Railroads had drama from start



Taking Note of History

April 30, 2005|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

The saga surrounding the sidelining of Amtrak's popular high-speed Acela Express has become something of a railroad soap opera.

In the latest installment, last week Amtrak officials ordered the entire fleet of 20 Acelas be pulled after inspectors detected cracks in brake discs.

Amtrak hopes the Acela will return this summer.

A series of mechanical and engineering delays seemed to stalk the Acela's development, postponing its debut from 1999 to early December 2000, when the sleek blue and silver train finally made its inaugural run.

"Amtrak's current problems prove that new technology on the Northeast corridor is always a challenge and difficult to introduce," said Frank A. Wrabel, a Baltimore rail historian and author. "Even though the Pennsylvania Railroad's electrification was fabulously successful, it too had its growing pains."

In 1928, Pennsy president William Wallace Atterbury announced the company would electrify its mainline from New York City to Wilmington, Del., to accommodate a schedule of fast inter-city passenger trains.

Eventually, the 225-mile mainline from New York to Washington was electrified, as were lines to Harrisburg, Pa., and opened for service in the early 1930s.

At the time, it was "the greatest single railroad electrification project yet undertaken in the world," William D. Middleton, rail historian and author, wrote in his 1978 book, When the Steam Railroads Electrified.

Finding a suitable electric locomotive capable of pulling heavy 17- or 18-car passenger trains at high speed became a problem for the Pennsy's motive power department. They settled on a box-cab locomotive design with a 4-6-4 wheel arrangement that was classified P5a.

"Not long after the box-cab locomotives went into passenger service, some disturbing problems appeared regarding their operation. As early as March 1933, it was found the P5a, when operated at high speeds, developed much side sway, or `nosing,' thus producing heavy lateral impacts to the rails and structure," wrote authors Frederick Westing, Mike Bezilla and Roger Keyser, in a 2002 article in the journal of the Pennsylvania Railroad Technical & Historical Society.

PRR officials ordered speed reductions - 70 mph for passenger trains and 55 mph for freights. Further problems occurred when inspectors noted that cracks were developing in driving wheel axles.

The locomotives were withdrawn and the K4s Pacific steam engines they had replaced were returned to their old runs. The locomotives eventually returned to service after modifications that resulted in less lateral sway and no new cracks in replacement axles.

"Unfortunately, no degree of mechanical modification could compensate for the locomotives' inability to handle the heaviest trains at the highest of speeds, the most serious of the P5a's weaknesses," Bezilla wrote in his 1980 book, Electric Traction on the Pennsylvania Railroad: 1895-1968.

The search for a locomotive design that met Pennsy's expectations ended with the design and building of the famed 4-6-6-4 wheeled GG1.

"The GG1's great-grandfather were the electric locomotives built by the New York Central in the late 1920s for the Cleveland Union Terminal, which had the 4-6-6-4 wheelbase," said Herbert H. Harwood, a rail historian and author in Towson. "With its extra wheels and trucks, in many ways, what the Pennsy was trying to do was build an electric steam locomotive."

The dark-green, gold-striped 230-ton locomotives, which could pull the railroad's heaviest passenger trains at sustained speeds above 90 mph, entered service in 1934 and instantly found favor with PRR management. The GG1's graceful exterior styling was conceived by famed industrial designer Raymond Loewy and came to define the Pennsy's image.

The fleet of GG1s grew to 139, and when the Pennsy, in another burst of high-speed Northeast corridor technology introduced the Metroliners in the 1960s, the aging locomotives were often called upon to stand in for the new trains.

The P5a's soldiered on to 1964 while the last GG1 was withdrawn from service in 1983.

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