ABC's of Railroading
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Train orders

At one time, trains couldn't leave the station without them
By William L. Gwyer
Published: May 1, 2006
The train order, variously called the "flimsy" or the "tissue" - together with its attendant operators, train order offices, and order hoops - has been rendered obsolete by the radio, the computer, and amended work rules. With its passing in the late 1980s, so did a whole concept of railroad traffic control that had been a hallmark of U.S. practice since the 1840's.

The train order's ultimate demise was sealed in 1986 by a national agreement between the railroads and the Transportation Communication Employees Union giving dispatchers the right to issue movement instructions directly to train crews, bypassing operators, in what is called Direct Train Control (DTC) territory. Up to that time the TCEU (previously the Order of Railroad Telegraphers) had jealously guarded its right to such work, and exclusive work rules had for years prohibited the adoption of a more modern system.

Throughout the 1980's railroad after railroad adopted either DTC, which depends on verbal instructions only (mostly by radio), or Track Warrant Control (TWC), which uses a preprinted form copied by the crew.

How train orders developed

In the early to mid-1800's, opposing trains on the same track were governed by a timetable, which contained a schedule for most regular freight and passenger train movements. Meets were prescribed, and one train simply waited on the other.

As traffic increased so did the level of sophistication, culminating in a timetable containing schedules of various classes and establishing priority. Still, there was no way to supersede it, and single-track operation was slow, haphazard at best, downright dangerous at worst. The term "cornfield meet" (for a head-on collision) had real meaning in those days.

By the time of the Civil War, the train-order system begun on the Erie in 1854 was well established. Train movements were controlled by a dispatcher who used telegraph agents to deliver orders to affected trains. The system remained essentially unchanged for more than a century.

Typical train-order operations began with the timetable. In it were contained schedules of each train, which were accorded a number and a numerical class. Such trains were called "regular trains," e.g., authorized by the timetable. First-class trains were superior to or had precedence over second-class trains, which were superior to third-class trains, etc.

Between trains of the same class, those in the direction specified in the timetable were superior to those in the opposite direction. Inferior trains were required to clear the schedule of opposing superior trains, and they were also required to clear the schedule of following superior trains, although in latter days this meant first-class trains only.

These timetables, distributed to all employees with duties involving train operation, conveyed the authority for a train to move over a given section of track at a given time; they were the official operating schedules of the railroad. Simpler versions of the timetables, showing times and other information regarding passenger trains, were made available to the public so riders could know when the trains ran.

Meeting points between scheduled trains were indicated in the timetable, usually in boldface type together with the number of the train or trains to be met. However, such meets were not positive. It was only an "advisory" where such trains should meet if they were both on time. The superior train did not have to wait on an inferior train at a timetable meet. The onus was on the latter to clear the former.

Train orders were issued by the dispatcher and superseded the timetable. They were used to advance an inferior train against a superior one, establish positive meeting points, create extra trains and sections, annul schedules, authorize work trains, and warn of track conditions and the like. There was an old saying: "What the timetable giveth, the dispatcher taketh."

Different shapes, sizes, and colors

Train orders were of two types: "31's," which had to be signed for by a member of the train crew, and "19's," which did not. The former were employed when the dispatcher needed to know that the affected train actually had the order, while the latter were used when he did not.

Train-order forms themselves came in pads printed on a thin onionskin paper, or "flimsy," which enabled crews to read them over the light of a firebox or against a kerosene lantern.

There was no standard color. The Pennsylvania used yellow, while the Erie preferred a grayish white for its 19's and a buff color for 31's. New York Central and Nickel Plate used green.

In the era before typewriters and ballpoint pens, operators copied orders using a stylus against double-sided carbons backed by a steel plate. Telegraphers' script, a beautiful, flowing, but legible handwriting, was the trademark of an operator who had learned his trade in the days of the Morse telegraph schools (named for the device's inventor, Samuel F.B. Morse).

Most railroads railroads required three copies of an order, one for the locomotive, one for the caboose (or conductor on a passenger train), and the other as the station record. Other roads required five. Of course, the number of copies also varied as to number of pertinent trains.

Running trains with train orders

The transmission of a train order was a strict ritual. The names of stations were pronounced and then spelled out letter by letter. So were numbers and time. The dispatcher always addressed an order to the train being restricted first and then each operator repeated the order back to him in the succession in which they were addressed. In telegraph days, the dispatcher wrote the order in the train-order book from the first repetition; with the telephone it was written as it was transmitted. In all cases, it was underlined as each station repeated the order.

Once it was repeated correctly, it was made "complete" and the time given. An order was never in effect until it was completed; if it had been repeated but not made complete it became a holding order. Once effective, the train order remained in effect until superseded by another order, fulfilled (that is, acted upon), or annulled.

Along with the orders came a clearance card, called a Form A on some roads. Its purpose was to list all the orders a train was to receive at the station.

A train-order signal was installed at most stations. These took sundry forms: as basic as a simple rotating lantern, semaphores, color lights, or, as on the PRR, a simple flashing "O" mounted on a signal mast. On a number of Eastern roads a simple red or yellow board supplemented by a lantern at night did the trick.

Handing up orders was part and parcel of the operator's job. For many years a bamboo hoop with a metal clip holding the orders was used. Its big drawback was that it had to be returned by the crew, who simply threw it along the right of way. Pity the hapless operator who had to trudge down the track to retrieve the hoop in winter or during an electrical storm. In later years, operators used a fork holding a string in which a slip knot was tied to hold the orders. The crew member simply slipped his arm through the fork, the string slipped out of the springloaded latch that retained it, and the orders were in hand.

On many roads, permanent order-hoop stands or racks allowed the operator to "load them" and then stand back and inspect the passing train. Regardless of the improvements, delivering orders was not pleasant under any circumstances. Operators had to watch for shifted loads and flying brakeshoes.

Technology catches up

The timetable system was replaced by newer methods of operating authority involving radio communications. Under these systems, trains are granted movement authority on a case-by-case basis, not by a standing timetable. Even though a train might run at the same time every day, it is not officially scheduled as far as railroad operations are concerned. For the convenience of riders, schedules are still issued to the public, but, as always, they convey no official operating authority.

Multiple track and centralized traffic control (CTC) eventually eliminated a large portion of single-track train-order railroading, although on double track and in CTC territory, the need for train orders was diminished but not eliminated. On double or multiple track, operating rules varied, but in the East, with its abundance of interlocked junctions, trains generally ran by signal indication with the current of traffic. As long as you had "proceed" signals you kept going regardless who was following. The timetable meant nothing here. Even into the 1980's a considerable portion of U.S. route miles were dispatched by timetable and train order.

In the years following World War II, a number of changes occurred as passenger trains disappeared and branch lines were abandoned. Freights were dropped from the timetable on many roads and run simply as extras. Sections also went out the door along with 31 orders, although today, under certain conditions an order still may have to be signed for. Still, the drama inherent in "31 east Copy 3" is gone.

The last stand of the train order in busy territory probably occurred on Burlington Northern's Powder River coal lines in the mid-1970's, but that was as short-lived as the ability of the signal department to hook up the CTC.

The 1980's brought the fax machine, signaling another round of train-order office closures. The end was near. Hard on the heels of the 1986 contract, train orders became history.
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