The Great Panel of China

The Great Panel of China

“You said you wanted to dispatch sometime,” Ken said with his usual friendly demeanor. “How about today?”

“Sure,” I smiled.

Holy crispy crap, I thought.

Ken’s three-room layout represents sixty miles of Florida East Coast mainline – huge! He’s also got a a half-dozen serious operators taking their starting positions, reviewing their train orders, checking out their paperwork, as serious as career engineers. This is not the place to screw up.

He walks me through the CTC board, essentially that big black 2001 monolith bristling with lights and toggles. I’ll be the dispatcher today, setting switches and signals in to get the traffic over the line. My only contact to operations will be my panel lights and radio. There really isn’t much chance of a collision – the signaling system will prevent that. However, there is a good chance of a stammering, sweating bio-lockup. Yes, I’ve been at sessions where the dispatcher melts down, where traffic grinds to a halt and the engineers quietly roll their eyes at each other. I did it myself 15 years ago – once in a lifetime is enough!

But, Christ, there are a lot of switches on this panel. To move a train from one siding to the next, you’ve got to align the turnouts with the toggles – klunk klunk – then switch the signals to the correct direction, north or south, – klunk kluckity klunk – then push the code buttons under each to light them up – click click click. On the board, the occupancy indicators mark the progress of the train. You gotta log where this guy is going, since the light doesn’t tell you who is there, and with a half-dozen trains rolling you can get cross-wired quick.

Humans carry self-defeating fears with them – its a survival thing, I suppose. And mine are going off now. But there is no backing out. The clock’s just gone hot, the first crew is calling from Cocoa, wanting to depart south. That last moment of apprehension – just WTF IS Cocoa? – but there it is on the board. These guys aren’t a mother-may-I bunch – the request is clear and precise. I take the call with a nod, remember Ken’s advice to set turnouts first, then work the signals back to the originating point. I line the route and signals, a final confirmation glance, then my finger punches down the line of code buttons. In the other room a constellation of emerald signal lamps come on. On my board, a block lights as the train advances. Another call comes in. I listen as I log the first, working the board, getting into the railroad’s flow. And we’re off…

Everything’s fine…


For a nice video of Ken’s layout, check out the two links (forming a two-parter) below. On the second one, you’ll see your humble author trying to get out of Cocoa yard to pick up a limestone cut and run it down to the plant. You’ll also get a good look at that big, big panel. Layouts don’t come better than this…

File 1

File 2