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Article: Operation of Electric Interurban Railways - 1902

By W. O. Wood, General Superintendent of the Rapid Railway System. 1902

The manager of an interurban electric railway must meet many of the problems which are involved in the operation of electric street railways in city and suburban districts, and at the same time be thoroughly conversant with the laws of transportation which have been involved in the operation of our steam railways.

To the steam railroad man, who is accustomed to dealing with large train units and large mileage of track, the operation of an interurban electric railway of 4 miles to 100 miles in length is likely to appear at first a very simple proposition.

With the steam railroad superintendent who has given up steam railroading to engage in the supervision of an urban electric railway, there is no such illusion, however.

He may think upon first assuming his duties that as compared with operating a division of the steam road of double the length, operating electric interurban road will be an easy proposition.

The small-scale upon which many operations are carried on upon an interurban electric road is a tendency to make the steam road man feel something akin to contempt until he has faced the problems himself after he is done this he realizes that the great number of small train units and the amount of detail which goes to make up successful operation of an electric road calls for an immense amount of care and work on the part of successful operating superintendent.

The same thing holds true all down the line, even to the conductors and motorman. The former steam railroad engineer once applied for work as a motorman upon the system with which the writer is connected. Upon being informed that he must take six weeks as student to learn the road before he could be put regularly in charge of the car, he gave up his application in disgust, with the remark that if could not learn the whole road in two trips he would eat it.

This simply illustrates the feeling among the steam road men above referred to. It was, of course, hard for that engineer to realize that 50 miles of electric interurban road contain far more turnouts and meeting points, sharp curves, possible stops for passengers and points calling for caution then double that length of ordinary steam road. It is in the mastering of many details that successful interurban electric railway operations depends, from the motorman and conductor up to the general superintendent.

Owing to the great number of train units and the local character of the business of the electric interurban road, the promptness of action required by the operating force of such a road is second only to that of a city street railway, and there is no time or red tape which characterizes the management of our great steam railway trunk lines. Steam railroads today are organized upon the one man power principle, all matters being referred from one official to a higher official, until frequently the man least conversant with the local needs and conditions makes the final decision.

While of course a perfect organization requires a certain amount of red tape of this kind in order that the system may be operated as a unit under the control of a single head, it is not practical to carry it to such an extent in the operation of an electric road. The responsibility must be placed to a large extent with the man who is on the scene of action, and he will frequently be called upon to decide, upon short notice, as to the proper course, because there is no time to refer to higher authorities. The men upon the ground must be held responsible for the results, and given responsibility, rather than depended upon as machines for referring all matters to higher officials.

The operation of the Detroit & Port Huron Shore Line railway, commonly known as the Rapid Railway system, is carried on in many respects like steam railroad, with the necessary deviations from steam railroad rules of practice and management called for by the conditions. The company operates 107 miles of interurban electric road and about 16 miles of city street railway in the cities of Port Huron and Mt. Clemens. The distance from Detroit to Port Huron which is the greatest distance over which cars are operated, is 73 miles.

The line from Detroit to Huron is divided into two operating divisions. Older men and conductors starting from Port Huron, leave their cars at a point about halfway to Detroit, changing to cars bound towards Port Huron at meeting points near the division line. The divisioning of the road in this way is believed to be a desirable feature of any electric enter urban line of this length.

While it is the tendency in steam railway practice to lengthen divisions, it must be remembered first that steam railroad speeds have been greatly increasing, and second, that the motorman and conductor of an electric car have many more details to think of than the conductor and engineer on a steam railroad.

Furthermore the average conductor and motorman obtainable for service on electric interurban road have not anywhere near the previous training and experience in the business that engineers and other trained men on steam roads have had.

Trainmen perform their duties best only when they have had such former practice in them that many of their operations become the kind of second nature or mechanical. By working train crews over short divisions on an electric road they are given a better opportunity to learn thoroughly everything pertaining to that division.

A man running several times a day over a road comes to know it much better than a man who passes over only twice a day. The men come to know the regular passengers at the points which they board and leave the cars. They learn more accurately the exact location of stopping points, the rates of fare, the streets in the numerous towns and villages passed through and the hundreds of little points which go to make up efficient train service. Motormen learn grades, curves and turnouts, and just where it is possible to make best time and where it is not safe to do so. Were electric roads all constructed as steam trunk lines, so that it would be possible to make high speeds over a large percent of the road, regardless of curves and passage through towns, they could operate cars well without changing crews over much longer divisions than the present.

Is before intimated, men are required to take from 4 to 6 weeks to learn our 107 miles of interurban road. This does not include operation in the city of Detroit, as the Detroit United Railway Companies crews take our car at the city limits. The conductor on an interurban car which will seat 50 passengers, and which frequently carries many more on special occasions, must be well educated to his work if he is to perform it with anything like efficiency. Once educated, there are many things which come, as said before, as kind of second nature, but for a new man there is an immense amount of detail to remember and to get to practice. If it were possible to have all passengers purchase tickets before boarding the cars and to relieve the conductors of as many duties as possible, as it being done on steam roads, the problem would be very much simplified.

The Rapid Railway system maintains ticket offices at terminals and in all the principal villages which it passes, but there are necessarily a large number of places where ticket offices cannot be maintained. Even where their are ticket offices, there is little inducement for the passenger to purchase tickets, because, under the conditions, it is impossible for the company to discriminate against cash fares either by charging extra or by an extra charge with a rebate, for the simple reason that so many passengers must necessarily get on at points where tickets cannot br purchased. The collection of cash fares, therefore, it's a great amount of work on the conductor which would not fall to him were it possible to do all business by tickets, as on steam roads, and, furthermore, the conductor must be better trained for his work than if he were simply collecting straight 5-cent fares on city lines.

The average distance traveled per passenger on our interurban lines has been found to be about 12 miles, which goes to show the number of passengers the conductor must deal with on a run of 73 miles. Although, as said before, conductors and motormen on the cars of the Rapid Railway System only operate over half the length of the road under ordinary conditions, they are required to learn the whole road during the student period, so that in emergencies they can do service on either the northern or southern divisions.

The movement of trains is under a modification of the standard code of train rules as adopted by the American Railway Association, and the telephonic train orders given by the dispatchers at Mount Clemens and repeated by both motorman and conductor, who are held equally responsible for their execution.

The distances between sightings are so short that it is not desirable to take time to write out in order as it is received, but the danger of accident due to lapses of memory is provided against by not giving an order an unnecessary length of time, seldom more than 10 minutes, before it is executed

Definite meeting points are given instead of "wait" or "time" orders. Trains running on time move against other trains as provided in timetable, without orders from dispatcher. The train sheet and order book shows a record of train movement and train orders that is complete and comprehensive.

The handling of extra traffic on Sundays and holidays is accomplished on the Rapid railway System in two ways. It may be noted here that the fact that the road reaches a number of pleasure resorts along Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair River makes the amount of pleasure riding greater that it would be on many lines were no such special attractions existed.

We have one division called the Shoreline division which follows the shore of Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River from Mt. Clemens to Detroit which has cars regularly during the week at one-hour intervals. During the summer as a regular thing this service is doubled on Sundays, and since such doubling up of the service is generally known to people who patronize this line regularly, it is a more efficient and desirable way of taking care of the extra traffic than running two or three cars upon one car time as different sections of the same train.

This plan of doubling the frequency works well where people who patronize the cars know in advance that the extra service is being given. On our main line, however, which is the short line from Detroit to Mt. Clemens, and runs for Mt. Clemens along the shore to Port Huron, a great deal of the extra traffic comes from strangers, and we have no means of posting these people as to the fact that any extra trains are being run. The most feasible thing then is to run two or more cars upon the time given on our time tables for one car.

This, of course, causes some delay at meeting points, because cars must always wait for the different sections of an opposing training. In case two cars are being run on one car's time there will be a delay of one or two minutes while the second section is arriving at a meeting point. However, this delay is partly made up by allowing the car ahead to leave some of the local stops for passengers to the following car. On the main or short line between Detroit and Mt. Clemens a half hour service is regularly maintained. From Mt. Clemens on to Port Huron the cars run at one hour intervals.

A car leaves Mt. Clemens on the regular time every half hour without regard to whether the cars from Port Huron are on time. That is, if the car from Port Huron should be delayed by the heavy rush of summer business, the car is started to Detroit from Mt. Clemens upon it's time and the car from Port Huron can then run through from Mt. Clemens to Detroit without any stops save for letting off passengers from points north of Mt. Clemens. The through Port Huron car can, therefore, arrive at its destination, Detroit, on time. The suburban business into Port Huron is cared for in a similar manner to that just described, and ensures compliance with the timetable.

It might well be the work of the American Street Railway Association, which now numbers among its members so many interurban companies, to appoint a committee of interurban superintendents to codify what ought to be the operating rules for interurban lines. It seems to me that we are getting to a point where there should be such recognized standards and operating rules and methods. It would mean much to those of us who at present have to contend with totally inexperienced help in times of heavy business.

The Rapid Railway System keeps about 80 motor man and conductors on its regular runs, with from 10 to 20 extra men. It brings up an operating point wherein interurban roads are at considerable advantage over city lines, namely, in the small number of extra motor man and conductors required in the relatively large amount of work which it is usually found possible to give these extra men on an interurban roads, thereby keeping them well-paid and satisfied, where the city road would have difficulty in doing the same thing.

In the maintenance of our track and right-of-way, which comes under the operating department, the interurban road is divided into sections from 8 miles to 10 miles in length with one foreman and six men for each section. These track men are employed by the company the year around, although, of course, during the frozen winter, they cannot much track work. At such times they are put at such other work is needs to be done, walking track, shoveling snow, coal, etc., and thus are kept in readiness for their regular work in the spring. It is considered that better results are obtained by assigning a number of foreman to sections of the above length then by working a large floating gang.

One of the great needs of electric interurban roads is the adoption of standards of permanent construction of roadway and especially of operating methods that will secure uniformity in practice so far as is consistent with local conditions on what they are to be leading interurban systems of the country. Such a step forward will lay the foundation for the education of employees along established lines for the development of what is not up to this time existed, a thoroughly experienced interurban railway employee, versed in standard practices and available for immediate service on any line.


From the Street Railway Journal, October 4, 1902.