Thursday, February 27, 2014

War Stories - Episode 7: "Where? Who? Why? What?"

We're taking the low grade route on this story.  Longer, but easier.

Here's a few fun facts:

Railroads were built out in the 19th Century by Civil War vets.
Railroads, like Armies, operate over broad areas where direct, "hands on" supervision is not possible
Railroad culture, up until the last couple decades, was almost entirely "command and control".
Railroads have strong unions.
Railroads, up until the the last several decades, attacked crises by sending people.

How do these facts interact?  Here's an example.  Suppose it's the 1970s and there is a major, mainline derailment in your area.  What do you do?  You round up a bunch of guys, jump on the wreck train, and go to the derailment site where you will camp out until the mainline is open and most of the wreck is picked up.  The clock is ticking for the hourly guys and they get paid handsomely.  For the management guys, its like going on a Boy Scout camping trip - they get to do something different and are away from their parents/boss.  Talk to a retired railroader, particularly a Mechanical guy, about derailments and they'll get this strange wistful look in their eyes.

Snow in Buffalo?  Round up a bunch of guys and send them there to shovel.  Loaded autoracks backed up from NJ to Syracuse?  Send a bunch of guys...

Those days are gone.  There aren't "a bunch of guys" to grab.  Everyone who isn't doing something vital is gone.  A lot of the old "vital" jobs have been automated. The wreck trains are gone.  They were expensive to keep.  What you do is call Hulcher or RJ Corman, who swoop onto the derailment with their trucks loaded with monster caterpillar "sidewinders" and cranes.  They clean it all up cheaper and faster than you ever could.

One more fact.  Railroads were the first to have their labor relations regulated by the government.  Railroads were so important to the economy that any prolonged strike was a disaster.  Consequently, the rules of the game required all the railroads to negotiate a "national" agreement with each of the unions.  If agreements couldn't be reached, then there were all sorts of attempts at arbitration, cooling off and haranguing before there could be a strike.  When there were strikes, they typically lasted only a few days until the government would order everyone back to work and mandate or legislate a deal.

A particular railroad could opt-out of the national deal if they wanted to.  This was rare.  The two best examples that come to mind were when the Florida East Coast was just plain broke and opted out back in 1963, seeking lower labor costs, mostly through reduced train crew size.  The other was the N&W in 1978.  Notable in both cases was that both roads continued to operate during the strike.  This did not sit well with the strikers who tried many tactics to gain some traction.  On the FEC, some of those tactics were highly illegal, like blowing up trains.  On the N&W, it usually involved moving pickets around.

The N&W and Conrail both operated in Buffalo, NY.  From time to time, the N&W strikers would picket Conrail on the grounds that the N&W was somehow using the Conrail facility at Frontier Yard in Buffalo to circumvent their pickets elsewhere.  This was a pretty common "cat and mouse" game played by both sides, depending who was picketing where for what reason.

So, back to Altoona in the summer of 1978.  It's a Friday, mid-afternoon.  We get a called up to the training room in Juniata.  One of the instructors tells us, "Go to Frontier Yard in Buffalo and report for strike duty."  That's pretty much all he knows.  It's what he got fed from higher up on the food-chain. You didn't question stuff like that. You just took orders and obeyed.  Command and control management, remember?   But, being of an engineering bent, we had questions.  "Where?"  "Frontier Yard in Buffalo" "Do you have directions there?"  Getting irritated,  "No."  Remember, this was a PRR lifer who didn't really know much about the railroad east of Tyrone and west of Cresson - and that was pushing it.  "Who do we report to?"  "Oh, I have that.  They said 'Mr. Hamberlang'."  "Can you spell that?"  Somewhat more irritated, "No.  Hamberlang, or something like that. You figure it out."  "When do they expect us there?"  More irritated, "I don't know.  As soon as possible." "How should we travel?  Should we fly up or drive?"  Really irritated now, "Just leave now!"

Well, there goes the weekend!  Some guys flew up to Buffalo, which wasn't easy.  You had to take one of several puddle-jumpers a day from Altoona to Pittsburgh, then get a flight to Buffalo.  I hated puddle-jumpers and it was only about a six hour drive to Buffalo, so I decided to drive!  I went back to my apartment in Duncansville, packed up, plotted my route on a map and headed for Buffalo about 5 PM.

Headed west on US 22 to I-79 North to I-90 east to Buffalo arriving about 11:00 PM.  Wandered around until I found the locomotive shop at Frontier.  No pickets.  Not much going on anywhere.  Park.  Wander into the shop.  Find the assistant general foreman.  "Hi, I'm supposed to report to Mr. Hamberlang."  "Who?"  "I'm a management trainee up from Altoona for strike duty.  I'm supposed to report to Mr. Hamberlang."  "Oh.  The strike's over.  Did you mean Mr. Hammerline?  He's at home now.  Lets's see if you we can get you a room for the night."

He called the local Holiday Inn in Depew they used for away-from-home train crews, but they were full.  So, they said I should use a hotel in downtown Buffalo.  They occasionally used it when the place in Depew was full. Then, he gives me the phone number for the shop for me to call in the morning and sends me on my way.  It's midnight now as I drive west to downtown Buffalo.

Remember, this was the 1970s.  Urban decay was the norm and Buffalo was about a decayed urban center as you could get.  All I could picture was some ancient, worn out, flea bag that had had it's heyday in the roaring twenties and had been fading ever since.  Oh, boy.

I arrive.  Yup.  Old brick building in decayed downtown Buffalo.  Park the car in a dingy parking garage nearby.  Walk into the lobby.  It's nice!  Hmmm.  Well, maybe they keep the lobby up, but have let all the rooms go to pot.  I check in.  Room rate is $9.  That's right.  $9!  What kind of room can you get for $9?  A cheap chain hotel is $20-30.  $9 is not much.  They won't even "leave the light on for ya" for $9.  Oh, well.  I'm tired and I'm here.  I can survive for a night.

I go up to the room.  The elevator seems in good condition.  The corridor seems in good condition.  The room is....very nice!  Neat, clean, moderized bathroom, nicely decorated!  $9?  How can this be?

As it turns out, the New York Central Railroad had negotiated the $9 rate decades ago when they regularly used the place and sent a lot of business that way.  I don't know if they used it for crew lodging ever, but the rate stood even as the NYC turned to PC and then to Conrail.  It stood even after the hotel was modernized a few years prior.  It stood even after Conrail had almost no business travel in downtown Buffalo.  It stood even as inflation eroded the value of $9 down to the price of a couple record albums or a few rolls of slide film.

The next morning, I called the shop and talked to Mr. Hammerline.  He told me there was no reason to hang around Buffalo.  The picketers weren't coming back anytime soon, so I headed for home.  It was a really nice day, so I did a little railfanning along the way.  Even caught one of those N&W strike trains that had stirred up the trouble in the first place.

N&W strike train run by management personnel east bound from Cleveland to Buffalo.

The low grade line.  Hope you enjoyed the scenery as we snaked along the curves and followed the babbling brook on the way to our destination.  There'd be other strikes, other "send a bunch of guys" duty, other interesting places to stay, but those are stories for later!

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