In 1973, the West Colton yard opened with circus tents, hot dogs, and over 300 clerks in cute little vests handing out railroad caps to children and conducting tours for visitors. I drove a tram taking people to the roundhouse area explaining the wash rack operations, the sanding and fuel capabilities, and touting the opening of this new classification yard that, at the time, was supposed to be one of the biggest and best in the railroad industry.
The basement, for which I later had special instructions on how to clean when I drew the janitor slot, was full of dozens of towers running RAM drives to store and sort all the information for the cars and locomotives passing through the yard. Notwithstanding this marvelous technology, the automation was still dependent on yard clerks to go to the receiving yard and individually verify and inventory the incoming trains. Once the train lists were verified, along with tare weights and other information on bands affixed to doors of the cars and observation of the springs of cars to detect possible loads that showed as empties, the clerks keypunched the information onto cards, and they were then passed through a keypunch machine which then entered that train or trains into the yard’s inventory.
I recall so many stories: dropped piles of punch cards that were to become switch lists for use by crews of hump engines waiting to push the cars over the yard crest for classification; watching trains go by the popped out window on the first floor as they traveled west to get a jump on the list; and trying to pass car-knockers (carmen) and maintenance vehicles in the narrow roadways between tracks, while juggling a clipboard and trying to inventory two trains, one on each side.
One day, while at the top of the receiving yard, between tracks 101 and 102, which was empty at the time, I was driving what we referred to as a putt-putt. It was a glorified stripped-down golf cart on which the brake was engaged by merely taking your foot off the push-down accelerator. Concentrating on checking cars on the train on track 101, I did not hear an incoming train approaching behind me to place cars on track 102.
The vehicle I was driving had been in an accident the night before and, as a result, the rear bumper guard was sticking out about four inches instead of being wrapped around. When the incoming train struck that four inches of bumper, it propelled me and the putt-putt a great distance down the roadway and into the air, leaving me and the vehicle jammed in between two gondola cars of the train on track 101.
By that time, I was screaming so loudly I couldn’t hear much of anything, but I was afterwards told that the engineer immediately radioed the tower that someone, who was thought to be a woman, had been hit in the receiving yard. The connection was immediately made that it was the yard clerk. Carmen came in short order and tore the mangled door off the passenger side of the putt-putt and before I could be helped down to the ground, which was about five-foot drop, I jumped and ran. I ran for my life away from the yard and the trains and toward Sierra Avenue where the tower personnel and the managers found me in hysterics. In short, the putt-putt was mangled and damaged beyond repair but I had escaped without any broken bones. I had experienced so many muscle tears and bruises, that I looked like the train had hit me directly.
Since I was still in my employment probationary period of 90 days, I was encouraged not to file an accident report or I would be let go. As I was helped back to work the next day, (I could not walk), it was not a reportable accident to the Federal Railroad Administration and everyone was happy and I was allowed to stay home for a week and Southern Pacific paid me for that period.
I was the sole support of three children, one who was a quadriplegic, age four years, and so this job was extremely important to me. I was partially college educated but had no skills. So that I could enhance my resumé, I took a three-month crash course sponsored by San Bernardino County to learn typing, business math, Dictaphone transcription, and other office-based skills. That landed me a job at Redlands Community Hospital with horrible hours and exposure to things I didn’t want to bring home to my children.
I moved from the hospital to working for San Bernardino County’s Department of Airports and Roads as a diazo blueprint processor, the only such operation on the west coast at the time. I was working there when a friend at the County’s human resources department called and asked if I was interested in doubling my wages. Needless to say, with my yes response, she moved me into an inactive file for a possible interview for an upcoming opening of the West Colton Yard. I say inactive because, at the time, Southern Pacific was hiring from the unemployment rolls to receive a lucrative credit from the state for those they hired from such rolls. During the interview I was candid and told the Southern Pacific interviewer that I was working but desperately wanted this job. He hired me and my wages jumped from $400 a month to $800.
I was immediately put into training classes, which covered all the aspects of the computers that I would be involved with, the operation of the West Colton Yard, and instruction about train operations, and for several weeks, the information I was required to learn was endless. I kept my job at the County and worked nights to get its backlog of mylar maps and mimeo requests and such up to date until another person could be trained on the Diazo processor. So, for two weeks I maintained that 16-hour schedule. It would come in handy for my break-in as a clerk when I sometimes worked 16-hour shifts, and occasionally one lasting 24 hours. Many people left the first couple of years because they could not work or maintain that kind of schedule and who didn’t truly understand that working for Southern Pacific was 24-7-365 commitment and that working on holidays was expected.
My children loved coming to work with me for years when most jobs were vacant as I was usually working one of the jobs that was required to be filled – crew dispatcher for yard, engine, and trainmen, one of the operator jobs, or as an interlocker operator. When those days came, my two older children were taken by the roundhouse foreman for rides on the engines at the wash rack or allowed to come up into the tower. A couple of times, they were with me at the caboose at Dike that served as an office building while I handed up train orders to passing trains.
I still have one of the original train order hoops with orders strung in them hanging on one of my house walls for display. It’s hard to imagine that short stick of wood was the only thing between me and the oncoming train for which I had to stand in exactly the right position to face it, but not look at the headlight (which wasn’t dimmed), and get that hoop of string in just the correct place so it could be hooped through the engineer’s arm and then manage to get another hoop strung and up for the conductor to grab as train went by.
One story among others stays in my memory – a conductor grabbing my train order pole instead of the string and me instinctively hanging onto it (why, I can’t tell you) and stumbling through the ballast alongside the train until he let go of it. It wasn’t funny at the time.
Working in the cabooses at Dike and Hiland, usually during graveyard shifts, seemed attractive to others, as one was alone in a remote location by themself, and could do whatever they wanted, but it truly wasn’t that restful. Visitors were few and far between, but one-year, Southern Pacific’s employees had issues with people taking potshots from their off-road vehicles as they drove by the cabooses. That same year, a conductor was shot as he was giving his train a roll-by inspection as it went around a curve. I saw many rattlesnakes during the hot months at Hiland, but never encountered one at Dike. Rosie, who lived on the premises at Hiland, didn’t like us killing them, and, instead, asked us to just sweep them away. You kept a broom and a large stick near the steps of the caboose and before you went down them, you would sweep beneath the steps and then alongside the switch machine as you went to line trains for the siding.
Those were years complete with adventure, wonder, apprehension, and so many other things. Southern Pacific hired several women to work in the West Colton yard when it opened and there were many hardships encountered by the women because of the egos of the men who also worked at the yard. One assistant general yardmaster said that I was taking good money out of the hands of a man who had a family to support. I got really quiet and put my hand out upside down and said he could divvy up right now and pay me to stay home, as my children were entitled to live as nicely as his were. I think I also told him that it was because of an ass just like him that I found it necessary to support my children.
There were difficulties sometimes sorting out how much the Southern Pacific supervisors wanted the women to do in actual field operations, such as opening up grain car hopper doors on Mondays for the grain inspectors, walking trains in the dark on the south side of the yard to verify tare weights for the ISC clerks to input tariffs, being in a roundhouse tower all by yourself with no ability to lock the door.
I worked all in areas of field operations and had encounters of one kind or another while performing my duties. The most “fun” I had was at Pepper Street at the east end of the West Colton yard, where the operator sat and typed up orders from three dispatchers to give to the crews assigned to departing trains, and that person worked in a little metal shanty situated between the tracks with an adjoining toilet stool and sink.
Bums (transients would be a nicer word, but we all called them bums) would love to curl up in the area housing the toilet stool and sink for the warmth and to clean up. They would approach the window in front of the chair where the operator sat and typed and when they had that person’s attention, they would ask questions like “When is the next train to Bakersfield?” “Which train is going to LA?” “Do you have any food I can have?” I would keep the door locked until a crew arrived and would also turn the lights out so that I could more easily see them approaching. I could type and work using the illumination of the light on the pole immediately outside the shanty.
One trainmaster, John Schnoebelen, called me on the radio one night and thought he had caught me sleeping. He whispered into the radio: “Hey operator at Pepper, I’m up here on the overpass and it seems you are sleeping down there, because there are no lights on.” I immediately hit the foot pedal and responded, “No, I am wide awake; I just don’t like having the bums sneak up on me.” He laughed but told me I had to keep the lights on. I was never allowed to tell that story, but since I am retired and John Schnoebelen is deceased, I do not think there will a reprisal. A few nights later, several bums came to the shanty and wanted in, as they were drinking and carousing. I called for the Southern Pacific police officer on duty to come and help, but he was busy elsewhere, so one of the supervisors came and chased them away with gun in hand.
Speaking of terminal officers, there was one, who shall remain nameless, who is living to the best of my knowledge, and he came to investigate a tragic accident that occurred at the Pepper area where a man had been cut in two while under a passing train, or perhaps had fallen off a train, or because of another reason. He lay a few feet from the door of the shanty, and we presumed dead because his internal organs were all hanging out. Sorry. But if you worked for the Southern Pacific or another railroad company in the operations area, in particular, you know that when a train and the human body interact in a compact area, the result is not forgiving. Anyway, this officer was standing next to the deceased who was not covered, no emergency personnel were on the scene, and all were just standing around talking about getting reports filed, when this “dead” body who is still alive, reaches up and grabs hold of the pant leg of the officer. The officer screamed, ran, and had to go home to change his clothes. The person died a few minutes later, and everyone was taught a lesson that one couldn’t assume anyone was dead until the emergency response personnel had made that determination.
The hardest thing I ever did while working for Southern Pacific as a woman, or as a human being, occurred at Pepper Avenue. A yard checker got on the radio and said he saw a body beside the track near my shanty right off the main line. As he was passing the information for someone to come investigate, the body moved. I grabbed rags and towels and went running over to him to help to stop the bleeding until an ambulance could arrive. There was no blood, just missing body parts and the body was a very young boy of 16, who had been bumming on the train to get home. When he went to jump off the train, his backpack caught on the rungs of a tri-level car above him and he was flipped under the train. It severed both his legs and one finger. I sat down beside him in the ballast and put his head in my lap and shielded his eyes from his lower body so he couldn’t see that his legs were missing because he was not yet feeling any pain from the accident. I kept telling him not to close his eyes, that he had to stay awake – some thought that if he closed his eyes, he would die. When he asked me if it was serious, I said yes and then he asked me to pray with him. When he put his hands together to pray and saw that one of his fingers was gone and he wasn’t feeling pain, he then realized the enormity of what had happened.
We waited 40 minutes for the ambulance. This was one of the many instances where Southern Pacific didn’t have things quite thought through when it came to the importance of human life. The yard encompassed six territories for city and county divisions for proper assignment and dispatch of emergency vehicles and there was only a response when there was a match. Moreover, and this sounds harsh, the Southern Pacific officers who responded were angry with me for talking with the young man and finding out his name. I surmised that by knowing this, Southern Pacific would have the responsibility for notifying the family of the teenager, doing an investigation, and would be subject to a claim of liability; however, if this 16-year old had died nameless, these issues would not have been of concern. I never got over the lack of blood and how the steel wheels and the weight of the train seared the flesh shut over the iron of the rail and cauterized completely closed, the areas of amputation.
I had worked all the clerical positions and operator jobs in West Colton and in 1984, I applied for promotion to train dispatcher in Los Angeles. I was turned down because a couple of the dispatchers voted against me because of run-ins we had had over getting their trains into the Colton yard when I was the interlocker operator at that location.
George Link, bless his heart, and I laughed about it just before he passed a few years ago about the day he had two trains close to expiring under the hours of service rule coming and he was determined that I was going to take them into yard so he didn’t have to patch them out on the line. He aggressively dispatched one train toward me on the hill outside of Colton, on the No. 2 main track and another train on the No. 1 main track. What he and most crews didn’t understand was that I didn’t make the decisions about who got in the yard and who didn’t. It all hinged on availability of track, the availability of a relief crew, stopping yard operations to yank a yard crew off their train to tie down an hours of service train, or there just was not trackage available on which to park the train. With a lot of maneuvering, an interlocker operator could get two trains up the main westbound, or two trains up track No. 901, one or two up tracks No. 904 or No. 905 and still direct a local train around the balloon track to go west and bring another train in from the west, while holding another out at Slover from Bakersfield. It was all a big juggling game, hours of service, versus crews to take over, or park, and tracks to get empty, and which train had priority.
The joke was everyone had a different idea of priority. One superintendent ordered that Amtrak must get through the West Colton yard one night without holding it out, despite the fact that he had just had us bring in three trains that were in holding patterns, without crews. There wasn’t a single running track open in the yard…NOT ONE. So, after much yelling and threatening (sometimes the modus operandi), the Amtrak train came in and I told its engineer that I had made arrangements with the roundhouse personnel for a route for their train, but he was to ascertain that no one was on any platform. We ran the train through the wash rack, over the sanding pit, out the lower end of track No. 904, after which it exited the yard. Those who were involved in the planning and its execution had lots of explaining to do the next day.
The end of the above story is when George pushed the two westbound trains past the Santa Fe tower on each main and while they were waiting to get in to the West Colton yard, the yardmasters got annoyed and said two trains had to be taken out of the yard before the two trains George was dispatching could be taken into the yard. I was coerced into moving two eastbound trains down each of the main tracks to depart the yard. There we sat, two trains looking at two trains and there was no alternative as to how the trains could move forward. When push came to shove, George, the hill dispatcher, had to back up one of his trains because once the yard trains were pulled out to go east, the yard crews started humping and pulling cars down into the tracks they had just vacated. It is not an easy task backing a train up a hill in mainline territory and George and I would not have a good working relationship for years to come.
After finally being promoted to train dispatcher in 1984, I worked with Russell Tomren, the east end dispatcher, who eventually became a senior manager in the rules department, and with several of the esteemed assistant chief dispatchers, who supervised us and delegated the priority of the movement of trains, issued pickup and setout instructions, and directed the handing off of locomotives to passing trains. The juggling game of moving trains and locomotives got bigger and bigger as time went on.
I tended to try to inform the crews of the reasons WHY I was putting their trains on the sidings at Iris and Clyde. The more information that I gave them about the yard not being able to take their trains, or having the yard ready for a train following theirs because of setouts, or lack of crews, the more I believed they would understand the reason why they were being held out. Was I ever WRONG!!! I was told over and over by my supervisors to stop giving the train crews that kind of information, as it only added to the endless chatter about their wants and needs and didn’t satisfy them. One time, I was sent a note via company mail in which someone had scribbled on it my name along with a dripping dagger accusing me of being the infamous Night Stalker as I killed trains. At the time, Richard Ramirez, the actual murderer, rapist, sniper, and who was known as the Night Stalker was on a rampage of terror in the greater Los Angeles area. It was scary. I was in tears more times than I can count and did stop talking on radio as my tear-filled voice would truly not gain me any sympathy. One chief, Gary Furbee, jumped on the radio one night on my behalf when a crew asked why they were being held out and said, “Because I told her to, and that is all you need to know.” The all-male train crews didn’t care for lectures, and they quit bullying me because of my explanations and I stopped giving them information.
When dispatching offices merged and moved to Roseville, California, it was a very difficult move for me to find a place to live and people to help me take care of my youngest daughter, Deanna, who was a quadriplegic resulting from an accident one year after her birth. In the first few years working for Southern Pacific, I deliberately sought out and worked on midnight shift jobs so that I only had to hire someone to be at my house at night and who wouldn’t have to render any medical assistance. I would get off work at 7 am and go home and get the two older children off to school, feed Deanna, and place her on the floor of the living room on padding and then lay down beside her and nap off and on. My oldest daughter, Shelley, and my son, Andrew, would come home from school, and care for Deanna so that I could sleep a few hours uninterrupted. This became very hard on them, giving up school activities and I wasn’t holding up much better. When I had to work 16-hour shifts, I struggled to find sitters who could manage to feed her correctly and to move her muscles periodically to keep her from becoming twisted. Before I could solve the problem of moving her to Roseville, she became ill with pneumonia for the umpteenth time and passed away just prior to the move, two weeks short of her 18th birthday. My two older children were of age and elected to stay behind and continue their lives in Southern California. It was a very lonely time for me after I moved to Roseville.
The Roseville office was a showplace after they moved us to the old Hewlett-Packard building from the ancient Roseville yard office, which was located adjacent to unexploded ordinance from the carloads of bombs that exploded in the Roseville Yard in 1973. (In 1997, when Union Pacific was updating the yard, unexploded ordinance was discovered and removed). At the new dispatching office, each dispatcher sat in glass enclosed cubicles designed to give each control over air quality and soundproofing. Visitors would come and stand outside the glass peering in at you working. People joked that we were in the fish bowl. From this location, I was selected by William Neal to train as a rules instructor. I had a “bad” reputation with the train crews for being a stickler for the rules but would not change just to be popular. The accidents I had seen had left a huge impact on me and I wanted to do my part to help Southern Pacific avoid accidents in the future. At the time I was dispatching the “mountain territory,” once the domain of Jeri Blair, who with her expertise, managed that territory very well. She was a very hard act to follow. But times had changed from the transition of train orders to centralized traffic control and the needs and wants of the personnel managing Southern Pacific’s divisions and yards were much more difficult to satisfy.
The chief train dispatcher at the time was a crusty individual who would call you into his office and swear at you about mistakes or misjudgments that you had made. On one occasion, I was “fired” by one of his minions for not providing an unobstructed path for a train that was important to him and he made me get out of the chair and said I was fired. I calmly picked up my purse and vacated the cubicle. I made a point of walking by the Chief’s office on my way out of the dispatching office and he demanded to know where I was going. I told him that “Tom” had fired me and I was going home. The expletives that came out of his mouth would shame a sailor. He would laugh about it today as he is very much aligned with the religious community and does extensive charity work. Needless to say, I wasn’t fired and “Tom” wasn’t either, but there was another relationship that didn’t grow any better over time.
When the Southern Pacific was purchased by Philip Anschutz in 1988, he then owned the D&RGW, which was headquartered in Denver, Colorado. Eventually, the decision was made to move Southern Pacific’s dispatching function to Denver. Many dispatchers challenged the relocation and fought the new regime, and decided not to move to Denver. Because of this, there was not a sufficient number of dispatchers to adequately protect all of the assignments. The Hours of Service Act at that time provided that field personnel were allowed to work up to 12 hours a day, but dispatchers could only work up to nine hours a day and then only in extreme cases. The Act allowed no exceptions for increasing the number of hours a dispatcher could work, and if one did, huge fines and other actions could result. Now short of dispatching personnel, Southern Pacific ramped up immediately to start hiring and training personnel, and I became one of the two instructors. A 29-week training program was quickly developed to address the training needs for people being hired with no railroad experience. We needed to develop not only accomplished train manipulators, but those who understood the importance of safety and could learn field operations well enough to enhance their decision making in dispatching trains.
In the years between 1989 and 1997, over 600 students passed through the classroom. The dropout rate during training was minimal because the pay was very good, but the failure rate to pass the testing and on the on-the-job apprenticeship resulted in a high-dropout rate. Many of the trainees would not and could not handle the working hours and conditions. Protests abounded about working holidays, family needs, not being able to go to their kid’s football games, and so on.
One group in particular, recruited through a headhunter, who was paid $18,000 for each person chosen, were younger people who had served in the military. They proved to be the most challenging. They did not think they needed as much training as anyone else. After all, they had been military officers or were serving in that capacity in the active reserve. When I started their training class, I struggled for three days to stop them from talking amongst themselves and pay attention. When that had been accomplished, I spent a few days trying to get them to follow instructions at my pace, and not theirs. Each wanted to go off in their own direction and fly on their own, as some of them had done in the US Air Force! With such an intense and time driven training program, detailed down to the last letter about how each step followed the next, they fought tooth and nail to soar ahead. I let them go. Then came Friday, quiz day, week after week. When they were told that they had ALL failed the quizzes and if they failed one more test, they were gone, they then settled down.
I had a particular teaching style I had developed after so many classes and so many head bumps with so many different individuals. Most women were more attentive to my instruction and the men were rebellious about a woman teaching them about the railroad – after all the railroad is a man’s environment. I didn’t fight this mentality; I just let them hang themselves. I learned that there was no initially changing the way a person thinks about any given subject – that they have to arrive there all on their own.
I studied rules extensively, learned their history, why they were in place, and tried to find pictures and films and current situations to illustrate the reason for the rule. I made a good friend who I met in Salt Lake City, Utah, Bob Pugmire, and Bob was employed by Union Pacific before it acquired the Southern Pacific. He was head of the rules department and was responsible for rules training for all field personnel, engine men, trainmen, and yard operators. We met on many occasions in Salt Lake City to review the differences in the rules between Union Pacific and the former Southern Pacific and to determine what rules of Southern Pacific that Union Pacific was willing to adopt and which rules they thought were not suitable for the consolidated railroad company.
There was definitely a good old boy network at the Union Pacific in both Salt Lake City and Omaha, and there was such a stark difference between management styles and hierarchy at the time of the pending merger between Southern Pacific and Union Pacific. I had to interview for my own job as did other Southern Pacific managers as a part of the process of becoming an employee of Union Pacific post-merger. The Union Pacific interviewers were very hard core about a woman being involved in training dispatchers and “offered” me a position on a probationary basis because I believe I was one of the few Southern Pacific personnel with expertise on the computer side of the train movement system. UPs intent was to just “roll” the Southern Pacific system trackage and other related items into their computer dispatching system and do away with the old SP computer dispatching system. Their much older and better system would handle it all and it didn’t happen.
The Union Pacific’s dispatching training program was much less structured and didn’t have the length and depth of the former Southern Pacific program. In fact, Union Pacific didn’t even have much of a training facility – a room, a book, and an instructor that said if you make it through the book you were qualified. It sounded great to some, but for others it proved to be deadly. After a year of accidents in which the train dispatchers that had been processed through Union Pacific’s program were held accountable for deaths in the field, the federal government said enough and decided that Union Pacific would change its training methods, among other things. At a result, Union Pacific implemented the former Southern Pacific training program in place of its own. And that was job insurance for me. The biggest hurdle with the implementation was find a building and applicants. The first training facility was located in a mall in the downtown area of Omaha, Nebraska. Fairly quickly, additional capacity was required and we moved to a location several miles to the west. When the 19 – story Union Pacific Center opened in 2004, the space allocated for training was too small and so the training continued at the then existing location. Union Pacific insisted that applicants for the “new” training program have college degrees. Union Pacific thought that its future dispatchers would be promoted to various managerial positions. The problem with that was twofold: there would be a constant flow of inexperienced train dispatchers and the incoming people with college degrees in agriculture still didn’t know a damned thing about railroading after their training.
My last years with Union Pacific were markedly different than anything I had experienced previously. And I was given the incentive to retire early and when the opportunity presented itself to retire at 60 years of years of age with 30 years of service, I took it. I was tired of fighting with everyone about following the rules. There was always someone wanting to make exceptions for sometimes very flimsy reasons. My teaching style had remained the same: follow the rules or people die. Follow the proven ways, and don’t think your degree makes you smarter and more insightful as to what rules are necessary or how they should be changed. My philosophy about rules instruction was adopted from the late Russell Tomren, who said, “this Rulebook is written in Blood.” Someone died and, yes, they wrote a dozen rules afterwards, trying to prevent the next fatality. None of us should think that we can change rules on a whim, because it is extremely likely that your point of view is not proven, but the deaths and injuries of many along the way resulted in the way rules are structured and enforced.