Friday, July 18, 2014

War Stories - Episode 22: How Not to Unload Multilevel Autoracks

Once upon a time, pretty much everything that moved over land move by rail.  During that time, Henry Ford started making automobiles.  Lots of them.  All of them in Dearborn, Michigan.  So, he loaded them into boxcars and shipped them to where they needed to go.

And it worked.

But, it could work better, so bigger box cars with double doors for easier loading and unloading came on the scene.

Fifty feet long with a door and a half for ease of loading automobiles.

Then, they added some end doors, so they could be rolled onto the car from a ramp.

End doors!  Drive right through!
(Yes, I know these are HO models.)

And that worked even better.

But, finally, the automotive industry built plants all over the US and roads connected them to where the automobiles needed to be shipped.  Trucking companies figured out how to load them up and distribute them easily and fast.
And boxcar shipping of automobiles was no more.  By the late 1950s, almost no automobiles were shipped by rail.


Some bright person or people, figured out, borrowed or stole, an idea to load automobiles on multi-level racks attached to long freight flat cars.  You could get 12-15 of them to a railcar.   Put a half dozen railcars in a row with bridge plates between them, position a ramp a one end and you could load dozens and dozens of automobiles in short order and unload them at the other end, just as fast.
Early auto rack with 15 vehicles.

Modern Tri-level car.

The railroad were back in the game!  Market share grew quickly in the late 1950s and 60s until 70% of all automobiles were being shipped by rail.  It was good, high margin business, but the auto manufacturers demanded good service or they would go back to using trucks.  
And things were good, again.


In the first part of 1987, things went bad.  General Motors was making and shipping cars at a good rate.  They were getting loaded at a good rate.  Trains were moving them to the destination ramp at a good rate.  The terminal in Little Ferry New Jersey was NOT unloading them at a good rate.

The trains backed up.  Sidings across New York State filled up with loaded autoracks. Cars were not moving to dealerships to sell.

General Motors got mad.  They called Conrail's CEO, Stanley Crane.  He got mad.  Down the chain of command, everyone got mad.  The managers at Little Ferry got the brunt of it.  They got mad.  They yelled at their employees.  The employees got mad.  But, all that mad didn't magically unload cars at a faster rate.  

Now, Conrail was in crisis mode.  What do railroads do in crisis mode?  "Get a bunch of guys and send them to the crisis!" I happened to be one of the guys who got sent.  Sigh...not again.

Here's the background.  Little Ferry is one of the very few autoramps staffed and managed by Conrail directly.  The rest are contracted out.  The craft that owns the work at Little Ferry is stevedores.  Yes, stevedores.  Guys that load and unload SHIPS.  Through the long and complicated history of railroad labor negotiations, the auto ramp workers fell in with the guys who loaded and unloaded car floats between NJ and NY. Actual stevedore work dried up with the end of car float operations and all that was left of stevedores on Conrail was at the autoramp in Little Ferry.

The stevedores wound up falling under BRAC, the clerks union.  To get a job in the clerks union, you had to pass the clerk's test, which included being able to type 30 words per minute.  So, yes, in order to be qualified to unload automobiles from railcars, you had to be able to type fairly well - not that unloading cars involved any actual keyboard work.

1987 was a boom year, and wages were on the rise, particularly in North Jersey.  Burger joints were paying a good bit more than minimum wage and were having trouble retaining employees.  Conrail , on the other hand, was still getting itself sorted out after the Staggers Act deregulation and the failed NS takeover and subsequent IPO.  Part of that was a deal with unions to start new employees out at 75% of the standard wage.

This meant that Little Ferry could not attact, qualify and keep ramp employees.  50 would show up at a hiring session, 10 would pass the typing test, 7 would show up for work, and one would remain after a couple weeks of work.  Most would bug out for a job a Burger King!

It didn't help that the local management at Little Ferry was pretty much at sea most of the time.  They were organized under the Purchasing Department, probably because Purchasing handled the contracts for the other ramps.  This was before Conrail was reorganized by service group.  Skill sets for operating a ramp were not generally present in the Purchasing Department so, at least part of the employee retention problem could be laid at their feet.  They were not the most enlightened bunch.

What follows is a sampling of my time at Little Ferry.

The first day there, we got some basic instruction from one of the more capable stevedores.  He was an "old timer".  He'd been there about six months.  He explained the flow of work, how to release the tie-down chains and a bunch of other stuff.  

Finally it was lunch time.  Asking and receiving no specific advice of where to go for lunch, we headed out and found a diner - this is NJ, after all.  But, it was lunchtime and the place was packed.  It took 1-1/2 hours to get served and back to the ramp.

We got chewed out.  "Where the hell you been!"  "Lunch", we relpied.  Somewhat older and wiser than we were as trainees, we suggested that, perhaps, they could suggest a more expedient place to get lunch.  That shut'em up!  Later that day, they told us they'd cater lunch in tomorrow.  Fair enough.

Lunch the next day was a couple deli trays and a bucket of macaroni salad from the local Pathmark and some rolls plus some plastic utensils, and a case or two of soda, warm.  No ice.  No cups.  No plates.  No condiments.  We ate, but we complained!  

The next day was better. A little.  A jar of mayo and mustard showed up - and cups.  But, no ice.  The third day, they finally had it all figured it out.  Sandwiches, soda, cups AND ice.  But, catering in a lunch for a few dozen people was a tough a task for them. No wonder they were having troubles getting the autoracks loaded and unloaded!

The second day there, we realized that this was a pretty dangerous place.  We asked for some basic safety training.  One of the seasoned foreman gave us some basics and they started reading us the "rule of the day" for autoramps.  Conrail's safety department had rules for all occasions!

This particular day, the rule of the day was "make sure all safety pins are in place before driving on or off the loading ramp".  The ramps adjusted up and down via cables and once moved to the right height, there were metal pins that fit in holes in the uprights that would keep the ramp from colapsing if a cable broke.  Good feature!

The same foreman who just read us the rule led us out to do some loading.  He drove the ramp over to the end of the multilevel cars to load and raised it to the third deck and shut it down and went to go do other things.  We dutifully set about setting as many safety pins as we could in the ramp.  The ramp was old and out adjustment and some of the holes were covered by the ramp guides, so we couldn't set those.  Oh, well.  We shuttled out to the yard and started driving automobiles onto the autoracks. 

Typical adjustable loading ramp.  The ones at Little Ferry were older and of a more complicated design

We got the C deck - decks are lettered bottom to top, A, B, C -  loaded and it was time to move the ramp over to another set of rail cars and then down for A deck.  The foreman fired it up and started lowering it.  It hit the safety pins.  The foreman was apoplectic! "Who the hell put those pins in!  We never use those pins!  Don't do it again!"  

So much for the "safety rule of the day."

The next day, we had to unload full size station wagons (remember them?  It's what everyone had before minivans and SUVs).  They had roof racks, but only the roof ribs were installed.  The rest of the hardware was in a box in the "way back."  We started with the C deck.  The first driver drove the first car off onto the ramp.  As the nose pitched down the ramp, the rear of the roof hit the multilevel roof. "BRRRRR" it sounded as the roof rack ribs clicked along the fluted multilevel roof.  Not good.  The roof rack ribs had some scarring on them. 

The foreman came up.  He looked under the car and looked puzzled.  The car didn't have a spring restraint to hold the back end down.  He told us the wagons usually had them.  He checked a few more still on the car.  None had them.  

Then, he told us what to do as an alternative.  You put down the tailgate and a couple guys sit on it until the car is on the ramp.  Then they get off onto the ram and walk back on the bridge plates between the ramp and the rail car and repeat the process.  We tried it with two guys.  It almost worked.  The roof rack ribs just barely touched the rail car roof.  We tried it with three guys.  It worked, but the guys had trouble getting off onto the ramp and walking back.  We unloaded another one.  The guys got off onto the ramp.


One fellow, Brian from the Quality Control office in Juniata, scootched off the tailgate and landed in the thin, cold air between the bridge plates and what looked like slow motion...mostly upright...all the way to the ground 15 feet below.  He caught the coupler in his rib cage.  Everyone gasped.  His hard hat flew one way, he went the other and collapsed onto the ground.  Oh my God! We killed Brian!  

Brian moaned and rolled around.  Good. He was not dead.  He got up slowly but was in a lot of pain.  They took him to the hospital.  Thankfully, it turned out he just had some badly bruised ribs.  
That did it!  Bad enough we're on "send a bunch of guys" duty, but to risk life and limb to avoid some scratches on some station wagons seemed like a bad trade off to us.  We unload the rest of the wagons without doing the tailgate thing. "Brrrrr".  "Brrrrrr". "Brrrrr".  Again and again.  Nobody said "boo" about it!

At the end of the day, we asked how long we were going to be on this assignment.  The local management said rather smuggly "For the duration."  What the hell does that mean?  "You are here until we say you can go".  Oh, no it doesn't.  Who's doing who a "favor" here?  We replied, "We don't report to you. We have regular jobs that need doing.  We're going home tomorrow."  That got their attention and they quickly retreated to make some phone calls.  

The next morning, they were a lot less condescending.  They sent Brian home to recouperate.  They told us two things.  That, temporarily, we DID report to them, but "the duration" was likely no more than a couple weeks, depending on how much progress we were making.

That's better.  

The rest of the week went along pretty well.  We get fairly good at loading and unloading. We get good at climbing the end ladders and swinging onto the decks.  Some of the ladders had terribly insufficient toe space and you have to make sure you climb carefully so that if one foot slips out, you still have both hands on a rung.  We get good at inserting J hooks and tightening down the chains.  We get good at parking cars in the load-out lot the right way - wheels on the RH line - and then walking or being ferried back by van to get another car.  We get good at popping the B deck up and down while loading - B deck ends need to be up when loading A deck because of the hump over the coupler and draft gear.  We get good at adjusting our clothing so we stayed cool when working hard and warm when not. We even worked through the middle of decent snowfall one day.

Some anecdotes.

The speed limit while driving on the rail car decks was 5 mph.  Sort of.  The legend was that the land speed record for B deck - which was nice and flat when it was popped down - was 52 mph.  52 mph!  I never came close to that, but I can say that I did move a good bit faster than 5 mph from time to time.

The biggest pain was when one of the cars won't start and you have to push it all the way out, sometimes several hundred feet.  One day, I get in a car and turn the key.  Nothing.  I call for a push.  A few guys push me all the way out of A deck through four other rail cars, over the car-end humps.  They are not happy.  Just as I clear the last car and roll down the ramp, it occurs to me that I am driving a stick shift and I need to push in the clutch to get it to crank.  I push in the clutch and fire it up, no problem at all.  What makes my oversight even more pronounced is the car I was driving everyday - in fact that very morning - is a stick shift with the clutch interlock!  What a dope!  I keep this little secret safe for a few days...lest the natives get restless.

One of the more interesting parts of working there was coming back to the hotel at night.  They put us up in a rather nice place in the Meadowlands.  After a day of work, we'd return to the hotel and walk through the fancy lobby looking quite a bit like coalminers in our dirty coveralls, work boots, smudged faces and hard hats.  We often got some crazy glances from "regular" business people.

After we'd clean up, we'd meet in the hotel restaurant for dinner.  Being good railroaders, we'd often order a beer with our dinner.  Nothing crazy.  Just one.  We'd earned it. Unfortunately, the hotel itemized our dinner bill including a line item "bar".  When we got back and submitted our expenses, the AVP kicked them back.  "The company is not paying your bar tab!"  You mean after sending us out on "send a bunch of guys" duty, you are going to quibble over a few bucks on our expenses?  Without missing a beat, we explained that the "bar" item on the bill was for any beverage served with dinner.  Soda, and even milk, came from the bar.  It worked!  Not even a "really?"  

Saturday morning at the end of the first week they told us it was our last day.  They gave us some statistics about how many rail cars we'd loaded and unloaded and the size of the dent we's made in the inventory stacked up in sidings accross New York State.  Doing the math in my head, it looked like six months until the back log could be worked off.  But, it turned out that problem wasn't so much about getting work done as it was about appeasing GM.  GM was happy now.  So, Stanley Crane was happy - and so was the rest of the food chain.  

Including me.

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