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.


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