November 23, 2006
BehindTheTrainspeak: 'Slippery Rail Syndrome' and 'Flat Wheel'
Yesterday's entertaining and informative Wall Street Journal article by Elizabeth Holmes about the scourge of autumn leaves on our railroad network brought the two conditions noted in the headline up top to my attention for the first time ever.
Long story short: falling leaves exude oil which, combined with water and pressure from trains "creates a black ooze that sticks to the rails but renders them too slick for train wheels to gain traction."
As a result trains have to travel up to a third more slowly, need wheel reshaping far more frequently as a result of excessive braking and skidding and are thus out of service for increased periods of time, all of which cumulatively cause train trips in October and November in the eastern U.S. to experience major drops in on-time performance, on some routes from 95% to the low eighties.
England has it even worse, with "Slippery Rail" resulting in extra costs of almost $95 million annually.
Here's the story.
- Why Your Train Is Late, Most of All, When Autumn Leaves Start to Fall
Winding through the countryside on its 45-mile trip from Boston, the Worcester line of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority treats commuters to miles of fall foliage.
Yet as each red oak leaf flutters to the ground, a train engineer sighs.
Those little leaves cause a lot of trouble, delaying passengers, crippling equipment and costing millions of dollars. Every autumn, passenger railroads across the globe deal with a condition called slippery rail. A dangerous combination of water, leaf oil and pressure from the train creates a black ooze that sticks to the rails but renders them too slick for train wheels to gain traction.
"It's like driving on ice," laments Jody Ray, the MBTA's director of railroad operations. "We'd rather have snow."
This autumn, with its prolonged periods of warm, wet weather, has been especially grueling for the nation's busiest confluence of railroads and foliage, the Northeast. Cars have been knocked out of service because the brake-slide effect literally flattens steel wheels. Trains have had to travel up to a third more slowly. Railroads have put on extra workers. And passengers have been late or left to stand. Yet, the age-old problem persists as railroads world-wide try everything from lasers to high-pressure water blasting to sand compounds to defeat the wind-blown leaf.
It has gotten so bad that 20% of the cars on the Long Island Rail Road, the U.S.'s largest commuter line, are out of service because of slippery rail.
Commuter trains are affected most, according to Dr. Sudhir Kumar, who studied the problem for the federal government in the 1990s. Freight trains have different, more effective braking systems. Commuter trains, however, are lighter and have a frequent need to start and stop precisely. With slick conditions, train operators can overshoot the station — anywhere from a car length to a quarter of a mile.
While accidents have occurred because of slippery rail, the most common damage is to the train itself. When the train slides, the electronic sensors on the wheel perceive the movement as acceleration. The brakes lock and the wheels slide. Repeated occurrences, combined with the buildup of material on the wheel, cause a condition known as "flat wheel." In severe cases, the cars are taken out of service for repairs called "truing" or returning the wheel to its circular shape.
"It makes for a very clunky ride," says Dan Brucker, spokesman for the Metro-North Railroad, which serves New York City and its northern suburbs.
Metro-North has had a tough leaf season. A solid week of heavy rains and winds earlier this month worsened conditions, especially on the Hudson and Harlem lines through Westchester county, and the occurrence of flat wheel. Typically, the two lines require 392 cars to operate during rush hour. This week, they have only 268 cars running. Three Metro-North repair shops are working around the clock (they can only true between three and six cars in a 24-hour period), says John Kesich, who handles the mechanical operations for the railroad.
Mr. Kesich and David Schanoes, who in charge of operations for the railroad at New York's Grand Central Terminal, spend their autumn days discussing the conditions of the rails. It starts when Mr. Kesich arrives at work around 4 a.m. and, thanks to BlackBerrys, continues after Mr. Schanoes goes home at about 10 p.m.
To avoid damage to the wheels to the extent that is possible, Metro-North reduces the speed — which reduces slipping while braking — up to a third. That sets off a domino effect, says Mr. Schanoes, because the railroad is bound to a tight schedule. Delays are inevitable.
Metro-North is not alone. The performance of passenger railways dips significantly during the slippery-rail season. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority usually averages an on-time performance of about 95%, says Mr. Ray, the director of operations. But in October and November, the number drops to the low 80s. The Worcester and the Fitchburg lines, heading out of Boston to the southwest and northwest, respectively, travel through the more wooded areas and experience the most significant delays.
Amtrak; the Long Island Rail Road, which serves New York's eastern suburbs; Metra, Chicago's commuter rail service; and MARC, which serves the Baltimore-Washington suburbs, also reported delays.
"We live in a region that gives us such a beautiful fall show," says Cheron Wicker, spokeswoman for the Maryland Transit Administration, which operates MARC. "One of the consequences of that is that when the leaves drop, they sometimes drop on the track."
No place in the world, perhaps, suffers more from the tyranny of the leaf than the United Kingdom. Network Rail, the system that oversees 21,000 miles of track through the U.K., says dealing with the problem costs it almost $95 million a year. It keeps close tabs on the leaves — it calculates that 73% of this year's leaves have fallen — and dispatches nearly 100 "blast teams" and 30 water-blasting locomotives.
Solutions for slippery rail range from very simple to high-tech. The most obvious is to cut back trees surrounding rails. Mr. Ray says the ideal clearance is between 40 and 50 feet out from the center line of the track. As for removing the substance, it's not as easy as a blower or scrubbing because, ironically, the slippery stuff is stuck so tightly to the rail.
Sand is one of the most popular and easiest alternatives. While the method can be effective with proper sand — it must be 99% quartz — there are risks, according to the report Dr. Kumar worked on for the Federal Transit Administration. Even the right kind of sand produces 10 to 100 times more wear on both the wheels and the rail. The Long Island Rail Road uses a mixture of sand and a sticky gel to increase traction.
On the other extreme, there's a high-powered laser that blasts the material off of the rail. Malcolm Higgins, founder of U.K.-based LaserThor Ltd., developed the device to break the bond. The cost, at more than $1.8 million, is prohibitive, Mr. Higgins admits.
Dr. Kumar, who is president of Illinois-based rail company Tranergy Corp., is familiar with the laser technology but doesn't recommend it for use in the U.S. "The railroads here need something which is easy to maintain, doesn't require too much precision, manpower and money," he says.
The one viable, effective solution is a high-powered water-pressure system that blasts the substance from the rails. New Jersey Transit, which services New Jersey and New York City, uses a device called Aqua-Track from Carolina Equipment & Supply Company Inc., based in South Carolina. The contraption, which costs around $425,000, hooks up to a rail car and sprays 10,000 pounds per square inch of water directly at the "sweet spot" of the rail where the substance clings, according to Dan Stessel, director of media relations for New Jersey Transit.
"It's an impressive piece of machinery," he says.
In 2002, prior to using the Aqua-Track, New Jersey Transit had 226 train delays in the months of October and November attributed to slippery rail. In 2003 that number fell to 51 and hasn't gone much beyond that since.
This year's slippery-rail season is coming to a close. As the trees grow barren, train engineers relish a sense of relief. That is, until next year.
"If it was up to me," laughs Metro-North's Mr. Schanoes, "we'd go directly from summer to winter."
Dyson Root 6
When I saw this last evening in the new (December 2006) Wired magazine I immediately set my phaser to "stun."
I mean, it was simply a reflex: how could I not?
Look at the thing, for crying out loud.
It's Dyson's new entry into the handheld vacuum space, but judging simply from the looks of it, I'd be content to stick it on top of my TV for eye candy.
The Wired copy read: "It looks like like a proton pack for good reason: With twice the suction of other handhelds, the Root 6 busts some serious dust. A mini-tornado in its chambers devours dirt, debris, and particles with the force of 70,000 g's. The bagless, filterless vac is designed never to clog or lose power. Its rechargeable lithium ion battery fuels fast cleanups, and a two-in-one attachment lets you switch from brush to crevice tool by pressing a button."
Maybe I will take it for a spin around the house after all.
'Journey To A Black Hole'
Nine minutes and seven seconds of escape from wherever you are to where you'll eventually — given world enough, and time — find yourself.
Or at least, elements of the person you currently call "me."
OXO 4-in-1 Precision Screwdriver
Coming next month (December, 2006).
From the website:
4-in-1 Precision Screwdriver
Things have taken a turn for the convenient with the OXO Good Grips 4-in-1 Precision Screwdriver
With two strong and durable chrome vanadium steel double-ended bits,
it's like having a set of four precision drivers always on hand in one pocketable tool.
Spinning tips on stackable end caps rotate against the palm of your hand or index finger
for smooth, comfortable turning.
2 double-ended bits (1/8" Slotted/Phillips #1 and 1/16" Slotted/Phillips #000).
The screwdriver features a soft, comfortable nonslip grip.
Bits are magnetized
to attract and hold small screws.
Is Tony Romo the Second Coming of Johnny Unitas?
The penny dropped yesterday while I was watching a replay of last Sunday's Cowboys-Colts game, in which Romo deconstructed the Colts' defense in a way far more reminiscent of Johnny U. than a kid who was making only his fourth NFL start.
Not just the outcome but also the style of Romo — his hunched shoulders, quick feet and lightning fast, compact delivery called to mind the great one.
Take a closer look the next time you watch the Cowboys and see if you don't agree.
From the website:
- Flameless Flare
Reusable flare provides 250 hours of continuous bright flashing red LED light for ultimate roadside protection.
Unlike conventional flares that burn out after 15 minutes, it operates on batteries so it never burns out.
High-powered magnet at the base lets you position it on roof, trunk or hood for maximum visibility.
Uses two AAA batteries (included).
True — it "never burns out."
Bonus: you don't need a match or lighter to get it going.
But what happens when you pull this puppy out in 2011 and turn it on only to find that the batteries died along with the music?
Just doing my job.
platewire.com — 'How's my driving?'
"What is PlateWire?"
- From the website:
PlateWire is a public repository and electronic forum for drivers by drivers.
Using a driver's license plate, commuters can communicate their thoughts and feelings in regards to driving on today's roadways.
Report and flag bad drivers, award good drivers and even flirt with cute drivers.
PlateWire was born out of frustration from years of driving alongside drivers who seem to have no concern with anyone's safety, including their own.
PlateWire is not meant to be a substitute for legal reporting of traffic infractions — if you are a witness to a traffic infraction please contact your local authorities and file the appropriate complaint or report.
I guess the fact that Mark Buckman (right, top) — who started the site along with his stepbrother Luke Sevenski (left, top) — lives in Fairfax, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C. is the reason the Washington Post put an article about the website on the front page of this past Monday's (November 20, 2006) Metro section.
Here's the story.
- 'You're an Idiot,' And Other Festive Holiday Greetings
Online or En Route, Drivers Spell Out How They Feel
The pilgrimage to Thanksgiving dinner is often a battle against rude, obnoxious drivers and the impulse to throttle them.
But this holiday season, there's no need to keep that anger to yourself. Entrepreneurs have come up with ways to let off steam.
The Web site www.platewire.com allows motorists to post the license plate numbers of offending drivers on the Internet and tell the world what a moron that guy was on the Capital Beltway. The Web site was created by a Fairfax man who said he wants to shame people into driving better. Police disapprove, saying the best tactic is to call authorities.
On the Web site, license plate numbers are accompanied by pointed, sometimes-profane commentaries on the motoring skills of their owners. They are listed under headings such as "Maniac" and "Jerk on the Phone."
"Great job driving down the BW parkway," reads one post about a Maryland driver. "How many people did you cut off with that tank of a vehicle? Get off your cellphone and drive. Was that your kid in backseat too?"
Mark Buckman, a Fairfax computer consultant who started the site with his stepbrother Luke Sevenski, said he is outraged by careless, rude or inattentive drivers.
"We are a society driven by fear — the fear of being ostracized," he said while driving in Fairfax recently. Buckman, 32, started the site in May with $5,000. He said it now gets 500 to 2,000 unique hits a day and has hundreds of postings about bad drivers from as far as Los Angeles.
There are no known instances of subjects of the mean missives actually seeing them.
So why are people taking the time to post what is basically a primal scream?
"It is the psychology of venting," said Leon James, a professor at the University of Hawaii and co-author of "Road Rage and Aggressive Driving." "It is the same as when we get to the office after a commute. We cannot start work until we have a cup of coffee and have someone listen to our driving story."
But does it work?
"Venting reactivates the original stress hormones. It keeps you obsessively focused on proving the other person wrong," James said. "What kind of help is this?"
He suggests just forgetting and moving on. But that's easy for him to say. James doesn't have to drive across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge twice a day.
That's where Mika Larson's "Road Rage Cards" come in. The cellist-turned-entrepreneur sells a book of signs designed to send more immediate messages.
Messages such as "GET OUT OF THE FAST LANE, MORON!" and "YOU'RE AN IDIOT!" and "I HOPE THAT CELLPHONE GIVES YOU CANCER" are among the more family-friendly signs.
She came up with the idea for the cardboard signs after being frustrated with drivers "who didn't seem to have anything in their heads, not using their blinkers, littering," she said. "I did my fair share of screaming at them through my window. To no avail."
For those who want to upgrade from cardboard, www.gadgetuniverse.com sells a "license plate billboard" for $49.95 that allows you to display four different greetings on a small LED sign tucked under a rear license plate. You could say "hello" — or tell the driver of that tricked-out Honda on your tail to back off.
If you really want to get creative, $199 buys the MobileLED MD-550, which plugs into a car cigarette lighter and comes with a small keyboard that allows you to type any message on a large electronic display board mounted inside your rear window.
These are all terrible ideas, said Fairley Mahlum, spokeswoman for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
"Your job is not to teach others how to drive," she said. "Your job is to get to your destination."
Anything that responds to aggressive or rude driving makes matters worse and could lead to a confrontation.
"By responding and reacting, you are being just as aggressive," she said. "It's understandable that people are getting frustrated. But it's all in how you handle that frustration."
Police officers with decades of experience on the roads say the same thing: Don't react. Don't escalate. And if someone's actions on the road are really threatening, pick up your cellphone and dial #77, the non-emergency number for police.
But for a furious driver who was just cut off, that often is not good enough.
"When people call in, they are hot and they want justice," Virginia State Police Sgt. Terry Licklider said. "They say, 'I want you to go out and arrest that person or give them a ticket.' But the justice system doesn't work that way."
Sani-Shopping Cover — 'Prevents transfer of germs and bacteria from shopping cart handle to your — and baby's — hands'
Invented by Sandra Barbor, 60, of Sandwich, Illinois who, according to a story in the November 5, 2006 New York Times, "was always bothered by having to grasp the handles of shopping carts."
Long story short: The Sani-Shopping Cover is a vinyl strip that adheres to cart handles.
From the website, "The 10 Things A Shopping Cart Handle Encounters Daily":
$3.49 (includes carrying tube).