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Edition #27, April 1, 2006

A Historic Moment

Photographer: Misko Kranjec

                                                         Photo by  Misko Kranjec

A Historic Moment

The date: September 17th, 1994

The location: Inside the cab of the Fiat Ferroviaria’s testing high-speed tilting electric trainset Pendolino,

The occasion: Final day of a two-week-long testing and recording the parameters of the mainline between Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, and Maribor, the second largest city and an industrial center of the northeastern part of the country.

The goal: Setting the new speed record of Slovenian Railroads (SZ)

The last quarter of the 20th century witnessed the tremendous expansion of highs-speed trains all over the world – TGVs on the French lines, ICEs on German lines, Pendolinos on Italian lines, Shinkansens on Japan lines, Metroliners between New York and Washington to name the few most prominent trains. Racing across the countries with speeds from 125 to 250 mph; offering the travelers unprecedented shortening of the travel time to their destinations; often beating the airplanes if the travel to and from the airport is included in the travel time.

Most of those trains ride over the specially built high-speed lines, which are extremely expensive to construct. Tracing the routes for them, as straight and level as possible, often presents immense problems. Evading this by running the high-speed trains over the ordinary, even if upgraded tracks is a speed handicap It was something bitterly experienced by Amtrak, which had to decrease the speed for its Metroliners from the intended 160 mph to 125 mph because of the track condition.

For those railroads that couldn’t afford such enormous expenses or where the proposed patronage or terrain configuration didn’t justify them, there was a “poor man’s” solution offered by the Italian company Fiat Ferroviaria. Now a part of Alstom but then still the subsidiary of a big automobile corporation, they have produced the lightweight electric and diesel trainsets since the 1925. The solution was named Pendolino, which in Italian means small pendulum. The idea is simple, but not easy to be carried out. By constructing the train so that its body tilts on the curves counteracting the centrifugal forces and easing the discomfort of the passengers, 30% higher speeds could be attained on the ordinary lines.

Fiat Ferroviaria has been developing this idea since the early 70s, and in 1975 the first commercial runs had begun on the Italian railroad lines. The concept and the construction proved successful and in 90 Pendolino trains were already operating in Portugal, Spain, Finland, Great Britain, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Czech Republic.

Slovenian Railroads wanted to jump on the bandwagon.  They were eager to modernize after decades of the standstill because of the lack of money and accelerated construction of modern highways, eating away the state funds and the passengers. A small population (whole country counts only 2 millions of inhabitants), extremely difficult terrain on the part of the proposed route, and the shortage of money annulled any thought for the construction of a high-speed line between the two Slovenian largest cities, capital Ljubljana (pop. 270,000) in the center of the country, and 85 miles distant industrial Maribor (pop.120,000) in the northeast. The only viable solution was Pendolino.

So in the early 90s talks had begun between the managements of the SZ and Fiat. Soon thereafter a letter of intent for the purchase of the three sets has been signed. In September 1994 Fiat’s test Pendolino set arrived, equipped with all kinds of measuring instruments. During the two weeks that followed every parameter of the proposed future run of the Pendolinos, every foot of the tracks, every curve, its curvature and inclination, every switch, even every unevenness of the tracks as well as the behavior of the catenary had been measured and recorded into the train’s onboard computer. Two runs per day were performed and after the every run the train – its computer and its tilting mechanism – was adjusted according to the recorded data. Then, on the next run, the speed was increased by 3 mph and new set of data was recorded.

During those two weeks enough data was recorded and enough confidence gained that a special run was scheduled for Saturday, September 17th.  Invited guests included heads of the state, SZ top brass, and members of the press. The aim – setting new speed record never before attained on the SZ tracks.

This event was to occur on the very last part of the run, on a 13 miles long stretch of the absolutely straight and level tracks between Pragersko and Maribor It is practically the only such section on the whole route, and I of course would not miss it.

Leaving Pragersko I fought out a place for myself in the narrow corridor leading to the cab, rubbing my shoulders with the cameraman of the national TV Slovenia. I was the only photojournalist there and I earned this privilege not only because I was then working for the main Slovenian newspaper, but also as a steady and keen reporter of the events on SZ; known among the SZ management as a devoted railroad enthusiast; and because of all that on a first-name basis with then-SZ CEO.

Inside the small cab were the Fiat’s test motorman and the chief technical engineer, the SZ Chief of Engineers acting as a pilot, SZ CEO Marjan Rekar and TV Slovenia’s reporter Vili Gucek. Cramping behind me in that narrow corridor were the Prime Minister of Slovenian government, the state Secretary of Transport, Fiat Ferroviaria’s CEO, and couple of the SZ top brass men. All other invited dignitaries, men of the press and Fiat technicians had to be satisfied by watching the engineer’s view of the tracks with the overlaid digital indication of the actual speed on the video screens placed at the several strategic points in the passenger compartments.

Leaving Pragersko where the mainline turns directly to the north and with the last curve behind us, the train started to accelerate. No one of us knew exactly what we would witness; the rumor was that we would probably surpass the yesterday’s test record speed of 125 mph. The faces were expressing the anticipation and the restrained excitement, the eyes were focused on the speedometer, and all around there was a solemn silence, interrupted only by the SZ pilot’s instructions given to the engineer. Even the SZ CEO Rekar, small but temperamental and chatty man, has silenced in a tensely staring pose behind the engineer.

He had reasons to be worried. We were speeding over the mainline where the permitted speed was 85 mph and which was far from being ready for such high speed. Signals were too close to the stations to stop the train on time if necessary and every mile or even less there was a road crossing. Some of them serving the local villagers to reach the main roads or the farmers to reach their fields with the tractors were even unprotected by gates. There were railroaders on guard at every crossing to prevent some idiot from walking or driving around the gates and the dispatcher assured us of high green all the way to Maribor, but something unpredictable could always happen. At such high speed even colliding with a deer crossing the track at the wrong moment could be unpleasant if not disastrous for those in the cab, while hitting the car would be a catastrophe.

The speedometer’s arm was slowly but steadily approaching the magic mark – 90 mph, 100, 110, 115, 120… 125 mph! Smiles went over faces, eyes met, hands begun to applaud and the TV reporter started his emotional speech, mentioning the historic moment for the SZ. But, the instrument’s hand didn’t stop yet – 126, 127, 128, 129…. 130 mph!

We were not riding anymore, we were simply flying, as if the wheels have lost contact with the rails! Trees, signals, bystanders watching us – everything became blurred, appearing in our views for a fragment of a second before disappearing again. At one station, with its platform crowded with the spectators, I’ve noticed some photographer who set his tripod with a camera on it in the middle of the parallel track, and I swear I saw, in the last thousand of a second, how he and his camera were blown away.

It was a phenomenal experience that unfortunately didn’t last long; 13 miles are just too short for that. As soon as we set the record we had to brake – the first houses of the Maribor outskirts were already ahead of us. Applauding ceased and those witnessing the event in the cab and the corridor returned, still excited, to their seats. The TV cameraman packed his gear, while I was using the opportunity of vacated cab for shots of the engineer and of the Maribor yard that we were just entering.

Through the later years I have traveled several times even at the higher speeds - 175 or even 190 mph, on the German and Italian railroads, yet never again did the excitement of the train’s speed match the one I felt at that historic moment on September 17th, 1994.

Misko Kranjec

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