My layout is a bit too small for realistic TT&TO operations, but I've been able to experience it when dispatching on Jim Providenza's Santa Cruz Northern. But most model railroads are too small and fast-moving to really experience TT&TO. There's really only two choices if you want to try TT&TO: build a time machine, go back in time to the 1940's, and get a job on a railroad, or go to San Diego and operate on the La Mesa Model Railroad Club's layout at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum during one of their operating weekends. I'd had a brief chance to serve as a train order operator at La Mesa last year, but was still eager to get the full experience.
Last weekend, I went whole-hog. Thanks to an invite from the folks at the La Mesa club, I got a chance to do one of their all-weekend intense operating sessions, running trains from 8am to 8pm on both Saturday and Sunday, and got a sense of both the stress and boredom that was so representative of the real railroads.
La Mesa has its TT&TO sessions about once every three months, and each session is a continuation of the last session. This session ran from 8 pm on December 3, 1952 to December 4, 1952; the train orders from the previous day were still at each operator's desk and the trains were positioned exactly where they were before, ready for us to pick up wherever things left off three months back.
Even though I've seen the layout as a tourist, the layout's mind-blowing as an operator. If you walk around it as a tourist, you see a medium sized museum with a large display, mostly focused on the passing sidings at Caliente and tracks spiraling up the side of the mountain. But when you start operating there, you find it's much, much larger - a hundred and twenty foot long yard at Bakersfield, similar trackage in a hidden aisle representing the double-track in the valley between Bakersfield and Bena, and another long stretch before you enter the public museum spaces near Caliente.
Climbing up out of Caliente, you climb and criss-cross the hills as the trains get over your head, then find yourself eventually on their upper mezzanine floor where you have another long stretch before you reach the famous Tehachapi Loop scene. Another long stretch, and you finally hit the upper Mojave yard, another seventy feet long with huge staging yards just past there. Your train climbs a good fifteen feet between Bakersfield and Mojave, and those trains are huge in model railroad terms - forty and fifty car trains are normal, and a couple hundred car trains - fifty feet long! - went down the hill during the operating session.
And that's just the main line. The staging yards beyond Bakersfield fill some of the areas under the layout. Extra little yards - the passenger tracks here, or yard for the modern equipment used during museum hours - get hidden under various parts of the scenery. Often times, reaching some of these hidden yards or the secret car repair facility required crawling under the layout; so did getting to the yardmaster and train order operator's location in Bakersfield yard, and a good yard crew at Bakerfield had at least one crew member agile enough to duck back and forth under the layout. It's probably no coincidence that the layout was formed by a group of La Mesa teenagers who at the dawn of the club probably loved diving under benchwork, and the club is still remarkably tolerant of young members compared to other model railroad groups.
Tom and I both flew in on Friday as one part of the out-of-town contingent participating in the operating session, and after a tour of the layout, we got to help out with preparing the different script-like paperwork needed for the operating session - lists of trains scheduled, switching work expected in the yard, and expected arrival order - then spent a bit of time proving we could navigate around the backstage areas to leave all the paperwork at yardmaster, staging yard, and operator locations. We stayed late being good citizens, made it back to the hotel around 11 or 12, and collapsed ASAP in true railroader fashion.
The alarm rang way too early around 6:30. With a fine breakfast at the New Orleans-themed restaurant at the 1960's era motel, we made it to the museum in time for our 8:00 a.m. call. My first assignment: the Woodford train order office I'd worked last year. The club members already had last session's trains pulled out of staging and located on the layout; with a quick look over the past train record and train orders, I put on the operator's headset, and waited for the firehose of trains to be pointed at me as the clock started.
It's worth mentioning that La Mesa uses regular clocks for the sessions, though sometimes 12 hours off of the real time. Our session on Saturday started at 8:00 pm on December 3, 1952, and ended that evening at 8:00 am, December 4. Sunday's schedule picked up at 8:00 am December 4, 1952, and ran through that day of 1952. Evenings were dominated by the overnight passenger trains between Los Angeles and San Francisco, with occasional through freights.
As the train order operator at La Mesa, my job wasn't that hard:
- First, watch for trains coming uphill or downhill. The train order operator needs to stop trains that deserve additional instructions, so to check for additional orders, warn the dispatcher with the words "Woodford heading west (or east)". The dispatcher could check his train sheets to figure out what train that was, think about whether he had more train orders for that train, and tell you whether he had any additional train orders to give that train.
- Second, set the train order signal at the station to indicate whether the train needed to stop. The La Mesa gang knows a lot about prototype operation, and one of the operators hinted that I was setting the train order signal to green too fast. "Don't change it till the engineer could see the flag; if he didn't see the flag move, the Southern Pacific rules said he had to stop just in case you'd forgotten to reset the flag after the last train."
- Third, clear the signal after the train received any orders, mark the time the train passed, and warn the dispatcher about the train going past. The dispatcher was always hungry for train position information, so it was acceptable to interrupt almost any conversation on the telephone to tell the dispatcher about the passing train.
- Finally, write up the orders themselves. The dispatcher would tell me how many copies were needed, so I'd pull out the pad of train order forms, add an appropriate number of carbon papers between the layouts, and start transcribing the train orders:
To C&E THIRD 802 at WOODFORD:
EXTRA ATSF 140 WEST MEET THIRD 802 AT WALONG THIRD 802 TAKE SIDING
DFM, Chief Dispatcher
That's the life of a train order operator - watch trains pass, transcribe the orders, listen on the telephone to hear orders going to other stations and build up a mental model of what trains were passing, check out the scenery, organize the desk - hey, here's the train sheet from last year, and there's my name and the shift I handled!
Train order operator at Woodford had its quiet moments, but the real railroads did too, and there were enough terrifying moments as I tried to write down the train orders exactly to keep me entertained and out of trouble. I also could check out the various photos and maps showing the scenery they're planning on building at Woodford. I also got to hear and read the different orders to the trains, and get a sense for the legalistic language used for train orders.
After the six hour shift at Woodford, I got relieved, and got a chance to work as crew on the Hill Crew taking trains from Bakersfield to Mojave. I was feeling a little nervous at my first serious chance at running under train orders, but also a bit cocky because I thought I understood train orders. When they were short crews and sent me out without a mentor on my first trip, I thought: "No problem, I can do this."
It's crazy in Bakersfield yard, with six or seven crew running about, switching cars and preparing trains. I finally get the train order operator's attention around 4:45am, and he hands me a stack of train orders. Let's look at my orders:
CLEARANCE:My timetable shows that SP train 55, a passenger train, is supposed to roll into Bena (at the bottom of the mountain, and the start of double-track all the way to Bakersfield) at 5:06, and is supposed to arrive at Bakersfield at 5:15am. If I can get out of town quickly, I'll be on double track and I can make it past the passenger train. After a bit of work getting the engines set up, I see the engine ATSF 225 at the head of the train rolling into the yard; whew - that means one train I need to watch for is out of the way. I thread my way onto the mainline, pop through the backdrop at the end of Bakersfield yard, and end up in a dark aisle holding the track leading towards the Tehachapi mountains.
KERN JCT. Station, DECEMBER 4, 1952
To Conductor and Engineer THIRD 802 displaying GREEN flags
I have 2 orders for your train as follows: Order No. 9 No. 10
Train order No. 9
To Conductor and Engineer THIRD 802
At KERN JCT
EXTRA ATSF 170 WEST HAS RIGHT OVER THIRD 802 WOODFORD TO BENA
Train Order No. 10
To Conductor and Engineer THIRD 802
At KERN JCT
ENGINE ATSF 225 RUN EXTRA MOJAVE TO KERN JCT AND HAS RIGHT OVER THIRD 802 MOJAVE TO BENA
I roll through Magunden, Edison, and Sandcut at moderate speed, switching between watching the front of my train and signals, and watching the end to make sure the helper locomotive is doing ok. After two hundred feet of track and a good ten minutes of running, I find myself at the end of the double track at Bena. There's a train register book there, but my official timetable says that's only for trains that started or ended between here and Bakersfield. There was something else I was going to check in Bena… and I look over and find the last passenger train lost its last two cars on the track at Edison on the other side of the aisle. I ought to just ignore it - in real life, that's ten miles back - but I instead walk back to Bakersfield yard and warn the previous crew they lost part of their train.
Back in Bena: check the timetable, no trains should be coming at me. I'd already checked my train orders and marked the ones that didn't matter any more. I can't think of any other reason to delay, so I throw the switch to get out onto the mainline and start heading up into the mountains. I get a scenic view of the wider canyon at Ilmon and narrow canyon further up. The signals are all green, so I know there's no opposing trains. I roll into Caliente, pull up to the train order station, and greet the operator.
Oh, wow, I'm getting a rule book check - I'd heard they quiz new operators to make sure they're prepared for operations. "I'm running on the schedule of train 802; the previous two sections have already left according to the train register in Bakersfield. I have train orders saying I can run from Bakersfield to Mojave. All my train orders are fulfilled because the opposing trains have all been dealt with. There are no other conflicting trains on the schedule; I checked at Bena when I left double track." I'm feeling confident and safe. I'm waiting for a softball "what attributes are necessary to call something a train?"
"Let me see those orders… So have you seen Extra 170 West yet?"
Um… oh, right, I'd thought in Bakersfield I was going to have to wait in Bena for that train… and forgot to double-check my orders in Bena. That train wasn't expecting me to be this far along, and if I'd been unlucky, I could have had a cornfield meet with it any place between Caliente and Bena. If this had been a real railroad, I would have been looking for a new career at that point; because it's a model, I instead got good-natured but stern reminders from several club members about the importance of checking train orders and only moving when safe.
And down the hill came Extra 170, and to add insult to injury, we're both too long for the siding at Caliente, both with fifty cars. Luckily, I can break off my helper and fill the second siding at Caliente, but that delays both of us and compounds my embarrassment. It delays things more when Extra 170 remembers to ask whether there's any sections following me, and he learns there's a fourth section that, after a perusal of his train orders, is having to wait for him at Bena too. The dispatcher holds me for a bit longer to let me stew in my ignorance, and finally tells the train order operator to let me get out of there and stop blocking up his railroad. I double check my paperwork, check the timetable again, decide that this time I must be safe, and start heading up hill.
And it's a beautiful run, watching this huge train climb up through the many curves and over my head. I worry that the helper engine might push the rest of the train off the track, but it all behaves as it snakes around the hills, and as I steal quick glances at the hills and beautiful scenery. Green signals all the way through the public areas of the layout, then spiral up to the mezzanine and into Woodford where I get another order:
Train Order No. 14That's a meet at the next siding uphill; I roll up to the Tehachapi Loop where my train loops over itself, pull into the siding, and accidentally run a bit too far and can't stop till I've blocked the main. I back up, out of danger, and eventually ATSF 140 rolls downhill so its engineer will get to see the mountain scenery.
To Conductor and Engineer THIRD 802
EXTRA ATSF 140 WEST MEET THIRD 802 AT WALONG THIRD 802 TAKE SIDING
DFM, Chief Dispatcher
And finally, after about an hour and a half of running the third section of train 802, I pull into Mojave yard with a much better appreciation for the caution required when operating under train orders and timetable operation.
A slight wreck in the canyon below Caliente delayed trains for the rest of the session and triggered a flurry of activity as wreck trains were brought in from both ends of the railroad, but it delayed ops until we broke for pizza at 8pm. We again helped out with setup for the next day, headed back to the hotel, and collapsed again around midnight.
Alarm goes off at 6:30 am; waking up this early is getting old. Another quick breakfast under mardi gras beads, and we're back at the museum at 8:00 am. I'm again train order operator, this time at Mojave yard, the upper end of the layout. Handling train orders at one of the terminal stations (where trains start and end) has a bit more work; there's more train orders needed to start trains on their journey, and sometimes I'm making several copies of an order to give to "All Westward Trains" for the rest of the day. There's lots of listening on the telephone, lots of writing, and a bit of cleanup of the desk (again with all the train orders from the last several sessions present.) It's also a bit less lonely with a yardmaster and train crews usually in the neighborhood for conversations and status checks.
I also get some time to read a real railroad rulebook, Josserand's "Rights of Trains", that carefully describes every rule in the railroad rule book, and explains all the edge cases and subtleties of the rule. Josserand was a Western Pacific railroad dispatcher; my dad met him during a stint working in Sacramento, and still remembers the dispatcher's office in the Sacramento depot with over-stressed, over-caffeinated, and over-nicotined dispatchers controlling trains between Oakland and Salt Lake. Josserand also had words for dispatchers and train order operators:
Train dispatchers should not engage in conversation while on duty, except on matters pertaining to their duty… Train dispatchers should not read a newspaper or magazine while on duty…. It is hazardous for train order operators to do clerical work not connected with train order or message work on the same desk with train orders."
Yup, the last one's definitely true; forgetting to deliver a train order because it's hidden under debris on the desk is a sure way to cause a collision. Josserand also teaches me that if I don't have enough copies of an order, I can write up new copies as long as I contact the dispatcher and confirm through repeating that my copy matches the original he has in his book. Fun for me, though an interruption for the dispatcher trying to figure out how he'll survive the next rush of trains.
And I made two big mistakes at Mojave, but both were survivable - I forgot to give an "all westbound trains" order to one train (and heard over the radio as the mistake was noticed in Caliente when he almost didn't stop for the opposing train), and requested a "clearance" (permission to proceed) for a train that wasn't yet out of staging, reserving the first half of the railroad for the twenty minutes till he got into Mojave.
After six hours on Mojave, and I'm getting compliments on my operator work; I'll thank Dear Wife and her stories of air traffic control and the importance of precise language phrased in the same way each time.
With my successes at Mojave, I switch to spend the second half of the day down as the Kern Junction train order operator, giving train orders to all the train crews coming out of Bakersfield. Where Mojave and Woodford were quiet and mellow, Bakersfield is just chaos - seven crew working the yard, engine depot, and bringing trains out of staging. The yardmaster stands in the middle of it barking orders, demanding information about incoming trains, and trying to herd his set of switching crew cats. There's shouting across the room to figure out what to do next. The orders are getting bigger because the uphill trains all have helper locomotives and extra stops to make, and I'm encountering cases where I'll need to "copy many" orders to prepare for all four sections of a train heading uphill. I'm also having to handle the chaos left over from the last operator - where are the train orders to be handed out, what trains need to be prepared to go?
Without the dramatic scenery, Bakersfield might not have been as photogenic, but the frantic work and huge trains being assembled in front of me pointed out the scale I was working at. When a set of helper engines, coupled together, rolled downhill and through Bakersfield, I realized that the three cab-forwards and two 2-10-2 locomotives together were longer than most trains on my model railroad. Woah.
We bailed at 7:30, just before closing; we both were catching the last flights of the night out of San Diego, and weren't eager to miss those flights. With the last trains still rolling, we snuck out to our car (parked very conveniently next to the museum at 0-dark-thirty that morning), headed back to the airport, and headed back towards modern life.
And I'm a bit afraid to go back in the garage and look at my model railroad for fear I won't know how to run trains on anything that tiny.
[The La Mesa Model Railroad Club has operating sessions about every three months. Details on the sessions are available at Ops on Tehachapi, along with the rule book, timetable, and rule book test. Photos are all mine, take with too little care with a cameraphone; apologies for the blurry photos.]