From “Just What is a Train Dispatcher?” Copyright © 1992 Thomas A. White

All of these emergency and communication functions must occur while handling traffic. Unlike Air Traffic Controllers who normally handle traffic for periods of about 2-1/2 hours, sometimes as little as 30 minutes at a time in heavy traffic and for not more than about 6 hours per day, Train Dispatchers work a continuous 8 hour shift without a break for meals or any other reason. They may leave their position for no more than a few minutes if absolutely necessary and traffic permits but must stay away for no more than that few minutes to ensure that no radio or telephone call for assistance is unanswered. Even during those rare moments away from their positions, train dispatchers are not away from the job. Even a trip to the restroom or the office coffeepot is occupied with constant review of the traffic or, more likely, a specific problem such as re-arranging traffic to allow a specific maintenance project. Part of the reason for this reality is that unlike the Air Traffic Controller whose information is visual and readily transferable, the train dispatchers information is largely conceptual and even at the end of a shift, transfer of responsibility takes 15 to 30 minutes and can take an hour in unusual situations.

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