by Andrew Boyd

Click here for audio of Episode 2970

Today, a story of change. The University of Houston’s College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

From age four I knew I wanted to be an engineer. Just not the kind you might think.

Like many boys I fell in love with trains and someday wanted to hold the throttle of an engine as it powered its way across the coun-try. One of the great joys of visiting my grandfather was a trip to the switching yard. There we’d cross a long bridge over what seemed like hundreds of tracks and thousands of train cars. At home I kept a treasured train set that I carefully operated using the dial on my transformer. Each car had its own, special function. Among the cars in my set were an engine, a coal car, assorted box cars, and a red caboose.

General view of part of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad yard
General view of part of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad yard (Wikipedia Image)

Needless to say, trains are much different today. The coal car was first to go. As the industry transitioned from steam to diesel in the mid twentieth century there simply wasn’t a need for one. That also eliminated the need for the fireman, whose job was to feed coal to the engine’s furnace.

John in a caboose
John Lienhard in a caboose.

Cabooses went next. They housed the conductor and brakeman. The conductor was responsible for managing the paperwork and for the train’s overall operation. The brakeman controlled a rear braking system, and from the windowed cupola atop the caboose kept an eye out for fires caused by overheated axle bearings. Improved brakes and bearings made the brakeman’s job obsolete, and the conductor moved up front to the engine.

Orange caboose
Orange caboose (Flickr image)

Boxcars have seen better days as well. Originally an all-purpose conveyance, they’ve largely been replaced by more special-ized cars. Most significantly, cars for transporting shipping con-tainers now carry the bulk goods once stuffed by hand into every corner of a boxcar.

clean boxcar
A clean boxcar (Wikipedia image)

With all these advances, today’s freight trains typically have a crew of only two: the engineer and the conductor. Yet even that’s changing. Technology has made it possible for conductors to perform their duties more efficiently from a central location, not on the train. The gears are now in motion to reduce train crews to a single person: the engineer.

An important part of this shift is Positive Train Control. Posi-tive Train Control is a nationwide system to track the speed and lo-cation of trains. If danger arises, and if the train’s operator fails to respond, the system can automatically take action. In 2008, Con-gress passed a bill requiring Positive Train Control to be in opera-tion by 2015. The bill was set in motion by an accident caused by misuse of another new technology. When a freight train and passenger train collided in Los Angeles killing twenty-five, investigators de-termined the operator of the train at fault had been texting.

Will we someday see giant freight trains with no crew at all? It depends. The possibility’s well within our technical capabilities right now. But railway companies and labor unions have a long and complicated history. We’ll have to leave it to them to sort things out.

train control room
A train station control room (Wikipedia image)

I’m Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Notes and references:

Engineer Sent Text 22 Seconds Before Fatal Train Crash., October 1, 2008. See also: . Accessed September 8, 2014.

Positive Train Control. From the website of the Association of American Railroads: Accessed September 2, 2014.

Positive Train Control. From the Wikipedia website: Accessed September 8, 2014.

A. Sperandeo and K. P. Keefe. “The ABCs of Railroading: The People Who Work on Trains.” Trains, May 1, 2006. See also: Accessed September 8, 2014.

F. Wilner. “BNSF, SMART Seek Historic Crew Consist Revision.” Railway Age, July 17, 2014. See also: Accessed September 8, 2014.

This episode was first aired on September 11, 2014.