Where in the world is Fred?

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Thank you for missing me, for the emails asking if I were sick or angry or just tired. I did not realize the abundance of your affection. When I agreed to blog several years ago, I told Trains Magazine editor Jim Wrinn I’d post something online twice a week—that is, if I had anything to say. And that explains my absence; I haven’t had anything to say. Something else got in the way.

After 30 years in one place, Cathie and I decided this spring to uproot ourselves from our rambling Spanish-American War-era farm house on the cusp of Washington, D.C., a pleasurable home that we’ve added to so often that it is almost a suburb in itself.  When it sells, we’ll become citizens of Colorado, dividing our time between the Rocky Mountains near Vail and the Atlantic Ocean, at St. Simons Island, Ga.

It’s a great life — we’ve lived it the past six months. But there are problems. One is that I possess a mountain of railroad paper, collected over a lifetime, that I cherish. Employee timetables, dispatcher trainsheets, dispatcher train order books, freight train schedules and other such stuff. Taken together, it’s a history of how railroads once operated. All this comes close to filling a boxcar. But what do I do with it? The trainsheets are large objects, measuring as much as three by seven feet in size. My collection numbers in the thousands, as do the employee timetables. Where we will live there is no place for this. It has to go, all of it.

The solution I arrived at it to digitize everything. If I ever want to see something again (and I want to see every last page of paper), then scan it. Go paperless, in other words. And that is what I’ve been doing while you wondered where I was. Once scanned, the timetables and train order books are being sold on eBay (look for a seller from Cincinnati). And the trainsheets are largely ending up in the collection of the Temple Railroad & Heritage Museum in central Texas, where you will (hopefully) be able to download them digitally. The same may someday be true of the employee timetables, in their digital form.

But this takes time. And while I run these documents through my several kinds of scanners, I am not thinking Great Thoughts. Instead, the scanning takes my mind away from the present and projects it into the past.

If customer satisfaction is a railroad problem today, it was just as much a problem almost half a century ago, in the era of deregulation. Railroads pre 1980 could not compete by price, which was rigidly regulated by the government. All that could distinguish one railroad from another was service. And wow, it was vicious.

One trove of paper I am digitizing is the archive of the superintendent of transportation for Southern Pacific’s lines east of El Paso, Tex. — that is, the half of SP that made all the money in that railroad’s last several decades. Traffic grew by leaps and bounds on the chemical coast of Texas and Louisiana, and over the SP subsidiary Cotton Belt during the 1960s and early 1970s. But California-centric Southern Pacific acted as if its Texas and Louisiana lines didn’t exist and starved them of capital investments. Between Houston, San Antonio, and El Paso as many as 20 trains a day were dispatched by train order over jointed rail. There were never enough locomotives, either.

This was block-and-tackle railroading, for sure. One trainsheet I scanned had this dispatcher’s notation: “Following trains [he listed 11] delayed for orders account unable to talk fast enough.” Another contains this explanation of why the railroad’s premier freight train was delayed west of Del Rio: “First BSM [Blue Streak Merchandise] delayed 20 minutes Mofeta to Sanderson acct TXN ahead. Could not put TXN in at Mofeta acct APECI [Auto Parts East City of Industry] was in siding there, so I had to give TXN a run ahead to Sanderson. TXN then had engine trouble. If TXN had not had engine trouble he would not have delayed the BSM. I didn’t realize until TXN got to Mofeta that he didn’t have enough power to make Sanderson.” Talk about CYA!

But it was like this all up and down that part of the railroad. J. E. Adams was superintendent of transportation of the Texas and Louisiana lines back then. He was forever being bawled out by headquarters in San Francisco for not moving the hot trains fast enough, and had the unenviable job of turning around and cajoling his superintendents to do more with less.

The difference between then and now is that today freight schedules are less stressful, over rights of way light years better equipped than what existed then. Cotton Belt and Southern Pacific scheduled their hot trains so tightly that the least delay meant late arrivals in Los Angeles or missed connections in St. Louis. You’d think railroads now would have far more reliable service for their non-intermodal traffic than what was provided half a century ago. And you’d probably be wrong.—Fred W. Frailey


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