THE INVISIBLE WORK OF THE TRAIN DISPATCHER
Illustration 3 from "Just What is a Train Dispatcher?"
By Thomas A. White
Copyright 1992 Thomas A. White
The following demonstrates in a simplified manner, using the territory
and traffic of Illustration 2, the constant process of calculation, recalculation
and tactical planning in which the train dispatcher engages for the entire
8 hours of the shift.
Represented in BOLD TYPE is information received by the dispatcher
through communication equipment. Typically, the dispatcher uses a party
line telephone dedicated to the dispatcherís use and on which those wanting
the dispatcher identify themselves and wait for the dispatcher to answer
them specifically. The dispatcher will also have several 2 way radio installations.
Represented in BOLD UNDERLINE is information the dispatcher
receives from equipment such as Centralized Traffic Control machines.
Represented in normal type is the dispatcher's verbal communication.
Represented in italic type is a representation of the thought
Blank lines represent a period of time during which nothing audible,
visible or describable thought process is occurring.
(Parenthetical information) represents mechanical processes; actual
tasks being performed by the dispatcher.
(Has already requested lineup of arriving trains from next district
East of Albany and West of Eugene)
Has just finished laying out plan shown in illustration 2
(calls for operator at Albany on the dispatcherís party line phone.)
Albany, tell the other side that 101ís not going anywhere for No 10
so I donít need them there until 10:12 in case they need to use any of
(Looks toward Detroit on CTC display and glances at columns intersecting
with Detroit line on trainsheet)
TRACK INSPECTOR WILSON, I NEED TO INSPECT BETWEEN DETROIT AND BOSTON
(Looks at Clock)
09:06 now...30 minutes 09:35, No 9 10:16 at Chicago, OK and 101
at Albany for No 10...No 10 at Detroit 09:51 OK, No 104...09:00...
(Calls for Eugene operator on dispatcherís phone)
...102 at 09:10 OK, in at Chicago behind
JUST SHOWING UP NOW. 104 LOST A UNIT COMING OUT OF GALVESTON AND
THEYíRE GOING IN AT FARGO TO GET NO 10 BY.
102 will be up there uh...[figures time out loud] 09:10...09:30
09:30...still Detroit for 10? 09:30...20 minutes 09:50, 10 09:51
...uh-09:30 going to Chicago for 9. Will 20 minutes behind 102 do any
YEAH, I CAN GET TO THE MINE SPUR ON THAT.
CTC DISPLAY SHOWS 104 LEAVING EUGENE
(Start to line signals for 104 to pass Detroit)
Did 10 get by 104 OK?
(doesnít line signals) Call me when No 104 shows up
(look at trainsheet for engine number)
might need Chicago for 9 and 10
OK, DISPATCHER 7304, IíLL CALL WHEN HE SHOWS UP
7305; 104 is 7305
OK, DISPATCHER, 7305
I wonder what he has
Just a minute Boston, Chicago!
WELDER JENSEN, DISPATCHER, THIS EAST SWITCH IS PRETTY BAD, IíM
GOING TO NEED AT LEAST 4 HOURS TO WELD IT UP
(Looks at clock)
4 hours...just how bad...
Mr. Jensen, how bad is it? Can you get trains over it at allí?
WELL, NOT REALLY. IíLL LOOK, MAYBE I CAN WALK ONE OVER, BUT ITíS
Keep 104 at Detroit for 9 and 10
Whereís it bad? Can I get by through the siding with the passenger
NO... WELL, ITíS THE TURNOUT SIDE OF THE SWITCH THATíS BAD, DISPATCHER.
MAIN LINEíS OK.
104 can go to Chicago for both of them then...No 10...
9 and 10 are on time and 104ís going to Chicago for them. I canít get
you started on that switch at least until theyíre all by. Let me know if
you can get 104 out the East end or if Iíll have to back them out.
CTC DISPLAY SHOWS NO 104 APPROACHING DETROIT
EUGENE, 104 AT 09:09
(writes 09:09 for No 104 at Eugene)
52 LOADS 12 EMPTY 5804 TONS
(writes cars and tons for No 104 at Eugene)
5804 tons...only 64 cars....
(look at engine numbers and engineer on No 104 from top of 104ís column
on train sheet)
4 units, well, 1 little one...09:09...09:32...09:55 in the clear
OK is 10 still on time or did they get hung behind 102?
IíLL CHECK WITH THE OTHER SIDE
SIGNAL MAINTAINER ANDERSON. WHATíS THE NEXT THING THROUGH HERE,
I NEED TO CHECK THESE CROSSING SIGNALS.
(look at CTC display at Boston, look at the clock, look at the trainsheet)
Looks like 9 and 10 will meet there about 10:08 if 10 didnít get hung
STILL ON TIME, EUGENE
(Line signals for 104 to pass through Detroit and into siding at Chicago)
OK. Boston, 9 and 10 on time meet there 104ís at Chicago for both of
them and might have to back out.
(Line signal for No 10 to leave Eugene)
102 still going to Detroit for 9?
OK CAN I GET A PERMIT ON THE MAIN BETWEEN SWITCHES TO MAKE A TEST
AT THE WEST END BEFORE THEY SHOW UP?
(Reach up to CTC panel to block signals to protect movement with one
hand, get permit book with the other)
CTC DISPLAY SHOWS 104 PASSING DETROIT
(look at clock)
09:39... 09:49.. 54... OK
Hereís a permit, Number...
(look in book for the last permit number issued)
(look at CTC display for No 10 and check to make sure signals at Boston
are blocked to prevent train movement)
(Write permit while talking)
Number 1103 to Signal Maintainer Anderson on the Main Track between
the East Switch Boston and the West Switch Boston from
(look at clock)
(glance at CTC display to see if 10 leaving Eugene)
CTC DISPLAY SHOWS NO 10 LEAVING EUGENE
(look at figures for 9 and 10 on trainsheet)
10:00. DSP [Each dispatcher uses own initials to sign instructions]
CTC PERMIT NO 1103 TO SIGNAL MAINTAINER ANDERSON ON THE MAIN TRACK
BETWEEN EAST SWITCH BOSTON AND WEST SWITCH BOSTON FROM 09:42 UNTIL 10:00.
(follow every word, underscoring each to make sure all correct)
101 Still going to be right there at Albany for 10? 102...
OK, THANK YOU DISPATCHER
NO 10 AT 09:42, EUGENE
(Write 09:42 on trainsheet for No 10 at Eugene)
09:42, OK howís that 102 doingí?
GOT OUT OF FARGO RIGHT BEHIND 10, PROBABLY 10:00 IN HERE
6375 TONS AND 8709 IS THE ONE THEY LOST
(write 10:00 and 6375 tons in pencil on trainsheet at the space for
102 at Eugene and mark BO in ink next to engine 8709 number on sheet)
6375 tons...10:00...10:23 at Detroit no not even that with 1 dead
unit...besides thatís 207 extra tons. 6582 and 3 units, They might even
have trouble getting up the hill into Detroit.
OK, theyíre there for 9 for sure and Iím not sure theyíll even get
up to Detroit, see how they did on the other side after they lost that
(Looks at clock)
Whereís that welder? If 101ís going to be at Albany and 104 has
to back out, probably should let them stay there for 101 and back out behind...
Albany, 101 going to be there for 10?
Activity like this representation of about 35 typical
minutes continues often for hours without letup and the dispatcher continues
to re-calculate each new piece of information in order to keep traffic
moving and the important trains on time. Consideration of the many safety
procedures is not represented as they do not even involve conscious thought.
Dispatchers must learn the safety procedures as second nature so that they
occur completely automatically. A large part of learning the train dispatching
trade is to acquire the procedures as habit so that full time may be devoted
to the actual movement of the trains and maintenance of the track. Even
having mastered that, untimely distraction or lapse in concentration can
cause a collision or other accident.
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