Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Railroad labor agreements

I refer in the title of this post, of course, to printed labor agreements. I know from many conversations with modelers that they often have little awareness of union rules and provisions. Naturally the great majority of those rules have nothing to do with model railroads, but there are exceptions.

I often tell the story, in the present context, that I heard from the individual that was a night operator at Surf on the SP Coast Line in the 1950s. The story was that on a windy and rainy night, he looked outside and noticed that the light in the train order signal had gone out. He called the dispatcher to tell him of the situation, and the dispatcher told him to get out there right away and install a new bulb. He did so, with some difficult getting up the ladder with the gusty wind and rain while holding the new bulb, and thought that was the end of the matter. But the next day, a signal maintainer showed up, smiling, and said, “Thanks! I got eight hours pay for that.”

This illustrates one point of labor agreements: they protect certain jobs, against the possibility that management will use others to do those jobs. They contain a great deal of detail about payment, hours, job assignments, and other features, but do contain some aspects that can apply to model railroad operations.

An example I use on my own Southern Pacific layout is an agreement that was in force at least on the division I model, Coast Division, that road crews were not permitted to do switching at locations where a switch crew was stationed, beyond a single cut and a single joint. In other words, the road crew could cut off the engine from the train, pull ahead out of the way for the local switch crew to work the train, and could then return to the train and couple up. (Otherwise, the road crew would receive extra pay for switching service in addition to road service — and the trainmaster would doubtless call that crew in for a little talk.)

In a recent trip to an NMRA regional convention, I encountered a seller of railroad paper items, not a rare occurrence at these meetings. And he had for sale a couple of really interesting agreements. I show below the cover of an SP Pacific Lines agreement of 1942 with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. It is a 4 x 6.5-inch book containing 126 pages.

Among the many interesting details contained in this agreement are the variations among rules for passenger vs. freight service, work train service, logging service, helper service, “turnaround” service (an out-and-back trip starting and ending at the same terminal), snow plow service, wrecking service, shop yard service, and extra yard service. In addition, details of overtime pay, terminal switching and delays, light engine moves, and freight “turn” service, called “roustabout,” and many aspects of seniority, hiring, layoffs, and transfers are all specified. 

Just to give a single example, Section 1 of Article 13 in the above agreement calls out all the terminals at which crews were changed, over all of Pacific Lines. Most experienced SP modelers could identify most of these, but I would guess many will not know a few of these. The two sections on the lower part of page 48 convey some of the detail and style of language in agreements like this. (You can enlarge the image by clicking on it, if you wish.)

A second agreement that I purchased is interesting because it has a later date (1953, the year I model), and many agreements in it are quite different than in the booklet shown above: it is for Sunset Lines, i.e. T&NO. It is the same 4 x 6.5-inch size as the book above, and contains 158 pages.

For this agreement, naturally a great many topics are very similar to the Pacific Lines agreement described above. But there are many additional details, some arising from the complexity of the T&NO trackage that had arisen from combining a number of predecessor railroads. To choose a single example, here is the text of Section 27(b), having to do with switching at Medio on the Glidden Subdivision (intermediate between San Antonio and Houston).

“Cars may be added to Glidden Subdivision trains in charge of road crews, at Medio, on the outbound trip. Such work will be performed by yard crews and cars added to train will be placed in the train by the yard crew in station order. When cars are added to train by yard crews on the outbound trip, the road Fireman will be compensated [for delay] on the minute basis, computed from the time the train stops at Medio until the yard crew completes its work with a minimum of one hour.”

Conductor and engineer time books frequently record every delay during a trip, no matter how small, as these delays were added to the agreed time for a specific trip, and could be paid at overtime rates when applicable. Even being held at a red signal would constitute delay, as could delay in getting clear signals to leave a yard. Matters like these are covered in exhaustive detail in these agreements.

I enjoyed seeing some of the details that are found in these documents, as they correspond to many other comments one hears in railroaders’ anecdotes about their time in service. If you’ve never seen one of these agreements, keep your eyes open at swap meets and you may well find one for sale. They are not expensive.

Tony Thompson


  1. I remember you showing me your finds. I got to thinking that these would be very useful to genealogists who want to write about the day-to-day working conditions of their railroading ancestors.

    1. Good point. And of course for anyone interested in their forebears, in addition to the obvious points about devising prototypical model railroad operations.
      Tony Thompson