Friday, August 27, 2010

Earlier this week, I had an opportunity to participate in an "Operation Lifesaver" presentation with the Union Pacific Railroad.  For those who aren't familiar with the program, OLS was created by railroads over 25 years ago to create public awareness around grade crossing safety, and reduce fatalities, injuries, and damage caused by collisions between trains, road vehicles and pedestrians.

While many presentations are done in auditoriums, classrooms, and meeting rooms, the presentations this week were a little different -- the UP brought up a business train and did presentations on several of their lines in the Chicago area.

My train was leaving from the downtown Chicago passenger terminal, and was sitting on Track 6 -- one of the two longest in the station, and historically, used for the predecessor trains which ran jointly on the CNW & UP between Chicago and California. A standard freight locomotive was on the head, followed by CNW liveried UP1995 SD70ACe, chair dome "Colombine", chair car "Salina", diner dome "City of Portland", business car "Cheyenne" , Boy Scouts liveried UP2010, and another freight road locomotive at the rear.

Yes, for those of you counting, that was four locomotives for four passenger cars, and otherwise a bit excessive, but I'll explain that in a second....

Full bio's on the various cars are on the Union Pacific website, and most were built in the 1950's.

Yes, I'll admit I'm a rail fan and have been for most of my life.  I've lived along the Harvard Subdivision for over half my life, but had never actually been to Harvard on the train, much less in a classic dome car from the 1950's.  So this was both an educational and a fun thing to be doing for me.

Why the extra engines?  History, and the CNW being somewhat unique.

There are three subdivisions on the UP which host commuter service -- Harvard, Kenosha, and Geneva.  For whatever reason, the Harvard and Kenosha subdivisions use a system called ATS (Automatic Train Stop), and the Geneva sub doesn't.  This requires specially equipped leading and trailing cars (a primary reason why locomotives on the UPRR aren't swapped out with those on other Metra lines).  While ATS equipped locomotives can go just about anywhere, the reverse is not true, and neither the BSA or CNW liveried engines had ATS equipment. So, for this day's operation, two locomotives from the local pool equipped with ATS were required.

With that much power, we had no problems getting up to 70 mph and staying there for most of the trip, slowing only for Mayfair, Deval, and the station stops.  Not too surprisingly, it was a much smoother ride than Metra.  The UPRR has a fleet of about 40 passenger cars that they maintain for PR and company business, and they're kept in top notch condition. Even the upholstery used on the seats was vintage.  In the dome car "Colombine", the upholstery had "UP" embroidered in green and gold.

I must admit, riding in a real dome car is a great way to watch McHenry County fly by.  We stopped briefly in Harvard where box lunches provided by the UPRR were passed around, and the train crew changed cabs.   Not exactly the gourmet menu that was posted on the wall, but still a fine way to watch the world go by...

It was really fun pulling into stations along the way -- you could see some serious looks of confusion amongst those in their 20's, looks of delight from the kids and those in their 50's and older.  And yes, a few people tried to get a free ride into Chicago but were turned away.  Somehow, word was out about the run because I saw a lot of tripods set up along the route as well.

From a timing standpoint, the run on this line was a bit ironic.  The previous week, one of my son's classmates committed suicide by stepping in front of an inbound Metra train on this very line.  While OLS has contributed greatly to improving accidental deaths, there's no awareness program which is going to prevent "Metracide" from occurring.  As much as the schools have tried to promote hotlines, peer groups, and other methods of support for teens in crisis, they won't stop someone truly determined.  The best we can hope for is educating kids early about the impact this has on the train crews.  They're helpless to do anything except blow the horn and call the authorities.  They're also usually the first responder at the scene, which can be pretty gruesome... While suicide in itself is a selfish act, perhaps knowing the impact this particular method has on innocent bystanders might make them think twice...

From an infrastructure standpoint, grade separation is the best solution for preventing collisions between trains and vehicles or pedestrians. That comes at a significant cost and disruption as well, but until that's completed, we'll always have a need for Operation Lifesaver and similar awareness programs.

For more information, visit">Operation Lifesaver on the web.