The title of this blog my confuse some — if so, read on — but even those who know what the job was about, may not recognize the ramifications in model railroad operations. I have written in a general way about this in previous blogs. For example, I wrote a fairly general description about what most railroads called their Car Service organization (that post can be found at the following link: https://modelingthesp.blogspot.com/2019/09/the-car-service-organization.html ), including a link to an article about car service on the Bangor & Aroostook (BAR).A previous post that quoted some railroaders, notably Dave Sprau describing experiences as a relief agent at the NP depot in Snoqualmie, Washington, about how he as an agent would relate to a Car Distributor, was the one here: https://modelingthesp.blogspot.com/2014/04/waybills-part-32-waybill-preparation.html .
And on this and other bases, I think we understand that shippers called their local agents to request cars, and agents called a Car Distributor nearest them to obtain that car. But then what happened? That’s what I want to turn to next. But first, it’s first essential to remember that armies of clerks did this kind of work on railroads, before the advent of business computers.
Above is a an example of yard office clerks in a moderate-size Southern
Pacific yard at Gerber, California. The photo appeared in the SP
employee magazine, The Bulletin, in April 1952. These people relied heavily on the telephone for their work.
The Southern Pacific, like many railroads, located this activity in
the Transportation part of the Operating Department. Its name was
Freight Car Service, with subordinate individuals called “car service
agents” or clerks. The BAR, as shown in the link in the first paragraph above, had a Chief Car Distributor, and under him, several Car
Distributors. Another pattern was to have a Car Distributor and car
service clerks under him. (I use the male pronoun here because in the
transition era, the immense majority of these people were men.)
So how did it work in an office like the one above? how did the Car Distributor and his staff of clerks do their work? On nearly all railroads, the local agent’s “first thing in the morning” duties included listing the number and disposition of all freight cars spotted in his territory. From these reports, the Car Distributor’s staff would know approximately how many cars will be made empty on-line today.
The Car Distributor’s office also receives, every morning, junction reports of all inbound empty cars being interchanged to their railroad, and a status report from the yard as to how many and what kind of empties are stored in the yard.
Against those stocks of empty cars, they have requests coming from shippers, via local agents, which were all submitted prior to 2 PM (or some comparable time) the previous afternoon. Now the job is to match up the available empties to the requests. Any requests for car types or sufficient numbers of cars not available will have to be sent to a yard in the adjoining division, though of course part of the job is to anticipate needs, and hold a certain number of empties for expected use.
Recently on the Steam Era Freight Cars email list, an interesting comment was made by Todd Sullivan, who worked a year in the early 1960s as a clerk for the NPT (Northern Pacific Terminal Co.) in Portland, Oregon, a terminal switching railroad owned jointly by NP, UP and SP. He did a variety of jobs, but here is his comment (used with permission) about working in the Car Distributor job.
“In my clerking experience, which included working Car Distributor (essentially the car inventory & supply manager) for two weeks, I found that each industry's traffic manager had a pretty good working knowledge of the cars his company needed on a regular basis. When I received calls requesting empties for loading, the requests were usually very specific, down to the individual car or series number.
“Also, the Car Distributor had a pretty good knowledge of both (a) car types ordinarily found on the property (we were a terminal switching outfit) and (b) how to decipher the contents of the ORER. As a side note, after working as a clerk in the yard for about 6 months, if you gave me a valid initial and number combination for one of our area railroads, I could give a physical description of the car and what it was normally used for.”
I know from experience in model railroad layout operating sessions, that many modelers seem to imagine empty cars falling out of the sky at just the right moment, or perhaps being available because a four-cycle car card regularly directed them to be available. On the prototype, however, a great deal of record keeping and paperwork, and of course knowledge of the territory and the wisdom of experience, was in fact essential to getting Car Distribution right.
It seems to me that any layout with a serious yard operation could probably duplicate at least some of the reality of prototype Car Distribution. Even my own layout, representing a branch line, may be able to capture some of the ways Car Service actually worked, and I will be exploring them.