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Railfan Technology > Phones (not cellphones) in locomotives


Date: 05/27/20 21:50
Phones (not cellphones) in locomotives
Author: PNWRailfan

When listening to the radio communications of trains in my area, the dispatcher will often tell the train crew "I'll call you on the phone" when the connection is bad. What are these phones and how do they work? Is there a way to monitor these calls via a normal radio (since i assume they're not private)? Why do railroads continue to use traditional radios if they have phones in the cab, which I assume have much better connections? 

TIA



Date: 05/28/20 09:06
Re: Phones (not cellphones) in locomotives
Author: WW

I would guess that the Dispatcher is referring to the Conductor's cell phone.  While the requirement generally is that cell phones must be off and stowed by crew members on trains, most railroads have provisions that permit a cell phone to be used under specific conditions for specific business or operation-related purposes, oftentimes under proviso of "if other suitable means of communication are not available."  I know some shortline railroads that have especially poor radio communication systems that issue company-owned cell phones to train crews for use in contacting the Dispatcher, Mechanical Depts., etc.  Most MOW supervisors also carry company cell phones to use for railroad purposes.  A lot of that is driven by the need to keep non-critical communication off of the radio system.  Excess radio traffic has been cited as a cause of loss of "situational awareness" by train crews in several serious incidents over the past few years.

By the way, for those of us old enough to remember the days before cell phones, most of the big railroads had "PBX" channels that allowed a radio user (train crew, MOW crew, etc.) to access the land line telephone system to make phone calls for railroad purposes.  And, yes, I did hear train crews on some remote branches break the rules and use the PBX radio channel to call a pizza parlor to deliver pizza to them at a road crossing!  PBX channels are seldom used now, as a cell phone is much easier and convenient and it does not tie up a PBX radio channel that only would allow one conversation to take place at a time.  Typically, the way the PBX was set up such that the user would "tone up" (using the DTMF keypad) a land line in a place where a call would be local--for example, a signal maintainer in Smalltown would tone up through the radio system a land-line in Bigville to make a call to the Signal Dept. located there.  Of course, the call was not secure--anyone monitoring the PBX radio channel could listen to it.  The mechanics of this would be that the signal maintainer in this example would have a list of the "tone codes" for the various PBX lines.  So, if "29" would get you a local dial tone in Bigville, he would key up something like " *29 " on the DTMF keypad. Then he would get a dial tone and dial the local no. (e.g. "333-1234") and complete the call.  Most radio PBX systems used " * " to bring up the system and " # " to disconnect from it--commonly remembered as "star-up, pound-down").  Most railroad radio systems still use the " * " and a number code to "tone up" the Dispatcher on the road channel.  For example, Dispatcher 27 would usually be toned up by entering " *27 " on the DTMF keypad.  That sends the radio call through the railroad radio system to the console operated by Dispatcher 27.  For those monitoring, typically what you will hear when a train crew, for example, tones up the Dispatcher is three DTMF tones ( the " *27 " in my example), then a second or so later, you will hear a single DTMF tone--this is the system "answering" the train crew that the call has made it through the system and the Dispatcher has the call on his/her console.  So, now you know . . .



Edited 3 time(s). Last edit at 05/28/20 09:23 by WW.



Date: 05/28/20 12:01
Re: Phones (not cellphones) in locomotives
Author: robj

PNWRailfan Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> When listening to the radio communications of
> trains in my area, the dispatcher will often tell
> the train crew "I'll call you on the phone" when
> the connection is bad. What are these phones and
> how do they work? Is there a way to monitor these
> calls via a normal radio (since i assume they're
> not private)? Why do railroads continue to use
> traditional radios if they have phones in the cab,
> which I assume have much better connections? 
>
> TIA

I have always assumed with the radio the advantage is everyone can hear what is going on, other crews and all crew members in the cab, MOW Signal etc..  After that I can think of all kinds of problems, keeping track of numbers, calling the dispatcher, sound level in cabs etc.

Bob



Date: 05/28/20 13:35
Re: Phones (not cellphones) in locomotives
Author: WW

robj Wrote:

>
> I have always assumed with the radio the advantage
> is everyone can hear what is going on, other crews
> and all crew members in the cab, MOW Signal
> etc..  After that I can think of all kinds of
> problems, keeping track of numbers, calling the
> dispatcher, sound level in cabs etc.
>
> Bob

That is indeed one reason that "open channel" radio communications are still commonly used for train dispatching, particularly in unsginaled territory where Track Warrants are in use.  Where it can become problematic is in congested mainline and urban areas where there is so much radio traffic on a road channel that it can make accurate communications difficult or impossible.  That can also be a problem in places with marginal radio reception.  Even relatively sparse radio traffic can become cumbersome if, for example, Track Warrants have to be read and read back several times to be completed because of poor radio reception.  In either case, all that radio traffic can "constipate" the channel, making communication difficult and causing excessive radio traffic that can potentially cause loss of situational awareness by employees trying to mentally sift through all the stuff that they are hearing on the radio.



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