Why Railroads are obsessed with time.



"Timing has a lot to do with avoiding train disasters"


train wreck caused by faulty railroad watchThe industrial revolution was enabled by the plumes of black smoke and fire belching from giant locomotives roaring across the farms and fields of the American countryside. The railroads were the major source of rapid, reliable transportation for moving raw materials, iron ore, steel, oil, farm goods and everything else factories consumed, processed and regurgitated. The rail system was the heartbeat of the evolving American economy.

By the year 1880 there was over one hundred thousand miles of railroad track in North America. And there were countless switches, signals and side tracks. Hundreds of trains operated daily chugging on and off of those side tracks to avoid two trains sharing the same track in opposing directions. In those days, without radios, cell phones or GPS devices, all trains needed to start or stop at precisely scheduled times. Trains were required to pass certain track switches at certain times, and that was the role of the railroad watch. Get it wrong and disaster would strike.

railroad locomotiveHowever, there was a major problem in this scheduling system. That problem was the country had yet to adopt a time standard. In that era every village, town and major city in the U. S. operated on its own time, determined by the "sun" at its particular location. There were 50 different "times" in use by the various railroads. Those responsible for operating the trains had to constantly be aware of ever changing "time zones" and adjust their schedules accordingly. This was no easy feat.


Add to this mix the fact that the reliability and accuracy of timepieces in that era is also brought to question. Conductors and engineers had only their watches to consult for accurate time, and unfortunately watches of that era just didn't measure up. When two or three minutes could spell the difference between life and death, the precision of watches in the 1880s was woefully inadequate.

railroad locomotiveThe complexity of the interconnecting rail system, with its multitude of locomotives, side tracks and switches, along with the confusion of the time keeping methods of the day, and undependable timepieces was a formula for innumerable collisions. Which of course occurred at an ever increasing rate. Eventually the railroads were forced to address the "time" issues.


The railroads came up with two remedies to solve the problems. First off, a standard time plan was designed and adopted. Four time zones where set up by the railroads -- Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific. (Interestingly, many years later, congress officially established the time zones set up by the railroads, as a national standard.) And second, a program was embarked upon to encourage the watch industry to create very accurate, very durable timepiece for conductors.

In 1893, the General Railroads Timepiece Standards Commission presented guidelines for "railroad" watches. Approved watches would have to be accurate to within 30 seconds over a span of a week. They would also need to be impervious to extreme temperature swings common to the rail industry. They would have to be easy to read, with Arabic numerals. The orientation in which they were held could not affect their performance. And most importantly, they where required to be inspected on a regular basis.


conductor and engineer compare time with railroad watchesThus was born the railroad watch. Manufacturers of the day responded by creating timepieces that would meet the demanding requirements of railroads. And these new timepieces had an effect on the rail industry that was quickly apparent. Accidents and collisions were significantly reduced as the entire rail system became predictable. The United States continued to move into the industrial revolution on the back of its railroads. And now it was safely "on time".


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