Metro-North engineer training: Simulator proves a bumpy ride for reporter

Metro-North Railroad engineer trainer Kenneth Sciabarassi sits in

Metro-North Railroad engineer trainer Kenneth Sciabarassi sits in a simulator in the simulator room in Grand Central Terminal. (June 19, 2013) (Credit: Xavier Mascarenas)

I'm behind the controls of a diesel-powered locomotive speeding north along Metro-North's New Canaan Line.

"Let's get it up to 45 mph," my instructor, Kenny Sciabarassi, urges. "Let's yard it out. You hear the engine revving up?"

I do. It's the sound of a diesel engine churning and churning as the speed on the glowing red, green and black speedometer climbs -- 25, 30, 40, 45.


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Trees shroud both sides of the New Canaan Line, an inviting summer scene as we head north into the sun.

"Stay at 40," Sciabarassi warns, rousing me from a daydream.

As we near a station, Sciabarassi says: "I don't think we're going to be able to stop but let's see what happens. We should have been blowing our horn as we came into the station."

Of course. He just told me that moments before.

Too late.

We miss the platform by a good 10 feet.

Fortunately, though, this was all just for play, the railroad engineer's equivalent of a video game. Behind the controls of a simulator at Grand Central Terminal Wednesday, I got a glimpse of what Metro-North's real-life engineers deal with when they drive a train.

Did I say drive a train?

"You really don't drive a train," Sciabarassi tells me. "We don't like when we people say drive trains. We operate them."

TRAINING TO PREVENT MISTAKES

It's mistakes like the ones I just made on the simulator -- not to mention more serious ones like running a red light -- that Sciabarassi, who manages the training center for Metro-North, corrects.

Metro-North invited me to get a look at its simulator-stocked training center one day after Newsday reported that over the past 3 1/2 years, the railroad's engineers have run through 24 red light signals.

It's an average of more than 6 1/2 a year, compared with 2005, when the railroad tallied just four red light violations.

One theory is that some of Metro-North's newest engineers come from a younger generation of multitaskers who may not have the necessary focus to operate a train.

Most of last year's 10 signal violations were committed by engineers with five years of experience or less, according to railroad officials.

And many violations occur in the maze of stop signals, tracks and platforms in Grand Central, Metro-North's busy hub.

So, for six weeks of their 12 months of training, Sciabarassi schools his budding engineers in how to navigate Grand Central's puzzle of underground tracks. By the end, the trainees will have to fill out a map noting where each red signal is located.

"It's very intense, a lot of information," Sciabarassi says of the Grand Central portion of the training.

After months of tests and simulator work, engineers go on to spend several months out on the rails working beside veteran engineers as they cruise along each of Metro-North's lines. They learn to navigate the New Haven Line for 13 weeks alone. Every move, every mistake, will be charted.

NAVIGATING THE RAILS IS NO EASY TASK

At the start of our training session, Sciabarassi sets me up on a simulator made to appear like the cab of one of Metro-North's state-of-the-art M-8 trains, which cost about $2.35 million apiece.

Sciabarassi presses a green button on the console and then we get to work.

"See how quick the pick up is," Sciabarassi tells me.

Diesel-powered trains are heavier and take longer to get up to speed. Not the case with the electric-powered trains.

We're on a simulator made to appear like Track 28 in Grand Central, where trains are restricted to speeds of 10 mph or less.

"We're going to watch our speed there," Sciabarassi says. "You're coming up to 8. Something's up there."

He's right. Up ahead, there's something sitting between the rails.

In the control room next door, Bill Abrams, a technician, has dropped a computerized barrel between the rails.

"And sometimes there are shopping carts," notes Marjorie Anders, a Metro-North spokeswoman who is watching the exercise.

Next we come up on a railroad switch that appears to be misplaced.

"If your wheel keeps going, what's going to happen here?" Sciabarassi asks.

It sounds like he knows the answer so I say nothing.

"If you would have gone through that, your wheel would have passed that switch and probably broke it," Sciabarassi says. "That costs money. That's a mess."

And that's why I'm no engineer.

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