14.1.08

ON THE MOVE. This year's Fifty Book Challenge highballs with Harry Bedwell's The Boomer: A Story of the Rails running as Book Review No. 1. Mr. Bedwell's manifest lists numerous short stories for inter alia Railroad, The Saturday Evening Post, and Argosy. The Boomer is his only book. It reads very much like serialized short stories, which makes sense given that the protagonist, telegrapher Eddie Sand, is a boomer (itinerant railroader) uninterested in taking on either the routine of a supervisory post (whether that be dispatcher or superintendent of transportation) or of getting roped into "the upkeep of a blonde." It's thus straightforward to start a new chapter (or monthly installment?) with Mr Sand, either alone, or with frequent colleague (sometimes sidekick, sometimes antagonist) Hi Wheeler [ouch!] deadheading to a new assignment, generally somewhere West. (The British might speak, correctly, of the coal district of northeast England as the 'spiritual home' of the railway, but the railroad's soul resides on a Rocky Mountain pass, with twenty degrees of frost and the snow falling.) The book will not satisfy a reader looking for a lot of character development and the ending is more than a bit contrived, but it does offer insights into the challenges of keeping a spatially separated enterprise with lots of autonomous individuals attempting to work together to get things done. It's not clear exactly when the story takes place. Most of the action involves heavy agricultural traffic along with massive infrastructure improvements, suggesting the mid-1920s, but a postscript conjectures the reaction at the roundhouse to news of Pearl Harbor. Some of the details of timetable-and-train-order railroading (by telegraphy) are instructive, although the propensity of a dispatcher to keep his railroad fluid by wrong-maining a passenger train within yard limits thereby setting up collisions strains credulity. Yes, a westbound train with proper timetable or train order authority can occupy the westbound main track without having to worry about a passenger train that is using the eastbound main track, but that westbound train ought not be leaving the yard without first obtaining a clearance form from the operator ("I have no orders for your train"), or, within interlocking limits, without having received a clear signal from the jack at the end of the yard lead.

If you are having trouble with my use of the English language, The Boomer has a helpful glossary of steam-era railroad terminology, although "jack" is Northeastern for what the rules refer to as a "dwarf signal."

No comments: