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A Career In Transportation

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

All over the United States there stretches a network of rail-road tracks which connect one coast with another, and which pass through huge cities and tiny villages, and over mountains, plains and uninhabited desert regions. The railroad is one of the most romantic accompaniments of our present civilization. Where a railroad has been built, there a greater amount of comfort, more of the conveniences and luxuries of civilization and increasingly higher standards of living are almost sure to follow. Today people are so used to the many comforts and conveniences which the railroads make possible, that they hardly appreciate the extent to which they are indebted to the railroads for them.

The organization of the railroad lines is, of necessity, a very complex one. The transportation of so many people, and of such great amounts and variety of freight, calls for a system which is thoroughly worked out to the least detail, and which is carried out with the highest degree of efficiency. So much depends upon the railroads that the most rigid exactness is essential in every department. The slightest mistake of the humblest employee may destroy the value of costly shipments, or may en-danger the safety, or even the lives, of hundreds of human beings. For this reason the railroads exercise all possible precautions in employing men, and for this reason, too, the man who enters upon railroad work in any capacity whatsoever must be constantly alive to the great responsibility which his work entails.

What the great railroad companies undertake is really a stupendous task. The work involves first of all the building of the roads. This means engineering work of every sort. Routes must be planned; land must be acquired and surveyed; rough and uneven grades must be leveled, mountains tunneled, water bridged, embankments built. Then the tracks must be laid, signals and signal stations erected, stations and city terminals built, roundhouses, freight yards and machine shops finished.

All the rolling stock engines, cars, trailers must be constructed or purchased. And, finally, the equipment acquired, men must be trained to run the trains safely from division to division, and so over the whole route the railroad follows. Connected with this phase of the work are such matters as the accommodation of passengers, the handling of freight, the actual operation of the locomotive and all the accompanying duties. And then the business records of this immense and complicated system must be kept, legal matters attended to and the general organization and administration of the business and transportation ends adequately planned and supervised.

A system which involves so many different types of work can, of course, make use of practically every sort of ability. Men trained in engineering, law, medicine and accounting are all needed. The work of such men, while it is subject to the special conditions which the railroad business imposes, closely approximates the work of their professional coworkers in other lines.

There are, however, certain types of work which are peculiar to the railroad, and these will here be discussed. The organization of every large railroad may be considered under three principal divisions, and the various employees may be grouped in some one of these. These broad general divisions may be called the operating, the transportation and the business departments.

The operating division is concerned with the actual maintenance of equipment. The department for the construction and maintenance of the roadway, and that for the care and operation of the machinery, are its principal subdivisions.

The construction of roads, and their rebuilding and repair, are, of course, important parts of the work done in this division. The men doing this type of work are usually very highly skilled professional engineers, who plan and supervise the road building and repairing, and unskilled laborers, or "section men," who are engaged in the necessary manual labor. Men who begin as section or repair men have a chance to advance to assistant and then full foremanships. The men who do bridge repair or concrete work, or work upon the buildings, have a chance to acquire a certain amount of technical knowledge, and so perhaps to rise to a higher position.

The work of section and repair men is very hard physical labor and requires a robust physique and strong constitution. It offers fairly good opportunities for advancement to the man with some supervisory ability, and as good pay as can be expected for this type of work.

The engineers, both the engineer maintenance of way, who heads the work of this department, and the chief engineers of the divisions under him, are executive officers of thorough professional training and adequate experience. Under them work the civil engineers and surveyors, who carry out the orders of their superiors, and who, in turn, direct the work of the unskilled laborers and their foremen.

In the operating division may be placed also the machinery department. Here, in the great shops and railroad yards the rolling stock is constructed, repaired and generally cared for. The head of this department is the superintendent of motive power, who is in general charge of the work done in constructing cars and keeping them and the locomotives in good condition. More directly heading the personnel of the machinery department is the master mechanic, who actively superintends the work of the carmen and mechanics.

The carmen carefully inspect the cars, both during their stops in the course of runs, and when they are taken to the car yards at the end of a trip. If anything is amiss, these workers repair the damage. The inspection of the cars must be very thorough, for a slight defect, if overlooked, can precipitate a disaster.. And the repair work must be equally well done. The carmen must, therefore, be skilled workmen, who are able to see faults when they come upon them, and to remedy these in a highly efficient manner. Other skilled workers are employed as roundhouse men and mechanics. When the locomotives are housed in the roundhouse at the end of a run, they are carefully gone over by the roundhouse men, and repaired by them with the help of machinists, boilermakers and other such skilled workmen.

Besides the men employed in the shops, there are, also under the supervision of the superintendent of motive power, those who attend to the actual operation of the engines. The engineers and their firemen are the chief workers operating to move the train from point to point on its run. The engineer runs the engine, but that is only one of his duties. When he first reports for work, he carefully inspects the engine to see that it is in good working order. While running his engine, he must regulate his speed according to varied conditions, operate the brakes and keep alert watch for the many signals on the way. At the end of his run, when he has taken the engine to the roundhouse, the engineer again gives it a general inspection, and before leaving he reports whatever work there is to be done upon it.

The fireman's principal duty is attending to the fire in the engine furnace, and in addition to this he must observe the signals displayed along the way and report these to the engineer. If the engine has an automatic stoker he must regulate this properly; if it has not, he must shovel the coal into the furnace by hand.

The transportation division is under the general supervision of the trainmaster, who has charge of the moving of passengers and freight, and who gives the men their work assignments. The workers under him may be classified as yardmen, trainmen and telegraphers. The yardmaster and switchmen make up the trains, switching the cars onto the right tracks and coupling them. The conductor, together with the engineer, is responsible for the operation of the train, and is its superior officer in the course of the run. Much of his work consists of report making. He reports on the cars handled, the tickets collected, on the time record of the train, on accidents, on mileage and other such matters. If he is a freight conductor, he takes seal records of the car doors, and makes note of the contents of the cars. In this work he is assisted by the brakemen. During the train's run, the brakemen attend to the brakes, help stop and control the trains and display train signals.

The telegraph department is an immensely important one. With its help, trains are run in the proper order, the great complicated system is kept smoothly working and accidents and wrecks are avoided. The train dispatcher issues his orders to the various local operators, who, in turn, notify towermen and other signalmen of them. The train dispatcher's work requires the capacity to deal quickly and well with unexpected and often serious situations—in other words, a combination of coolness, resourcefulness, alertness, good judgment and quick action. These same qualities are needed in lesser degree by the local operators, and they should also have a thorough knowledge of telegraphy and railroad signaling.

In the transportation division may be placed also the traffic subdivision, under the control of the traffic manager. This division undertakes to sell railroad service. In the passenger department are the station agents, who sell tickets, and in small towns attend to the baggage. The district passenger agents keep themselves well informed on general traffic conditions in their divisions, make special arrangements with large parties desiring transportation facilities, make plans for increasing the business of the road and advertise its service. The men in the freight department plan routes and routing methods, and do other work of a technical nature.

In the business division, accounting, auditing, secretarial work, legal work, and other types of work requiring professionally trained men, are carried on. These men must have much the same knowledge and qualifications as their brother professionals who work in other fields.

Railroad workers who are engaged in skilled labor or in the technical work connected with the operating of trains and the transportation of freight and passengers are required to possess a number of personal qualifications without which no railroad would be able to accept them as employees. No high degree of education is expected, a thorough grounding in the subjects taught in the elementary school being considered sufficient for men who want to become engineers, conductors or yardmen. But a great deal of stress is laid upon physical endowment, native intelligence and certain important characteristics of temperament.

Besides being examined physically, the prospective railroad employee is also tested for his mental capacity. This means not education but mental alertness, the ability to grasp a great many details and to manifest an instant comprehension of a given situation, and the ability to use good judgment in dealing with such a situation. It is easily seen how important such qualifications are for the men upon whom depend the life and safety of so many people.

Equally necessary for the safe execution of the duties of a railroad worker are temperance, punctuality, honesty, a sense of responsibility and an observant and attentive mind. With these qualities must go a willingness to do hard and strenuous work and to face danger. The fact that work on a railroad so frequently exposes one to accident is its chief drawback. But the invention and installation of numerous safety devices and the growing influence of "safety first" campaigns are doing much to lessen the chance of injury. The exercise of a reasonable amount of care by the worker can further reduce the danger of railroad work to a practically negligible factor.

The man who possesses the fundamental qualifications already mentioned, and who has, besides, a high degree of executive ability, is eligible for one of the more important positions. Many men who have not been unwilling to begin with hard and often very unpleasant work, through their ability to handle men and get work done well, and through their broad insight into the problems of administration and decisive action in dealing with such problems, have been able to advance from the lowlier positions to even such important ones as those of superintendent and general manager. It is true that promotion in the operating department frequently depends upon seniority, but the man of unusual ability has excellent opportunities to forge ahead and attain an executive position.

A man who sets out with the object of attaining such a position has a chance to do so even without much more than a common-school education. But if he has a college or thorough technical education in addition to the necessary natural qualifications, it is probable that he will more easily be able to reach his goal. Various universities have, in their engineering schools, valuable courses in civil, electrical and mechanical engineering, and in the administration of large engineering and business under-takings; and some of the higher technical schools also offer suitable training.

Even though a young man has been graduated from a technical school or college, he cannot hope immediately to enter upon an important executive position. In order to fill such a position, he must know the railroad business thoroughly, and should have had considerable experience in handling men and supervising large projects. For these reasons, most young men who have had a higher education start in a humble position, learning everything possible about the various branches of the railroad business, and gradually working themselves up to a place of responsibility and power.

Most of the young men who enter upon railroad work have had, however, no such training as that which the colleges offer. The grammar school, or a few terms in the high school, has been the extent of their formal education. The work of the locomotive engineer, switchman and conductor cannot be learned otherwise than by actual experience. The railroads themselves train practically all of their workers. Most of the large railroads maintain schools wherein young men are trained for all the different sorts of railroad work. The schooling obtained in this way resembles that to be gained from an apprenticeship. The student is sent into the different departments, and learns something about the work of each. He learns how cars are built and repaired, how they are run, how the business of the road is carried on. When he has finished such a course, which involves much hard work, he has a sufficient understanding of the mechanism of a large railroad, of the practical details of its administration and operation, to work himself up into a desirable position.

Men are trained in other ways, too. They are accepted as apprentices in the machine shops, where they work for a number of years at low wages, and receive in return a thorough training in railroad mechanical work. Others are employed as helpers or hostlers in the yards and roundhouses. Here, while they are working at their various nontechnical odd jobs, they have an opportunity to learn many practical things by observing their superiors. At the same time they may receive instruction from traveling officials of the railroad. After a while they may be given several trial runs as firemen and, proving their ability, they may be further tested by examinations, and finally appointed as firemen. Further promotion comes to able workers, and sometimes men who start as hostlers become engineers, conductors and even division superintendents. There are many examples, in the history of railroads, of men who have risen to the very highest from the very lowest, and such things are also possible now for the man who has all the natural qualifications and, besides these, the ability to direct large enterprises and supervise the activities of great numbers of men.

It is true that in many cases promotion depends upon seniority, but even this will not eliminate the exceptional man's chance to advance. Railroad work is hard work and brings with it a great amount of responsibility, to the brakeman as well as the general manager. In the lower positions there is the constant menace of physical danger; in the higher positions there is the nervous tension which usually accompanies very responsible work. At times when trade is depressed, employment may be uncertain, or wages lowered. But the work of the railroad man has many advantages. It pays well and offers opportunity for advancement and for doing the particular type of work for which one is best fitted.

Although thousands of passengers are annually carried on the great railroads, the transportation of freight is much more important and profitable. The street railways, urban and inter-urban, are the great passenger carriers. The street railways include the street cars, the subways and the elevated trains in the cities, and the electric cars in the suburban and country districts. The work of the conductor or motorman on a street railway is simpler than that of a conductor or engineer on a great steam railroad. Prospective conductors or motormen learn their work by being sent out on cars, and by operating them under the supervision of trained and experienced men. On the subways, engineers usually begin as guards or brakemen. Electricians and mechanics in large number are also employed by the street railways, at the head of which are executives whose work is, in its way, as important as that of the heads of large railroad companies.

The street railways are doing a great deal to develop suburban regions and to facilitate travel in the large cities. What they do locally the great railroad systems do on a huge scale. They are among the most important factors in the development of trade and industry, and in the maintenance and promotion of the country's prosperity.


FAIRCHILD, CHARLES B., JR.: "Training for the Electric Railway Business," J. B. Lippincott Co., Philadelphia, 1919. FLEMING, RALPH D.: "Railroad and Street Transportation," Cleveland Education Survey, The Survey Committee of the Cleveland Foundation, Cleveland, Ohio, 1916.

HAINES, H. S.: "Efficient Railway Operation, The Macmillan Co., New York, 1919.

HUNGERFORD, EDWARD : "The Modem Railroad," A. C. McClurg & Co., Chicago, 1911.

KIRKMAN, M. M.: "Engineers and Firemen's Handbook," Cropley Phillips Co., Chicago, 1919.

MORRIS, R.: "Railroad Administration," D. Appleton & Co., New York, 1920.


Locomotive Engineers' Journal, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, Cleveland, Ohio.

Railway Age, Simmons-Boardman Publishing Co., New York.

Railway Carmen's Journal, Brotherhood of Railway Carmen of America, Kansas City, Mo.

Railway Maintenance of Way Employes' Journal, United Brotherhood of Maintenance-of-Way Employes and Railway Shop Laborers, Detroit, Mich.

Railroad Telegrapher, Order of Railroad Telegraphers, St. Louis, Mo. Railroad Trainman, Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen, Cleveland, Ohio.

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