I read an article in the Casper Star Tribune yesterday that made me think about the many changes in the railroad over the years. When my grandfather, Allen Luther Spencer was working on the railroad as a carpenter during World War II, and for years before that, it took a number of people to run a train. The freight trains during World War II typically had seven people aboard…an engineer, conductor, up to four brakemen and a fireman. With all the trains that were running…not nearly as many as we have today…the railroad supplied a lot of jobs. This was just to run the actual train. The maintenance personnel, the station managers, and others who were required to keep the trains running smoothly, added to the number of people it took to ultimately move the trains along the tracks at any given moment. The trains of that era weren’t anywhere near as long as they are these days either.
As technology became more sophisticated, fewer people were needed to run a train, and by the 1970s, the number of people on a freight train had dropped to five people, and by 1991, only the engineer and the conductor were needed to run the train. When you consider that the trains have become so long that it can take twenty minutes to get the whole train through a crossing, that seems amazing to me. I guess it is amazing to a lot of other people too, because as the railroads are trying to eliminate one of those positions as well, a lot of people are quite worried about the safety of the trains. What strikes me as funny, however, is that the concern is that if they need to disconnect a car so emergency vehicles can get through, the engineer can’t leave his post to do so. I’m sure that in the future that part will be handled too, because technology is getting to the point whereby the train really could be run without a driver, just like the model trains are.
Much like the model trains, there is a controller at a central location who can see all the trains for his area. In reality, they probably could control the train with no one on it, but how strange that would be…especially when talking about passenger trains. But then, with subways, and airport trains, we often get on the train, and never see if anyone is running it. In airports, the voice telling you of your arrival is even mechanical. I have to wonder if anyone is running those, and maybe someone out there will clarify that one for me. Someday, or even already, we will probably ride trains and never give a second thought to the fact that there is no engineer. Everything has become so technical, and we have reached a point of being so used to robotics, that we don’t even give a second thought to the aspect of someone being in control of this massive train we have just boarded…and people have said that flying is like being in a cattle truck. Turning control of our lives to someone we don’t know, or even to a robot, seems very strange, even today, but what would the people of my grandfather’s era have thought about having no one to run the train. I’m quite sure they would never have boarded at all.