Hot Times on the High Iron - This Time We Take Another Look at How We Say It

About the Author
JD Santucci

J. D. Santucci (a.k.a. "Tuch") began his railroading career in 1978 as a trainman on the Missouri Pacific. After a round of lay-offs in 1985, Tuch embarked on a railroad odyssey, working in many different situations for different roads. This column tries to explain some of the nuts and bolts of the job and also demonstrates what we have to deal with on a regular basis within and without the industry. Tuch currently works through freights out of Chicago for Canadian National/Illinois Central.

©1999, 2003-2007 JD Santucci.
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Hot Times on the High Iron Logo
By J.D. Santucci

November 17, 2003
Some three years ago or so I did a piece on some of the jargon we use on the railroad. We have a language of our own. Many of the railfan publications touch upon it from time to time quoting some of it. And numerous railfans have a language of their own, often trying to pass it off as being part of our vernacular. This is what tends to make it easy to pick out a railfan, the language they use in describing our job.

We're going to start off with a railfan term that is generally not used on the railroad; lash up. Virtually every railfan publication uses the term lash up when describing a locomotive consist. On the railroad we use the term consist, not lash up. How or where lash up came from is beyond me. In working for all the roads that I have, not once have I ever heard the term lash up used when describing a locomotive consist while on the job.

Slack; this is a dual purpose word. There is the action of slack that occurs in a train when there is a change in the train, or a portion of the train making the transition from being stretched to being bunched or vice versa. Then there is the action of slack needed to uncouple cars. There are instances when you are uncoupling and the knuckles of the drawbars are stretched tight and cannot be uncoupled. You need a little slack to make the separation. Now here is where various different terms come into play.

In asking for slack the Trainman might as for just that, slack. They may also request that you slack 'em back or ahead. Or they may ask for a little iron. Then there is a little rubber. Or how about punch it or perhaps butter. Ya, butter. I have no idea where this one came from.

Derail; not the action that happens when a train leaves the rail but rather the metallic device placed upon the rail to cause such action to occur. Derails are used and required by law under some circumstances. This handy device, normally made of cast iron is used in various applications to prevent cars that might happen to break free from rolling out and away. This device will actually derail a car or cars. It is cheaper to rerail them as opposed to having them roll away and possibly into an approaching train which could result in a real horrific episode.

In some cases derails are used to protect cars or equipment already located on a track from being coupled into. For example, Maintenance of Way may have track machinery tie up in a track when not being used, like after they have completed the day's work. Derails and flags are placed in advance of the equipment on either side of it (if the track is accessible from both ends) to stop any movement from coming in on top of it. They are used in car and locomotive repair facilities and also within industries switched by the railroad.

Derails have been christened with various monikers over the years. This would include lump, bump or scrap iron.

The knuckle on a car is that movable portion of the coupler. The knuckle, which weighs in at around 86 lbs is what actually holds two cars together. Sometimes, either through no fault or through all the fault of the Engineer, a knuckle breaks. It takes 450,000 lbs of draft force (slack stretched) to break a knuckle. That is, if there isn't already previous breakage within the knuckle. A broken knuckle has been dubbed with various names as well. Iron and jewelry are two of them. One Engineer that I know that has managed to get more knuckles in one year that I have in my entire career was dubbed "The scrap iron king." This is every bit as bad, if not worse than being called Stinky or Cupcake. As a tribute to this guy's train handling techniques, I wrote his name on several pieces of jewelry he has littered the right of way with. On a couple of them I also wrote a number, sort of a running tab as it were.

Zoom is a term frequently used on the IHB. If you are really moving along, you are zooming. This usually occurs when you are trying to get out of there, which leads us right to our next term, getting out of there.

This little phrase applies when you are going for or getting an early quit. An early quit is when you get to go home earlier than your appointed time. The early quit is an incentive and oftentimes if you get all the work done required of you, they let you out a little early. In some cases you might skip your lunch in exchange for the quit. You still get paid a full day, you just get to leave a little early. A job that routinely gets out early is often referred to as a quit job. And some guys have been known to run for the quit.

Now in order to get your quit, you had to have all the required work finished. In my days at the MoPac, we were expected to switch a certain amount of cars in our eight hour shift. If not having to deal with problems, it was routine to switch three hundred cars in six to six and a half hours, then go home. This was really pounding them out and not taking our dinner break. We did get coffee and often a second coffee, but we usually didn't take beans.

Sometimes that quit was used as a carrot. The comment was often made that they "held the carrot out in front of you" to get you to go like mad, and then yank that quit out from under you. You got all your work done and were ready to leave when all of a sudden (sic) they had some move or moves that just had to be done before you left. Before you knew it, you were eight hours old and had not been to dinner.

The lunch break brings us to our next term, beans. When you go to dinner on the railroad, it is frequently referred to as going to beans. I'm guessing this term is derived from eating beans for dinner. In some places going to dinner is referred to as taking your minutes. Our new Terminal Superintendent uses that term and I have heard it used elsewhere.

Now your coffee break is often referred to as just coffee. Sometimes they will instruct you to get a cup which is yet another way of telling you to go to coffee.

A few names for some of the employees;

Hogger is a nickname for the Engineer. I've heard various origins to this one ranging from the fact that he was the highest paid member of the crew, thus he ate better (and more). Owing to all of the sitting on our duffs we do once we take the seat and then continuing to consume food in the same amounts, it tends to make us get fat, which itself is often referred to as porking out.

An Engineer that plays with the throttle far too much especially in the yard causing rapid and continuous changes in the slack when switching is know as a throttle jockey. Switchmen have been known over the years as snakes. I'm not certain where this phrase developed, but perhaps it might be attributed to the Switchman sort of slithering around in the yard. The union that represented true Switchmen was SUNA, the Switchman's Union of North America. It was merged into the United Transportation Union in 1969 and for all practical purposes; this craft has been negotiated away on most properties by the UTU. Switchmen have also been called dusties as they are working in the dust stirred up so often and seem to be eating it. I have also heard them called and referred to the Trainmen as ground pounders.

The headman on a lead job is often referred to as a pin puller. In the days of three man crews, the Conductor and rear man worked the field, which was actually the yard, although I know many that played the field. They handled most of the switches on the lead and usually handled the coupling and shoving of tracks as required. The head man pulled the uncoupling pins on the cars as part of the process of switching out tracks.

Road crews have been referred to as road toads while yard crews are often called yard birds.

In describing some of the types of job assignments we have, we move to the lead to begin. A lead job is not the first job or the highest ranked job; it is a job that works the switching lead switching cars in the yard all day or night.

A daylight job is a job that goes to work usually in the morning between 0630 and 0900. There is a running joke that an assignment that goes to work in the overnight hours becomes a daylight job when the sun rises on the morning.

"Daylight come and me wanna go home!"

Afternoon jobs are those that go to work after 1200 hours and before 1900 hours. Anything after that tends to be called a night job. As you'll notice, we don't refer to transportation assignments as first, second or third shift as we don't really have true shifts. Now the shop craft and clerical departments do, but we're not dealing with them here.

An assignment that covers the rest days of other assignments is frequently referred to as a relief job. It is known on some properties as a swing job as you are swinging from job to job each day. I've also heard them called bobtail jobs as you are bobbing from one to job to the next each day.

A roustabout job is one that performs various activities throughout their day. They are generally not assigned to one particular program. They are often used to mop up after other assignments that might not have completed their assigned duties before tying up.

Unassigned jobs such as extra yard jobs are often referred to as bum or tramp jobs. I guess perhaps that is because you are bumming around the yard performing odd jobs and the like for your buck. Reminds of me Larry, Daryl and Daryl from the "Newhart" shoe on TV. You may recall them as the guys that would "do anything for a dollar."

"I'm Larry, this is my brother Daryl and this is my other brother Daryl."

A dodger is a local assignment. This name comes from the requirement of having to dodge all the through freight and passenger trains in between performing your own work. You dodge these trains by clearing up in sidings or industry tracks.

An industry job or industry switcher is an assignment that primarily performs the switching of industries.

There are numerous assignments that work well outside of a terminal going on and off duty at outlying locations. They are referred to as outlying or outpost jobs. On the CN Chicago Sub, Kankakee and Gilman are considered to be outpost or outlying jobs. They are both part of the District Four seniority district, but are both located outside of the Chicago Terminal which just so happens to be the home terminal. In my days on the MoPac, Villa Grove was the home terminal for all the road jobs and locals that worked north towards Chicago. We had a local based out of Watseka that was considered to be an outpost job. Normally when working such assignments, there were provisions made for extra pay for driving to such locations as well as hours of service requirements.

There are types of hand operated switches that are designed to be run through. Running through a switch means that you proceed through a trailing point switch (with the switch points facing away from you) with that switch not properly lined for your move. Some switches will allow the points to flop over automatically lining themselves for your move without damaging the switch. These types of switches have often been referred to as floppers, flop overs or rubber switches. These switches are different from spring switches in that they will not only line for your move automatically and then line themselves back. Spring switches are often referred to as springers and when moving the points in them with your train or locomotives you are said to be springing the points.

Dimensional load; a load that is of excessive width, length or height or any combination of all the above. The load is in excess of the normal dimensions of the standard railcar. Conrail referred to such loads as file cars. Before any dimensional load is shipped from its origination point, a file is sent out anywhere from several days to several weeks in advance of the car or cars involved moving to all railroads involved that will handle such a shipment. Chief Dispatchers, Managers of Network Operations, shift Dispatchers and transportation officials all receive copies of the file well in advance of the load coming onto the property. These types of loads don't just show up, although to listen to some managers carry on, these types of loads just sneak up in the middle of the night and appear when it becomes light out.

This file contains all the pertinent information regarding the load. For wide loads the information would include the width at various points above the top of the rail (ATR). Excessive length cars might have information with regard to the swing out that occurs around curves. The file might contain other information such as movement restrictions. Some types of dimensional loads have restrictions that only allow movement in daylight hours. Others might have speed restrictions on them. There might also be information and specific routing instructions. Other instructions might require that the load be physically observed when passing specific points to positively ascertain the clearance.

There are yet more terms and jargon we use and they will likely appear at some point in the future. I guess they'll just go back into the file for now although they are not dimensional. However, these terms tend to be used frequently by people I have often referred to as demented, but that too, is for another place and time.

And so it goes.