ISSUE # 62
With the UP/SP merger fiasco fresh on our minds, the conventional wisdom was that the Cornrail breakup would be just as calamitous. However, it went off better than expected. Of course, there were several annoying changes we needed to get used to.
This was the 1999 Christmas issue. Most of the "gifts" were to remediate the peeves listed in issue 62. One difficulty of the breakup was learning the new TECS computer system.
It's hard to believe in this age of gigabytes and terabytes that there was a time when programmers cut the first two digits off the year to save memory. (My first computer had 8K of RAM!) If you're less than thirty or so, you might not remember all the hype. Speculation ran rampant that the whole world was going to go "Kablooey" at midnight.
We're still here, though. I was skeptical of all the doomsday scenarios being peddled at the time. After all, just about everybody with a job has had experience with working when the computers were down.
For some engineers however, the world did come to an end, as the superpool was abolished!
This was one of the few April Fool's day editions. If I recall correctly, there was an actual program called "STOP", but I can't remember what it stood for.
The railroad life requires many sacrifices, television being among them. During the prime time hours, I was usually working or sleeping, so the hype over new fall shows or May sweeps never excited me.
It did inspire me though...
Another issue on how things had changed since the breakup.
"How do you like me now?" was a popular phrase among employees at the time. For instance, you would hear it if you were following a slower train and complained about the yellow signals on the radio. The 3-D logo you see here (the actual logo is 2-D) was a stylized representation of wheel-on-rail. However, employees and railfans had other names for it; "broken wheel on broken rail", "can opener" or "surfs up!".
The 2000 Halloween issue.
The 2000 Christmas issue. At the time, new employees had to pay for their own training.
The Harley Dealership refers to a former Conrail executive who bought one.
For me, the dullest time of the year is that period between the Super Bowl and the arrival of warm weather. Without much going on at work, I had to fall back on current events.
Another C.E.O.B.S. issue featuring actual quotes by our fearless leaders.
The adoption of life critical rules marked the beginning of ever stricter disciplinary policies.
After adopting the "life critical" rules policy, the company began posting a weekly list of violations. I thought this was a good idea, as learning from the mistakes of others is a good way to avoid making the same mistake yourself.
The incidents were listed by location, so I divided them into "tribes" like the "Survivor" television show.
I have to admit that I was never a fan of "Survivor"; reality programs always seemed so contrived. Besides, people stabbing each other in the back in a hostile location was too much like my job!
The company briefly ran a contest in which the prize was a trip for two to the super bowl. I don't remember how long they did this, but one winner was a co-worker from Selkirk.
While he admitted he wasn't much of a football fan, he told me his father loved it.
The adoption of remote control locomotives brought profound changes to locomotive engineers. Most importantly, it eliminated the vast majority of yard jobs; about twenty positions in Selkirk alone.
I never worked another yard job, the few times I was called I told them: "if it needs an engineer, I'm probably not qualified".
On April 26, 2002, I suffered an illness that resulted being hospitalized for five months. I wrote this issue after I was released in September, though I wouldn't return to work until January.
My co-workers generously took up collections several times, which was a great help during these trying times. I still have the cards with all their signatures.
During my five-month convalescence at home I sold stuff on Ebay. (No, not company property!). One of the long standing myths among railroaders was that you could sell your stuff on Ebay to train buffs for a princely sum. I decided to track several items to see if it was true.
ISSUE #82 (PART 1)
In the days of paper timeslips, there was a locked box where we submitted our slips. After the switch to electronic payroll, the now unlocked box remained on the wall.
There was a lot of crew room chatter about a certain website that claimed our company sucked. After checking it out, I got the idea to take a poll to see if it was true. I posted this issue over the box to see what would happen.
I actually considered adding my "Tales" to this website, but buried in the fine print was a stipulation that anything submitted became their property. So, nope!
ISSUE #82 (PART 2)
I tallied the responses that were left in the boxes. With a bit of "fuzzy math", I was able to determine that our company did not suck.
Sometimes current events would provide an idea.
The changes continued after the breakup. Some of them seemed to be what you might call micromanaging.
One day, a co-worker handed me a picture, asking me if I could do anything with it. The picture was a still from the old "Hogan's Heros" television show, depicting the main characters watching the testing of a radio-controlled tank. As remote control engines were the latest "big thing", I took up the challenge.
Years before, the East End yard crews nicknamed me "Schultz". This was because I could speak German and one of my favorite sayings was: "I'm just a brakeman, I don't know nothin'!"
However, I deny any physical resemblance to the character. Hopefully, I can get permission to use the photo so I can prove it..
This was the first issue in which I photographed model trains for the Christmas issue. These were small "N" scale models which were difficult to photograph with the camera I had at the time. I used larger "O" scale trains for later issues.
As you can probably guess, there were some incidents involving road crossings in 2003.
The early AC locomotives featured a desktop control stand in which the automatic brake valve was placed on its side. This made using the air brake somewhat awkward. In addition, the throttle handle required careful handling to avoid stripping. Fortunately, later locomotive models went back to an upright control stand.
Even worse were the SD70ACe models, which did not have sound insulation in the cab. The regular SD70AC's with sound insulation had an oval "Whispercab" sticker on the front wall above the window. I printed up a batch of "Thundercab" stickers which I stuck on every SD70ACe I worked. Though the stickers didn't last long, the nickname stuck.
Some disappointing metrics inspired this issue. I always felt the company was a bit too obsessed with metrics.
Disappointed by their metrics the company came up with a plan to try to make the trains run on time. I was having quite a run of bad trips at the time, so I analyzed my trips for a four week period and displayed the results in a pie chart.
A trio of train derailments on the Mohawk late in the year inspired this issue In addition, 2004 was the year we were required to announce every signal on the radio, as well as the switch from NORAC warning signs.
The trains in the picture were made by the Marx Toy Company. Interestingly enough, Marx actually made a "Mohawk Express". It featured a Penn Central diesel and is a rare collectible as it was released the year before Marx went out of business.
Evidently, the "won" plan wasn't working. Trains that start with "1" refers to intermodal trains.
This issue was something silly for April Fool's Day.
The first of many technological changes to profoundly change railroading was ERAD (Event Recorder Automatic Download). ERAD monitored the locomotive controls and automatically sent information on any violations.
One of the best things about railroading in the "good old days" is that the company would leave you alone and let you do your job. As the years passed, however, "micromanagement" took hold, and "delaying the train" became something you could be written up for.
The Christmas issue for 2005. The logo on the actual locomotive said "diversity".
One day, the company installed a large CRT television high on the wall of the crew room. Naturally, that got the wheels in my head turning. It gradually fell int disuse, and was dark most of the time.
Years later, when the company installed a large flat screen TV, I promptly posted this issue once again.
One of my co-workers asked how I came up with it so quickly. I informed him that like so much on TV, it was a "rerun".
The Christmas 2006 issue. Rather than the usual model train parody, I decided to go with that year's must have toy.
The company suffered a number of derailments in the first three months of 2007. On January 16th, an intermodal train derailed at 60 MPH, spilling cars off an overpass and into a nearby street and front yards. On February 2nd, a train went into emergency near Westfield, derailing eight cars. Finally, early in the morning of March 12, 2007 a train derailment occurred near Oneida, NY. Twenty-five cars were derailed and five carloads of propane exploded. Miraculously, no one was injured in any of the derailments. I had planned to release an updated version each month for the rest of the year, fortunately there were no more derailments worth mentioning.
This was to be a "News Bites" issue, however I never finished or posted it. It refers of course to the derailments of 2007. I figured it would be a shame to waste the signs I made, so I've included it here. The "private concern" in the last paragraph refers to the company replacing NORAC signs with their own.
After the Oneida derailment, the FRA and DOT performed a thorough inspection of the main line. Many defects were found, resulting in a long list of speed restrictions and work areas. The dispatcher bulletins for the 300 mile trip between Selkirk and Buffalo would sometimes contain more than one hundred items. At the time, the bulletins were printed on tractor-feed paper and could be several feet long.
Keeping track of all those messages was a critical part of our job. Most engineers relied on highlighters to organize this mess. My own system was to write a large short hand note in the margins that could be easily read while the bulletin was laying on the control stand.
The FRA issued an emergency order banning cellphone use after a train collision in California that killed 25 people.
Having spent most of my life without one, I found cell phones a bit of an annoyance. I liked to joke that "The only people who ever call me are my wife and the railroad, and I'm not particularly interested in hearing from either one!" And in case you're wondering, I actually experienced each of the annoyances listed.
This issue was lost in a computer crash. While I keep a paper back up of all my issues, this one somehow went missing. It was about a secret plan called "TYP" the company initiated to encourage old timers to retire. TYP stands for "Take Your Pension" It's a long standing railroad tradition to tease employee who work past their retirement age. Since I worked two years past retirement, I got my share of harassment. But I can't hold it against anyone, because I did the same thing years earlier. There were a few people who collected "Tales", so I'm hoping that it will turn up someday.
One day, I came across iron-on printer paper at an office supply store. I bought a pack and printed up a bunch of transfers. I gave away more than I sold, however.
Naturally, when the company came up with a new slogan, I felt it was my duty to make light of it.
After the 2008 recession, the cutbacks came with depressing regularity. As I was working the Boston Line, the loss of the Boston regular jobs hit close to home. Fortunately, one intermodal assignment remained, presumably so they would have a crew for it on weekends. One side went out on Friday, the other on Saturday.
Getting a locker in the crew room wasn't easy. I was two decades into my career before I finally got one, and that was because the company built a new General Yard Office. Anyone who hired out after that was out of luck. One day, a younger co-worker asked how he could get a locker. I jokingly told him he'd have to inherit one. As I approached retirement, I had several inquiries about my locker. I ended up "bequeathing" it to the most senior person who asked.
At this time, many of the people I'd worked with for decades were retiring. Some were real characters, and the job got a bit more boring as they left.
When the movie "Unstoppable" came out I just had to see it. And I wasn't disappointed. I was rolling my eyes right from the opening scene, where Denzel Washington's character is awakened by an alarm clock instead of a phone. I could go on all day...
Road employee's pay is based on mileage; for instance, a seven hour trip would pay just as much as a ten hour trip. Once your train arrived at the terminal,you essentially became "free labor". This fact was not lost on yardmasters or the service center foreman, who didn't care how long they kept you waiting at the end of a trip.
This was an idea I'd carried in my head for several years. I finally decided to write it after guns became a near-daily topic in the news. I knew it would offend some, but I was surprised about who I offended.
There are quite a few gun buffs on the railroad, and I assumed it I would have to replace it every trip.
Though it stayed up a surprisingly long time it did get vandalized. One person wrote "true" over the train buff column and "lies" over the gun buff column. Another person scratched out "enemies" and wrote in "Zombies". Most surprising was a nasty note scrawled on the bottom by a train buff who had worked there 15 years. I found this amusing because he obviously didn't know about the author. (I guess I've done a good gob of staying it the closet!)
While on a trip, I decided to keep the vandalized issue for posterity, but sadly, it was gone by the time I got back
Engineers were given the opportunity to "flowback" to conductor. Though there were several engineers who took it, I decided to remain an engineer. My conductor's seniority would have allowed me to hold just about any job, but I was getting up in years. I did try to start a rumor that I was going to take the flowback so I could become a long pool conductor, but nobody bought it.
The closure of Beacon Park Yard brought profound changes to jobs on the Boston Line. One of the most aggravating was the need to turn power at Worcester. Boston Line engines needed to be equipped with cab signals. If the rear unit of arriving Intermodal trains were not equipped, the consist needed to be turned.
This could only be done on a neighboring railroad, which made you wait for their jobs to finish moves. Though the trip was 42 miles shorter, it was taking longer. My personal record for turning power was three and one-half hours. The delay caused a westbound train to leave late, causing animosity between the two railroads.
I re-arranged this issue to allow for larger pictures. All of the items were made by the Marx toy company. As you can see, they not only made electric trains, but some of the best "army men" ever made!
In 2011, I added a copy of "Panic #2" to my comic book collection. The cover featured a picture of a boy using a chemistry set to cause a huge explosion on his model train layout. "Panic" was a sister publication to "Mad". "Panic lasted only ten issues, while "Mad" is still in publication (I think).
Originally I was going to use it right away as issue 109 lampooning the 2007 derailment, but that was "old news" by then. A torrent of petroleum traffic coming from the west finally provided an opportunity to use it. Some of the trains were destined for the Port of Albany, and our local newspaper took up a crusade.
I'd really like to get permission to use the picture someday, but until then, you can google it.
Our company briefly discussed merger with a large Canadian Railroad. I don't know why the talks broke off, but this was as good a reason as any.
This is a send-up of an actual poster from the company advertising their preference for veterans when hiring. Though I'm sure there were other reasons, a military career is certainly be helpful in surviving the railroad. I remember one old-timer making this comparison: "The railroad is like the military. All we did back then was complain. But when I look back, it was one of the best times of my life!"
In 2005, the company decreed that all jobs would work east to west. This meant that Selkirk employees would no longer cover work to either Buffalo or Dewitt. This caused wholesale disruptions in the workforce; some Selkirk employees move to Buffalo to work. I couldn't help but wonder what would happen when Buffalo got hit with a major blizzard. Plus, I got to re-use the drawing I made for issue 117.
This issue also bemoaned the loss of the long pool, and also allowed me to re-use a drawing.
This issue illustrates how the timetables and rule books we carry around have gotten heavier over the years. The company was reluctant to publish new timetables, and it had gotten to the point where the bulletins denoting changes in the timetable were larger that the timetable itself!
The company eventually came up with the idea to publish separate timetables and bulletins for each line, (some were only a few miles long). While this reduced the weight we had to carry, the result was a disorganized mess. Since my run covered four lines, I bound the four timetables into one book.
By the way, fun fact #1 is true, fun fact #2 not so much.
The sudden disappearance of the petroleum traffic prompted the company to make still more cutbacks, and the last few regular assignments were abolished. On the bright side, that three and a half years in the pool pumped up my pension a bit.
In 2016, the company sent us letters for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. No, they weren't warm holiday greetings, but warnings against taking time off during the holidays. Since it had become all but impossible to take time off any other way, many people were using the Family Medical Leave Act to take time off.
So many people were doing it that we jokingly called it the "Friday to Monday Leave Act".
The company was taken over by a hedge fund in 2017, which put the penny-pinching into hyperdrive Part of their plan was to eliminate as many jobs as possible by turning trainmasters into menial laborers. The "old guard" supervisors who we knew and respected began to disappear, replaced by less knowledgeable youngsters.
And yes, the company had originally planned to close the hump, going so far as to install crossovers to facilitate flat switching. They later decided against it.
On the bright side, we were once again able to get off moving equipment.
This illustration is from an old railroad poster about reducing freight damage. (Note the broken crates in the background). The picture originally included a railroad man approaching the monster with a club in is hand. I edited out the man as I didn't want to include anything that would suggest violence.
This issue resulted in the first investigation of my 43-year career. I should have realized it was going to get me in trouble, as the new breed of trainmasters were a humorless bunch. My investigation was actually a double-header; one for posting it in Selkirk and one for posting it in Worcester! By now I was counting the days to retirement, and really didn't care.
A co-worker suggested that if I could get the investigations delayed, I could bring pizza or subs and make it my retirement party. Though investigations are routinely postponed, the company would have none of it. (Perhaps they knew of the plan.) The investigations took place as schedule. I watched the videos of me posting it on the bulletin board, even though I admitted I wrote and posted it. I also testified that I had been writing and posting "Tales" for 25 years, and that the company actually handed out issue 50 "Helpful Hints for New Hires" for a few years. In the end, I was given five-days time served, and it seemed that in my final months, traimasters did indeed get more "proactive with bulletins".
In hindsight, I realize my mistake. The trainmasters were all basically new hires who hired out long after "Helpful Hints for New Hires" was released, so they never learned its most important lesson: Don't take it personal!
I couldn't resist tweaking the trainmasters' noses one final time before I retired. On September 6, I signed the papers for retirement, and cleaned out my locker. I posted this issue, along with some of my favorites, in the locker room where there were no cameras. Hopefully, they stayed up a good long time!