Experiences Working In An RPO
by Jim Harrison
In my ten years of working in a Railway Post Office (RPO) car, I was in two wrecks and several close calls. I was also on at least a dozen trains in which we hit cars and killed the occupants. Many times we were rerouted because the main line was blocked. We were routed over the Michigan Central and through the Ford plant river route, through the yards around Detroit, and onto the NYC main line at Toledo.
Several times we were routed over the NKP from Chicago to Cleveland. One time, we used the old road out of Toledo. That time we really shocked a woman on the Century. They usually routed the name trains over the Michigan Central when the west Division was blocked. But this time, the Century was already past Buffalo when the wreck occurred. So, they routed it over the old road, too. By this time, the old road was not in the best of shape. We were already late, so they put us on a siding until the Century passed. We all went to the doors to watch it go by. They were only moving at about ten miles per hour. A woman had just come out of the shower in one of the pullmans when she looked up to see us all watching. She tried to cover up with a towel and close the shade at the same time. She was not very successful with either effort!
Another time, we had a truck collapse under us. We were getting a rough ride right out of Chicago and the boss pulled the air signal. The conductor came and inspected the trucks. He could not see anything wrong. We didnít go very far before the boss pulled the air signal again. We were near Chesterton and they had a carknocker come out and inspect the trucks again. After banging every thing with his hammer, he also said there was nothing wrong. By this time, the conductor was livid and threatened to turn us all in if this happened again. We were hardly up to speed again when the whole end of the car began to shake. This time, I pulled the emergency cord. We could see the conductor coming toward us hollering at the top of his voice. I leaned out the door and pointed at the truck. He didnít say another word because the truck had collapsed as we slid to a stop.
Another time, we had a crossing plank come up and embed itself in our battery box. One end kept hitting the roadbed and really shook our car. We thought we were on the ground. We jumped up and grabbed the bars over head. When we kept going, the boss jumped down and pulled the emergency cord. By this time, we were all in the dark since the plank had shorted out the battery and all of the bulbs had exploded. The clerks in the other cars didnít even realize anything was wrong.
One time, we were unloading mail in Toledo when the clerk at the paper end of the car called me down to see what was hindering him from dragging sacks down the aisle. The truck pedestal was sticking up out of the floor! There could not have been more than two inches of the pedestal still holding the truck. We had been traveling for at least an hour at 85 MPH like that. We called for a carknocker. He came with a sledge and drove it down into the floor.
A good share of the cars were way over fifty years old. Some of them had LS&MS stamped into the frame. However, we preferred these cars to the newer ones since the newer ones were a good deal lighter and gave us a very rough ride.
The one wreck that I was in happened at Chesterton, Indiana. It turned out we were very lucky because we had a paying passenger for Chesterton. This was not a regular stop for us. We had slowed down to about 35 MPH when the last 85 cars of a freight running beside us derailed in front of us, blocking all four tracks. If not for the flag stop, we would have been right up in the middle of it. As it was, we hit it at about 35 MPH since the engineer had no warning. We had 14 clerks hurt bad enough to go to the hospital. I had my shoulder dislocated. We did not derail and the only damage to the engine was a broken draw bar along with some air and steam lines torn off. After repairing these items, we backed up to the Michigan Central interchange and went around by way of Detroit. We arrived in Cleveland 14 hours late.
The other time I was injured occurred when we were sitting still on one of the terminal tracks. We would run from Cleveland to Buffalo on train 90, had two hours off, then went to work sorting mail from the Buffalo terminal. When the Empire arrived, they took off the east division car and put us on to return to Cleveland. They were supposed to knock on our door and warn us they were going to move our car so that we could sit down during the move. They had been warned about this since they had not been doing it. I think they intended to scare us for turning them in. Anyway, they came in at about 40 MPH and then attempted to stop. Their brakes failed and they hit us a good one! We had three clerks injured enough to go to the hospital. I was black and blue but was able to return to Cleveland. They got ninety days but were lucky since they could have been fired. They had all signed the dayís notice sheet that instructed about warning the people in the cars before moving them..
I guess I was jinxed. In talking to other RPO clerks, a lot them had worked for over 30 years and never been in a wreck or been over any other tracks than the main line. A few years ago, I read in the Pennsy historical news about an RPO clerk that wondered why they put the overhead bars in the cars. I know of one wreck where the car turned over and the only person hurt was an inspector who didnít know to grab the bars when you hear the air go on. The trick was to jump up, grab the bars, and swing your feet off the ground. During one trip, while eating lunch, our new boss, who had almost 40 years of service, said that he had never been over foreign tracks. I told him that if he stuck with this crew, he would soon. Sure enough, that same trip, a boat loaded with chemicals sank near a drawbridge. We had to go over the Soo line tracks around Chicago and come in the back way through the stock yards. What a smelly trip that was! I am a NYC buff but they had some of the worst workers that I have ever seen. I was in charge of a storage car out of Chicago. I would take chalk and mark all of the stalls with the connections that we would make. When we started to load, I would read the labels and the NYC laborers would form a chain gang, putting the items in the stalls I called out. If you didnít watch them, they would throw them in any stall. Also, on Friday nights, they would watch the fights on TV and delay bringing up our working mail. One Friday night, they delayed so long that when they brought the mail up to the Coal track where we worked on the advance, they had already moved our three RPOís and storage cars on to the train. By the time they took it back down and tried to bring it up to the departure track, we were already pulling out without any working mail. They must have finally caught hell since they always had the mail up on time after that.
My favorite train to work was #14. We always had 30 or more cars loaded with mail and we also usually had four E units. Our only stops were to change crews at Toledo and Elkhart, Indiana and this was done on the move. We made faster time from Chicago to Cleveland than the Century.
When I started work as a sub, they would work us an average of 110 hours every two weeks, all at straight time. In addition, we had to memorize the mail sorting schemes at the same time. The post office also used a few other dirty tricks. One was to schedule you for a few minutes less than they paid you for. That way, they could use you for a few extra trips at Christmas without pay. Also, when they used you in a foremanís job, they had to pay you at that rate after you had 30 days in a year. So they would use you for 29 days and then make sure you never did it again for a year.