• Wrecks - "Trains" Special Issue

  • General discussion about railroad operations, related facilities, maps, and other resources.
General discussion about railroad operations, related facilities, maps, and other resources.

Moderator: Robert Paniagua

  by 2nd trick op
This month, Trains magazine, which has devoted more of its efforts to neophyte railfans as the hobby itself has expanded, has a special issue devoted entirely to rail accidents. Those of us who've followed the industry for a long time will recognize some copy borrowed from previous coverage, but there is more than enough new material to justify a purchase,

At least four of the wrecks covered involve misunderstandings or outright violations of operating rules or train orders and/or failure of signal and interlocking systems, including one on Santa Ee's mostly-passenger operation via Raton Pass back in the 1950's. It's intersting to compare this with modern-day dispatching methods and, having at one time manned the "trouble desk" of a major motor carrier, I also found the comparisons to safety in other modes an interesting sidelight.

I hope a few more of the "regulars" here willl have comments to add.
  by Gadfly
For those of us who actually worked in "Dark" territory or on an operator-controlled Block system, it takes on an entirely different perspective! It was possible for ONE man to hold the lives of several men, entire crews and equipment in his hands. I remember when I worked it on Southern, I constantly referred to the Train Sheet, picking it up and looking at it several times each shift (also called a "Turnover Sheet")---even tho I "knew" that there was one conductor and one train in that block at the time. Still the spectre of setting up a "headlight meet" was very real and on one's mind all the time. The rules were very strict and each operator was required to "turn over" and sign this sheet at the beginning of his shift. Conductors were to 'release' the block to the operator, and no train could be permitted to occupy the block so long as that block was "occupied" or "signed out". In an emergency, like a disabled train, an engine could proceed into the block UNDER FLAG in order to rescue the crippled engine with train orders to both the helper work train AND the train that was disabled. This was, of course, to make sure both trains were aware of the other's presence. These rules came to be because someone DID set up a headlight meet, and people were killed. In our rules classes, several wreck scenerios and actual events were used to impress upon us how serious, how dreadful, how unthinkable it was to cause a collision! By the time you passed your Rules Class, most of us were thoroughly aware of our role in preventing such incidents, and it used to put shivers on my back to think about it.

I once had a conductor who finished his shift, tied up and went home-----without giving up the block. When I came on first trick Op, the train sheet still showed that switcher at work. The next conductor came on duty and called in on the Block Phone to occupy the block. I told him I couldn't do it because the block showed "Occupied". There was only ONE train set tied up at ARROWOOD Yard, but, no matter, that previous conductor was REQUIRED to give up the block to me, which he had not done. The oncoming conductor begged me to accept his sign-on, and I refused, instead, calling the Terminal Trainmaster. They had to hunt that other conductor down to release the block to me before I could show "Conductor------ occupying block between MP--- and Arrrowood Yard". They were pretty MAD---at the other conductor, not ME. The TM told me, "You followed the rules, you did the right thing!" :)

Fan magazines may make great copy, sell lots of paper, and be "fun" reading, but it ain't funny to US! :(

  by Desertdweller

I could not agree more with what you said.

Having spent most of my career on small railroads, I am very familiar with Block Register Territory. For the non-railroaders reading this, BRT is the second-simplest method of controlling track authority. The only thing simpler is to run the whole railroad under Yard Limit Rule. Obviously, these methods can only be used on very low-traffic lines.

BRT is so simple. At the terminal where the train originates (or where a BRT-controlled branch joins a mainline), there is a block register book. Conductors of trains entering the block sign onto the block register before entering it, noting the train ID. After clearing the block, a line is drawn through the entry. If more than one train enters the block, the crew of the second train is required to get permission from the conductor of the first train, and both trains have to operate under Restricted Speed. BRT is like a "Work Between" on a Track Warrant in that it allows movement in either direction.

I got into a situation on a BRT railroad I will not identify. I was engineer on a train originating at the railroad's southern terminal, running a train on a 40-mile subdivision to the railroad's main terminal. The BRT register was maintained to the main terminal.

I reported for work at the main terminal and got on the block register for the South Block. My train was already made up there, ready to head north. I headed south in a company vehicle with my conductor. Before I left, I was informed by the Manager that there was a high-rail vehicle operating in my territory.

What! The situation was this: the railroad was being sold. The new owner and his assistant had decided they were going to high-rail the Southern Subdivision. They had their own high-rail pickup. Not wanting to be disturbed, they shut off their cell phones and their radios. They also refused to sign onto the Block Register.

I became a little unglued at that news. I informed my Manager that he should never have allowed that to happen. But, it was an hour's drive to the Southern Terminal. I convinced the Manager he needed to go find that high-rail and get it off the track.

I kept in touch by cell phone with my boss all the way south. He was looking at the track and checking every convenience store, restaurant, etc. they could have stopped at. Nothing.

The south 20 miles of railroad was arrow-straight and had good sight lines. Legally, the high-rail wasn't there: it was not on the block register. I started north at restricted speed, straining my eyes for a glimpse of the high-rail.

There was a town 20 miles north of the southern terminal, where the topography changes greatly. From that point on north, the railroad was built on its narrow-gauge predecessor's roadbed. Tight curves, steep grades through heavy forest. I had had enough. I tied the train down and went home, figuring I had already done too much that day.

We had to come in the next day (a Sunday) and run the last 20 miles into town.

The high-rail was never found that day. It tuned out the new owner and his buddy got tired of high-railing and got off the track, and went on their merry way, again failing to tell anyone.

This really bothered me. This guy had put his own life and that of an employee at risk because of stupidity and laziness. He also put me in a terrible situation.

When the railroad changed hands, I had the chance to stay and work for the new owner. Mostly because of events that day, I declined.

  by Gadfly
YIKES! I know where you're coming from! That owner violated FRA rules and could've been fined for his actions! Lucky he wasn't killed!!!! People MUST understand how important these rules are. We had a few incidents with motor cars where someone violated a schedule or ignored a line-up and had to JUMP clear when a train appeared. It isn't a little "game". Someone either got hurt or killed at some point in history, and these rules came about as a result.

What you called a "Block Register", or a Block Authority sheet, we called it colloqually, "The Train Sheet" where all train movements were recorded. In this case, and on this particular section of territory, only ONE train at a time was allowed to occupy a block except---same as in signalled territory. IOW, if the board was "red", you must stop. Yellow, "Approach prepared to stop at next signal------------with notable exceptions and according to Rule and signal indication. It was not a normal thing to allow two trains in the same block unless one was IN a yard within that block and STAYED in that yard. So if I was the Operator, Conductor Smith would call on the wayside phone or radio and say, "Conductor Smith, Engine (Arrowood Local) 55 naught five, requesting to occupy the Block between Charlotte Junction, MP 4 naught 6 and Arrowood Yard at 8 naught 1 ( e i g h t n a u g h t o n e) AM, ............................" I would respond (if OK), "I show Conductor Smith (s m i t h), Engine 55 naught 5, occupying the Block between Charlotte Junction and Arrow Yard at 8 naught one AM (again spelling proper words, times and numbers), Period. signed, J W Walker (sic). Then I'd note it on the Train Sheet. Same basic idea, and it was to prevent a "headlight meet" which is what rail buffs call "cornfield meets" in the railroad rags. You know, when I watched "Polar Express" and the engineer looked and saw what appeared to be a headlight up ahead, it made me feel "funny", 'cause it brought back for a second, that little chill that I sometimes felt back in the day as I glanced at my Train Sheet to make SURE there were no mysteries. I can't imagine how it would be to know that *I* had caused a death by setting up a collision, and have to live with that the rest of my life. Thank my Lord that I never had to! I don't really enjoy reading stories like that in books; it's too close to home!!!!!
  by Desertdweller

Most of the railroads I worked for used Track Warrant Control. This is a pretty idiot-proof dispatching system, unless traffic density is very high. The best system for high-density traffic I have experience with is CTC with cab signals. Next to this would be CTC without cab signals.

The main mistake I have seen with TWC is engineers forgetting where they are and exceeding the limits of the warrant. This happens mostly on featureless territory
out west where one mile looks like the last and the next. Strictly a human factor situation.

I never regretted turning down the opportunity to work for the guy who didn't believe in putting himself on the block. That day told me all I needed to know about him.

My holding company did right by me. It arranged a lateral transfer to another property, with the same pay and position. They paid my moving expense and even paid me severance from the first property. This fine company was later put out of business by everyone's favorite investment bank, Goldman-Sachs.

  by charlie6017
I bought a copy of it and wished I had saved the money......I didn't get a damn
thing out of it. Of course, Kalmbach will make money on it because of the sensationalism.

I wish I could have the 30 minutes that I spent looking at it back as well.

  by Gadfly
charlie6017 wrote:I bought a copy of it and wished I had saved the money......I didn't get a damn
thing out of it. Of course, Kalmbach will make money on it because of the sensationalism.

I wish I could have the 30 minutes that I spent looking at it back as well.

For me, as stated, I don't like reading about train wrecks. I can't be "entertained" by it because its too close to home having been right in the middle of train operations. :(

  by 2nd trick op
One thing the issue demonstrates for me is the degree to which dispatching and traffic control practices have been changing in the four-decades-plus I've been able to understand them.

Timetable and train-order oerations, as codified in Rights of Trains, was a tremedously flexible and adaptable system, The post-1985 rail industry seems to be coalescing around two distinct poles, with CTC on the mainines and TWC (track warrants) on the rest. Track warrants are effective, but there appears to be a built=in "monotony factor" to their use (You can't actually "fix' a meet via TWC, for example; you can only grant authority to the meeting point), and monotony engenders a sloppy perfomance.

Timetable and train order worked well save under those conditions where the entire structure fell apart; Trains once called some attention to this via an article in the late 1960's linking wartime conditions to a greater incidence of wrecks. And when "regular" traffic and the capacity to handle it evolves, in the form of multiple tracks and block signals, dispatching by signal indication becomes a de facto practice.

One thing for sure; it's a complex, fascinating subject which will never lose is appeal for some of us.
  by Gadfly
The biggest reason they went to Track Warrants was to cut jobs. Thousands of jobs were eliminated, hundreds of open stations were closed, and boo koos of train order signals went dark. The railroad is the cuttin'est bunch out there, and if they can cut off a job, they will do it. It's just the way it is! I was one of the last generation of Train Order clerks/Operators there were.

  by Desertdweller

It always comes down to that in the end.

I think there were worse examples than going from Train Orders to Track Warrants. I won't forget the first time I saw a Track Warrant. Holy cow! This is just fill in the blank!

The worst offense, in my opinion, was the elimination of clerks and station personnel. Not only was the quality control lost of having a human being at a fixed location to verify what was going on, the clerical work was dumped on an entire class of employees who were unused to seeing things in the big picture, and had plenty to do as it was just performing their regular tasks.

I quit a railroad I had worked for for eight years over this issue. All the agencies were closed, and such agency functions as was deemed necessary were consolidated in a central location. All that mattered was car spotting and releases, and the generation of train lists. Everything else, including customer service, was dropped.

The clerks' work was handed to the conductors. As you know as well as anyone, a yard clerk has to be concerned with all the cars in his territory, not just what goes into a given train. The conductors' responsibility is to maintain records for his train. Generally, if there are cars around that he does not handle that day, he will ignore them. Especially if he has no orders to move them. Where do the orders come from? The surviving clerks, who never see what cars are on their territory because they work in a basement, often hundreds of miles from the cars they are responsible for.

This disaster was solved by hiring clerical help with no railroad background or interest, who didn't know a bad situation from a good one. It didn't help that we had a Station Operations Manager who felt that, while anyone could be a railroader, only a talented person could operate a computer. The fact he could hire them off the street at half the wages helped, too.

At first, the clerical work was pushed off onto the Trainmasters. These guys had their plates full as it was, being the only railroad management left in the field. So in addition to supervising train crews, testing for rules compliance, and keeping records to show the FRA, they had to be yard clerks too.

Eventually, they were able to push the clerks' duties back to the conductors.

This operational nightmare continued, even though the consolidation plan was supposed to have been implemented only if clerks' jobs could be cut and money saved. More clerks had to be hired, expenses went up, and a local agency had to be opened. I would have stood for that position, but I had a belly full by then and quit.

I went to a smaller railroad where all this stuff was handled locally. But the problem remained, as our Class One connection had pulled the same stunt on their clerks. And our information on interchanged cars came from the same broken system.

One night I was on the phone commiserating with my Santa Fe counterpart. He said something I'll never forget: "Les, things are this way because the railroad wants them to be this way. They can either run things the right way and pay for it, or they can run a half-assed operation and save a few bucks. They would rather save the money and put up with the mistakes."

I think that said it all.

  by Gadfly
I still don't see HOW they do it. NS consolidated everything in Atlanta (south end), and closed many stations I thought would never be closed. Such as Charlotte, NC. It was a huge operation when I was there with, at least 50-60 people there, not counting the car pecks. Now the only thing there is the Amtrak station, and where the big Freight office was, is ALL waiting room for Amtrak Crescent and the Piedmont trains. Where I once cleared trains, and sweated while the TM yelled at me to get "them bills" out there, mister!".....it's just an empty wall. If the railroad can cut you off, they'd rather do that----even if the employee was actually saving them $$$. :(
  by ExCon90
With the advent of electronic data processing the railroads found it possible to get the shipper to do their billing for them. The shippers traditionally made out the bills of lading anyway, and armies of railroad clerks used to pound out waybills copied from the shipper's B/L. Once the information staarted reaching the railroad electronically it automatically produced the waybill and the freight bill (and generated duns when necessary), untouched by human hands. Not that that affected train dispatching, but it reduced the importance of a paper waybill, since all information on a car was electronically filed in the system.
  by ex Budd man
As a railroad mechanic for 25+ years I seldom see the operating side of things so stories such as those in Trains shed light on the reasons things work the way they do. The fictional (i'm assuming) story of the derailment of the NYC freight bothered me since the car knocker didn't report the cracked journal box which was leaking 'grease'. Every plain bearing I 've seen was oiled not greased, but as I said I'm assuming the story was fictional.
The self closing angle cock on the New Haven cars on the Federal looked as if it was simply placed in a bad location where fouling the underfloor/draft gear wasn't considered.
I've seen odd things happen to trains in motion and I haven't lived long enough to claim I've seen it all.
  by Desertdweller
Yeah. I've worked on short line railroads that didn't believe in weed control. They would let the weeds get so high they would hit the retainer handles and set them as the train passed.

Or kudzu so thick on hills that a train would stall out.

  by Georgia Railroader
I was in a bookstore the other day and saw this issue. I thumbed through it and put it back, there wasn't a damn thing I found interesting enough to justify buying it. Trains mag. in general has went to shit IMO.