How I Came to Embrace Direct Traffic Control
or: how a narrow gauge r.r. soothed a narrow mind...
A few days before D(TC)-Day in mid-1984, my regular pool freight job drew a ballast-dumping run out of Carrizozo, New Mexico. After we finished distributing the rock along a stretch of track about 75 miles up the line, we shoved the forty empty cars back about five miles to Duran ("DOO-ran"), where we were to tie down the train in the siding and hitch a ride home with the Tucumcari trainmaster.
As we approached the switch, Conductor Sammy Gholson was directing the move via radio from the caboose's "back porch", and I stood next to him, ready to alight and throw the switch. The engineer was on loan from Lafayette, Louisiana - a "coon ass" as they called themselves - who was making his second run after struggling to qualify on the territory. We'll call him by a pseudonym: Dufore.
Sammy: Ease 'em down a little, DOOfore...
Sammy: Easy, DOOfore...
Sammy: EASY, DOOfore...
Sammy: That'll do, DOOfore...
Sammy (very nonchalantly): AWLright DOOfore, stop the train...
I don't know in which parallel universe that DOOfore was residing, back there on the engine, but he finally transcended space-time enough to hear the last instruction, and KABLOOEY!!! He 'dumped the air' (threw the train into emergency)!
Conductor John Nash, a Tucumcari old hand, demonstrates the position in which I found myself.
|Comment: When you are riding at 10 MPH on the head end of forty empty cars with 20 feet of impending slack runout, you probably would rather hear "We are going to do a full audit of your tax return," from the IRS, than hear KABLOOEY.
Sammy and I braced ourselves the best that we could, but he was lucky - the caboose had the remnants of a ladder upon which he could lean and distribute the impact. On the other hand, the only thing between me and quick launch into orbit (followed by a crash landing, then a slice-and-dice by the caboose) was a chest-high handrail.
When the slack hit, Sammy did fine, but that handrail darned near cut me in two! For a few moments, I couldn't breathe, unwrap myself, or see anything but fluttering bats. The trainmaster, who observed all of this, came running, no doubt worried that I might have to lay-off injured when he was short of men. He and Sammy helped me down from the platform, and I soon recovered, all except for a dandy bruise that was already developing on my rib cage. The engineer should have been pulled out of service on the spot for pulling such a stupid move, but the trainmaster was short on engineers, too...
At this point, I hadn't layed-off (took time off) in five months, and I was certainly was ready for some extended rest now! More importantly, I didn't want to be out on the railroad on D-Day, figuring that it would be one big, dangerous jackpot. Given the circumstances, I had no problem getting five days of approved leave from the trainmaster, who feared that I would besmirch his safety record by laying-off on account of a personal injury. When we arrived back at the Tucumcari yard office, I filled out a "2611" (accident report) and merrily departed the property.
|The next day, the family and I headed for Durango to ride the Durango & Silverton narrow gauge train, something that I hadn't done for a dozen years. I'm not big on tourist trains, but the Silverton run is a grand exception. It features some of the most gorgeous scenery that you'll find on the planet, and I figured that it would give me full release from the job.
When we settled into our coach seats, I stared across the narrow isle at the conductor's desk, which was full of radio gear, and in short time, the conductor came in and began chattering on same. Why, I'll be darned! They're using radio dispatching!
Now, in Tucumcari everyone was pretty nervous about the coming of DTC. We figured that it was just too simple; that it contained too few safeguards; that something bad would surely happen. The complex, dot-the-i's exactitude of train orders gave us confidence that all was well.
But here on the Silverton, radio dispatching seemed to be an unremarkable, but highly structured, routine. Yep, in terms of complexity the Silverton wasn't much, but still, to actually experience an approximation of Tucumcari's future gave me great solace.
When I returned to Tucumcari a few days later, DTC was up and running with none of the calamities that we expected, and I came to realize that our fears of DTC really had no specifics. Railroaders are a conservative lot in their regard for the job, and I realized that what we really feared was change of any sort.
Universal truths sometimes come at you from odd angles, eh?