Bob’s layout

First things first, had a few emails in asking for the link to add sound to your layout. It’s here.

“Hello Alastair,

I have been watching with interest your watery files. Here are some from my raod, the leaky creek. The old mill pond was a broken piece of window glass. I used waer paint to make the nuddy sides and blue wash watered down in the center. Then I spray painted varathane over the glass on both sides. The glass sits on a hole made with plaser of paris and that was painted to make the pond bottom. Other scenery was added. Sorry about the plywood bridge, these was a plastic one there but the cat sat on it and wrecked it. The other little lake was made from a piece of 5/8 plexiglass. It was scraped and varithane added and I used a sponge to roughen up the finish. A pale blue wash was painted on the bottom and unger the fake water is a gap of about an inch where plywood sits underneath painted as well.

I hope this gives some people some ideas.


And now for something completely different, sent in by Chris.

I rather enjoyed it, so hope you will too. It’s an extract from a piece by an author by the name of Richard Ford.

“My first job that mattered was on the Missouri Pacific Railroad, in 1963. I hired out — railroad lingo — as a locomotive fireman, working the switchyards in Little Rock, Ark. I was 19, and knew almost nothing about anything — certainly not about real work, and not about how work almost always affiliates you significantly with the lives of others.

Why anybody would give me, an untried incompetent, such a serious and serious-sounding job invokes the long, devious story of America’s modern railroad past: the epic shift from steam to diesel, the decline of passenger service and the ascendance of freight, the bullying exertion of postwar union muscle upon a vital industry nearing free fall. These were the large, indistinct forces, far beneath the Cyclopean notice of which the puny likes of me scuttled about, getting along — often absurdly.

Switch engines are specially made diesel locomotives used for putting together freight and passenger trains. In my day, a train arrived at the Little Rock switchyards, and its boxcars and passenger cars were sorted out by such an engine and its three-man crew, to make new trains that traveled on to Dallas or Memphis. The head of the switch crew ran this operation from the ground, sending signals by hand or (at night) by battery-operated lantern to the engineer. Work went on around the clock. A shift lasted eight hours.

Being a locomotive fireman on a diesel switch engine was a learn-as-you-go, workplace fiction, schemed out by the railroad higher-ups and their union adversaries (or accomplices, depending on your view). When diesel supplanted steam — a paradigm change that went on through the ’50s — firemen became slowly expendable. Diesel engines don’t need stoking or steam — and neither did they need those doughty fellows who for more than a century had stoked the fireboxes that made the steam the old engines ran on.

But these unappreciated firemen also happened to be the apprentice corps from which engineers were drawn. And engineers were not expendable. So to keep the engineer supply replenished and to avoid big layoffs and strikes, the firemen, minus their strenuous stoking duties, were simply kept on by a union-and-management détente until such time as the firemen could all be absorbed.

And, indeed, they were much more than “kept on.” For some reason — possibly a buried contractual clause nobody had the strength to fight over — firemen went on being hired, which was how I came into the picture, skill-less but game. This employment fiction was known as featherbedding, because its critics imagined the firemen not to be really working, but living a life of luxury at the public’s expense.

For me, acting the part of a fireman on a hugely mysterious, thrumming railroad engine turned out — surprisingly — not to be very complicated. Real firemen, of course, knew everything. In training to become engineers, they were expected to know how to dismantle, reassemble, repair, maintain, diagnose and verbally explain to a 4-year-old child how a steam engine worked, and, in the new post-steam era, how a diesel worked, too. Rigorous study and considerable practical gnosis were involved in acquiring such competence. Examinations were taken, certifications attained, experienced logged, commitment demonstrated.

Typically, a fireman — sitting over by the left-side window, across from the engineer — was permitted to “run the engine,” though only when the engineer saw fit. This was an old-fashioned system of apprenticeship, informal in its protocols but ironclad in its observances. Advancement was never swift.

Firemen also performed other duties. They checked many things at the start of each shift: the engine oil, the brakes, the couplings, the trucks, the primitive, axle-lubricating receptacles called journal boxes — which were susceptible to fires. Firemen also kept crucial watch once the shift started. Out the left-side window, they kept keen surveillance over whatever happened where only they could see — on curves, at crossings and trestles. They were expected to be acute to whatever activity came into view: errant citizens, their wayward vehicles and animals, switchmen on the ground, approaching trains or other rails full of boxcars. The job was clearly easier than it had once been, but it was not inconsiderable.

For me, it was different. I was a summer hire, and would likely be gone by fall — off to college or to the Marines. I could stay if I wanted, but everyone knew that firemen wouldn’t be around much longer. And so, for both reasons, no one took the time to teach me much. Once I was hired, my name was simply placed on a list of firemen available to fill shifts when a regular man wasn’t available, owing to illness or other official absence. The crew-caller, a man with a horsehide voice, would phone me where I was living with my grandparents, two hours before the shift started, and growl, “Ford? Twelve-to-8. The Logan Street yard.” Click.

You needed to pay attention because there was no number to call back. This job status was called “working the fireman’s extra board.” And if you didn’t screw up, they’d call you every 24-hour period — though you never knew exactly when. If you did screw up, or if you declined a call (because it was midnight and you were “sick” or drunk or just not there), you would land on the crew-caller’s bad side and he wouldn’t call you again. You were fired — they just didn’t tell you. You were paid for your hours, $3 per. It was good money then. I needed it. So I was always there, attentive.

The first switch engine I ever climbed up on was the first one on which I was the fireman. It was 11 p.m.; a vast-seeming, pulsating switchyard; a hot, steamy Arkansas night. The engineer, a large, gentle, countrified man in his 60s, walked me around the heaving locomotive, pointing out gauges on which were calibrations I needed to check, an oil dipstick I needed to consult and the journal boxes I’d want to look at before the shift commenced. He then took me up the metal-rung ladder into the dark, roomy cab where the controls were on the right and my bench was on the left, by the window.

Taking his seat, filling his cheek with Red Man, he looked across at me. (I was full of wonder, full of thrill, full of tingling fear that didn’t feel like fear.) And he said, “Ford, you just watch out your window and be sure we don’t hit anything, and we’ll be fine. Is that O.K. with you?”

“Yes, sir,” I said, glancing out the window, across the sodium lights of the switchyard, near midnight. “Yes, sir. It’s O.K.” That was basically my training. I was a fireman.

A real job, a job that matters, is one that a person with responsibilities would hold — an adult. It involves a living wage, decent benefits, possibly some union backup, and complex duties that if performed shoddily would mean trouble for others: injuries, inquiries, costly equipment being damaged, people losing their livelihoods. Duties with consequence — not sacking groceries or mowing lawns.

And yet being a fireman wasn’t quite that for me. Oh, I showed up every day — mostly every night, because the crew-callers made sure that the new hires caught the graveyard shift. I collected my good pay. I bought a lantern as required. My grandfather gave me his railroad watch. I sat on the engines and kept watch out my window. I checked things. I gradually learned the railroad nomenclature specific to firemen: “Red block!” You had to shout that out over the engine rumble, in case the engineer didn’t see the red light up ahead that meant “stop.” Green blocks we didn’t sound out.

I missed no calls. Occasionally, I was transferred to other switchyard jobs in towns down the line — Texarkana, El Dorado, Poplar Bluff — even Hope. I lived alone, a working man’s life, or a boy’s. I stayed in rooming houses, killed time, ate poorly, often deadheaded in empty cabooses, far past midnight, back to Little Rock to see my girlfriend.

As the time went by, I learned that the “old head” engineers, who preferred the night shifts, often had difficulties — drinking or worse — to hide. More than once, long into a night, an elderly engineer would turn to me, give a good yawn and say: “Ford. Why don’t you come over and run this damn thing? I need a little shut-eye.” And I did that.

I’d been watching intently how it was all done — how you stopped the engine and how you got it going. What the signals meant. Where to watch. Running a big diesel in the middle of the night, with three switchmen on the ground, and shunting a hundred boxcars out of one rail into another, as well as all manner of other switching maneuvers, each communication performed soundlessly, using hand signals or lanterns, between myself and figures I mostly couldn’t see — all of that didn’t seem very hard. The brakes, the throttle, the gauges, the sand lever for the wheels, the horn. A 19-year-old boy could do these things. They let me do them. Why no one was hurt or maimed or killed by me, I’ll never know. I was lucky. So were they. It’s hard to understand today.”

Richard Ford

That’s all this time folks.

Got something rather special for you next time.

Please keep ’em coming.

Ebay cheat sheet is here.



31 Responses to Bob’s layout

  1. Richard, What an eventful start to life The nearest i got to “driveing” a locoamotive was in India ,1947 on the Lahore to Rawalpindi line
    That experience never left me ……….happy times >
    Best of luck Bernard

  2. excellent descriptive story, also nice pictures of the layout

  3. That was really well written, and so informative. Thank you,Dave

  4. Great story. I really enjoyed hearing about that time in your life. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Thanks Chris for sending in Richard Ford’s piece. I have oftened wondered what heppened to the firemen at the transition to diesel from steam. I think this probably happened on most rail systems around the world, as I remember double manned Diesel cabs and then the slow appearance of single manned cabs, obviously when natural wastage in the retirement of the drivers took place. A very interesting article.

  6. What an excellently written piece by Chris on his days as a Fireman. A cracking read! Thanks Chris!

  7. chis,
    I loved the story by mr. Ford. I wonder how long he kept his job on the rails. I would love to read it.


  8. Great story …. I almost felt like I was there watching.. I would love to work for the railroad …

  9. Chris the fireman.
    I’ve been reading your output for some time now Alistair and this is the first time I’ve been prompted to reply.

    I just wanted to say that Chris’s essay was completely brilliant, He gave us the real atmosphere of the times. He should be a writer. I guess he’s not still a fireman!?

  10. I love the water treatment and the story also.
    Thanks for all the great ideas on train layouts and real life stories.

  11. great stuff Ford…!! My Pops was a career MoPac man, retired in ’70….I too, worked as a yard clerk for MoPac in Kansas city starting after high school grad in summer of ’61, same deal, call board, lotsa 11 – 7 shifts…$3 an hr…good money for a 18 yr old kid…same deal w the dispatch too…call.. leave msg.. click…dont miss a friggin shift….

    brings back a lotta memories….
    certainly wanna read some of your books!!

  12. Hi Bob, you let the CAT into your trainroom? What next kids, maybe!

  13. Wonderful well writen account Richard should write a book of his experiences, it would be a great read. Denis.

  14. Great read. You should write a book w/that talent.

  15. what an amazing story, is there more. the how to on the water is something i can use thankyou.any chance of seeing more of the layout what i can see has given a few ideas for my layout.

  16. loved your layout Bob,

    When steam finnished the fireman’s job became known as loco assistant.

    many railways now only have one person in the cab.

  17. The layout is great, even if the cat st on a bridge. Such unplanned events have always been, and probably always will be, a part of real railway/rail road operations.
    The story of his working life, however, is priceless.

  18. Richard. What an interesting Life you have led. I was Glued to your story and wish it hadn’t ended. I also worked for a Rail Road Company in New Jersey. I was in the shop in Elizabeth New Jersey. Unfortunatly I was only there for a couple of Months as I was Laid Off from my regular Job and my Father in Law got me in to work there. I was emediatly called a Deisel Mechanic. I changed the Oil Filters on the Deisel Engines which resembled very large Tampons. I also was responcible for making the Brakes were in good working order. About a week before I was called back to my regular Job they put me on the Wheel Cutting Machine. That was an enteristing Job, and quite a site cutting the flange and rounding out the wheels on the Engines. I enjoyed my time in the shop and wish I had stayed now in Hind site. I really enjoyed your story and would like to hear more. Thank You and Happy Rail Roading!!!!!


  20. Nice account by Richard Ford.

  21. Thoroughly enjoyed Richard Ford’s narration of his own work ethic, and his experiences of starting into his own RR career. His story brought back memories of conversations I’ve had the privilege of hearing from some of the ‘old-timers’ who worked the ACR out of Hawk Junction, Ontario. My ‘thanks’ to Chris, for bringing us Richard’s story.

  22. Nice little layout Bob and I really liked your solution to adding a water feature to your layout.

  23. Mr. Ford your story of becoming a Full Blooded Working Railroad Man is truly great to read. Maybe this will inspire some of the young men out there reading this to think of becoming a Railroad Man working on the Railroads they have seen day after day when it went by. The Railroads are looking for young men to work on their RR the Boomer generation is getting up in years and young people (Male Or Female) are needed.

  24. What a wonderful and wonderfully written piece! I was literally bouncing up and down in my chair as he “[climbed] the metal-rung ladder into the dark, roomy cab where the controls were”. Thanks for such a visceral description of what work should be.

  25. Diesel firemen did have a bit more to do out of the yards, checking the state of the several engines the US commonly uses in multiple on freights, and protecting the line if there was any mishap or derailment. We are single-manned in the UK now up to 125mph, and more on HS1 to the Chunnel, but most Italian trains are still double-manned unless they’re shuttles with no shunting involved. Training of beginners is a lot more involved nowadays thank heavens. I love railwaymen’s reminiscences, I’ve got a collection, I just wish people from other industries wrote more about their work too.
    Very nice viaduct by the way.

  26. Mr Ford I liked your letter, I put 36 yrs on the Santa Fe Railroad as a welder building and repairing Freight Cars. Some good times and some not so good. Now I’m getting started on my first layout, it’s expensive but it’s also alot of fun. Happy Railroading

  27. In my wife’s most of the men and some of the women worked for generations on the Pennsylvania railroad. The all showed the same passion for the job that Ford does in his writing.
    A wonderful read that we could all feel as if we were there with him. Being young and doing real work for the first time is what growing up in America is
    all about. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  28. Really enjoyed the descriptive writing by Richard Ford that was provided in today’s posting. Thank you Chris for locating this transcript that was eloquently prepared by Richard. It literally takes a person into the image of living out this life story. Saw in Wiki that Richard’s grandfather, who he lived with for many years, had worked hard for the railroad before Richard took a brief position with the MOPAC line prior to his college days. Have enjoyed looking at many photos, ideas, and journaling comments by various contributors for some time now through this site. Appreciate comments by others who have spent time working hard in life in the railroad industry during earlier years. Thanks everyone.

  29. Loved Richard Ford’s story. I was a boy in Cleveland in the early 50s. Our grandparents lived in a nice neighborhood a few miles from the terminal, and on a hot summer night, through the open window, you could hear the chug of the steam engines moving out. As easy to go to sleep to as a gentle rain. It must have been 1954 when our 1st grade teacher took us on a field trip to the Terminal Tower (still a famous Cleveland landmark with a railroad terminal under it – you may remember it from the movie A CHRISTMAS STORY, filling in for a tall building in Indiana with a Higbees on the ground floor). We got a great tour of the terminal, and there were still a lot of very familiar steam locos, some under steam. But what really interested us were the road diesels (not diesel electrics) sitting right beside them. We noticed they had three seats for the crew, side by side, and the man giving us the tour (must have been management) told us those were for the Engineer, the Fireman, and the Brakeman. He also used the term “featherbedding.” In other words, at least one of those seats was not needed. There was no reason, in the opinion of management, for three men to do one thing – apply the brakes, apply diesel fuel to the engine, and start and stop it (a function of the first two). So much for exciting kids about working on the railroad. We imagined Brakemen walking the tops of the cars, setting the brakes, coupling and uncoupling the cars, engaging the “glad hands”, and the Fireman… well, what would they do? I think the Fireman went first – you still needed someone to jump out and throw switches and couple and uncouple cars. Now the cabooses are gone. Where do they sit, looking out of hot boxes. Yeah I know, all cars now have roller bearings.

    I miss those sounds of steam engines.

  30. Very impressive memory for those ( including me ) one day in their lives had the opportunity to be in a real moving steam and after in diesel locos by the hands of their fathers. Thanks Chris and Richard Ford on giving us such emotion. Back to the layout…
    Rafael from Brazil.

  31. very good story I am inarkansas and been to all the rails mr ford spoke of great rea thanks for shareing it d

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