Don't Pet the Rattlesnakes

As we walked across the parking lot we saw the sign "BEWARE OF THE RATTLESNAKES" while the leaflet that is given to all visitors contains the warning "DON'T PET THE RATTLESNAKES". We were soon reassured. "It's November and the rattlesnakes won't be out on the ground - they come into the buildings for warmth! "

It is a beautiful, cloudless day which shows the Pueblo, Colorado, landscape at its best. With eleven inches of rain per year, it is semi-desert that is only good for cattle ranching, antelopes, jack rabbits, prairie dogs, scorpions, rattlesnakes - and railway test centres.

The Department of Transportation Test Centre (now run by the Association of American Railroads) is built on close to 50 square miles of desert and contains a number of test loops. The railroad test track is 14 miles around and is fitted with catenary. The welded 136 pound rail is capable of 160 mph. The transit test track is a nine mile oval that is equipped with third rail and some catenary. There is also a 4.8 mile high tonnage loop known as the FAST track. A balloon track allows equipment to be turned as well as curving characteristics to be tested.

On the day I was there the centre's GE U30C locomotive was bombing around the railroad loop with a few TOFC cars which were being instrumented. On the transit loop an articulated UTDC-built (Thunder Bay) streetcar for Santa Anna, California was being put through its paces. It had been there since September and had a couple of months to go. It would put in 10,000 miles before being sent on to its owners.

The FAST track was built to test the wear and fatigue of railcars and track structures under heavy tonnage conditions. A 10,000 ton train is run around the loop making 100 circuits per day or 1 million tons per day! This is an excellent test of rails, ties, ballast and track fastenings. I saw rail from the US, Canada, the UK, France, Japan, China and the USSR.

Not everything goes according to plan, however, as we saw the remains of a serious wreck that put two locomotives and about thirty cars on the ground. Everybody must rub their hands with glee when they get a wreck to investigate!

From time to time the centre will deliberately create a derailment. A train is run along and the locomotive is separated at speed while a special valve keeps the brakes from applying on the train. The locomotive speeds ahead and a switch is opened under the train which on occasion is running at 60 mph. For the more dangerous operations the locomotive is controlled remotely. All of the cars are instrumented for these experiments and the results are fed straight into the main computer by radio.

There is a rail dynamics laboratory which is used mainly to test freight cars. A fully loaded gondola car was being pounded to see how it would perform under stress while a traction motor was being run at full power.

The Centre has four locomotives of its own, a GE U30C, an EMD GP40-2 and two EMD GP9's that had their noses chopped at Precision National and are referred to as GP10's. There are a number of visitors at all times such as EMD demonstrators. Two Union Pacific GP35's were on hand for tests to their collision posts.

There is a very well equipped locomotive shop which can handle just about any job. In fact the Centre is completely self sufficient with the exception of the power supply.

In the main building, I visited the Control Centre. All train movements are controlled by a dispatcher. The enginemen take turns at being dispatcher. All train movements are controlled by track Occupancy Permits and each test train is manned by two enginemen who stay on the engine for eight continuous hours or longer, with overtime. They take their meal with them and enjoy every minute of it. Needless to say, cabooses are not used.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the Centre is the Hazardous Materials Training Courses. People who may have to handle leaking tank cars are brought in for a week. There is a hands on approach which culminates in a full scale exercise at night in a pile of wrecked cars that have been very carefully placed to simulate a serious derailment. It is the only wreck in existence that is shown on the books as a capital asset! We had a look at this very realistic mess - it must be a rattlesnake haven!

What about the rattlesnakes? The only one I saw was taken out of a freezer. One of the staff is collecting them. When he gets enough he will take them to a friend who makes them into snakeskin jackets. In spite of their advantages the rattlesnakes seem to be losing the battle!

Bytown Railway Society, Branchline, January 1987

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