As I Recall...
The Great Iron Horse was the iconic name for the old steam locomotive. When steam locomotives first came on the scene in America, horses still powered nearly all machinery and were the primary mode of transportation. The great iron horse and the steel rail could move more passengers and freight over long distances at higher speeds than a 20-mule team. The steam engine became as much of an icon in the early days of America and the unsettled west as the horse and cowboy.
In the not too distant past, trains had identities and personality. When streamliners were eloquent, schedules were frequent, and fares were less expensive than for airliners, America traveled coast to coast and border to border on passenger trains. The names of those trains became as familiar as the names of family members. Maybe you remember the Panama Limited and the City of New Orleans, two famous trains operated by the Illinois Central Railroad.
Trains had other identities that few of the traveling public would know about. Regular trains were assigned a number in the timetable – e.g., No. 1 or No. 62. Trains were also known as superior or inferior. For example, a first class train was superior to second class and so on. Trains were also superior by direction. The superior direction was designated by the timetable. Extra trains were also operated. These had no class and were inferior to all trains with timetable authorization – that is, inferior to all trains with a designated number or class.
This superiority mattered primarily at meeting points between opposing trains. Where two trains of the same class met at a siding, the train in the inferior timetable direction took the siding. If the trains were of different classes, the lower class took the siding. Extra trains always took the siding for a regular train unless relieved of doing so by a train order issued by the train dispatcher. Meeting points between extra trains was always designated by train order.
Sound complicated? It certainly was and the foregoing is a very simplified treatment of it and why the general public knew little or nothing about the “superiority of trains.”
This method of meeting and passing trains by timetable and train order was employed during the era of the steam engine and continued until the mid-1980s. It was by no means a perfect system, but worked well as long as the operating rules were strictly observed. Collisions between trains, and derailments from many factors were frequent, but not necessarily commonplace. But even with modern technology they still occur. Human error has always played a part in many tragedies and it seems as though it is the one thing that the most sophisticated of electronic marvels has yet to eliminate completely.
On September 18, 1985, I issued the last handwritten form, 19 train orders on the Peoria District of the Illinois Central Railroad, closing the era of timetable and train order operations on the carrier. I still have copies of those green form 19 train orders in my collection of memorabilia.
The great iron horse has evolved into the diesel-electric locomotive, and the timetable, train order method of operation is gone from the scene forever. As a matter of fact, many of the railroads in the one-time vast rail system of America have likewise disappeared. The nostalgia of the days when Casey Jones rode the rails has all but evaporated from our memories. Those days were dangerous ones for train crews as might be noted in a line from the ballad about this famous engineer: “Casey mounted to the cabin with his orders in hand and he took his farewell trip to the Promised Land.”
Jerry Ginther served two years in the U.S. Army, 1966-68, and was employed by the Illinois Central Railroad as a telegraph operator and train dispatcher for nearly 25 years. He and his wife reside in Texas.