Thursday, April 10, 2008


Prince Rupert November 18, 1959, Train Orders. In this modern day and age, locomotive operators operate over a subdivision responding to line side light signals. They respond to an immediate, simple stimulus of light signals, and must obey them precisely "stop - go- slow".

But “back in the good old days” operation over the subdivision by time table and train orders required completely different skills, including memory, analysis and judgment, reference to time, comprehension of written instructions, and calculations of time and distance measured out by the mile posts and speed tables.

And, an intimate knowledge of their subdivision. It is, therefore, this type of operation that was infinitely more interesting and stimulating. Railroad men were proud of their skills, and rightly so.

While there are variations on the theme, train orders were written on two types of forms, the so-called "31's," which had to be signed for by a member of the train crew, and "19's," which did not. “31’s” were employed when the dispatcher needed written confirmation that the affected train actually had the order, while the “19’s” were used when he did not.

I spent many an hour at the Yard Office in Prince Rupert as a teenager, watching the telegrapher assemble a set of flimsies – so called because the paper was onion-skin thin, composed of blank train order form 19’s, sandwiched with carbon papers, and reeled into the Remington typewriter.

Imagine what it was like before typewriters! A fellow had better have good penmanship. Can you imagine the engineer asking “what is THIS word?”

“Smack-smack-smack” as the typewriter spelled out instructions from the dispatcher at Smithers, droning out the words over the company telephone line, dictating meets, slow orders, and the minutiae of Northern BC railroading.

The operator in turn, would spell out meeting points, and annunciate numbers back to the dispatcher, to insure accurate communication, to prevent disaster. The dispatcher was referenced only by his initials, for each order in the set, with a communication time, repeated time, and operator’s last name.

The Skeena Subdivision was a Train Order and Time Table operation. There were no radios in those days, only a few track side phones. The entire symphony was played out between Conductor and Engineer, synchronized by the ubiquitous pocket watch.

I am truly blest to have been able to experience these operations. It was really exciting for me as a teenager to watch the Conductor, Engineer and crew trouping into the Yard Office, telling jokes, warming hands, small talk all around; a cup of rotten cup of burnt coffee.

And then the operator hands the stapled – sometimes straight pinned - flimsies to the Conductor and Engineer, who will compare train order sets, check pocket watches against the master clock on the wall behind the operator, sign the Train Register, grab their grips and head out for the locomotives.

Here is a set of Train Orders issued to 1st Class Passenger train number 196, from Prince Rupert to Terrace, the last time I had a chance to ride in the cab. Ten days later, we were back home in Seattle. (Double click on images to enlarge.)

The return trip on 195 had only two orders, the one about speed restrictions – 712 – and 890 referring to cars on sidings. The work crews - 202 - and preceding train – 207 - were irrelevant on the return trip.

I was glad on the return trip on 195 that it was dark in the cab, because as we rumbled through the night, with the chanting of the V-16, the generator whine and smell of diesel oil, I was fighting back tears.

I knew I was going to miss these guys and the Skeena Subdivision.

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