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The Brotherhood among the Railway Workers

Travelers ignored the large amount of people that were necessary to carry them to their destinations. Given the complexity of functions exercised by the railways of that time, which transported a large part of the international cargo as well as people from and to every corner of the world, the railway companies were forced to hire an administrative and manual personnel able to carry out the most diverse tasks such as serving meals in a restaurant car, forging new mechanical parts or repairing the broken ones in the maintenance workshops, watch and keep the order in the interior of the wagons, service the sale of tickets or give the signal of departure. And all of them, from the very president of the company to the last apprentice, were linked by a singular fraternity which characterized the railway work. Each man was convinced that without him no train could travel without finding an obstacle.

In the large terminals a large number of administrative personnel buzzed, for in these places the communication networks between all the stations, even the most isolated ones, converged. They were the main coordination centers of the railway, where the itineraries of the goods trains were modified, supplementary trains were arranged in periods of higher traffic and spare locomotives were kept in case of necessity. Besides, they had to bill and watch the luggage, refer the goods and register the passengers. By last, for the train to effectuate its departure, it was required that the stentorian voice of an employee announced, at the moment of departure, the destination and the different stops on the route. Even in the smallest rural stations, it was required the presence of a chief and a deputy to effectuate without interruption, either during daytime or nighttime, the tasks that the service demanded.

Vintage railway workers
Railway employees working in contact with the public had to wear reglamentary uniforms. For example, Swiss conductors were easily identifiable from the ends of the platforms thanks to their red kepi and long-strap bag. On the other hand, the "black faced" wore the diverse work suits of their respective countries while demonstrating their independence and individuality through the utilization of colorful kerchiefs or fancy caps (as seen on the American mechanic to the right).

Railway companies valued positively the implantation of an almost military hierarchy, so they stipulated, for all the personnel working in direct contact with public, a diversity of ranks and grades, all of them provided with reglamentary uniforms. Caps, ribands, ensigns and plates allowed the travelers to know whom they should address, while confering the employees the impression that their function was indispensable and enviable. The conductor of a Pullman car greeted the passengers by raising his hand to his cap in a military manner, while that of a sleeping car, wearing a flamboyant brown uniform and attired with his ribbons of seniority, seemed proud of the worldwide renown of the company for which he worked.

Among manual workers, existed the same type of fellowship and solidarity. For them, wearing a uniform would have been useless and out of place amid the black smoke of a boiler, the greasy dirt of a deposit or the wagons in a shunting yard. However, they always carried the distinctive sign of their respective functions, as the thick goggles of a machinist or the pencil and notebook of a controller.

The large "railway family" lived in lodgings that the railway company had built in secluded areas in the vicinity of the depots. During the night, while the city slept placidly, the railway workers carried out their labor turns and, often around 3 o'clock, while a stoker was having his breakfast or preparing his lunch box ready to get to work, in the adjacent dwelling a machinist, just arrived from his turn, was preparing a bath before going to sleep. In the district, taverns and cafes took turns during the 24 hours of the day. On Sunday, they got out with their families to take care of the garden, to chatter or to eat outdoors on the small lands that the company granted to them, next to the parking tracks.

Far from the incessant back and forth of the depots and the overflowing activity reigning on the terminal stations, other members of the large railway family fulfilled in solitude their monotonous obligations; they were the gatekeepers and those in charge of the track switching posts, both with the great responsibility of watching without rest. During the day, they had to leave the work on their small orchards, and during the night they had to jump out of their beds, to lower the barrier of the level crossing or to maneuver the track switches each time that a train passed by, carrying to distant lands persons whose lives relied on the professional conscience of those humble railway workers.

The Auxiliaries of a Track

While trains traveled without problem from a track switch to another one, in the shadow it was activated, with an almost military rigor, a complex organization of foresights, track switches and signals, to have the luxury, goods or mixed trains, which circulated almost simultaneously by the same tracks, adequately guided to prevent traffic jams and collisions.

The basic document of the controller was the graphical schedule, where the time and duration of the route of each train were indicated, as well as the secondary tracks where the slower trains had to be momentarily parked to free the track for a faster train. There were also other factors which had to be taken into account, such as the delayed trains parked in a saturated station or the mechanical failures that altered the good march of the schedule. It was indispensable to set, along the whole line, an effective network of communication and signaling devices so that machinists had, if required, enough space to stop the train and avoid an accident.

Each country elaborated its own system of semaphores and signaling lights to indicate, in each stretch of the track, statuses such as "stop", "caution", "reduced speed" or "free way". It was also necessary to arrange different signaling systems for daytime and nighttime. In the largest part of countries the systems were binary (however in United States they were ternary). Since ever the red color indicated "danger" or "stop"; white color was originally meant for "free way", but it was soon replaced by green color; and later the yellow color was added for "caution". The semaphores that use these colors are codified following the same criteria than in road signals: panels of different shapes and colors, which tilt to indicate the opening or closure of a track. During night these mechanical signals are replaced by luminous signals.

Railway semaphores

In areas where traffic is dense and in the vicinity of stations, the tracks were saturated with large gateways fitted with semaphores and signaling lights, which often caused confusion to the machinists. To avoid this risk, such gateways were replaced by panels indicating to which track the switches leaded, apart from displaying other useful indications. Safety increased, even more, with the development of electric circuits on the tracks and the introduction of automatic controls, thanks to which a train could be stopped even when the machinist had outran the stop signal due to a lack of visibility or attention.

Seen from the ground, a classification yard (or "shunting yard") could seem more chaotic than a railroad junction, but when seen from the top of the distribution tower (known as "dispatcher") it becomes the quintessence of organization. These stations, which sometimes occupy many square kilometers, are of capital importance, for in them are carried out all the classification tasks relative to wagons and their subsequent coupling to compose convoys with those that have the same destination. It is such the importance of these classification centers, that roughly a 90 percent of the profits generated by the railway companies come from the goods that pass through them.

Vintage railway

The topography of one of these yards was not particularly complex. There were access tracks, a classification area and side tracks where the couplings were effectuated. The wagons, once disengaged, were towed to the highest point of a hill (known as "hump") by a shunting machine. The classification chief walked alongside the rows of wagons, while shouting to the factors the indicative numbers of the tracks to which each of them had to be moved. A brakeman drove them along the descent or else put a wedge on the rail, in front of the approaching wagon, to reduce its speed, while one of his fellow couplers jumped between the last wagon and the approaching one, to effectuate the coupling.

Later wedge brakes controlled by compressed air were used, in the form of articulated joists of about 25 meters in length (known as "retarders"), which were placed at each side of the rails and actuated by gripping the wheels of the wagon. To manage this brake a great skill was required, because it it were pressed in excess the wagon would be stopped too soon and, otherwise, if it were insufficiently pressed the wagon could collide violently.

Circulation personnel felt true fear of being sent to classification yards, where the work was monotonous and the shunting locomotives resembled true coffee machines or prehistoric mastodons which had lost their steaming power and could barely do anything else than advance and recoil asmatically. Thus, the railway companies used these stations as a sort of penitentiary to where those machinists and stokers who had earned themselves a disciplinary sanction were sent, for more or less long periods.

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