Map of Carrizozo Sub, 1982

Part 1

Part 2, page 1

Part 2, page 2

Santa Rosa Work Train

Train Orders Explained

DTC Explained

How I Adjusted to DTC

How to Call the Dispatcher

SP Pages

TO Directory

A Disreputable Precursor: Jawbone Meets

Carrizozo Subdivision train crews frequently treated train orders more as suggestions for better living than as literal commandments. Rather than have their progress slowed by the pre-conceived notions of some guy sitting in a dark room one state away, crews routinely arranged what was known as 'jawbone meets' via radio. They'd go something like this:

Hey Otis, where in the heck are you?
We're fallin' down here at Arabella. My second unit's gone belly up and the lead unit's only loading a little. Where you at Doug?
We're waitin' on you at Leoncito.
Well, why don't you come on down and head in at Pastura. We ought to be up there directly, if I can keep this junk moving.
Okay Otis, let us know if we need to cut-off and come 'n get ya.
You bet, Doug!

They could get away with this because: a) they knew that they were someplace that the dispatcher couldn't hear them; b) local officials, who wanted to 'move freight', could practice plausible deniability; c) heck, there were no other trains anyway.

Nope, this wasn't the best railroading, safety wise. Woe be to the poor motor car foreman who unexpectedly met a train that wasn't supposed to be there. The practice stopped after SP started to install radio repeaters so that train crews could talk directly to the dispatcher. Jawbone meets tended to upset the dispatcher.

(left and above) the view from the Tucumcari's "crying room" (crew calling office / register room), September, 1983

A Fast-Acting Cure: Jawbone Dispatching

The concept of dispatching trains via radio was not new in the early 1980's, when SP desperately went looking for a more efficient way to expedite trains. The way I understand it, SP adapted its version, Direct Traffic Control (DTC), from a system then in use on the Seaboard Coast Line.

SP originally intended to try out DTC between Carrizozo and El Paso, probably figuring that it would be easier to teethe the system on a flat, (fairly) fast-track railroad, rather than on the undulating monster to the north. It's initial instructional literature
(see DTC Explained) reflected this.

But, when General Manager Rollin Bredenderg (see Part 2, page 2, bottom) appeared on the scene in the Spring of 1984, he realized that, if the system was as foolproof as its proponents maintained, SP could ill afford the luxury of fiddling around with it on the Sub's south end, when it was the north end that was in desperate trouble. He probably figured that, even if DTC wasn't a total cure, it surely couldn't make overall matters worse.

Brendenberg would make other operational changes as well, but not as dramatic as the installation of DTC. Newly promoted to G.M., and quite young for the position, Brendenberg had a knack for ferreting out a problem's true issues, so his solutions tended to work.

He held great respect among those of us that knew him - when he was appointed Western Division Superintendent a few years earlier, Brendenberg showed up on my commute train one Sunday with the explanation that, "I don't know a thing about the Commutes, so I'm out here riding trains to find out." He then proceeded to ask the crew a myriad of questions about the way things worked. We employees liked managers who allowed that they didn't know our jobs better than us, and doubly appreciated those who actually listened to our answers.

Brendenberg also would give straight answers to our concerns. In Carrizozo one day, I overheard a locomotive engineer complain to him about being "temporarily" forced-assigned from Portland, then being told that henceforth his seniority was only good on the Tucson Division, a massive violation of labor agreements. Brendenberg looked him in the eye and said that he could not help, because his job was to clean up the Sub's operation, and he had no time to devote to individual employee matters. Although that obviously was not what the engineer wanted to hear, he shook Bredenberg's hand as he took leave, realizing that the G.M. could have given him a patronizing "I'll look into it" answer to get him off of his back.

One day in Spring, shortly after Brendenberg's departure, a bunch of us were hanging around, bored, in the Carrizozo modules' recreation room. A fellow came in and asked us if we would volunteer to attend his DTC class. Brendenberg got the ball rolling quickly. A few of us acceded to the instructor and became party to what I believe was the first DTC class given to trainmen and engineers.

Gad, DTC looked to be simple: basically, it divided the railroad into segments, called blocks, which were marked by signs. Via radio, the dispatcher would grant permission for a train to enter a block, and after the train cleared out of the block, the crew would release the block back to the dispatcher. The rest was technical details about proper radio procedure and operational details such as taking sidings, joint occupancy of blocks and so forth.

Trains would still receive clearances and train orders pertaining mainly to track conditions ('track orders'), but all orders directing train movements would be discontinued. No more "column waits"; no more "right overs", no more "after arrival of Extra 8625 west, Engine 6666 works extra between Santa Rosa and Newkirk from 8:01 AM to 3:01 PM not protecting against extra trains, except protects against Extra 7770 West from 11:31 AM to 12:45 PM if the sun is shining and the wind is blowing from the northeast. Wahoo! This was easy, BUT maybe too easy...

Railroaders are a conservative lot, and DTC represented major change. Most of us, including the old "jawbone meet" crowd, were pretty leery of the intended arrangement and looked upon it with fair trepidation, ironically proclaiming, "Jawbone railroading, that's what it is. Tain't safe!"

It took awhile for everyone to get trained on the new system, and for all of the radio repeaters to be installed and debugged, so we had plenty of time to weave our initial misgivings into a shroud of impending doom, where many of us would perish in fearful, fiery deaths. Looking on the bright side is not your typical railroaders' forte'.

In this respect, I got lucky. A few days before DTC's inauguration, I nearly got killed, and in an indirect way this led me to embrace the concept of radio dispatching. Since this is a bit astray of our present story, you can read
How I Came to Embrace DTC elsewhere..

Though I returned from Colorado in late June reassured that DTC probably wasn't the we're-all-going-to-die bogeyman as I originally thought, I still figured that the new system would have a rough break-in period for a variety of reasons.

When I marked up on June 28
* - three days into DTC - my regular conductor, Sammy Gholson was out of town. As always, though, manpower was tight, so I was called to work with Conductor Gene Oglesby's crew. We deadheaded down to Leoncito and picked up Work Extra 7780, a train load of slag which we dumped near Vaughn. Then we deadheaded home. The most noteworthy thing about the trip was that we earned in excess of 300 miles (100 miles = one day's pay) for 12 hours on duty. Not bad. What about DTC, you say? We, and the other crews that I overheard had nary a problem. Gene related that he'd already made a rounder to Zozo, and everything generally went fine.

Boy, what a letdown!

The next day I hooked up with Sammy, and we made it to Carrizozo on a dog - an ASLAK - in a record-shattering nine hours. This DTC wasn't so bad after all...

*At 5:30 am on June 28, the first of several crew consist agreements took effect: this one allowed the company to 'blank' (eliminate) the rear brakeman jobs on pool freight trains through attrition. If one brakeman layed-off, the job would not be filled unless an extra board man was available - this meant fewer big-money off-assignment ('black market') jobs for regular men . When the second brakeman job was blanked, the conductor was required to ride the head end, something that caused a great hoo-rah, since it violated railroad tradition. This happened to Sammy for the first time on July 2 (our head man, Paul Ware was on vacation), and Sammy was not pleased.

In succeeding years, succeeding agreements eliminated brakemen and cabooses entirely on pool freights.

Note the rail and ties here in the west end of Tucumcari Yard. Before the mid-80's overhaul, parts of the main line weren't much better.

Sperry car stuck at Montoya, June, 1984.

This is not to say that there were not wrinkles to iron out. The worst problem, as one might expect in hill-n-dale country, was dead spots in radio transmission coverage. Most of these spots were small enough so that either the engine or caboose crew usually could talk to the dispatcher, but sometimes not.

I don't recall if we had communication problems on our return trip from Carrizozo on the X9000E, but overall, things were going well as we approached Newkirk at about 8 a.m. on a beautiful June 30 Saturday morning. Ahead, we heard the crew of a Sperry track inspection car, up the line at Montoya (see photo, left), call the dispatcher to obtain DTC authority. And call. And call...

As we progressed over the hump at Simmons, we tried calling the dispatcher to relay authority, with an equal lack of success. After snapping the photo of the Sperry-in-distress, I leaned out of the cupola and exchanged disgusted shrugs with the Sperry crew.

When our caboose passed Palomas, the hump east of Montoya, we suddenly heard the dispatcher as clear as crystal - he was talking to his Cotton Belt equal, who dispatched the line between Tucumcari and Dalhart. The end of the conversation went something like this:

Cotton Belt: "So how's the DTC working out?"
TD6: "Pretty good. No big problems so far."
E.O. "Well, TD6, you might ask that Sperry car crew who's been trying to call you for the last half hour what they think."

For more tongue-in-cheek verbage about communication failure, consult How to Call the Dispatcher.

Once we employees got used to DTC, and it didn't take long, some found that bending the new system could enhance their chances of getting over the road in short order. This they did by releasing their DTC block authority a little early, before the train had cleared the block, figuring that the dispatcher would think that they were making better time than they actually were.

It was a Cajun engineer, one of the loaners from the T&L Lines in Louisiana, who first employed this approach. Luckily, he had few imitators. When he released blocks early on one trip with us, Sammy "tore him a new asshole" at the end of the run.

Undeterred, the Cajun grew bolder and bolder, until he began releasing blocks before he ever entered them. His shenanigans didn't last long - one day he released a block, only to hear the dispatcher subsequently grant authority to an opposing train to occupy the track that the Cajun had not yet cleared. This didn't sit well with the opposing crew, who knew what was up and stayed in the clear, and one of them 'turned him in' to the Tucumcari trainmaster. End of problem, at least with him.

Other minor technical problems with DTC arose, but they were identified and corrected in short order. Overall, DTC was a wonder that, over night, transformed a bottleneck into a reasonably functioning railroad. Surely the other headaches - broken locomotives, crew shortages and such - remained, but DTC moderated their impact. Ultimately, DTC wasn't the best solution, because it relied upon an unreliable conveyance - the radio - and SP later would replace it with CTC.

Overall, though, DTC was a successful cheap fix for a money-short railroad, and I don't think it was coincidence that, shortly thereafter, many large railroads began replacing train orders with various forms of radio dispatching, such as Track Warrant Control. SP showed that radio dispatching could work under the most adverse of circumstances. Within a few years, Form G's were gone, along with the operators that cut them and the stations where they were delivered.
train-orderdispatched movements, along with hundreds of train order stations and their operators, were gone from America's railroads.

September, 1983

I only worked in Tucumcari for a few more weeks, until July 31, before traffic slowed and I was bumped off of my regular job on Sammy's caboose. I learned that I finally had enough seniority (after three years) to again hold the freight brakeman's extra board in San Francisco, so the family and I returned home. Unlike other parts of the SP, Winter was the busy time in the Southwest, so we fully expected to return to New Mexico in a few months, after I was cut-off (furloughed) in San Francisco. We even left some of our stuff with our landlord, Sammy's niece.

This was not to be, because about a month later, the company accepted my application to go firing in Dunsmuir. Up there, I saw the change from train orders to DTC on the Syskiyou line as well, but since there usually was only one train working below Ashland (my seniority district) at any given time, the transformation was not dramatic as it was out there in the wilds of the high desert.

1984: a grain elevator employee winched loaded hoppers through a derail near the Tucumcari depot, producing these results. The location of this mishap can be seen in the extreme upper right corner in the previous photo.

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