We sincerely apologize to those Fredericksburg Line riders delayed last Friday because of the switch problem north of the Rippon station.
At approximately 4:20p, the switch, known as the Featherstone switch, was stuck in the crossing position. The first train to reach the switch was a Northbound CSX Freight train. A signal maintainer was immediately dispatched to the location to fix the issue. Normally when switch issues like this occur, the crew can hand throw the switch, get it to straighten out, and move on, experiencing only a 10-15 minute delay. Unfortunately, the freight crew was unable to get the switch to normalize so our crew from 303 tried to assist. When both crews were unable to clear the problem, we had no choice but to wait for the maintainer to arrive. By this time, an Amtrak train was waiting behind 303 and a northbound Amtrak train was stuck behind the original freight train.
The maintainer was then delayed by an auto accident on I-95 near Quantico, further extending the delay.
In the meantime, 305 and 307 had departed Alexandria and were still far enough north that they could be lined up on 3 track and routed around the switch issue. We made the decision to route those trains around 303 so that we could keep some traffic moving on the lines. A southbound train sometimes will knock the switch back into position, temporarily correcting the issue. That did not happen when 305 went through, but 307 freed up the switch enough that we were able to then hand throw it into the correct position. 303 was back on the move at 5:55 pm.
I was on 303 myself and can certainly understand the frustration of thinking you were going to get home early on a nice Friday evening. As I was passing out FRC’s, I was asked a few questions that I thought would be helpful to answer here for everyone:
Why couldn’t we transfer #303 passengers to another train?
If a train breaks down at a station, and another train comes through, that would be our first option because it is a safe place to detrain from the affected equipment and board the next train. Once a train is out on the line, transferring passengers from one train to another is a last resort due to the numerous hazards and potential for injury when stepping down onto the ballast and trying to walk across to the other train. While we strive for perfection in on time performance, safety is our primary objective and out on the railroad line, the safest place to be is on the train.
Why couldn’t #303 reverse to follow the same path as the passing trains?
This would require #303 to back up about 10 miles to use the switch that is just south of Franconia/Springfield. It is easy for VRE trains to do this since we can control our trains from both ends. Unfortunately, Amtrak 125 was directly behind #303 and Amtrak trains can only control from one end. A reversing move for Amtrak requires that they can go only at maximum speed of 15 mph, since the engineer cannot see what is going on and depends on the conductor to notify him of anything awry. That type of move would have taken a minimum of 45 minutes to an hour for the Amtrak train to get past the switch at Franconia/Springfield, and 303 would have been another 15-20 minutes behind that.
In conclusion, what should have been a 10-15 minute switch issue, ended up being an hour and a half delay because the switch could not initially be hand-thrown (which works 95% of the time). Also, the signal maintainer got delayed en route and trains were stacked up on both sides of the switch problem.
While we have been operating in the 95-98% on time for several months, unexpected delays like this do happen from time to time. CSX prides itself on maintaining its infrastructure, especially in our area, so we can achieve this on-time percentage, but even they cannot foresee every problem before it occurs. Please be assured that we will continue to work with CSX and all of our partners to give VRE passengers the service they have come to expect and deserve.
Director of Rail Operations