On Sheet – It don’t come easy

On Sheet – It don’t come easy

get a lot of complements (and bragging rights) from my dispatching. I’ve sat down cold in many, many sessions and made the railroad jump. I’m blessed at being good at something I really enjoy.

But it didn’t come easy.

Sure, years ago I was the hot-shot dispatcher in the Orlando Round Robin group (the big fish in the poop pond). Most of our dispatching was mother-may-I (which is a very simple way of dispatching where the dispatcher tells the trains (often by the engineer’s first name) where to go and what to do). If you are just starting out (or not big into more realistic methods) you are probably using it.

So I was Queen Mother of MayEye in the Orlando scene. Hot poop, you know? And then we went up to Dixie Rails in Atlanta.

This is one of these operations weekends – you pick four layouts, run Friday evening, twice Saturday then morning Sunday. Lots of fun and you get to run on all sorts of layouts. So Saturday morning I ended up on someone’s SP Shasta Division (I don’t remember the host). Beautiful layout, but the key element was a massive working CTC (Centralized Traffic Control) panel – it was constructed on three adjacent panels and you had to roll around in a chair to reach it all. So the session is about to begin and we’re all in the lounge, picking jobs. And the first thing the host mentions: “Who wants to be the dispatcher?”

Everyone eyes the panel. Silence.

Then one of the Orlando guys: “Robert is our club dispatcher.”

And so there I was, sitting in that chair, looking across that massive panel. Reminds me the scene in Airplane where Robert Hays takes the captain’s seat of a imperiled airliner; the camera pans across all these controls. And keeps going. And going. And going. Played for laughs. Yeah, that was pretty much me.

But I’d read about how this worked. And we’d just started doing warrants at the club. How hard could it be?

The usual dispatcher (a tough-nut) was sitting behind me, watching. He noted that there was a train sheet in front of me – we’ve talked about those in earlier On Sheets, the dispatcher’s wide paper with stations down the middle, where you write the times trains hit stations up and down the columns. I’d read about them, too. And to me, this was just dispatcher-scenery, busy work for me to write times all railroady. I mean, the panels had marker lights; I could tell where trains were. Didn’t need it.

So the session started and the first trains left their origins. Sure, I could see them moving across the division, little lights marching across the board, all twinkling and jolly. Some of the crews even called me to OS at points. Nice of them, but I had the lights. Useless information.

And my “assistant”? He didn’t say a word, just watching me dig a deep grave.

More trains entered. Some stopped to work towns. Some vanished up dark branches to do work. Some reversed directions.

And suddenly there were a lot of lights. Which one was which? I found myself denouncing myself as an idiot as I called on the overhead: “Will the train at Shasta please call the dispatcher.” Every communication was like this. I was getting vertigo. I actually broke into a sweat. The madness would not end. In the end, I must have had a dozen lights on the board (and some tangled movements). If it hadn’t been CTC-safeguarded, there would have been collisions.

Then the host poked a head into the office. He and my “assistant” exchanged knowing smiles. “Time for lunch.”

We went to some sort of eatery – it all tasted like sawdust to me. I was seated at the end of the table and nobody was really talking to me (I get that there had been laughs and winks in the train room). Finally the meal ended and the host mentioned, “I think we’ll make some assignment changes for the afternoon.”

Yeah, I was on a yard local. I’d been canned, replaced by my assistant. But it seemed the passing trains were mocking me as they climbed back on schedule, doing what CTC does best, allowing instant control of turnouts and signals, putting a lot of traffic through. And me, I was pushing boxcars around.

The point of this (long) (weepy) tale is that I thought about it on the way home. I carefully read up on CTC, specifically train sheets. I realized how simply having switch and signal controls and marker lights wasn’t enough. You need a place to record the progress of trains, to spot problems well out and use the technology to correct things.

I didn’t get much of a chance to run CTC for a few years afterwards. There just aren’t too many layouts that can afford the overhead. But then I became a regular at Ken Farnham’s FEC railroad. It, too, has a massive CTC board with lights. And while it doesn’t use train sheets per say, it does have an Excel sheet that serves as a string diagram, showing where trains should be at given times, where they meet, where the come in and leave the division. And since it’s printed up before each session, I have permission to write all over it. And I do.

Since getting comfortable with that form of dispatching, it comes second nature to me. On John Wilkes’ Virginia SouthWestern, he also has a CTC board (for the shared trackage used by two parallel railroads). The CTC board is now an easy thing to use. And while there is a magnetic board in front of us, there is also a train sheet. I use the board to keep my division layout in mind, but otherwise I’m burning pencils, writing down trains in that up-n-down manner of train sheets.

Never again will I make that mistake.



Beverly Farnham works the FEC panel like the pro she is. Note the paperwork before her. Note the pen. Be like Beverly.