Monday, March 22, 2010

Radio Chatter

As an extra board dispatcher, I frequently draw the overnight shift on the North Little Rock terminal job. North Little Rock is the second-largest hump yard on Union Pacific (after North Platte); it's also where four subdivisions converge. With trains going in eight different directions, the terminal dispatcher tends to stay pretty busy.

In the way of things, Amtrak's southbound Texas Eagle tends to arrive at the same time as several northbound trains. There is always a lot of radio chatter around this time, and to keep up with what's going on I tend to monitor the relevant channels rather than wait for someone to call me. What follows isn't specific to any particular night, but it is representative of what goes on during 21's southbound passage through the terminal.


"UP detector, milepost three two nine point two, track one."

The Texas Eagle, ten miles north of the yard, has reached the last train defect detector he'll pass between now and his station stop. It won't take long for him to pass over the detector.

"UP detector, milepost three-two-nine point two. No defects. Axle count three-two. Train speed seven-three miles per hour. Temperature five-zero degrees. Detector out."

There's a distinctive squelch from one of the handheld radios the Amtrak conductors use. No other handhelds make that sound. It's his acknowledgement of the detector.

"Highball." Muffled, from the head end. I switch over to the yard channel, as he will in another mile or two.

"QNLPI to the bowl."

"Bowl, over."

"QNLPI, ready to depart."

"Let's go, west departure, I'll call the dispatcher and get you a light."

"Thank you out."

The direct line from Little Rock buzzes. I know it will be the bowl yardmaster.

"Yes sir?"

"Hey, got QNLPI coming at you, west departure."

"Have to be behind Amtrak."

"Where's he at?"

"Past Jax, be here in a few minutes."


"Crest, you on here?"

"Yeah, what you got?"

"FWNL's on your doorstep."

"Turn him in, two-oh-five."


The crest yardmaster lines up his one control point. I do the same. MFWNL will get a signal into the receiving yard, the 200 yard, we call it, after the way the tracks are numbered.

"Crest, MFWNL."


"Top side, two-oh-five, power to the house."

"Top side, two-oh-five, power to the house, thank you out."

"Crest out."

"Bowl hostlers to the crest, over."

"Crest, over."

"QNLCH, take 'em ahead five."

"Ahead five, QNLCH."

"Where you want this engine?"

"Crest tie-up track be fine."

"Crest tie-up track, OK."

"Amtrak 21, diverging clear, CP X three-three-nine, out." He's reached the north end of the yard and will be crossing over from main one to main two. That will clear the way for QNLPI to leave.

"Two cars, QNLCH."


I hear somebody punching in the code that will produce an alerting tone that registers on my communications console. It's how trainmen and maintainers contact dispatchers.

"UP dispatcher fifty-one, over."

"QNLPI, UP thirty-eight ten, dispatcher, over."

"QNLPI, come on, signal indication, main one, over."

"Signal indication, main one, we are a key train tonight, over."

"Understand you're a key train, y'all have a good trip, dispatcher out."

"UP thirty-eight ten out."

"That'll do, QNLCH."


"AEGAS to the crest, over."

"Crest, over."

"Ready to go, over."

"Let's make it fifty-five, y'all have a safe trip, out."

"Thank you out."

"QNLCH, switch is lined, derail is off, let's take 'em back twenty cars to a joint."

"Switch is lined, derail is off, backing up twenty to a joint, QNLCH."

"AEGAS to the terminal train dispatcher, over."

"AEGAS, I'm ready for you, signal indication, crossing over at the north end, over."

"Signal indication, crossing over at the north end, any track breach protection, over?"

"No track breach, y'all have a good trip, dispatcher out."

"No track breach, thank you dispatcher, AEGAS out."

"UP six-six-five-seven, dispatcher, over."

"Six-six-five-seven, be holding you at South UD 'til Amtrak clears, over."

"Waiting on Amtrak, thank you dispatcher, UP six-six-five-seven out."

"Dispatcher out."

"QBLNLX to the service track, over."

"Service track, over."

"Got three for you, over."

"Verify that the derail is down, take 'em as far south as you can, over."

"Verify the derail is down, as far south as we can, over."

"That's correct, service track out."

"QBLNLX out."

"Ten cars, QNLCH."


"Five cars, QNLCH."


"Let's go to hand signals, MFWNL."

"Hand signals, MFWNL." Too much radio traffic, and it's bad form to talk over somebody when they're trying to make a joint (that is, couple their train together.)

"Two cars, QNLCH."


"And that'll do when you get 'em stopped, QNLCH." I hear the crashing sounds of a train coupling up.

"Stopping, QNLCH."

"Stretch 'em, QNLCH."

"Stretch 'em."

"That'll do, QNLCH, red zone."

"Red zone, set and centered, QNLCH." The conductor has verified that they made a good joint - it sounded like one to me - and now he's stepping between the cars to couple up the air hoses.

The crest yardmaster calls. "You going to bring me that coal train?"

"Right after Amtrak leaves."

"OK, I'll have the crew waiting at 13th Street."

"OK. How's your MNLDM coming?"

"Crew's on it, should be pulling on 'em in a minute. You can hang 'em a light if you want to encourage 'em."


Back to the yard channel. "Crest, MNLDM."


"Ready to go?"

"Yes sir, pulling on 'em now."

"Let's go, back lead, dispatcher's getting you a light."

"Back lead, dispatcher's getting us a light, thank you, MNLDM out."

"Y'all have a safe trip, crest out."

"Dispatcher fifty-one, MNLDM, UP forty-one-oh-six, over."

"MNLDM, UP forty-one-oh-six, over."

"Ready for you, signal indication, meet one at Marché, over."

"Signal indication, meet one at Marché, thank you dispatcher, UP forty-one-oh-six out."

"That's correct, y'all have a good trip, dispatcher out."

"QNLCH, clear red zone."

"Clear red zone, QNLCH."

"Amtrak 21, ready on the rear?" That distinctive squelch again.

"Ready on the rear, Amtrak 21."

"Good marker lights, ready on the rear. Amtrak 21, let's highball Little Rock on signal indication."

"That's a good running air test, Amtrak 21."

"Good running air test, thank you out." Another squelch in acknowledgement and on my CTC board I see Amtrak's track occupancy indicator move through the control point. The Texas Eagle is away - on time - and the freight trains that had paused for his passage are beginning to move again.

It will be more than three hours before my relief arrives and I go home, but the busiest part of my night is over. Tomorrow I (or another dispatcher) will do it all again, just as we do every night, just as we have done every night for generations, just as we will do every night for generations to come - moving the passengers and the freight safely over the Route of the Eagles.


I don't think I'm having a mid-life crisis. But I am about to turn 30.

When you're in your 20s your goals are big ones: graduate college, get a job, find the person you want to marry. Check. Check. Check.

What happens after you check them off?

Lately I have been feeling a certain sameness in my life, and I think it's because I don't have any big goals. The ones I have seem smaller somehow (get back in shape, do some traveling) or more distant (buy a house, have kids.) Maybe that's a symptom of the transition into adulthood, which by now I've made (kicking and screaming for most of the last decade, but nevertheless made.) Or maybe it's because, having achieved the big ones, none of the rest seem that difficult. There are challenges, sure, but there's something missing.

Maybe I just need to find new big ones. Or more small ones. Or something.

It'll come.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

A car for Dad and I

I like small convertibles. My dad likes land yachts. Both of us appreciate powerful motors that make all the right noises. And I think I've finally found a car that would suit both of us.

Several years ago Ford decided that what the world really needed was a badass Grand Marquis. The Panther platform was getting an update for 2003, so they took the revised chassis and suspension, tweaked it some more, and dropped in a DOHC version of their 4.6-liter V8 - good for 302hp and 318lb-ft of torque in this application. They gave it an all-black body and interior and revived an old name for it - Marauder. It was not a sales success, but it was undeniably the coolest Grand Marquis ever.

Running up to the introduction of the Marauder, Ford decided that what the world needed even more than a badass Grand Marquis was a badass Grand Marquis convertible. Of course, it wasn't enough that this be a topless two-door Marauder - no, it needed even more motor. It needed a supercharger. With a blower bolted onto a SOHC version of the 4.6-liter V8, the Marauder convertible concept made 335hp and 355lb-ft of torque.

It was a beautiful concept evocative of the land yacht convertibles of the 1960s and 70s. Big, flashy, and powerful. It never made it into production, but the concept car wound up in private hands, and now it's for sale - asking price a mere $75,000. Well, there's always the spare change under the cushions...

Friday, March 05, 2010


Temperature: low 40s. Sun: shining. Snow: melting. Top: down.

Finally! Our long national nightmare Midwestern winter is over. Or very nearly so, at any rate; the snow is disappearing rapidly and even the overnight temperatures are above freezing. The sun is shining and today M and I went for a Miata ride with the top down, the first of the season. I had a silly grin plastered across my face the whole time - sunshine, breeze, the road ahead. And just a touch of power oversteer. Just a touch.

I am not normally at a loss for words, but this time is different. I find it hard to express my excitement at the arrival of spring. It has been such a long cold winter, but it's over now and the top came down and it's going to stay down and spring is here and I am so excited I could hardly even speak on the drive, just laugh for the sheer joy of the whole thing. Topless. Spring. Finally.