Railroad Time

I am into trains and I am into watches. I just got a new automatic watch and it made me think about conductor watches and “railroad time.” It was so different in the old days without these marvels of time keeping and the computerized mechanisms. Time was standardized in the mid- 19th century, the heyday of the industrial revolution. History tells us the Great Western Railway in England was the initiator. It became apparent that local times varied and had to be synched with a single standard. Slowly but surely it was adopted worldwide including North America, India, and Europe. Schedules could be more easily followed when everyone had their sights set on London Time, a time established by the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. There would be no more confusion caused by non-uniform local times. Every station stop had to operate by the standard. Accidents and near misses would decline.

It was chaotic at first with locals objecting to adjusting their clocks to London Time. But they got used to it and timetables were consistent. Oddly enough, it wasn’t until 1880 that the government of Great Britain finally enacted legislation to establish mandatory Standard Time and a single time zone throughout the country. So it was not always the way it is now. I love knowing and disseminating these kinds of facts about trains. We are very aware of time zones, especially as daylight saving’s is fast approaching. And train and plane service must transport passengers over thousands of miles in a couple of hours. Clear-headed thinking more than a century and a half ago paved the way for progress.

I can’t imagine an era when people told the time by tracking the sun. And now I have a state-of-the art automatic watch, the best I could find. I rely on its absolute accuracy so I am seldom more than ten seconds off. I arrive on time and on schedule to every appointment. A watch is more than an accessory as many people think, but it doesn’t hurt that it works perfectly and looks good at the same time. I had to make do for so many years with a budget timepiece but those days are over. I can splurge on quality. I wonder if there are watches out there for train buffs that run on railway time. I know we set our watches to our time zone, but are there dials that show railroad images? I think at best you would get settings like 24:00. I have been looking into it and the best I can do is Hans Hilfiker, a Swiss Engineer and Designer and employee of the Federal Swiss Railways as creator of the Swiss Railway watch. It looks like any other dial in basic layout except that it is done in the same design as the traditional federal Swiss railway station clock. I will have to be happy enough with that.

Model Train Convention

As a train enthusiast and self-professed rail fan, I attend model train conventions all the time. If they are miles away I look for an available train. But of course. How else would I get there? I always hope they aren’t in town. I look forward to meeting new people with a similar passion. I guess it is because I grew up listening to my dad describe the trains he rode back and forth on into the city to work. I was fascinated by the sights and sounds he so admirably described.

He was a good story teller and the love of trains he felt caught on. I can hear the whistlsmothe history of “iron horses” and covet collectibles that abound at the conventions. I love to watch Sheldon on Big Bang Theory especially when he gets excited about trains. He is my idol. I do believe he is a collector even though his heart may lie first and foremost with Star Wars memorabilia. But let’s give a shout out to the real train people who live and breathe their power and glory.

Foolishly, I expect him to appear in the grand hall amid the many exhibits. His silly face would beam at every turn.  The last time I attended a train convention, I was so surprised to see a smoking section. I knew that Sheldon would not be there. I thought public places no longer catered to smokers due to stringent local laws. I also didn’t know that train buffs were into this “filthy habit” as my mother used to call it. Needless to say, I don’t indulge. I was almost about to voice a complaint when I spied a huge air purifier to keep the smoke and smell away from the other attendees with a sticker that said Clean Breathing. Did they used to do that on trains and planes when smoking was rampant? Perhaps.

I know the old trains, like the amazing Orient Express, had glamorous smoking cars. You could walk in and see men and women, or should I say the gentlemen and ladies puffing away. Looking at them, if you didn’t smoke, you wanted to. It was an era of great sophistication and style. Planes had smoking sections in the back with no separation from the “normal” people. This all ended in the eighties I believe when people started caring about their health and second hand smoke. I think many of them just wanted to be irate. Before that smokers had their own privileges. But that time is long gone so why is smoking allowed at the model train convention. Unless I call the organizers, I will never have the answer. I can only guess.

Workin’ on the Railroad

When I was younger, I wanted to be a train conductor. I couldn’t imagine a better job. I’d get to ride trains all day. For a kid who was fascinated by trains, I thought that was about the coolest thing I could ever have thought of. Since then, I have decided that I do not have the proper temperament to be a conductor. It’s a little too much pressure and stress than I can probably handle.

Although I can’t say that I am working on the railroad (admit it, you’re singing now), I have seriously considered a job in that field so that I can spend time around trains. I’ve spent enough time on trains and watching/reading/learning about them that I understand many of the jobs available in this field.

I am probably not mechanically inclined enough to work many of the jobs in the field of maintenance, which includes awesome things like maintaining the signals, making and repairing tracks and the bridges they travel over, and welding. If I was mechanically-gifted, I think I would like being a carman the best. Those are the people who assemble railroad cars, inspect them prior to use and at periodic intervals, and also repair them when they break down.

Come on, though, how cool does the title Chief Yardmaster sound to you? If I could get one wish granted, this job would probably be the one. The Chief Yardmaster is the person who makes sure that the cars are placed where they belong, supervises the incoming and outgoing trains for both cargo and commuters, and runs the budgets. There’s other aspects, but those are my favorites.

Most railroad jobs are union-based, which is both good and bad. Good in that you get quality benefits including healthcare and a pension, and things like that. Bad in that it can be hard to break into, and you have to pay your dues – both literally (in that there are fees you have to pay to be a member of the union) and figuratively, in that you usually start at the very bottom and have to work your way up; there isn’t much as far as experience that can get you above a certain level without putting in the time and working all those the terrible shifts that other people don’t want.

Instead, I’ve got a regular desk job doing things that are not rail-related. Right now, my hobby stays a beloved hobby and my job is just the place that I go to get paid. Maybe one day I will be able to combine the two, but for now I can keep them separate. I tell myself it is so I don’t get sick of trains, but the longer I go being interested in the hobby, the less possible it seems that I will get sick of them!

The Evolution of a Hobby

I thought that trains were probably the greatest method of transportation ever as a kid. I got to take the train in to work with my dad once and couldn’t believe how lucky he was. The view was amazing to me, even if it was just houses and empty spaces marked by telephone lines zipping by. My dad seemed unimpressed, and even told me he slept through a lot of it. I didn’t understand at the time why he would (then I became an adult myself and had to commute, and I realized that sometimes the lull of the moving train is the perfect tranquilizer).

In my young mind, I figured that sure, airplanes got you there faster, but you could actually see where you were on a train. You didn’t even need to be in the window seat to have a pretty good view of outside, either. They have sleeper cars and dining cars with real tables and real tablecloths. On airplanes you get those uncomfortable seats that barely recline and less and less food.

When I got a little older, I learned that trains weren’t just good for carrying people like my dad to work or families on vacations. I learned about something else that would greatly interest me: mine railways. I’d like to say that I came about this in a real way and not thanks to Snow White, but I’d be (at least partially) lying. I thought it was completely cool that you could ride a ‘train’ in to work, use it to get all your equipment in and out, and use it to haul the fruits of your labor at the end of the day. This seemed like a much better use of a train than taking my dad to his boring office job, or so I thought. And told him, to which he simply laughed.

Transporting freight by train is also a great idea – it’s cheaper than flying it from place to place, especially heavier cargo, it can be loaded with containers directly off ships to take things the rest of the way, and it gets there faster (and you can move lots more of it) than if you shipped it via truck. It’s also more carbon-friendly than both air and truck transport, something I recently learned.

The more I learn about trains, the more I discover how they changed the face of the United States. They brought this great country together, allowing people to travel, to ship goods and livestock, to bring machinery and services to places that would have been nearly impossible before those tracks were laid. I have also found out that this was not a unique experience to the United States and have read about how trains did the same thing throughout countries the world over. I never thought that I’d be a fan of history, but learning about thinks with a focus on trains has really given me a great understanding of the past.

How Did it Get There?

Most of us work in pretty safe environments, or take reasonable safety precautions to remain in one piece as we do our jobs. You probably don’t think much about how the things you buy are made, either, or how things came to be. Railroads are no exception. If you take a train, you probably don’t think about how the track was laid, or what the land shooting past your window looked like before the tracks were put down.

Nowadays, most of the work is safely done using machines designed for the tasks at hand: better and safer equipment to drill through difficult terrain that would be hard to avoid, track-laying machines, tamping machines, and many others. It is a much less labor-intensive and much more cost-efficient process than it used to be. But how did it used to be?

Railroads were so necessary back in the Industrial Revolution that huge populations of immigrants came to the United States to help lay the tracks alongside Civil War veterans. They worked in some pretty terrible conditions as they struggled to lay the tracks much of the United States relied upon for years (think about it: if you had lots of goods you wanted to send from the east coast to the west coast of the US, you either had to put it on stagecoaches and hope it got there eventually, or you had to put it on a ship and send it all the way around South America.)

And why where these conditions so tough? Aside from there being no safety regulations in place or rules for hours and pay, in cases like the Transcontinental Railroad, it was a race. The Union Pacific company started in the east and worked their way west, while Central Pacific started in California and worked its way toward them from the other direction. When you’re getting paid by how much track you lay and you know there’s somebody on the other side doing “your” work, you are going to work people pretty hard to get the job done.

These men were hand-drilling holes (sometimes even lowered into holes to expand them with a rope and bucket) in the through the Sierra Nevada Mountains and then blowing them up with black powder. It took forever, was exhausting, and very very dangerous. When the workers tried to revolt to get at least some more money for the job, their food supplies were taken away. It took the men about 6 years to lay the 1,900 miles worth of track, and with it came new cities, new time zones, and a new way to travel. Estimates vary widely about how many died, with numbers as high as 1,200 on each side. Some deaths were due to accidents or other job-related hazards, but other deaths were due to things like the terrible weather or smallpox outbreaks. Since these numbers were not recorded, anything you read is conjecture.

Every time I see tracks on the ground or ride through a tunnel, I think of these brave people who changed the face of this country. Their efforts are nothing short of amazing.

The Train Trips I Want to Take

I want to travel just about anywhere that’s worth going by train. It’s such a wonderful way to see different places – much better than flying. It’s a better view, for one thing, it’s cheaper and more comfortable, and then there’s my favorite part: if you see somewhere that looks interesting along the way, you can get off the train and hang out for bit. It’s better than driving, too, there’s no traffic, you don’t have to worry about tolls, accidents, or wear and tear on your car. Plus you can sleep on long train trips – while you’re moving!

One of the trips I want to take is the Bennett Scenic Journey. It’s a relatively short, but scenic and historical, trek from Skagway, AK to Carcross in the Yukon from the White Pass & Yukon Route. It’s the same route that people traveled back in 1898, through what looks like some absolutely beautiful scenery. You get to go past waterfalls and glaciers, through tunnels and over trestles. The lakes and mountains I see in the pictures look downright amazing. One of the tours is even on a steam engine! How amazing is that?

On the other side of the country, I would love to take a special someone on the Cape Cod Central Railroad. They have a Cape Cod Dinner Train, a three-hour train ride with a romantic theme. They play romantic music, serve a five-course meal by candlelight, and get to ride past beautiful seaside communities. There is even a car that has a dome on top, providing the perfect view of everything you pass by.

There are plenty of train rides around Europe that would be great, but actually I would like to go a little farther east and ride the Trans-Siberian Express. It’s the longest railway in the world, and I’d like to ride the line that goes from Moscow to Vladivostok. While you can’t actually get off the train and stay anywhere (the tickets are pretty specific), you can get off the train at scheduled breaks and explore the train stations for about a half hour every time it stops. You can buy food or other items from vendors who sell items at the train stops, too.

But – if distance and finances weren’t an issue – I would love to ride the Great Southern Rail’s The Ghan. These rides are several days long (the one I’d like to ride, the Darwin to Adelaide route, takes four days). There are activities and excursions planned throughout the ride, from music performances in the Australian Outback to an opal mine and Kangaroo Island. It’s sort of like a cruise, but by train. Sounds awesome to me!

You couldn’t do these trips through any other means of transportation, and I can’t wait to start crossing them off my bucket list. What about you, what is on your list of must-ride trips?