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It's About Time


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It's About Time!

by Rowan Howse

Reprinted from the "L. & N. Magazine," Volume 39, Number 2, February, 1963, p. 12.

In November, 1883, just a few days after American railroads officially adopted Standard Time, a writer in the Indianapolis, Ind., Sentinel editorialized rather adamantly: "The railroad convention recently in session has determined among other things to have the clocks in this country regulated to suit the convenience of their particular branch of business. Railroad time, it appears, is to be the time of the future.

"And so, people will now have to marry and die by railroad time. Ministers will preach by railroad time, and banks will be required to open and close by the same time. The sun is no longer the boss of the job."

The writer's charge may well have typified the reaction of most Americans when our railroads did institute Standard Time. And yet, one had only to weight the growing complexities of railroad operations in the 1880s against the almost total lack of accurate timekeeping or watch standards to realize why it was absolutely necessary to bring order out of chaos.

Prior to 1883, most cities and towns followed a self-designated local time (or "sun time") based on the movement of the sun across north-south meridians. But even in their earliest years, railroads--by contrast--required some degree of precision in the movement of trains.

A regulation from an 1858 L. & N. timetable stated: "Conductors and engineers must compare their watches daily with the clock in the Louisville Depot, which is the standard time by which all watches of men on the Road must be regulated." That brought a degree of conformity to L. & N. operations, even after the Railroad's southward expansion in the 1870s. And, because its direction was primarily north and south, the L. & N. was not hampered by the disparity of times to the extent some east-west roads were. A reporter traveling by train from Maine to California in 1880 changed his watch over 20 times just to keep track of the prevailing local times.

The mounting irritation among railway passengers and shippers over missed trains, or the misunderstandings that resulted from differences in local times, plus the mistakes (sometimes disastrous) that even railroad men made, offered visible testimony that all was not right in the province of time. . .and that something had to be done!

From the efforts of a dedicated group of railroad leaders came the General Time Convention of 1883, which brought into being Standard Time and the five time zones--Atlantic, Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific--that we know today. Equally important, but not nearly so well known, was the standardization of watches and timekeeping necessary to safe railroad operations. That movement came in 1893 as a result of a bad wreck on an Eastern railroad caused by a faulty watch. Shortly thereafter, the railroads initiated the regular and strict inspection of all watches and clocks needed in train operation and this continues to the present.

"Is the application of time to train operation as important in 1962 as it was 50 or 75 years ago?" We asked this question of several transportation department officers. "It most certainly is!" they declared unanimously. One officers added: "The introduction of G. T. C., diesel locomotives, automatic retarder yards, data-processing equipment and a host of other improvements has not for one minute lessened the importance of accurate time to the safe operation of our trains."

While G. T. C. on the L. & N. in 1963 does control over 2,000 miles of main-line trackage, passenger and freight trains still run on regularly published schedules. And, wherever the particular run or division, train crews continue the time-honored ritual of comparing watches before each run. Of course, transportation department rules require all conductors and engineers to compare watches with a "clock designated by the time table as a standard clock and with each other." The time when watches were compared must then be recorded on a prescribed form (Clearance Form A).

Any L. & N.'er connected with train operations will readily declare that a railroad cannot run without precision time. A work train has been assigned to unload new rail along several miles of track. Train orders, sent to the "extra's" crew, limit the time the train may occupy that section of line before it must "clear" for a regularly scheduled train. Bridge, signal, or M. of W. crews might receive similar instructions. The crew of a train may be handed "wait orders," holding its train at a station, for example, until a specified period of time has passed.

Who must carry watches? Under transportation department rules, all employees concerned with the operation of trains must have watches, and new men joining the Company in such capacity must purchase watches. The list would include assistant superintendents, chief and train dispatchers, yardmasters, trainmasters and their assistants, stationmasters, conductors, brakemen and baggagemen, switch foremen, traveling engineers, engineers and firemen, roundhouse foremen and hostlers as well as division engineers and their assistants, section, bridge and building foremen, track, signal and bridge supervisors, and signal and telephone maintainers. In all, approximately 4,000 to 4,500 employees are affected.

Not only must those employees carry a type and make of watch approved by the Railroad's general time inspector, they are required to submit their watches to locally designated inspectors for monthly comparisons. A card, also carried by the L. & N.'er, is signed by the local inspector each time he checks the man's watch, which--incidentally--receives considerably more scrutiny at an annual inspection, and is cleaned and oiled every 18 to 24 months. Our Railroad's 106 local watch inspectors are appointed by H. J. Webb, general time inspector, Nashville, with the approval of division superintendents and the transportation department.

Just to keep further tabs on "Father Time, the L. & N.'s 101 standard clocks (timetable designated and located at major division points) also come under the careful eye of Mr. Webb. Each day at 11:00 a.m. (12 noon in Eastern Time areas of our System), all standard clocks are adjusted by division personnel from a System-wide time signal sent out by H. C. Tillery, supervisor, communications center, Louisville, and Western Union, Nashville. That signal, by the way, comes direct from the Naval Observatory, Washington, D. C. Each quarter, standard clocks are checked by a representative of the general time inspector.

Today, the pocket watch--traditionally the timepiece for railroaders, is being joined by new and smaller companion, the wristwatch. Currently, several manufacturers are producing wristwatches which are designated especially for railroad service. Last year, two makes were approved by the general time inspector and the transportation department for use by L. & N. men. Our Railroad, by the way, was the first in the south to approve wristwatches.

And the watches were not authorized until they were thoroughly tested on the job by the general time inspector and transportation department officers.

To be acceptable, the new wristwatches must have a 21- (or more) jeweled movement and full numerical dials. They must also have shatter-proof crystals and be encased in water resistant cases. Magnetization of watches, a problem brought on by diesel locomotives, has been eliminated by the use of magnetic shields. The new watches also have shock-proof movements and setting devices so that they can be synchronized with standard clocks. They may have either sweep or smaller second hands.

How many L. & N. men are using the new watches, and what is the average railroader's reaction to using them? J. W. Hollis, assistant general time inspector, estimates that about 10% of time-service employees have wristwatches.

"Sure mighty handy to see," we overheard one trainman say in praise of his new watch. A veteran engineer admitted, "I've had this old timepiece and chain for nearly 30 years, and it's a good 'un. Might just try one of those new watches when this one wears out." He added a comment as to how cramped diesel engine rooms sometimes get!

What finer or more appropriate way then to reward the railroad man when he completes a half-century of service, than by presenting him with a watch or a diamond button, but the great majority choose the watch! We don't know of many other railroads or industries that make similar presentations. Do you?


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