Hot Times on the High Iron - From the Odds and Ends File!

About the Author
JD Santucci

J. D. Santucci (a.k.a. "Tuch") began his railroading career in 1978 as a trainman on the Missouri Pacific. After a round of lay-offs in 1985, Tuch embarked on a railroad odyssey, working in many different situations for different roads. This column tries to explain some of the nuts and bolts of the job and also demonstrates what we have to deal with on a regular basis within and without the industry. Tuch currently works through freights out of Chicago for Canadian National/Illinois Central.

©1999, 2003-2007 JD Santucci.
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By J.D. Santucci

May, 2011

Hot Times on the High Iron for May 2011

This time it's the worst job on earth, depending on your perspective.

Well after another brief hiatus, we're back again. Lots has been going on in my world and one of these days we'll catch you up on all of it. But for now, we'll get right into the meat and potatoes of today's topic.

Crew callers are cut from a different pattern of people. They have to be because the craft of crew caller can be one of the worst jobs on the railroad. For those of you unenlightened about them, crew callers are the employees who call the train and engine crews to work on the railroad. The callers have the sometimes dubious chore of calling people and waking them up in the middle of the night to order them to work, tell them they've been bumped or their job has been abruptly abolished. They also perform these tasks during other hours as well, but there is some reasoning on the railroad that bad news or calls to work should come when you are asleep. In many instances, the caller gets the brunt of the tirade when it is bad news. The callers are merely the messengers and you are probably all too familiar with that "shoot the messenger" concept. And of course because of the twenty-four/seven operation of the railroad, chances are always pretty good that the caller is going to be waking somebody up even at 10 am or 3 pm.

A good caller knows how to handle the boys and girls they call. They will listen to the tirades knowing fully well it is not aimed at them directly. In some instances the caller will gladly agree with you that the company is run by idiots and morons that couldn't run amuck yet alone run a railroad. Over the years I've even had callers perform a pre-emptive strike and state something to the effect of; "The powers that be have struck again" or "Well, those idiots are up to their tricks" or something to that affect. Some callers aren't afraid to speak their minds, especially when it results in them having to contact numerous people in a short period of time after a sudden, without warning, reduction in assignments. There is that age old saying that states "sh*t rolls down hill. And when it does it always tends to pick up lots of momentum and then lands, no, make that splatters with great force, right on the callers.

But at least these days the caller's jobs are far easier than they were in days past. Once upon a time the railroads had to employ numerous callers, often referred to as call boys. They tended to use the younger ones to actually physically go to the employees homes or the hotels at the away from home points to notify the boys that it was time to come to work. There was seniority even in those days and the "more seasoned" callers opted to remain indoors. In many collective bargaining agreements back in that era it was required that an employee had to live within a specified distance from work. Usually it was as far as the call boy could go in fifteen to thirty minutes on horseback or on a bicycle. Of course this meant the call boys had to endure all sorts of conditions in order to perform their duties. To borrow from the postal service, "Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow, nor gloom of night" would keep the callers from their appointed rounds.

Today of course, there are telephones and computers. Back in the dark ages when I started there were the hard wired phones and there were pagers. Cell phones were probably at that envisioned point but nowhere near a reality yet and you had to be rather wealthy and successful to afford what was then known as the "car phone." Many of us had pagers. We had to have pagers if we wanted to have a life. So the call board had our pager numbers in addition to our home phones. But in using the pager for work, you always had to be aware of the location of pay phones and phone booths. Some of you are saying huh? Ya, we used to have pay phone located in phone booths. Sometimes these booths were full sized shanties made of metal and glass that you would step into and close the door behind you for privacy. You also had to have a pocket full of coins to drop into the phone to make the call. If you didn't have coins you had to have a phone calling card, a telephone credit card as it were, to charge your call to if you didn't have enough change. The callers quickly learned who the employees were that were very good at calling in promptly when paged. I know I always made it a point to observe where any and all pay phones were located while out and about so I didn't have to spend too much time searching for one. Most railroads had a rule that provided for five to ten minutes to return the call when paged. Most callers usually would give you ten to fifteen minutes, depending upon the individual they were calling to call in. If you went beyond that time frame they would have no choice but to show you missing the call and then would have to go to the next employee on the board.

We also had the option to call in and give them a number where we were going to be for awhile, like say a friend or girlfriend's house. That could be a double edged sword. I know in one instance I had been dating this one dolly back in the very early part of my career. I used to go over to her house quite frequently and I would let the caller know where I was so they could just call there and not have to page me. Unbeknownst to me one of the callers wrote her number on the call sheet next to my name as a third option to reach me. Well, the relationship came and went but the number stayed on the sheet. So one night when I was out and about, the caller who had written that number on the sheet called my house only to get the answering machine. So he assumed (and we all know what happens when you assume) that I was at this dolly's house and calls there instead of paging me. I'm sure he struck quite the raw cord when they answered and he asked for me.

"Hello, hello is there anybody in there?"

In this the information age, we know have computers doing the work for and of the callers. The result of this is the so-called reduction of forces. They now have one caller performing the duties of three or four or more. The industry has also moved the callers to some faraway location too. This tends to reduce or virtually eliminate the interaction that previously existed between the callers and the crews. Again, way back in the dark ages when my career began, the callers in Chicago were right there at Yard Center. When you walked in the front door they were situated in the room on your right as soon as you walked in the doors. I knew all them by name and sight and likewise, they all knew me by name and sight. Interacting with them was huge. It took the edge off for many. It was always good to know them face to face and chat with them as it also paid dividends; dividends that could be the difference between missing a call and getting "marked off sick."

I quickly learned and made it a point to try to get along with all the callers. They could make or break you. This is something I continuously try to impress on the new hires. Even if you don't know them personally, treat them with respect. They will always appreciate that and like elephants, never forget it. Of course many moons ago I became quite friendly with one of the callers and began dating her. This had both benefits and drawbacks although I didn't discover the drawbacks until after we broke up. The benefits included what might be referred to as "inside information." She would clue me in on something going on like an extra job that wasn't on the line up, somebody going home sick or getting pulled out of service and an extra guy ahead of me getting called out moving me up a notch which then had me standing to work something earlier that I wasn't expecting or maybe somebody missing a call or laying off on call which would also move me up a notch. Or, she might call me to remind me a vacation vacancy was about to close and wondered if I was going to put a bid in on it to get off the extra board for a week so I'd have a couple of scheduled days off. There was more than one time that somebody grumbled about me just happening to be in the right place at the right time. Ya, it just so happened. I would usually comment that it was all the result of "clean living." Well, it was my definition at that time of what constituted clean living anyway.

I discovered the other end of that sword after we broke up. I learned that whenever she called my house and I wasn't home, she would call the call board and ask if I was working and what assignment I was on if I was. One of the callers clued me in on this after we had broken up. She told of the dolly getting upset if she called and learned I wasn't working and demanding to know where I was since I wasn't there. Hmm, this was sort of a crude form of stalking. Then there was that awkwardness of having to deal with her after the break up. I treated the situation in a totally professional manner. I spoke politely to her but engaged in no conversation at all other than what was directly related to work. I wanted there to be no chance of any allegations of improper behavior or any other malfeasance. And I managed to accomplish this without any problems or incidents.

In being friendly with all the other callers, I also received some dividends. There was one particular caller that was know far and near for being a real curmudgeon. He was sort of a crabby miserable sort that seemed to pretty much hate everybody and everything. But not Tuch. I used to offer to get him a cup of tea out of the machine whenever I saw him. He really appreciated that. I also listened to him when he pissed, bitched and moaned about the management, conductors and engineers who treated him with little to no respect. For my efforts he would reward me by letting me know I was not going to be called to work that evening.

One advantage a good caller can have is a strong, powerful voice. We had one caller here at CN that had a very powerful voice. Not to be mean or disrespectful, but she could sound like the wicked witch of the west from "The Wizard of Oz." I could here her now, "I want you, the scarecrow and your little dog.." She was actually a very good caller and a great person. She just had that powerful voice. She once told me she used to tell new callers she was training to assert themselves in their voice when calling crews, especially in the wee hours of the morning. She explained that people were asleep and you had to bring them back to consciousness ASAP and using a strong and powerful voice was one way to do it.

Another caller I knew at another railroad had her own personal touch too. She would call you in the wee hours and listen closely to how you responded. If she thought you were really out of it, after about a five minute wait she would call you back again and give you a reminder or "wake up call" as she put it. She told me that she probably saved dozens of guys as they had fallen back to sleep and would probably have been late.

I had mentioned earlier about the callers having a thankless job. It could also be a dangerous one as well. In my days at one railroad I observed the callers were located in what was akin to a bunker or fortress. They were sitting in an office that was totally enclosed, with bullet resistant glass on the one side with a locked door. On the opposite side was another locked door. I learned why. One of the former callers, then working as an agency clerk told me how he was attacked one night by a conductor. He related the following story:

There was this particular conductor who regularly and frequently marked off sick on Friday evenings. This one day he was informed by the superintendent not to let this guy mark off under any circumstances. Sure enough, during the course of the evening this conductor calls to mark off and the caller informs him that he cannot per the superintendent. The conductor goes nuts and begins a tirade of profanities against the caller. Now remember, these are recorded phones so everything he is screaming is being electronically documented for use against him in a fair and impartial investigation which will result in his dismissal.

When that failed to persuade the caller he slammed down the phone. All seemed okay. Several minutes later this conductor shows up, storms into the caller's office and begins to attack the caller beating him mercilessly. The caller wound up in the hospital with very serious (and some permanent) injuries. The conductor was arrested, tried and prosecuted and served some time. He also was dismissed.

A young guy I worked with who thought he was a know-it-all got into it with a caller at this same railroad one Sunday afternoon. He tried to mark off on call and was told he couldn't. This guy gets upset with the caller and threatens to come down there and "whip his ass." Bad move especially on the recorded phone and knowing what happened to that other caller. The caller reported the incident to the director of crew management. The employee was requested to attend an investigation and awarded 45 days of without pay for his threats.

I used to bring the callers cookies at Christmastime as a little gift when I was working on the Santa Train. But haven't done that since the Santa Train crew was replaced a couple of years ago. Now I am rarely around the "glass palace" which is the US headquarters for CN where the callers are located. It is amazing what a few homemade cookies will do for you.

And now for some news and updates. A few of you already know but now for the rest of you along the HTOTHI network. I am becoming unmarried. This entire process has consumed a great deal of time and effort precluding me from the time and sometimes the mood, to write these little diatribes. It has been coming for a long time and I'll just leave it at that. And if you're wondering, while the job did play somewhat, it was not the prime factor resulting in this decision.

As the result of my relocation, I have lost the email addresses for the HTOTHI network. I tried to transfer them to my laptop but they didn't transfer so for the moment, I only have those from all of the discussion lists. If you were receiving this directly, contact me at engineertuch@yahoo.com, my new email address to reinstate you to the list.

And so it goes.


Hot Times on the High Iron and the HTOTHI initials are both copyright 2011 by JD "Tuch" Santucci