accident or not depending on whether the train continues or is held at Lincoln. I walk to the outbound platform across the street just as the train rolls in. The assistant conductor who opens the door nearest to me doesn't know what's going on, and the train pulls away. Whew! Process of elimination leaves just a mechanical failure.
I get back to the inbound platform just as the LED sign that is our portal into commuter rail operations announces that 410 will operate 25-35 minutes late due to mechanical problems. Score one for guessing
While I can wait in peace knowing it's just a mechanical delay, I still have to get to work. Train 412, with an 8:15 scheduled stop, is being announced on the sign as approaching, bringing hope to the commuters around me. I know better. The Fitchburg Line is current-of-traffic operations, so 410 is in the way and operating 412 on the outbound "wrong" main is unlikely. Possible, with lots of paperwork and delay, but unlikely.
I see three options. One is to run 412 around the stalled 410 on the outbound main with considerable delay. Depending on what exactly this mechanical problem is, the two trains could also join forces, with 412 pushing 410 all the way to Boston. The third is actually fixing the mechanical problem or finding a way to work around it.
As it turns out, a workaround was found. At 8:15, 410 shows up, by itself. As it gets closer, I can see the conductor sitting in the engineer's seat of the cab car and perform a Sherlock Holmes-esque logic sequence to deduce what the rest of my commute will be like. The conductor in the cab car means the engineer is operating the train from the locomotive at the rear, and the conductor is protecting the shove, calling signals, and generally guiding the engineer. As a protected shove without the engineer at the head end, our speed will be limited (to 30 mph, confirmed by another conductor) and the ride will be a bit rough. 412 must be directly behind 410, running on its yellow signals, like the one near the pedestrian bridge in the distance. It should be appearing momentarily.
Like clockwork, that's exactly what happens. 412's headlight appears, I climb aboard 410, and we're off at 30 mph.
By the time we get to North Station, we're nearly an hour late, but the fact that we made it at all speaks to the robustness of rail travel and to the adaptability of our train crew. I bet an airline would've stranded us all at a terminal for hours on end if one of their planes had control problems. Granted, trains typically don't fall out of the sky if they have mechanical problems, but an adaptation of the old adage certainly applies here.
"It's a hell of a way to run a railroad, but the railroad always runs."