Amtrak Voices: Jack SappingtonComments
April 12, 2016
Amtrak Voices is an occasional series in which we talk with long-time Amtrak employees to discover what attracted them to the company, recount its early days and explore changes they witnessed in railroading during their careers.
On April 1, 2016, Amtrak celebrated 41 years of ownership of the Beech Grove heavy maintenance facility located southeast of downtown Indianapolis. When Amtrak began service on May 1, 1971, the Penn Central Transportation Company controlled Beech Grove and performed contract maintenance and overhauls on Amtrak locomotives and rolling stock.
Amtrak purchased the shops in 1975, when there was an acute need for a major repair facility that could accommodate all types of equipment—including the Amfleet and Superliner cars then on order. Amtrak immediately embarked on a five year, $22 million improvement plan to modernize the complex.
Today, more than 500 Beech Grove employees rebuild and overhaul Superliner, Viewliner, Surfliner and Horizon cars, as well as P-32, P-42 and F-59 locomotives used across the Amtrak system. In Fiscal Year 2015, employees performed heavy overhaul, periodic maintenance, repainting and other upkeep on 275 pieces of equipment.
In a series of blog posts, we'll meet a handful of employees who have been at Beech Grove since April 1, 1975.
In a far cry from present day hiring practices involving hiring panels, multiple interviews and background checks, utility worker Jack Sappington arrived for an interview with Penn Central in October 1974, was approved for employment, underwent a physical on site and started working at the Beech Grove shops the same afternoon. His father had gone to school with a friend who later ended up working for Penn Central and helped Sappington get his interview.
Sappington is now a forklift operator in the sprawling Diesel Shop, where powerful P-32, P-42 and F-59 locomotives undergoing preventive maintenance and overhauls occupy work bays in the soaring space. Hardhats, safety glasses and earplugs are a must, as sparks fly and engines rev at the hands of the skilled employees working to keep the locomotive fleet in top condition. Beech Grove takes care of the diesel-electric fleet used on national network and state-supported routes, whereas the electric AEM-7 and new ACS-64 locomotives used on the Northeast Corridor and Keystone Corridor are maintained and overhauled at the Wilmington Shops in Delaware.
Over the years, Sappington has worked in every shop building and performed tasks from shoveling coal to operating large hoists. Asked about changes at Beech Grove since he began, Sappington replies, “It’s like night and day. Some tasks have been automated, and the workforce is better educated.” In a theme often repeated at Beech Grove, Sappington points out that new hires often learn at the side of more experienced long-time employees: “Railroaders are railroaders—they help one another.”
As for moments that stand out in his mind, Sappington highlights the conversion of equipment from steam to electric head-end power (HEP) in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Rather than use steam generated by a boiler in the locomotive to provide heating (lighting and air conditioning were supplied by a generator and batteries in each car), HEP used electricity generated by the locomotive to perform all of these functions.
In extreme cold weather, the steam lines would freeze, while air conditioning failed on hot summer days. HEP provided a more reliable power source to the cars. New equipment Amtrak ordered in the 1970s, including the single-level Amfleet cars and the bi-level Superliners, were built with modern all-electric systems. Depending on the type of car, conversion cost between $250,000 and $400,000—versus about $1 million to purchase a new car. Amtrak completed the conversion program in 1982.
Sappington also fondly remembers working on the special “Good Morning America” (GMA) charter train created for the popular ABC News program anchored by Diane Sawyer and Robin Roberts. The show broadcast live from the train in September 2008 during a five day Whistle-Stop Tour that traveled through New York, Ohio, West Virginia and Washington, D.C.
The 874-foot-long traveling studio operated with train, engine and on-board service crews provided by Amtrak, as well as host railroad pilots. The 11 car consist included two P-42 locomotives, two Superliner sleeping cars, a Cross Country Café car, two diner-lounge cars and a transition dorm, plus two private cars. The equipment conversion, paid for by GMA, was performed at Beech Grove and at the Albany, N.Y., Maintenance Facility. Sappington helped mount satellites on the train so that the live broadcast could proceed.
Thinking back over his career, Sappington says: “It’s been a good run, but don’t think this place owes you a living. It’s important that we do quality work.” In retirement, which is not far off, he plans to spend more time lakeside and enjoy the company of his family, including seven energetic grandkids.
Read about Sappington's Beech Grove colleagues.
The Amtrak History interview with Jack Sappington took place on April 2, 2015.