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Train Ride on the Little Simulator That Could : Budding Engineers Go for Long-Distance Rides Without Leaving the Station

December 19, 1986|MIKE EBERTS | Eberts lives in Hollywood. and

A 14-million-pound freight train can act like a mile-and-a-half long, diesel-powered Slinky if part of it is going uphill and another part downhill. An undulating stretch of track can generate forces capable of breaking a train in two.

This is why railroad engineers must plan their moves at least five miles ahead, but also be ready to react to situations ranging from broken rails to animals wandering onto the track.

The engineer needs an encyclopedic knowledge of the rules that govern train operation and a hands-on knowledge of train handling to avoid disaster when a potentially dangerous situation arises.

That knowledge is being provided at the Engine Service Training Center in Cerritos where, four at a time, engineers are trained for the Southern Pacific Transportation Co. While classroom courses are taught in operating rules, air brakes and train mechanics, it is in train handling where the facility provides a unique form of instruction.

During three weeks of intensive training, the student engineers (who have already undergone more than a year of on-the-job training) are paired off and given 48 hours in the cab of the SP 8799 diesel locomotive simulator. Each student gets 24 hours behind the controls.

Reacting to Emergencies

"As much as we can, we condition them," said Gary McClain, assistant manager of training and development at the training facility. "We get them to react as second nature. There is no time to thumb through the rule book."

The simulator can replicate situations that no instructor would want to set up in real life.

"If they have a problem, you can rerun and rerun until they get it right," McClain said. "You can crash the train 20 times a day and not hurt anything."

Locomotive 8799 has helped train 2,186 student engineers during more than 16 years of service, but it has never moved an inch. A full-sized cab mounted on a motion base that pitches and sways like a real locomotive, the 8799 simulates the sights, sounds and working environment of an EMD SD40-2 diesel locomotive. A projection screen in front of the cab provides a picture of what an engineer actually sees when going down the track.

The 8799 is a blend of rail-era nostalgia and high-tech glitz. In July, 1985, it became the first rail simulator in the nation to use interactive video lazerdisk technology. It is considered an advancement over film and video tape because it allows the instructors to program in any one of a number of "alternate events" at a number of places along the track. There is one other simulator in Chicago, but it does not use video lazerdisk.

A Computer Keyboard

Behind a bulkhead at the rear of the cab is a control area with a television monitor, three computer monitors, two video lazerdisk players, a control panel and a computer keyboard. From here, John Lowry, rules and training officer, programs in the route the students will travel, the type of train they will be pulling, its length, the number of cars, how heavy each car is and any one of more than a hundred events that range from a red signal to a loss of power to a torpedo (a cautionary explosive device used much like a motorist might use a flare) on the track.

Lowry said that performance in the simulator provides a glimpse of how well a prospective engineer will react in real-life, high-pressure situations. "I look for coolness under fire," he said. "It is a very demanding job. Sometimes you will see an engineer get off a train and heave a big sigh of relief."

But if being a train engineer entails a great deal of pressure, it also provides a tremendous feeling of power, according to Georjan Peters, a rules and training officer since 1984, who was hired by the SP as a brakeman-switchman in 1978, became a fireman in 1980 and an engineer in 1983.

She described the thrill of being an engineer as "being in a curve, looking back on your train, seeing 140 cars and realizing that you are moving all that."

As a switchman, she made up the trains in the rail yard. As a brakeman, she went out on the train, coupling and uncoupling cars.

"It was the first time in my life I was glad I wasn't skinny, scrawny and short," said Peters, a former elementary schoolteacher of mentally handicapped children.

'Definitely a Romance'

"You're out there in the heat and sand and oil, but there is definitely a romance," she said. "I hope that one of these days I'll go back and run trains again."

Walter Gould, another rules and training officer, is not only able to escape to the cab of a real locomotive occasionally, but he has a video record of his travels as well.

Nicknamed "Cecil B. DeGould" by co-workers, he is in charge of filming and editing the material projected in front of the simulator.

For a collision scene, Gould was authorized to hit a retired caboose at 3 miles per hour. In production, the apparent speed of impact is boosted to 12 miles per hour. On the simulator, it can be presented at up to 36 miles per hour.

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