Availability Of GSE (And An Explanation) Always Matters

Having retired after 53 years of employment in the airline industry, I admit to having a sneaking interest in railroads and especially engines. As a child of the 1940s, I was influenced by the dramatic posters of thundering steam engines, many beautifully streamlined, speeding across the plains or winding through a towering canyon with a foam-streaked stream nearby.

Then, too, I traveled transcontinental once when I just 7 and experienced some of those sights. Of course, they didn’t compare to the big Martin and Boeing transoceanic flying boats that I could see in New York.

So one way or other, my course was never in doubt and aviation maintenance became my passion.

Eventually, with the demise of my employers so went my travel benefits, and I was reduced to paying for my seat. Then security measures I first saw in the early-1970s to prevent hijacking blossomed into the often unpleasant experience we’ve all come to know since 9/11.

With all this in mind, I decided to put together a scenic, solo trip by train. From Denver, I would head to Sacramento through canyon country and desert. Then turning North, I’d travel up the coast to Portland. After an overnight hotel stay, off to Chicago and on to New York.

It was pretty ambitious for someone 78 years old and less than a month out of surgery along with the simultaneous loss of his wife. But I needed to clear my head. A change of scenery, not to mention my twin grand-daughters waiting to see me in New York, would do me good.

So off I went with plenty of hand-wringing from my kids. The first part was grand. It was in Portland that I found train travel trouble. My train to Chicago actually came in from there, but split in Spokane. One half went to Portland where I was, the other half to Seattle.

UNSTRAIGHT STORY

It was here that Amtrak displayed a basic weakness not unknown to the airlines. They couldn’t get their story straight. Apparently, the freight line that owns the tracks on the Spokane-to-Portland leg decided without notice to replace the wooden ties with concrete ones. No doubt a needed repair, I guessed, but in summer … at peak travel time?

Amtrak’s solution was to bus us a mere 7½ hours to Spokane to meet the train, all of which had gone on to Seattle. My solution with 100 others was to take a comfortable 4-hour train ride to Seattle and meet it there.

The train had indeed arrived, discharged its passengers and needed to be physically turned around, cleaned and provisioned. At this point, we started hearing stories. A locomotive on our train had a mechanical problem. Then the story became a hopper car had dumped tons of crushed rock on the track blocking our train followed by the one of two freight locomotives derailing.

In truth, our train was turning around using track laid out in an inverted Y. Run up one leg, back down the other, then ahead on track joining the two bottom forks of the Y. That old villain, the computer betrayed them. The Seattle yard had a computer system to control switches and allegedly switched one wrong. Both locomotives derailed. That a malignant computer did it ... well, maybe! More likely, GIGO with people putting the wrong info in, and garbage, such as bad switch settings coming out.

Say, wait a minute! Isn’t this a GSE magazine? OK, here comes the part where we can all relate.

There was no heavy lift crane in the Seattle yards. A locomotive seriously off the track is like a whale on a beach. And we had two! Sixteen hours to get one there. Then, there might be damage to the locomotives.

Amtrak won after all since they took us all to Spokane by bus – now only a mere 5 hours away. At least I got to pass Moses Lake where Boeing conducts flight training. At Spokane, Amtrak grabbed the next day’s train that had just arrived, took the inbound pax off and yes, put them on buses to Seattle and Portland.

Great job on the quick turn for us. But there was no catering in Spokane. Our last dinner on the way to Chicago was rice in white sauce with cut-up bits of ham eaten with plastic spoons off paper plates. Some were considering the Donner Pass solution, if the trip lasted any longer. Total delay: 16 hours. Infuriating part: Being off schedule, freight had priority.

GLASS HOUSE

Having lived in the glass house of passenger airline service, I throw no rocks at Amtrak.

I’ve been involved in my time with some real screw-ups – the only polite way to put it.

For several years, for example, Eastern had chartered a plane to a group of lawyers for their convention. One year the group was larger than ever, and we were to use one of our leased B747-100s. We had already managed to have delays in the two preceding years and Frank Borman was eager to show we could do it this time.

Well, it all rolls downhill and my Tech Group was told to focus on that one departure. After an overnight at JFK, the plane was looked at, checked, double-checked, re-checked and double-re-checked. As far as we could see, it was ready to go.

Having finally gotten loading bridges around this time, we could not see the lawyers getting on board. About all I could do was cross my fingers as it was pushed back. The number three engine began to wind up and, at the appropriate speed, they opened the HP cock – and a large fuel line in the pylon split-open as evidenced by a cascade flowing down and over the engine.

We had maintained our record for the third year in a row. As it turned out, we wouldn’t get a fourth! Col. Borman was not amused, but versed in the vagaries of rockets and planes, he still understood.

While difficulties involving passengers are bad enough, I’ve also had trouble in the middle of the night. We had rented a crane at double-time for night work, and we were all set to lift an engine off a truck.

The hook, however, wouldn’t fit into the engine sling, and we needed a shackle to link them. Even after all these years, I’m still embarrassed to think of this. The Port Authority policeman found it hard to adjust to the fact that at 2 a.m., the Eastern maintenance manager at EWR was apparently pilfering a shackle off a construction crane from the top of a van being driven by the Eastern stores supervisor.

After some pleading he allowed me to take it, escorted us back to the gate where we were swapping engines and then escorted me back to ensure I returned the piece to the crane. He was a good guy and understood why after I showed him the rental rates for a crane.

Anyway, the moral of the story is to always inform your customers of what is going on, especially when you are at fault. Make sure the facts are accurate, and you may even beat an arrest.

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