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Railroaders' Nostalgia > Whatcha gonna do now, Chief?

Date: 10/14/16 18:18
Whatcha gonna do now, Chief?
Author: TAW

I have been entertained by funnelfan's postings about the Hauser meltdown. It isn't the first BN[SF] meltdown and probably won't be the last. One of my repeated themes is that priority-based improvised operation doesn't work, particularly as traffic approaches capacity. It is a repeated theme because the associated problems have been around for decades and continue to happen.  

The GN line between Everett and Wenatchee was not difficult to run...IF it wasn't packed with too many trains. BN and BNSF traffic on this line substantially exceeds the wildest dreams of the designers of the new Cascade Tunnel and the accompanying line change. As the railroad became crowded, running it became tricky.

Part of not difficult to run was that GN ran a carefully structured operation. The Chief set the calls at Seattle and Wenatchee. The Chief set  up the helpers and called them. On duty in Seattle to moving was invariably 90 minutes. Trains originating in the yard at Wenatchee, on duty to leaving was one hour. All the trains were powered similarly and running times were consistent. Except in some unusual circumstance, helpers made at least one round trip helping between Merritt and Skykomish. When traffic was up, two round trips with one helper crew was not unusual. My best (and office best) helper utilization was one crew helping seven trains between Merritt and Skykomish. Reliability on the ex-GN was so good that one evening I told the Bayside (Everett) yardmaster that there was a (unusual) train of Everett traffic out of Northtown. He would see it on 2d trick day after tomorrow and would need an extra engine. That was exactly what wound up happening.

I frequently write here about things that can't work. That comes from experience. I have watched what others did, I have tried some moves, I have had to bail out the situation I inherited when I sat down, and I have let management crater the railroad just to watch what would happen. I knew that they didn't want to hear what I had to say, so why waste the effort?

The latest Hauser happenings brought me back to my first BN priority-based meltdown. In about 1981, the long time GN chief in Seattle retired. The NP Chief took over the office pending merging the two offices. It didn't really work out too well. He didn't know how our piece of railroad worked and he didnt' care. He retired and we got an ex-SP&S guy who also didn't know our railroad. He decided to show us who was boss one night, making some points with management for enforcing the new strict-priority policy.

It didn't matter how much time a train had to move from here to there, if it had priority, it wasn't to be stopped. Early got you more points with senior management than on time. The passenger and freight schedules between Wenatchee and Seattle had time that could be used for adjusting meets. The meets weren't in the schedules, but there was some amount extra time for every train. A dispatcher who knew how to do it (mostly, knew the running times between every siding as well as the end to end times) could run everybody on time even among extra trains and late trains.

I was 2d trick Chief. The Chief spend much of second trick behind the Seattle East dispatcher (who had been around for decades), finding fault and giving instructions, most of which were something like No, you can't do that; remember your priorities. 88 (Dirty Ol Freight Train) would have gone to Gold Bar for No 3 on a normal day, but lacking a couple of minutes of clearing 3 without stopping him, he would be at Monroe...except there is a road crossing in the middle of the Monroe siding. The east man would usually lay back until the west man was showing so the crossing wouldn't need to be cut. This was No 3, and he's top priority, so, no. 88 was at Lowell. No 88 didn't have time to go to Scenic, as usual, to see Amtrak 8. He only made Baring. There was a west DOFT that could have been at Baring, but he was at Sky. Since 88 wouldn't see 8 at Scenic, there was a west man that could have gone there, but westbounds always held the main at Scenic. Since 8 was much greater priority than the west man, he couldn't be using the siding at Scenic. The west man had to wait at Berne. As time went on, more and more trains didn't have time to go anywhere, exacerbated by running out of sidings because so many were occupied with parked trains that didn't have time to go anywhere else.

This went on for hours. There were more priority trains: 82, 78, and 97. I watched it cratering and didn't say a word. The trick man knew what was going to happen but didn't object when the boss told him that the decision was incorrect - remember your priorities.

Trains were running out of time here, there, and the next place on a railroad that could be run in 4 hours 30 minutes. Late in the evening, the two hottest trains of the evening made their appearance. No 4 (mail and UPS) pulled up to Everett Jct, the end of two tracks. No 43, mail and UPS was ready to leave Wenatchee. Between them were 10 sidings, all of which were occupied by a train that now was dead or had no time to go anywhere because there was nowhere to go. That's it; the hottest eastbound and westbound of the evening were 3 hours 20 minutes apart with no sidings between them. It was entertaining to watch, but it was time to go out there and make myself a real pain.

Whatcha gonna do now, Chief?

That was the last thing I said to him. There was no reply. He left.

I told the trick man to let 43 come to Everett.  At the time, 4 was the last train of the eastbound fleet from Seattle. 4 and 43 were equal priority, so I couldn't remember my priorities even if I really cared. Assuming that 43's spot time was imminent and 4 had 2000 miles to make up the delay, that was the only reasonable thing to do (and the only reasonable thing to occur all evening). He could do that easily if he was handled with Strict Priority.

Having made that decision, there was one thing left to do. I chartered a Greyhound bus and ordered 10 crews for the trains that were tied down all over my railroad.

I never heard a word about it...and we had a new Chief shortly thereafter.


Date: 10/15/16 07:06
Re: Whatcha gonna do now, Chief?
Author: joeygooganelli

That's the biggest issue today we have in railroading. They try to run by numbers. I've told many a manager: "If everything is a priority, nothing is". My other favorite thing to tell them is "run the railroad and the numbers will fix themselves". I gave up my yardmaster job in May. Back on the ground pounding. They still randomly ask me stuff and I chuckle. Stop trying to make a number look good and focus on getting trains out. Our dwell in the last 4 months has went from around 18-32 hrs. 


Date: 10/15/16 07:35
Re: Whatcha gonna do now, Chief?
Author: WAF

Priceless, Tom

Date: 10/15/16 09:51
Re: Whatcha gonna do now, Chief?
Author: rob_l

Another reminder of what it takes to run a busy railroad (especially a busy mountain railroad): Minimize total train delays, not prioritized delays.

I think a key reason that railroads have a hard time competing for priority intermodal traffic (and also why Amtrak has trouble staying on-time on busy lines) is that such trains are basically incompatible with the crawling-along contemporary bulk unit trains and carload trains. To run a busy multi-speed railroad requires a tremendous amount of infrastructure controlled very intelligently.

Best regards,

Rob L.

Date: 10/15/16 11:54
Re: Whatcha gonna do now, Chief?
Author: spnudge

The old head dispatchers were worth their weight in gold. Working with TOs and only 2 offices in 152 miles in single track ABS territory, they pulled off some great dispatching. They also knew what hogheads would go for them and the ones to put away to let the railroad catch up.  I called the dispatcher asking for a signal into his short 14 mile CTC one morning and he started to ask me how I got there. He stopped the question in mid sentence and then answered his own question with a laugh," I don't want to know." 

Those were the days. Thats when a Chief would come to work on first trick and everything was smooth as silk because the last 3  tricks knew their jobs.  Those days are gone forever. Even with the fancy "electronic" dispatching, nothing replaces somone that knows their job. 


Date: 10/16/16 08:27
Re: Whatcha gonna do now, Chief?
Author: PHall

Just because you get to use a computer to dispatch doesn't mean you'll do a better job.
All the computer enables you to do is screw up at the speed of light!

Date: 10/16/16 11:46
Re: Whatcha gonna do now, Chief?
Author: TAW

PHall Wrote:
> Just because you get to use a computer to dispatch
> doesn't mean you'll do a better job.
> All the computer enables you to do is screw up at
> the speed of light!

Rememebr that typically, the guy who is making the dispatching decisions (writing the software) has never managed railroad traffic in any way (and of those that I have met, that includes model railroads in the never category).


Date: 10/18/16 11:08
Re: Whatcha gonna do now, Chief?
Author: CA_Sou_MA_Agent

rob_l Wrote:
> To run a busy multi-speed railroad requires a tremendous amount of infrastructure controlled very intelligently.

Very true.  And even in situations where the infrastructure may be lacking, it can be made up with competent dispatching.  

Before BNSF added the third track on Cajon Pass I was working on Train 3, the SOUTHWEST CHIEF, with an Assistant Conductor that was new to the route.  As we were coming up from Lugo, on the adjacent track there must have been three or four westbound freights that had flagged in on top of themselves and were paitiently waiting for our passage.  We threaded the crossover at Summit and rounded the curve where we saw about three of four eastbound freights that were doing exactly the same thing --- flagged in on top of each other and were waiting for us to go by.  

I pointed all this out to her as it was happening.  I said, "Do you realize all these freights are waiting just for us?"  She was awestruck.  I don't think she had ever seen anything like that where so many trains were stopped to let a high-priority train have the railroad.

Other subdivisions, on other days and with other dispatchers might mean that you're running on yellow signals (following somebody) for seventy or eighty miles.    

Clyde Patterson, now retired, was one of the best, if not THE best, dispatchers on the Cajon Sub.  On the flip side of the coin, there are other dispatchers who, judging from their dispatching, must have graduated last in their class.  I won't name names, but there's a certain dispatcher who used to routinely have trouble keeping things fluid on the Cajon Sub.  Maybe things have gotten better with the passage of time.  This dispatcher has been given a nickname by the crews. Can you guess what it is?

The Hillside Strangler.    

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 10/18/16 20:07 by CA_Sou_MA_Agent.

Date: 10/18/16 19:12
Re: Whatcha gonna do now, Chief?
Author: ExSPCondr

Going back about 25 years, the SP crews working Colton to Yuma on the midnite shift had a lady dispatcher they called the "Night Stalker."

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