How the Freight was moved

In the days before containerized cargo, freight on the railroad moved in boxcars. To facilitate this movement, boxcars were placed, or "spotted" next to shipper's doors for loading, and again for unloading. Sometimes a shipper would have two tracks adjacent to a door, so that the boxcars could be "double spotted" (a forklift would run on ramps through one boxcar to the other). When the freight, in boxcars, was moved over the "road" (i.e. between "yards"), the boxcars would be "blocked" (cars for the same destination coupled together) to expedite the "work" of road trains in "setting out" and "picking up." Generally a train would be blocked with the "shorts" on the headend, next to the locomotive power, so that work at setout points would be more efficient and faster. Building and tearing down blocks, and spotting, and respotting, and double spotting, was usually the responsibility of "yard" jobs. And flat switching was the means by which yard jobs did their work.

Linear Logic

Flat switching was the basis of the car handler's craft. Depending on location and circumstance, car handling was more art than science. Indeed, a yardman had to possess intelligence. But a certain kind of intelligence: the ability to think in linear terms. Everything came down to the same logical construct, the rearrangement of a given number of boxcars, with the use of one engine and a limited number of tracks. And how to accomplish this in the shortest time with maximum economy of movement. Yet the brain that possessed this ability had to be attached to an active, "footloose" body. Thinking had to be down on the fly, on the run. Intuition also helped, for communication and reliance of fellow crew members required an underlying assessment of their abilities and likely actions, as well as a grasp of the physical environment. Actual communication was via an evolved set of hand and lantern signals, different from division to division and from road to road. Overall, car handling was an art form; peculiar to every environment encountered.

A Catalog of Operational Difficulty

Seattle Yard was a difficult place to work (not by any means the most difficult; in my experience that honor goes to the northend job at Burlington Northern's Balmer Yard, a ridiculous switching environment built on a stiff grade). Physical problems included the following:

1. Size of the yard. Seattle Yard was quite small, in the main yard there were 17 tracks, with track 17 (aka "the mainline") the longest at about 30 cars (40' boxes) down to track 1, probably at 10 cars. Tracks 1 through 8 were dead ends, with derailments at track end a common feature. Tracks 9 through 17 were flow through tracks, with car fouling and car "cornering" an hourly occurrence at the north end (the "back lead"). There were also two "pig" tracks, Pig 1 and Pig 2, flanking both sides of the concrete piggy back strip, about 30 cars in length (15 80' TOFC/COFC cars). And between the Pig 1 and Utah Avenue S., there was the House Lead, a track with its own problems if you happened to shove out the far end unflagged across Utah Avenue. Seattle Yard was usually plugged with cars, there just was not enough room for the freight or for the three engines that shuffled that freight.

2. The lack of space between tracks. Whether criminal or negligent, the Company was complicit in this very unsafe situation. There was NO room to exist between tracks 9 through 13 if cars occupied adjacent tracks. You had to lie down in the mud, or out run the movement.

3. Short, flow through tracks. Tracks 9 through 13, in particular, were difficult targets to which to kick cars. Either the car went too far, or did not go far enough. If one car was left toward the end of any of these tracks, it had to have had a handbrake tied lest it be knocked out the end by a kicked car.

4. Track structure in poor condition. Tracks with rails at various heights, with less than necessary tie support, with holes under ties, so that the rails bounced up and down under cars, and with general structural chaos; are difficult on which to operate. Kicked cars bogged down at best, or derailed at worse. To kick a car on such track required just the right amount of finesse, lest the car stop short, go too far, or derail, or even tip over.

5. Poor footing. In the rainy months, the yard was a mud pit. In the summer, it was an obstacle course of dried puddle holes.

6. Poor lighting.

7. The massive Sears, Roebuck building. Switching was done moving forward, the engineer had to be on the eastside of the cab, as the tracks curved to the east. Right in middle of this picture was the Sears building, in excess of 10 stories in height. For working Pig 1 and 2, and tracks 1 through 9, the headman had to take position at the corner of the building to pass hand signals to the engineer.

Members of a Yard Crew

  1. Engineer. Engineers bid on and owned their jobs. Extra engineers were supplied by the Tacoma Engineer Extra Board.
  2. Yard Foreman. The most senior yardman on the job (unless he was "doubling" in which case his seniority was negated). In flat switching, the foreman manned the "bull" switch (to tracks 9 through 14 and to the lower front lead); gave kick and stop signals to the engineer; signaled the headman as to how many cars to "let go" and exactly when to pull the pin; and signaled the fieldman as to what tracks to lineup and whether or not to tie a handbrake on a kicked car. The foreman was paid a small extra premium, about $4.00 per shift.
  3. Fieldman. Next in seniority, the fieldman lined switches and tied handbrakes. The foreman watched the fieldman for information such as whether a car cleared the fouling point or whether a cut was spotted at the end of the track.
  4. Headman. Shepherded the engine around the yard, and pulled pins on the foreman's instruction.

Yardmen were called from a daily markup board, which meant that absent sufficient seniority, they did not know day to day when they would work. The board clerk called jobs two or three hours in advance.

Hand Signals

The lexicon of hand signals was virtually unlimited; some crews even had their own secret codes. A selection of common signals:

  1. Number one = one fist held up
  2. Number two = two fists held up
  3. Number three = opposite fists up and down three times
  4. Number four = palm held up, other hand grasping thumb
  5. Number five = palm held up
  6. Number six = movement of fist with thumb up
  7. Number seven = side profile, extended hand and arm to neck
  8. Number eight = front profile, arms curved to sides forming two loops
  9. Number nine = side profile, arm curved to side, in one loop
  10. Number ten = two palms up
  11. Number eleven = two palms up followed by one fist
  12. Number twelve = two palms up followed by two fists
  13. Number thirteen = as in number ten followed by number three.
  14. Number fourteen = as in number ten followed by number four.
  15. Number fifteen = as in number three, but with open palms instead of closed fists
  16. Number sixteen = number fifteen followed by number one
  17. Number seventeen = use road signal for mainline: one arm straight up, patted by other hand and arm at right angle.
  18. Piggy back track = hold nose, followed by number.
  19. Pull pin = pulling motion straight up
  20. Shove = push both hands in air
  21. Clear = both hands limp and shaking
  22. Tie up = two thumbs up
  23. Hoghead = standing at profile, with hand, from top to bottom, outline a fat stomach

And I thought they meant Tricky Dick Car Classification in Seattle Yard (from notes)

  • Track 1 = Zone 4's, Sears, local industry
  • Track 2 = Sears, local industry
  • Tracks 3 thru 6 = mainlines, shorts, Everetts, Bellinghams, excess bad orders
  • Track 7 = no bills, misc.
  • Track 8 = rip track, bad orders
  • Track 9 = weighers
  • Track 10 = U.P.'s
  • Track 11 = B.N.'s
  • Track 12 = Waterfronts, B.N.'s, outbounds
  • Track 13 = Waterfronts
  • Track 14 = Tacomas
  • Track 15 = Outbounds, waterfronts, inbounds
  • Track 16, 17 = Outbounds, inbounds
U.P. delivers cars for Sears on the Bemis lead. Yard air on southend of tracks 13 to 17 and on Pig 1 and 2. Check caboose pocket switch before kicking to track 8, car men will line for pocket and secure with their lock. Scale switches on track 9 to be lined for dead rails. Barn switch to be lined for house lead (green target). Sears lead switch to be lined for cross-over to main line (yellow target). Note: Line of telephone poles pass between tracks 15 and 16.



© 1976-2007 John Crosby. Photos may not be used without permission. All rights reserved.