Traveling by train is the most relaxing way to travel from one city to another. It sure beats driving, and sure beats bumper-to-bumper traffic on the highways. Taking the train relieves all of the stress, and allows any traveler the opportunity to appreciate the great scenery outside the window. From the point of departure, to crossing over rivers, to passing through tunnels, and speeding parallel to a major interstate highway are just a few highlights of traveling by train. There is one moment in every railroad traveler’s journey that never gets old. Passengers love it. Amtrak employees don’t mind it either. That moment is when it’s time to change engines.
The changing of engines has been a ritual that dates back many decades. Back in the early days, steam engines ruled the rails. Eventually, the winds of change kept on blowing. Diesel engines replaced the steam engines. Locomotives were becoming more and more ‘fuel’ efficient. Still, there are points along a train’s journey where electric engines were changed to diesel and vice-versa. There are also points where locomotives are changed from diesel to diesel, due to the length of the trip and the amount of fuel needed. The experienced yard workers at Amtrak make it look easy.
It is November 7th, 2018. Amtrak’s Northeast Regional train #95 has pulled into Washington, DC’s Union Station. Amtrak train #95 travels between Boston and Newport News, VA. Having come to a complete stop, the yard workers deactivate the ACS-64 electric locomotive’s power generator. This provides the electrical power to the passenger cars. The lighting throughout the train goes out. The passengers find it a bit distracting. The train crew reminds the passengers about the power outage. Once the electrical power goes out, the fun part begins. It is one of the most dangerous jobs on the railroad. That job is changing engines.
At the head end of the train, the yard workers begin unhooking the power jumpers between the locomotive and the lead passenger coach. A blue work light is placed on the ground, ahead of the engine. This means that work is in progress, and no train is allowed past that light. Task completed, one of the yard workers give the passenger coach’s operating handle a tug. Sometimes, it takes more than a tug-a jiggle. Moments later, a yard worker gives the engineer the go-ahead to ease the engine forward. Soon afterward, the locomotive pulls away from the train consist. As the locomotive moves forward, the brake line in between the locomotive and the train consist comes apart. Once apart, one can hear the piercing loud noise of the burst of air, indicating that the engine change is well underway. Just as the ACS-64 electric locomotive pulls away and switches off to a siding, the big P-40 Genesis diesel locomotive stands ready.
Once the Amtrak yard workers have prepared the power lines on the lead passenger coach, and are at the ready, the P-40 Genesis diesel engine is switched into position. As the engine slowly backs its way towards the train, an Amtrak yard worker rides at the ear of the locomotive, waving a work lantern in a circular motion. He/She is giving manual signals to the engineer. Station-side, the yard workers set up the locomotive’s power feeds and brake line for coupling. The power feeds are placed in a temporary position so that the lines don’t get dragged or damaged while the engine is in motion. Each of the locomotive’s power outlets pack eight hundred volts. The yard workers do this job with great caution.
Aside from the brake line and power feeds, the engine’s knuckle coupler is opened, using the operating handle. Given the all-clear, the engineer is instructed to ease the locomotive back towards the train. A solid ‘ka-chunk’ can be felt throughout the first three or four coaches. Once the engine has coupled up to the train, an Amtrak yard worker instructs the engineer to ease the engine forward to stretch the train out. If it’s a good hook-up, the yard worker gives the signal to the engineer. This is shown by giving a ‘two fists up’ sign. Once the engine is securely coupled up, a yard worker re-attaches the brake and power feeds. Once all done, the train stands ready for the remainder of its journey to Newport News. Down the escalator come the Washington passengers. All passengers en route to Newport News are directed to re-board.
Traveling by train is the most exciting way to travel. As opposed to flying, watching the scenery fly by while at speed is one of the great reasons why taking the train is such an intimate traveling experience. Apart from the scenery, the relaxation, and the stress free on-board environment, train travel has its other fun moment. Changing engines in cities such as Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and New Haven, CT, makes any journey on the rails all the more dramatic. Day-in and day-out, yard workers put their tender, loving care into the most dangerous job in the business. Changing engines is not just a job, it’s part of the journey.