All Aboard! Exploring the Newfoundland Railway

Railway Workers

A Day in the Life of a Train Dispatcher

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The Life of a Train Dispatcher

In 1966 Hill became a train dispatcher. His main job now became "to keep the trains apart and to keep them on time, much like an air traffic controller." Every year, CN published operating rulebooks containing basic information and rules for the operation of trains, such as the meaning of all the fixed, audible and hand signals, the form, format and meaning of train orders, and the duties and obligations of each class of employee. The operating time table established train numbers and schedules, meeting points for these trains, the distance between each station, as well as indicating the locations where train orders might be issued.

As dispatcher, Hill had to ensure that the train orders accorded with the timetable and the rule book. They had to be addressed to a particular train and ensure that the train traffic along the railway ran smoothly and punctually, that trains that were to meet each other met at the right time and location, and that trains waited at specific locations to let other trains pass.

Keeping the trains running

Train dispatchers were required to be intimately familiar with the physical characteristics of the railroad territory for which they were responsible, as well as with the operating capabilities of the locomotive being used. Experienced train dispatchers learned the idiosyncrasies of the locomotive engineers and train conductors and melded that knowledge into the operating decisions. An efficient train dispatcher could utilize the rule book, timetable, train orders and personal experience to move a large number of trains over the assigned territory with minimal delay to any one train, even in single-track territory. At least once a year, Hill would make road trips to stay familiar with the particularities of the outside operation of his job. These trips would regularly bring him to Clarenville, Bishop Falls, Corner Brook and Port aux Basques. During his time as dispatcher with CN Graham Hill was required to attend a two-week training course to upgrade his skills, as were all his counterparts across the country.

The work shifts of a dispatcher were always very full and complex. Hill remembers that it was quite a job to keep everything running smoothly. However, there were many times when bad weather such as winter storms or periods of heavy rain made sections of track impassable, due to high snow built up, washout of tracks or derailments. In such cases arrangements had to be made for repairs, pick-up of stranded passengers, or dispatching of snow plows. This typically caused havoc for the dispatcher: "When the trains were able to operate again it was always a mad rush to catch up with the regular operation," Hill recalls. For emergencies, telephone jack boxes were installed in various locations. These allowed the train conductors or section men to use their portable phone, attach the jack box cord, insert the plug into the jack box and thus contact a train dispatcher.

Communication is the Key

Perhaps no other invention has contributed more to the railroad industry than electrical communications. Prior to the invention of the telegraph, schedules and complicated sets of operating rules operated to prevent interference between trains. This worked as long as all trains were running on schedule. A delay to one train, however, could adversely affect the operation of the entire railroad, as other trains either had to wait for the late train to pass the scheduled meeting place or proceed slowly while a flagman walked ahead prepared to stop the late train. With the adaptation of the telegraph system in the early 1890s, it became possible to accommodate late trains, extra trains and other unexpected occurrences with a much greater degree of safety.

Photograph of Glenwood Station in winter, late 1970s.
The Glenwood Station was one of the many stations where Graham Hill worked as operator and dispatcher. Graham Hill Collection.
Outside cover of the CN operating table, 1972.
The operating table established train numbers and schedules, and indicated the locations where train orders might be issued. CN Pensioners Collection.
Map of major train stations in Newfoundland in 1972.
Map of Newfoundland showing mainline and branch train stations in 1972. CN Pensioners Collection.
Photograph of Clarenville Station in early 1980s with a train on the track.
Clarenville was one of five stations with a dispatching office. Graham Hill Collection.
Retired dispatcher Graham Hill with portable dispatcher's box.
Graham Hill holding the portable dispatchers' box. 2009. Ute Simon.