Leaving the Railroad - My Story

When I was young and impressionable I read Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand. One of the characters, Dagny Taggart, worked as a railroad telegrapher in a small isolated station, and that life seemed very romantic to me.



There was a one-man Santa Fe depot near me and one day I walked in and asked how I could get a job there. The station agent was very encouraging, he said they were hiring right then and told me how to apply. I was hired on immediately! It was good-paying, long-term work and I was happy to get it.

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I worked for the Santa Fe for over 13 years, the last 5 years as a train dispatcher. I was very proud of being able to do the work, a woman in a man's world but holding my own. I learned that jobs like Dagny's didn't exist in my area, they had done away with telegraphers and we were all clerks. But it was all interesting work to me.

I walked the tracks with a lantern, writing down boxcar numbers before there were scanners for that. I worked as a crew caller and a crew hauler – calling the men to work and driving them to their trains. I drove to various industries to pick up their bills of lading for the shipments that local crews would collect. I worked in a tower in the Los Angeles train yard, pulling levers to direct trains to the various tracks.



And then I became a train dispatcher, only the second woman to hold that job in our district. I trained for almost a year and it was an intensive, pressure-packed education.

I learned to be very time-focused, no room for error when minutes mattered. I learned to listen to a dozen radio conversations at once and to respond immediately to the train crews calling for instructions. I learned to deal with tired, impatient men who weren't all that sure they like working with a female dispatcher. I learned to speak with authority and to speak very clearly. I was expected to know every mile of my district so I rode with engine crews, both the locals picking up and delivering box cars and the through trains, long, heavy trains that traveled over mountains and through deserts, seeing places I would never see driving in a car.

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It was thrilling work and I loved and dreaded every shift. The dread came from the fear of making a mistake. There was no room for “oops” with the railroad. Like I said, I held my own in a highly stressful environment.

Then I got crosswise with one of my supervisors. He made it clear that I would never get a promotion, never get a raise, as long as he was there. By then we were not union workers, we'd voted to join management and he was management.

I talked this over with my husband and we made preparations for me to be able to quit. We got our finances in order and agreed that I could devote my time to my new business. I believe in the power of positive thought and I began using a 'release affirmation' - “I now fully and freely release all people, things, and circumstances that are no longer part of my Divine Plan. I now move easily and effortlessly into my Divine Plan, where all conditions are perfect.”

It seemed the Universe was listening! A short time later it was announced that the company was planning a management reduction. They hoped that some people would volunteer to leave, with severance pay, before they had to make more cuts. Volunteer to leave? Oh yes, please!

But no, they explained to me, I was much too valuable an employee, they had invested too much time in my training, there would be no leaving for me!

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I looked at my release affirmation, why wasn't it working? I made a small change in it and started using it even more intensely. “I now fully and freely release all people, things, and circumstances that are no longer part of my Divine Plan, and they now fully and freely release me!”

Again my husband and I had long conversations. We both felt the stress of the job was starting to affect my health and we decided that severance pay or not it was time for me to quit. So I went to my chief's office with the words on my lips – but he interrupted me. He told me that he didn't want anyone working for him who wasn't happy being there, and that he was going to allow me to quit with the full severance package! I kept my mouth shut except to say, “Thank you.” and almost danced out of his office!

I used that money to start my business and I've never looked back. For years afterwards I would have railroad dreams, of things going terribly wrong, and I would wake with a gasp. Then, realizing it was all in my past, fall serenely asleep again.



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Wow awesome story. Thanks for sharing @donna-metcalfe. Atlas Shrugged. Good stuff. I read it a few years ago. Talked about too much in popular culture not to actually read myself. I had an employee that I think is about your age. She was a pioneer working for Cal-Trans probably about the same time as your career. I bet you two could swap stories! Hope you are still on your Divine Plan.

Thank you. I bet you're right, your employee and I could probably swap stories all day long! I liked being a pioneer but it ground me down after a while. And yes, my Divine Plan still seems to be in order!

Oh Atlas Shrugged, and The Fountainhead - they were a huge influence on me. It's been a long time since I read them so I looked up some info (wanted to spell Dagny's name right) and read some reviews from people who hated Ayn Rand's books, really vicious. I'm not sure if they didn't understand them, or if I didn't, but I'm still a fan. Another one I haven't read for a while was We the Living, I think that is a better introduction to her work. It explains why she hated collectivism and was so anti-communist, why she felt the individual should have more power than any government or group.

woooww.. what an amazing experience @donna-metcalfe, is it the cargo train or passenger train that you're direct and dispatch for? 13 years.. whooaaa... you are so cool! until now.. I think not many women working at that area.

I think there are still not many women doing that job. I suspect the men bosses still think women are too emotional to do a high-stress job. (Obviously not true!) I remember when the first woman engineer (drives the engine) started working. Tough job for a woman working with all-male crews. But she gained their respect, which allowed more women to be hired. (I remember when I was first working and one of the older crewmen told me flat out that I couldn't be working there because they didn't hire women! Which was mostly true up until then.)

The Santa Fe and most other large railroads ran both passenger and freight trains but they were losing money with the passenger trains. To keep them going the government created Amtrak for the passenger side of the business. Passenger trains still ran on their original routes owned by the various railroads, but paid to use the tracks. The railroads had to pay penalties if those trains were delayed so they were always a high priority.

I was hired after Amtrak was created and when I worked as a clerk it was for Santa Fe only, and freight cars and crews only. When I became a dispatcher it was still for the Santa Fe, but Amtrak ran on the tracks I controlled.

If I had been working there before Amtrak was created I would have been granted a "rail pass" - free to ride any passenger train anywhere in the country! That sure would have been fun!

If I had been working there before Amtrak was created I would have been granted a "rail pass" - free to ride any passenger train anywhere in the country! That sure would have been fun!

Yes.. it would have been so much fun😉 did you feel regretful sometimes? Do you think that they still need many men or women to keep the tracks going? I mean.. in this computerized world? And still.. I think woman still find it difficult to develop their skill because so many work-men still feel threatened by the woman in their masculine work.

So.. the railroad belongs to private business company? Not the government? Or it's kind of national private company? Like a "Toll road" you know.. you need to pay if you want to use the free-highway?

Do you mean have I been regretful that I didn't get a rail pass? Sure. I would have liked to ride the trains more. I don't regret my time there, or leaving it when I did.

It has been over 30 years since I worked there so I don't know what all of it is done by computers now. While I was still there they eliminated the caboose and replaced it with a red light at the end of the train. There used to be an engineer and fireman (the fireman used to shovel coal when there were steam engines, now they're like assistant engineers) in the engine and the conductor and brakeman rode in the caboose so between them they could keep an eye on the whole train. The main danger was the wheels getting hot and catching on fire, usually because one of the car's brakes got stuck. They could get so hot the wheel could melt and the train could derail. Then they upgraded the braking system so a hot wheel could be detected with a sensor before it caught on fire. So no need for a caboose. The railroad would automate the whole thing if they could and use fewer human beings! But unfortunately for them they still need people to watch the computers! But less as time goes on. Railroad workers have strong unions to protect their jobs.

Railroad work was hard and physical, it needed strength to pull the heavy bar to move the tracks and set the brakes. Not a job for a weak woman! Then some parts were automated, I could move a track from a distance with a lever, and later by pushing a button! Easy for a woman to do. But the men didn't like women encroaching on 'their' territory. At least that was so when I was there.

Amtrak is owned by the government. I think it never makes a profit but takes government money to stay in business. Like the post office loses money every year and has lots of competition with private companies but the government pays to keep it going.

Whoaa.. now it became clear, why so many men didn't like when women took their job. Because women would work smarter then men too, to save their energy for domestic chores.

So proud of you @donna-metcalfe 😉 you still remember everything so well. Have you ever experienced train accident caused by derailed or the brake?

I think you have the right explanation!

I have not experienced a derailment in that I watched it happen. I listened to the stories of the 'old heads' - the ones with a long experience - and they saw many.

As a dispatcher, yes, I'm who they would call on the radio if a car or train derailed and I would send emergency crews and notify the bosses, coordinate with police if roads were blocked, many things to do when an accident happens.

The worst thing I experienced, but not in person, just by radio, was when two trains 'came together'. That means one ran into another. One train derailed and tipped over some cars. There was a lot of damage but only minor injuries, thank God.

I was immediately taken to a doctor to take a blood test, to see if I was on drugs or drunk! (Of course not, but they did it to protect me.) There was a big investigation to see who was at fault. Did the engineer not see the red light? Was the red light not working? (When a train is on a section of track, which can be miles long, the lights on both ends are red to any other train approaching that section.) I believe it turned out that the engineer on the following train wasn't attentive (possibly sleeping).

As a dispatcher I had a long display board that showed lights where the trains were. Red for a train, green for empty track, and a yellow light that showed between the red and green, when the train was almost clear. Similar to what the crews would see. On my board I could see it happen, one train not clear before the following train entered that section of track. I called and called on the radio but it was too late. Very bad, very stressful. I think by then I was already thinking I wanted a different kind of work!

There were always 3 dispatchers on duty covering different parts of the district, plus a 'chief dispatcher' who supervised them and made out delay reports. I worked that job too when I had more experience dispatching. A woman, supervising 3 men. They liked to play tricks on me but when I just gave them the 'stink eye' they were nicer. They got together and bought me a bottle of Maalox - it is for heartburn! I thought it was a very nice gift since they were the ones who gave me the heartburn! :-}

A woman, supervising 3 men. They liked to play tricks on me but when I just gave them the 'stink eye' they were nicer. They got together and bought me a bottle of Maalox - it is for heartburn! I thought it was a very nice gift since they were the ones who gave me the heartburn! :-}

hahahahaha... I know how hard for them to work under-supervised of a women at that time. must feel like working for their Mom. If you're not resigned that time... what's the highest position you can reach, Donna?

Being a dispatcher is good training for other management jobs, but a promotion would have been sideways into another department. Dispatcher and chief dispatcher go by seniority, and I had very little compared to everyone else there. I would have had to wait until they retired to move up!

With a sideways promotion I could become a station agent or trainmaster (an agent is in charge of a freight station, a trainmaster is in charge of a switching yard) or other departments. The highest job would be general manager, in charge of the whole district. But all possibility of advancement was blocked by the boss who didn't like me. He would have to give me a good recommendation and he wouldn't.

I will tell you that story. My boss (I will call him Jay) was one of the dispatchers who trained me and was later promoted to a slightly higher position. A new female dispatcher was hired (I'll call her Dee), she was a younger sister to the first female dispatcher. But Dee was not nice like her sister. She was pretty and used to getting her own way. She would come in late - that is a very bad thing - and she was sloppy when turning over her shift, not telling her relief what all was going on - again, a very bad thing.

Well, she and Jay started 'dating' and it was supposed to be a big secret. They were both single so nothing wrong with that but it was against the rules for a boss to date a subordinate. But it wasn't a big secret to us and Dee took advantage, more than before, and the other dispatchers were getting angry.

I thought I had a friendly relationship with Jay so I told him privately that he should be more careful. But he got angry at me!

In the next yearly review he wrote that I was absent too often - a flat lie because I had not taken any time off or even any sick days. I said it was wrong and he said it was too bad that I didn't keep my nose out of his business! No one heard him tell me that. But because of that review I was the only one who didn't get a pay raise and it stayed in my permanent record. He also found things to criticize and other ways to make trouble for me. It was then I started making plans to leave and you know the rest of the story. At the time I was so angry at him but if it wasn't for him I wouldn't have moved on to a better life!

I know I am writing too much, but the memories just bubble up!

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This is a huge responsibility and titanic work. If you just say that I am impressed, it's like not saying anything. Blessings to you and your spouse! After such work you need a huge vacation. I hope my phone did not make a lot of mistakes.

Thank you. It was work I was proud to do, and proud to be able to do for the time I did it. For my vacation afterwards I made my small home business into a real store and found it was true what they say - if you love what you do it isn't really 'work' at all! It was a great difference in salary but my husband never complained about that, or the many hours I spent at the store. He would say to me, "Happy wife, happy life." And I think he meant it! ;-)