Metrolink Plans For Live Brake-Tests of BNSF "Heavy Iron" Train-Sets on Commuter Tracks
On September 26, 2015, Southern California regional rail passenger carrier Metrolink announced a decision to lease forty Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) freight locomotives. As the plan goes into effect, current high-pollution diesel locomotives will continue to provide head-end power for all outbound Metrolink trains. On return trips, BNSF freight locomotive will provide the head-end power. In either direction, one locomotive will provide traction and the other will be deadweight. The cost to lease and outfit the BNSF locomotives with positive train control (PTC) safety systems will exceed $19 million.
Collision vulnerability of pusher trains, with a cab car up front is widely known. During a February 2015 Metrolink collision in Oxnard, California, a Hyundai-Rotem cab car experienced a catastrophic failure of its anti-derailment “plow”. The loss of the plow beneath the cab car may have caused its derailment, along with the remaining coaches and the Metrolink pusher locomotive #870.
Recently, a source close to the Metrolink investigation told me, “I believe that the NTSB informed the railroad about the plow failure. It is amazing that they are replacing the Rotem cab cars with (BNSF) engines, using an ‘emergency provision’ related to safety.” Another trusted source told me, “The BNSF freight units are about 50% heavier and have six axles to bear that weight. However, in spite of their horsepower, they have poor acceleration and limited top speed. The resulting longer trains will also complicate the operation at storage tracks, some of which will not be able to accommodate an extra vehicle. If instituted, I predict a major service meltdown.”
Diesel locomotives utilize two separate braking systems. With dynamic breaking engaged, the diesel engine slows to an idle, while the electric motor becomes an electrical generator. The generator provides resistance to the drive train, thus slowing the train’s wheels. All of this takes time. On a freight locomotive, the pneumatic system provides faster or emergency braking. It uses pressurized air to actuate cylinders and rods, which impinge upon “brake blocks”. The brake blocks, which are analogous to automotive break shoes, apply friction directly to the train’s steel wheels.
It is common knowledge that Metrolink has ceased scheduled maintenance on its decades-old locomotives. If a locomotive fails, they attempt to fix it. Otherwise, Metrolink keeps running each locomotive until the next failure. This raises obvious questions about reliability and safety. It also begs the question; does Metrolink still conduct scheduled or preventative maintenance on its locomotive braking systems? A simple audit of its maintenance contractor, Bombardier Transit Corporation, would show whether they provide periodic maintenance on Metrolink locomotive brake systems.
In the newer, Hyundai-Rotem cab cars and coaches, disk brake technology now prevails. Under Rotem’s high-tech scheme, the cab car’s wheels support outboard disks, or rotors as part of the pneumatic braking system. Typically, disk brakes act more efficiently than “brake shoes” to slow a moving vehicle. This technology, which is new to Metrolink, comes at a price. That price is what we call “the learning curve”.
At its home location in South Korea, Hyundai-Rotem reportedly paid a $6.3 million settlement last year over brake defects and mechanical malfunctions. Rather than field testing its various consists of coaches, cab cars and locomotives, Metrolink assumed that all of its braking systems would be compatible. Through ignorance or indifference, Metrolink failed to perform live braking trials for their typical, odd assortment of coaches.
Still unknown is how a mixture of old and new braking systems affected the derailment of all five cars during the 2015 Oxnard collision. New technology braking systems installed on the three Rotem coaches may have overwhelmed the braking capacity of the single, obsolete Bombardier bi-level coach.
Even after the cab car and other coaches had derailed, a poorly maintained Metrolink locomotive kept pushing from the rear. Photographic evidence suggests that slow braking at the pusher-end popped the rigid Bombardier coach loose from both of its couplings. Once the Bombardier coach derailed, it traveled farther off course than even the doomed Hyundai-Rotem cab car. Other than the death of Metrolink Senior Engineer Glenn Steele, the most serious injuries occurred within the obsolete Bombardier bi-level coach.
Metrolink’s recent decision to lease forty, six-axle BNSF diesel freight locomotives was hasty. If the newly devised train sets cannot operate better than the mixed-consist trains currently in operation, both passengers and motorists may be at additional risk. Riding on four axles, current Metrolink diesel locomotives weigh 280,000 lb. At over 420,000 lb., the BNSF freight engines are fifty percent heavier. A current five-car Metrolink train weighs approximately 460,000 lb. By adding a freight locomotive at one end, the BNSF train set will weigh 880,000 lb., an increase of ninety-one percent.
In contrast to the diminutive anti-derailment plow on the Hyundai-Rotem cab cars, the BNSF freight locomotives should be able to clear almost any vehicle or debris from the tracks. However, the addition of such “heavy iron” on each Metrolink train raises questions about fuel consumption, environmental pollution, braking systems and overall reliability.
Fuel Consumption – A twelve-cylinder, turbocharged two-stroke diesel engine powers each Metrolink EMD F59PH locomotive. None of those locomotives is younger than twenty years. By current standards, they are “gas hogs”, inefficiently providing traction to the drive wheels. To get the idea, picture a 1990 Mercedes 190D diesel automobile spewing nitrogen oxide and particulates into the air as you drive behind it.
By effectively “dragging” one locomotive or the other at all times, the deadweight of the nonfunctional locomotive will drastically increase Metrolink fuel consumption. In the past, some railroads have solved lightweight cab car derailments with old-fashioned innovation. They have replaced cab cars with stripped-down locomotives. With their diesel engines and traction motors removed, these so-called “coffin cars” provide sufficient weight upfront to preclude most derailments. Admittedly any "coffin cars" utilized on Metrolink tracks would require addition of Positive Train Control (PTC) safety systems. Still, that could cost a lot less than the recently approved $19 million BNSF lease.
Environmental Pollution – A decade after the newest Metrolink F59PH locomotives came into service, the U.S. EPA’s 2005 Tier 2 locomotive emissions standards took effect. Given their age and power plants, all Metrolink locomotives qualify as pre Tier 2. That designation makes them among the worst polluters currently active on any U.S. passenger railroad.
With the recent deception perpetrated by World Wide Volkswagen Group, the public is now aware that nitrogen oxide is a greenhouse gas (GHG) 300-times more detrimental than carbon dioxide itself. In this case, even a single Tier 0-1 diesel locomotive pollutes the air at a greater rate than hundreds, if not thousands of errant Volkswagen diesel engines.
Braking Power – Mixed-consist train sets require testing to determine how they will perform under emergency braking procedures. Using readily available metering and measurement devices, Metrolink should test each consist of coaches and locomotives. During a full speed test, the locomotive engineer would initiate emergency braking. Although this would not simulate a collision, it would “stress test” both old and the new braking and coupling systems in a live environment. Until it provides results of live emergency brake testing, Metrolink’s mismatched train sets may continue to endanger both passengers and the public.
Reliability – Over the years, the uptime of Metrolink locomotives has deteriorated. As of 2013, thirty of Metrolink's fifty-two locomotives were due for complete overhaul. By 2015, not one of those obsolete locomotives had received more than a "Band-Aid" overhaul. Instead, as it awaits their replacement with new Tier 4 locomotives, Metrolink is running its current fleet of locomotives until failure.
The agency’s lack of scheduled maintenance reminds me of oil exploration on the North Slope of Alaska. There, when an oilfield declines, the operator discontinues periodic maintenance well before final closure. In such cynical, “work until failure” schemes, oil companies curtail periodic maintenance in order to save money. In such cases, reliability and safety take a backseat to corporate profits.
Whether in Alaska oilfields or on Southern California rails, the end of periodic maintenance and overhaul signals a decline in both reliability and safety. With an oil field, the company can wait for repairs, clean up any spilled oil and then resume pumping. With Metrolink, the consequences of its current “work until failure” plan include fewer riders, less revenue and potential catastrophic failure of the Metrolink system.