Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Electro-Diesel Locomotives

We're quickly approaching Memorial Day, which is one of my favorite holidays, only because it heralds in the beginning of another summer season of working on locomotives. Real life, 130 ton, steel monsters on rails.

It really is an experience of a lifetime. I volunteer at the Western Pacific Railroad Museum (Portola, CA) and have been going there as long as I can remember. My dad originally found the place when I was about 2 years old, and we've been going there ever since.

It was always my father's dream to be able to operate a diesel locomotive, and WPRM gave him the chance. Unfortunately for me, the operating department had a 16 year old minimum, so I was stuck with nothing to do. Understand that it's not at all uncalled for to have an age minimum. This is real railroad equipment, and the risks involved are VERY real. You start screwing around and getting smart, this shit can kill you like THAT. Volunteers at the museum have lost fingers or airlifted out with 2nd degree burns. The worst I've done is some minor cuts and a muscle injury (tried kicking something heavier than me, I don't want to talk about it, it was stupid).

So I'm like 10 years old, wandering around an operating rail yard a few weekends a year with nothing to do. A kids got to keep himself entertained. It started out with simple things like sweeping the shop. Then some of the guys in the Mechanical Department would bring me out with them and I'd be their "Gopher," who is someone who goes-for things they needs. They're tell me to go get a crescent wrench or a socket and I'd go make the trudge back to the shop and bring back the tool. It then progresses to the mechanics showing me how to do something long and tedious and setting me to it all weekend.

Why do the hard work when you can give a 12 year old a grinder and he's happy as punch all weekend getting filthy?

One mechanic who really taught me above and beyond of the rest was Alan Hirasawa. I worked almost exclusively with him for 3 years. The most valuable lesson he taught me was how to weld. I've been using those skills ever since (before 7th grade?) and couldn't be more thankful for everything he taught me.
He also set me off on my first large project. He picked out a locomotive he wanted to get running again, handed me a maintenance manual and we got to work. I'm planning on this being a series of posts this summer, so I'll talk more in depth about this project later.

I've spent the last 7-8 years at the museum learning as much as I could and earning the respect of the guys in charge to get larger and more exciting assignments, which I also plan on posting about.


And lastly, I'd like to describe the principle behind an Electro-Diesel locomotive. Unlike a car, a locomotive doesn't have a mechanical transmission. The forces involved are so great, no material on Earth could withstand the shear when a fulling loaded train is starting to move.

The main body of a locomotive is taken up by a (usually) 16 cylinder diesel engine, which rotates the drive shaft down the length of the engine room, which operates two other pieces of equipment: the air compressor for air brakes, and an electric generator (along the lines of 600 volts). The electric generator has 1 inch thick cables running from it down to the wheels, which have giant electric motors in them the size of a mini fridge. The locomotive industry beat the auto industry to the concept of a hybrid by 80 years! Granted locomotives didn't have batteries set up to store energy like a hybrid car until only quite recently...

I look forward to an outstanding summer getting waist deep in grease and grime fixing something huge. Let's hope for another safe season.

1 comment:

  1. I think that auto makers haven't really grasped the potential of a hybrid system. Once you have a halfway decent generator in a car you really ought to set up electronic suspension. That, electric transmission, traction control...let me tell you, the car you could make...

    The technology has been around for decades, people just haven't done anything clever with it yet.

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