Taking Care of the New Guy

Revised 8/1/16

When operators have gathered for a session of hedonistic profit-taking on the Lackawanna Terminal Railway and operations start to wind down, weary crews will wander toward the chip bowl filled with snack products graciously offered by the warehouse employees of on-line shipper Amalgamated Processed Foods and a cooler filled with cans of fuzzy flavored water under development and testing by our good friends at the National Chemical and Refining Corporation (also a major on-line customer). Fatigue soaked, bellies bloated, and hunger sated, conversations tend to drift into many different channels. One discussion that has come to the surface recently is how to deal with newcomers, whether modelers or the casually interested.

Ideally, I think, the host and regulars should deal with visitors, guests, and new members as we do when developing our model railroad operating themes and scenarios; look to, and take example from, the prototype railroads. 

When someone hires out on the prototype (assuming no railroad experience) they know less than nothing about railroad operations on the level that counts; moving freight over the railroad, drilling and blocking cars in yards, and delivering those cars to customer's sidings safely and efficiently. Many times their only experience with railroading is restricted to waiting at a crossing for a train to pass. To learn those railroad skills needed to work safely in the railroad environment  new hires generally go to a company class to learn complex rules and special instructions governing the safe and effective operation of the railroad. They are then assigned to a crew or paired with a crewman who has experience and, hopefully, the ability to convey that experience to the new guy. 

Experienced operator/mentor, Jay Mikesh, mentors the new guy on the East Buffalo Yard Drill as they switch cars at the busy transload center in East Buffalo. This is a complex work assignment that requires, in addition to classifying cars for road freights and local switch crews, servicing five seperate industries plus the repair shop and company stores.

It doesn’t matter whether the trainee is learning to block cars for the local freight or learning to punch tickets on a moving passenger train, the new guy learns by repeatedly doing the same operations over and again, every day. The more varied the procedures the longer it can take for the learning to become ingrained knowledge.  Once the knowledge is ingrained the new guy becomes an experienced guy and can pass on his knowledge to the next generation of new guys. 

Jay Mikesh Instructs Jim Walsh 7:31:16

Experienced operator/mentor Jay instructs new guy Jim on the operation of CP “KLEM” during the railroad’s monthly "Gathering of the True Faithful”. CP “KLEM” is where double terack is reduced to single track and is essential in the switching of three major customers. In the background, Dr. Mark, having received some basic instruction, switches cars in the National Chemical and refining complex.

Even old heads become new heads when moving on to a new railroad or even another division of the same railroad. Learning new hand signals, customer drills, physical characteristics, rules, and special instructions that are germane to that division or railroad takes time and practice. Switching twelve inch to the foot freight cars at customer’s sidings is a "learned-by-doing" skill. So it is in the world of model railroading. As the above pictures show, even  experienced model railroad operators, who have run trains over many miniature mainlines need to learn the charactoristocs of each new railroad they visit in order to effectively contribute to the railroad’s operations.

Generally, a newcomer/modeler enters the model railroad world to be confronted with a miniature universe perhaps filled to overflowing with tracks and scenery; rails run in all directions, trains travel in seemingly random sequence, the purpose of each building, switch, engine, and car incomprehensible to anyone not prepped in advance. Not much different from a new guy showing up for his first day on the Big Guy Railroads. For the host, the first priority is to ensure the railroad is running properly with all assignments understood by the regulars and operations set to bring profits flowing into the corporate coffers much like a job briefing held by a railroad crew on the prototype. Only then can he give the proper attention to the visitor; to introduce the newcomer with a tour and general overview of what is going on and to answer any questions that arise. Maybe the newcomer doesn’t feel up to participating the first day. That’s fine. He can watch, wander, ask questions, and get somewhat familiar with the operations. The host can also prompt the visitor to match up with an agreeable regular as he works his assignment while explaining how the throttles work, how and why certain cars are placed where they are and, in general, make the visitor part of the operations in a non-threatening, relaxed manner. It is also somewhat incumbent for the host (as it is also incumbent upon real railroad management) to couple the visitor to someone, not only with experience but, willing to impart knowledge to the new and clueless. 

East end NC&R Panel
West end NC&R Panel

Even for experienced Operators, switching industries on the Lackawanna Terminal Railway can be very complex as show on the two panels above that control all the switch at the National Chemical and Refining Complex in DePew, NY. Switching both sides of the mainline while dodging through traffic yet new guys can successfully switch this most important customer confidently after receiving instructions from qualified crews. Fortunately, car cards are not used so complexity of car movement varies with the ambition of the crew. 

If the visitor returns then he can follow another operator on the same or different type of assignment for some, continuing his/her OJT. If the visitor has now become a regular then he should be introduced to every type of operation from the yard drill to the through freight. Soon, the once visitor becomes a regular and a positive addition to the group. With experience the visitor can become a mentor to others that come by, perhaps “just to look”.

Note from the author:

Of course, now that we have gotten through the balderdash as it is explained and displayed in the corporate public relations and slick employee recruiting brochures we can delve into the real world of model railroading where the new guy is handed a throttle, given an assignment, and thrown to the wolves of chance and spirit crushing vagary. This is reality as exhibited on the Lackawanna Terminal Railway where the pressure of the day to day transportation of freight to customers on and beyond the immediate property requires that time is not spend frivolously on training newcomers when the would-be trainers are needed on other assignments directly concerned with, and appropriate to, the primary occupation of the railroad, i.e., garnering profits from the labors of the fewest number of whining, overpaid, lazy, insecure, and incompetent employees. The newest and least capable employee will be given a glossy overview of the railroad, where it goes, and what it does, then sent off on his first day dazed and confused and looking for help while other, more experienced operators, smirk behind his back. Blame for all disruptions will bear the name of the newcomer as reports of ineptitude reach ever higher through the labyrinth of offices in the headquarters building until his permanent record is so besmirched that the new guy will forever be called by his newly acquired nickname: “Loose Wheels”; just like the prototype.


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