All Aboard! Exploring the Newfoundland Railway

Railway Workers

A Day in the Life of a Train Dispatcher

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In the beginning

"Train dispatching controls the movement of all trains on the road at any given time. It is similar to playing a huge game of checkers. On the dispatcher's desk lies a 'train sheet' which records movements of trains, along with particulars about the location of engines, items of freight, cars and other incidental information. This provides an at-a-glance record of each train's whereabouts and allows the dispatcher to manipulate the trains by issuing train orders, with an eye to keeping the traffic going smoothly, making efficient use of the rolling stock, and protecting traffic from collisions. The dispatcher kept the train sheet up-to-date by constant contact with station agents by telegraph, and issuing orders over the wire." (W.J. Chafe, I've been Working on the Railroad (1987))

The first telegraph system in Newfoundland was established as part of a plan to land a trans-atlantic telegraph cable in Newfoundland. The first telegraph lines were between St. John's and Trepassey and St. John's and Carbonear, operational in March, 1852.

When the railway was built, the Newfoundland government needed a telegraph service and in 1893 contracted Reid to build a telegraph line following the tracks. Reid purchased it in the 1898 contract. Government re-purchased it in 1901 for $1.5 million, as determined by arbitration. Government built a new telegraph line along the railway, and Reid's station managers provided the service. The dispatching office was the nerve centre of the railway, controlling the movement of all trains at any given time. For a number of years, the line was divided in two, the western division being controlled from Bishop's Falls, and the eastern division from St. John's.

Much of the Newfoundland Railway led through remote, underdeveloped areas. Traffic movements were regulated mostly by "Written Train Orders," transmitted by telegraph from a central office to the few stations along the line where facilities existed for crossing trains running in the opposite direction. The conductor and engineer of a westbound freight or passenger train would receive an order telling them to proceed to a particular station, where they would meet another train going east. On the way they might pass several stations, all of which were equipped with the standard quadrant signal boards designed for this type of line. If the arm was pointing in a downward direction, it meant that no additional or contradictory orders were awaiting the train, and it could pass on through. If the arm was pointing straight out, it meant, "There are orders for your train and you must stop for instructions."

The Life of a Train Dispatcher

Graham Hill recalls his half year training period which was required to become certified as a railway operator. There he learned to operate the telegraph key as well as accounting. As an operator in small train stations he was often the only employee responsible for express, ticketing, and luggage. He started as operator with CN in 1957. When he started his job he worked as "spare" who filled in whenever an extra operator was needed. This gave him the opportunity to work in almost all stations along the main line and in several branch line stations. In small stations such as Gambo and Glenwood he was responsible for all the work, ranging from selling tickets, accepting and delivering freight, checking luggage, copying train orders, as well as performing more humble duties such as cleaning the floors and general office duties. In the late 1950's many of the small stations did not have electricity. Therefore he also had to ensure that the gas lamps were cleaned and in working order. Only the bigger stations such as St. John's, Clarenville, Grand Falls, Bishop Falls, Corner Brook and Port aux Basques, that had several employees allowed for a somewhat more specialized division of labour.

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Dispatcher W.J. Chafe, seated at his desk in Bishop Falls, 1914.
W.J. Chafe took private lessons in telegraphy in the hope of getting a job on the Railway. He was for many years chief dispatcher, retiring from the Railway in 1962. Sister Loretta Chafe.
Outside an Outport telegraph office with dispatcher and his family.
Reid's 1893 operating contract called for a telegraph along the entire line of the railway. Local lines on the north and west coasts connected to the railway telegraph. Harry Cuff Publications.
Retired dispatcher Graham Hill in St. John's office, 1968.
Graham Hill in his new St. John's office, after the Bishop Falls office was closed in 1968. Graham Hill Collection.
Train order file.
Each train had to be registered by train order. CN Pensioners' Collection.
Display of a telegraph station at the Railway Coastal Museum.
The telegraph station display in the Railway Coastal Museum with quadrant signal board. 2009. Ute Simon.