Rules ruled the railroad, all the live-long day

Superior’s Central Avenue Interlocking, Part 3

Originally published April, 2015.
The dispatcher was the boss of the railroad. He decided which train would move first, next, and last. Paperwork was the medium in which his explicit instructions were dictated to station operators and tower men. They in turn wrote down his instruction verbatim and passed on his written instruction to train crews. Early train-indication systems helped him to see approximately where trains were. Everything he did—and everything the operators and tower men did—was dictated by a variety of rules books that spelled out precisely how they were to communicate with train crews to move each train safely down the line. Peter Josserand’s book, Rights of Trains, is the railroad gospel providing exact examples of how to write train orders to prevent human error and train crashes. (Image: Jeff Lemke | Click to enlarge)

Our discussion of the Central Avenue interlocking complex in Superior, Wisconsin, concludes this month with a look at how the tower men took direction from the dispatcher. Catch up with part one, here, and part two, here.

Rules, Timetables and Train Control
For many years every railroad had its own rule book with its own interpretation of operating and safety concerns. These were eventually consolidated into a single set of rules and issued to every trainman across the country. These vest-pocket-sized booklets served as each man’s operating catechism. Railroaders couldn’t go to work without them. Use of a consolidated code created widespread understanding of the basic “rights of trains” and how these rights would be maintained from the beginning to the end of each train trip. This was a most-important factor in safe operation of trains. Without these universal rules in place it would be impossible to determine which train had the right to hold the main track while another got out of the way on a siding track.

Modern-era dispatchers had some kind of control panel in front of them but they still had to write things down. This picture shows just part of a huge dispatcher’s sheet for the Skally Line between St. Paul and Duluth. These sheets were about 4 feet long and sat directly in front of the dispatchers. Recorded on them was every train event during a 24-hour period. Each sheet was used for three 8-hour dispatching shifts. Dispatchers always had current timetables on hand for their own division, and every other division or foreign line that their division connected with or crossed. (Image: Jeff Lemke | Click to enlarge)

Most of us are familiar with the format of railroad public timetable (PTT); like their counterparts in airports, they show the arrival and departure times for passenger trains. Those are published for the convenience of fare-paying customers. Railroads also issued employee timetables (ETTs) that showed both passenger and freight train schedules—and more, including the different classes of trains. For example, first class trains were superior to second class trains, third class trains, and extra trains. Second-class trains were superior to opposing third-class trains and to opposing extra trains. Third-class trains were superior only to opposing extra trains. Direction played into it too. Trains of the direction specified in the timetable (usually eastbound) were superior to trains of the same class in the opposite direction. Believe it or not, attention to these simple hierarchies of train classes generally kept all of the famous named-and-numbered trains safely rolling down the line without incident.

The dispatcher didn’t control every single signal and switch along the line. Many signals were automatic. They controlled trains between the control points that the dispatchers and tower operators actually did control. Automatic signals typically had milepost number plates on them. Controlled signals did not. This one shows the NP mainline at North Branch, Minnesota, on the line between Duluth and St. Paul. A three-color system spaced out trains. Green with semaphore straight up meant proceed. Passing this signal dropped the blade to horizontal giving any approaching trains a red stop signal to obey. If you encountered a semaphore at 45 degrees with a yellow light it meant be prepared to stop short of the next signal because there is already a train in the next block of track. Automatic signals were designed simply to space out trains running on the same track. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History Collection | Click to enlarge)

When the first timetables were created time itself was an especially vexing issue to overcome. During the nineteenth century every town had its own idea of the current time of day. North American railroads overcame that problem initially by creating their own standard time system. They divided the continent into 144 one-hour segments. Train travel was just a short trip in those days so it actually made sense—then. But soon enough train trips became longer. When trains overlapped these short time zones, accidents occurred. A better solution was needed. The problem of creating a universally accepted standard time was solved at noon on November 18, 1883, when North American railways adopted a system called Railroad Standard Time. It proposed a five-zone system running east to west. In the final analysis a four-zone system was implemented. Although it took many years for this concept to spread, eventually people around the world began using the same timekeeping system. Railroad Standard Time became the world standard—all because there needed to be a way to safely control trains.

The Northern Pacific’s train-order station at Central Avenue was the wooden passenger and freight depot that stood along the NP’s tracks at that location. Trains plying NP rails grabbed their orders here. This shot shows NP Train No. 55 at the depot in August 1965. Passenger trains stopped here so the conductor could walk inside to grab his orders and a second set for his engineer. (Image: Marvin Nielsen | Click to enlarge)

The invention of the telegraph added near-real-time communication to key railroad offices. A telegrapher sent messages over the wire to other stations. Those messages were written down by the receiving stations and quickly distributed to everyone required to have them. Division headquarters, depots and interlocking towers were the primary places that used telegraphs until they were replaced by radios and telephones in the 1940s. Computers and microwave tower communication systems were added to the mix in the 1960s. Today, satellites and cellular communication are the dominant technologies.

Signals played a major role too. Train-order signals were used at train-order stations to signal to approaching trains whether or not there was paperwork for them to receive. Interlocking signals protected the crossings and junctions of railroad lines. The interlocking towers controlled just those signals that allowed trains safe passage through the interlocking. And automatic signals installed on the line between different towers provided a way to space out trains safely. These then are the basic components of train control.

NP Agent McDonald at Central Avenue depot shows off the tools of the trade—the Y-shaped order fork—used to hand up clearance forms, train orders, and paperwork to passing trains. The forks were lightweight, made out of small diameter wood rods. Paperwork to be handed up to train crews would be tied to a circle of string. The string was then attached to the fork at three points to form a Y-shaped circle. Just a gentle tug pulled the whole works from the fork. It was a simple communication technology that worked well for a hundred-plus years. (Image: C.F. Sager, Twin Ports Rail History Collection | Click to enlarge)

Paper-Based Dispatching
While the notion of train control is generally considered to be the signals we see along the tracks, there is an important paper-based component of running trains as well. In fact, trains can’t leave their initial station without the proper paperwork. Train Order Control (TOC) provided the actual written communication issued to train crews at train-order stations (depots and towers). Those train orders spelled out exactly how far each crew had authority to operate its train and what to watch out for along the line. Sometimes the order gave a train authority to just the next train order station down the line where it would receive another order, and so on. A train order must be repeated to ensure accuracy, delivered to those who are to execute it, and expressed in the exact same words to all involved.

For many years, there were two kinds of orders. The “31” order (on yellow tissue paper) had to be signed like the original train order. The “19” order (on green tissue) could be delivered without taking a signature. The “19” order was simply handed up to the front and rear end of a train without a stop. This was usually done with a pair of order hoops (or order forks) on long wooden poles. They could be handed up to passing trains by the depot agent or tower operator, or mounted in a stationary rack next to the track. The engineer of a passing train would grab his orders from the top hoop while the conductor would grab his orders from the bottom hoop as his caboose passed by the train-order station. The time saved by this method of delivery cannot be underestimated as delivery was instantaneous.

Click on “2” for the rest of the story….

Superior’s Central Avenue Interlocking, Part 3

4 Responses to Rules ruled the railroad, all the live-long day

  1. Hi Phil—

    Thanks for writing. As I recall, that image is about when Train 55 was departing so the operator would have had amply time to deliver new orders and reset the signal. In any event, if you re-read that paragraph you’ll see that I didn’t write what you were disagreeing with. But I do understand what you meant. The intent of my statement was to make it clear that since the passenger trains stopped here anyway, orders weren’t grabbed on the fly, since the conductor could simply walk into the office to grab his paperwork when it was required of him. In most of the other situations at Central Avenue the orders were handed up to a moving train, or placed in the order forks or hoops to be grabbed by crew members of passing trains. Things were a bit more relaxed at the depot. I’m glad that you’re enjoying our work here. It’s fun sharing what we uncover about transportation’s past in the Twin Ports. Take care.


  2. Most enjoyable discussion and photos regarding NP/BN train order-and-timetable operations. However, I question he photo caption showing NP Budd RDC Train 55 stopped at Central Avenue to allow the train’s conductor to walk into the depot to receive train orders and clearance. For Train 55 to receive orders, the applicable train order signal would have to set to indicate that. Instead, the signal is set for “clear”–meaning no orders. Notice in several other photos that the train order signal is set on diagonal, indicating that the approaching train cannot proceed beyond that signal without picking up the appropriate clearance slip and applicable train order(s).
    The daily Duluth history pieces are superb…and rail and trolley articles great. Thanks for providing them!

  3. Hi Norm –
    That’s great to hear. I’ve enjoyed many of your steam era photographs over the years too. I might have an image or two here with your tag on them and would love to use them in a story down the road. Did you ever make it up to Duluth or Superior with your camera?

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