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1997-11-01 08:07:58


Cutting Down the Old Switching Towers


I received this letter on November 1. It reinforces my fears. The old labor-intensive system of switching trains has been abandoned. The information contained in those systems, as well as in the employees, is gone. Management replaced men with computers. Now what?

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I used to be what was called a tele/opr who manually operated a key rail switching tower. Train orders were sent by an open telephone line from a dispatcher, which were physically written out in longhand. These orders, which governed train movement, were handed up to passing trains, and I rolled the proper lineup of switches through the tower interlocking plant. Well, guess what. Management choose to cut labor costs by adopting state of the art computer technology to elimenate all of the oprs/leverman and issue the train orders via radio tranmission directly to the train crew (which also has had its crew cut from 4 men to 2, the engineer and conductor). The old tower I used to work at has been torn down, and replaced by a small metal bungalow containing the very sopistated electronics linked to the dispatcher by reqular (not railroad owned) telephone line.

If you are correct about the y2k bug effecting computors, power supply, & the telephone companies, I can guarantee you that the nation's rail lines will quickly come to a stop. If trains cannot receive their right of way train orders, no engineer or conductor alive will move his train an inch. To do otherwise invites a disaster (or as we used to call it, a "corn field meet"). No crew can move their train without authority from the dispatcher. Forget about worring about where the freight is or in which car its loaded into; it's not going to move anyway.

The railroads could solve their problems by regressing and using old technology, but [this] means they would have to rebuild the switching towers (and their old interlocking machines, which uses ancient electro-mechanical contact technology), rehire or train new towermen, signal maintainers, oprs. When I started out with the C&NW in 1974, as an example, Milwaukee used to have over 150 jobs: oprs, levermen, yard clerks, rate clerks, etc. It now has 3 men. A lot of old technological knowledge has been lost. It could be recreated, but it would take time, and could only operate at a much reduced capicity.

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