All Aboard! Exploring the Newfoundland Railway

Railway Workers

A Day in the Life of a Train Dispatcher

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Communication is the Key

Initially, train dispatchers issued train orders using Morse code over telegraph wires. "Morse Code" is essentially a simple way to represent letters of the alphabet using patterns of long and short pulses. A unique pattern is assigned to each character of the alphabet, as well as to the ten numerals. These long and short pulses are translated into electrical signals by an operator using a telegraph key, and the electrical signals are translated back into the alphabetic characters by an operator at the location of the receiving instrument.

From the 1960's on, the use of telegraph keys was gradually phased out for regular operations and replaced by telephone communication. However, for internal communication between stations and in emergencies they were still used until the 1970s.

Introduction of a New System

After 1984 the MBS (Manual Block System) system was introduced. Under the original system, the movement of trains was governed by train orders requiring the train dispatcher to communicate with the operator or station agents at the different stations along the rail line. Railroad operations in the early days required many people to be located along the railroad. Agents and Operators were responsible for delivering train orders and other instructions to the train crews who ran the trains. In many cases, operators also controlled the switches and signals that directed the trains over the road. These agents and operators reported to the "train dispatcher." The train dispatcher was responsible for all the traffic over a given line. He had to keep in constant contact with all of the operators in order to know the location and status of all the trains on that territory. The train dispatcher also had to be able to contact any operator at any time in order to to give out train orders and other instructions. The telephone or telegraph line that connected all of those people was called a "train wire" or "dispatchers line."

Under the MBS system the train dispatcher was able to communicate directly via radio with the train engineman and conductor. This eventually resulted in the closing of many of the smaller stations. The MBS system proved to be a very flexible system with many advantages over the timetable and train order system. The system could only be established over lines with continuous radio coverage. The dispatcher would ensure MBS clearance for a train and a train or track unit, authorized to proceed, would move in the direction specified. The train engineman or conductor then would advise the dispatcher when the train had cleared the section.

Listing of dispatchers' phone wires.
The location of dispatchers phone wires were listed in Time Table. CN Pensioners Collection.
Candlestick telephone, 1924.
This candlestick telephone from 1924 was a vital tool in railway operations. This type of telephone was used in the 20's to 40's. Railway Coastal Museum.
Telegraph key.
Morse telegraphy became the standard method of electrical communication in North America due to its simplicity and ability to work on inferior quality wires. Railway Coastal Museum.
MBS sheet from 1987 operating table.
The Operating Time Table showed stations and sidings. CN Pensioners Collection.
Operating table sheet from 1972.
The operating sheets before 1984 still indicated the trains and their schedules. CN Pensioners Collection.