A railroad in its most basic form is a network of tracks that connects with other railroads to allow any of the car loads moving on these lines to go wherever they need to go. Even today, most car loads of freight travel over many different railroads to get from one part of the country to another.
On large railroads it may take more than a day’s work to get a train over the line. The entire railroad is broken up into smaller portions of track that railroaders can traverse within their 8–12 hour shift. This is necessitated by the constraints of people and their normal limitations. People can only work so many hours each day. More importantly, they can remember only so much territory. It is this combination of knowledge about the tracks on which they operate along with situational awareness about that day’s operating constraints, that allows railroaders to safely move a train down the tracks.
Since the limitations of people are a key operating constraint on the railroad, mainline runs are broken down into segments usually no more than about 400 miles in length. Many are about 300 miles, with others far shorter than that. These sections or operating divisions are designated by timetables. Within those divisions are smaller portions of track known as sub-divisions, also designated on timetables. Railroad employees earn their keep on these smaller sections of railroad. Railroad timetables are the “roadmaps” that they use to get their train safely over that section of line. (Railroad fans and model railroaders collect these old timetables because they contain so much information about each segment of track.)
On the mainline, railroaders move their trains back and forth along that line. That is, they generally ping between the two outer ends of the portion of the railroad they usually work on. This allows them to be highly familiar with every small detail along that line. Today, federal law mandates that railroad employees operate a train for no more than 12 hours each day. Trains go as far as they can within that 12 hour window of time. On mainline runs, where trains have really long distances to travel, the crews will swap out when and where the trip nears that 12-hour mark. Then the next crew takes the train as far as they can over the next 12 hours, and so on, with everyone working mostly on-call, 24-hours a day. You work for 8–12 hours then rest for 10–12 hours.
Today, this is generally how trains get from coast to coast or from one end of a division or sub-division to the other. Depending on the length of the run it can take many crews to get a train from point A to point B. It all depends on how much distance there is between A and B, the speed the train is authorized to travel, and other operating constraints such as weather conditions. In yards and large rail facilities, local crews work a somewhat more normal five days a week schedule to switch out railcars, move and service locomotives, and serve local industries and businesses. There was a time when crews worked 16 hour days.
Today’s professional railroaders inherently understand that there are thousands of operating rules to apply when doing their work, different ways to interpret those rules, and a multitude of divisions and sub-divisions that need to be navigated to get a train where it needs to go. Every year new rules are added, lines are changed, and operating conditions modified to keep pace with changing business conditions. Working on the railroad has always been a challenging occupation. The key to understanding and enjoying the experience is in understanding basic concepts like how to safely get from point A to point B, the kinds of commodities that need to be transported, which equipment will be utilized, and who will be involved in the process.
Discover historic photos of Duluth’s and Superior’s railroads and the trains that served them at Twin Ports Rail History