Paper Items Carried by Motor Car Operators

Do you ever think about the days when motor cars were used on the railroad to help get real work done? There were once thousands of railroad workers who relied on motor cars to complete their daily assignments. In this article I’d like to discuss paper items that these men would have carried, many of which are available today for us to collect. These items make interesting reading and are very complimentary to your motor car. I will keep using words such as "often", "many", "mostly" and "some" rather than absolute terms because no two railroads had exactly the same paperwork. So what did operators carry? The two most important were a timetable and a book of rules.

 Employee Timetables

Most railroad operations rely on trains that move on a schedule. At one time, these schedules were well-documented in employee timetables and a motor car operator would have been required to carry one. These are quite different to the more widely known public timetables. An employee timetable did not usually cover the entire railroad. For smaller railroads it may have but larger ones were divided up into division and subdivision timetables. However, a timetable often covered several subdivisions or an entire division. Updates were issued on a regular basis. The superceded timetables were supposed to be destroyed but thankfully for us, this did not always happen. When in use, timetables were made to be folded into a handy size. About 4 inches wide and 10 inches high was a common standard.

Employee timetables contained a great deal of essential information. This included listings of stations, distances between them, where the sidings were and the capacity of each siding. For scheduled trains it showed the direction, days of operation, class and arrival/departure times at each station. Special rules in a timetable included speed limits, block rules, locomotive ratings and yard limits. Locations of train dispatchers telephone numbers, official bulletin boards, special railroad grade crossings, spring switches and overhead obstructions were included. Even the names and locations of company doctors and surgeons were listed.

If you know the area where your motor car was used on the railroad it came from, you can obtain an employee timetable for that division or subdivision. If you know when your car was built and when it’s service life ended, you can buy one from that time period. That way you would have the same timetable used by the operator of your particular car. So where can you get one? You will see timetable sellers advertising in most railroad magazines. You can also see timetables for sale at many of the bigger railroad swap-meets. Lastly and most importantly for some of us, online auction websites are a good source of timetables. If you live in Florida and have a Western Pacific motor car, seeing a WP timetable at your local swap-meet is unlikely but finding one online at eBay ( isn’t going to be difficult. The drawback with online auction websites is that you are bidding against others from across the country (or even the world), so the price of a successful bid may not be seem all that cheap. eBay seems to be the online auction site where most employee and public timetables are sold. A check of how many were being auctioned on December 9th showed a total of 402 timetables. There’s not much risk involved when buying online - I’ve bought dozens of items on eBay and have received every one, most of them very promptly. The online auctions at Yahoo ( have timetables too.

Common employee timetables may sell online for a couple of bucks – rarer and older ones may go for up to $50 or more. To take an example, for my 1940 ex-DSS&A Fairmont M19 I bought on eBay a 1945 South Shore timetable. This covered the whole railroad (Sault Ste Marie, MI and St. Ignace, MI to Marengo Junction, WI). Since the DSS&A merged into the Soo Line in 1960, I also bought a 1967 Soo Line timetable for the 8th and 9th subdivisions of the Eastern Division. This particular timetable covered most of the old South Shore. The former was $37 and the latter was $10, both in very good condition. They could doubtless have been gotten cheaper if I lived in Soo Line country! Timetables for the largest roads like Santa Fe and Union Pacific may sell online for as little as $2.

For those for don’t know exactly where their car was used, some employee timetables do cover the whole railroad. Additionally, by the nineteen eighties many railroads were putting all their timetables into one binder instead of issuing separate books. Browse through one of these binders and see all the fascinating places that your car could have been used at. This is what happened to the Soo Line. An 80-page 1987 timetable included every line on the whole railroad. It cost $4 on eBay.

 Special Instructions Books

For railroads that preferred minimalist employee timetables, a special instructions book accompanied them. This contained information normally included in a more comprehensive timetable, including that described in the section above. The advantage to the railroad was the lower cost of printing general information in just one place rather than printing it in every timetable. Per instructions in that 1967 Soo Line Eastern Division Timetable, "Employees must have a copy of the current Eastern Division Special Instructions in their possession while on duty and be governed thereby." I assume from this that motor car operators would have carried such books.

Rule Books

A focus on safety was very important for motor car operators. In an industrial environment filled with potential hazards, many of them lethal, having a primary focus on safety was the only way to reach retirement in one piece. One very important safety aid was the rule book. Sometimes there was a separate rule book covering motor car, hand car and velocipede operators. Note that the terms ‘track cars", "track motor cars" and "motor cars" were all used in rule books. The New York Central, Delaware & Hudson, Burlington Lines, Santa Fe, Nickel Plate, Erie Lackawanna, C&O, B&O and Illinois Central are railroads that did issue separate rule books. They were usually 10-20 pages long. In addition to the rules, some contained a list of questions about the rules, so that operators could test themselves before a formal examination. Others contained examples of completed forms that an operator would use during performance of his assignment. Many contained a tear-out page where the recipient of the book had to sign. He agreed to comply with all the rules and his signature was witnessed. If he then broke any rules, dismissal from the railroad could occur very quickly.

Rule books for track car operators dealt with many subjects, including authority to operate, daily inspection, filling gas tanks, carrying tools and equipment, overloading, setting off, trailer cars, crossings, frogs and switches, spacing and familiarity of territory. Rule books usually contained speed limits for motor cars. They always used a phrase similar to that in a 1966 Burlington Lines track car rule book: "In case of doubt or uncertainty, the safe course must be taken". Rule books required employees in charge of a car to carry a timetable and many went so far as to require a standard watch which was compared daily to a standard clock. The timetable or special instructions book listed which locations had standard clocks.

An interesting example of a rule is this New York Central one from 1950: "Track cars while being operated must be kept at least 600 feet apart. Except in emergency, advance track car must not be stopped until track car following has been signaled and signal acknowledged". A 1968 B&O/C&O motor car rule book contains the requirement: "A system number is assigned by the Chief Engineer to each car by which it may be designated and identified. This number must be displayed at all times, clean and unobscured". This book also states "Application of unapproved devices to a track car is prohibited".

Rule books usually required an operator to call the dispatcher for a "line-up", which is a description is what is really happening on the railroad in a given timeframe. This was necessary to cover unscheduled train movements. However, the 1950 Delaware & Hudson track car rule book stated "When a lineup of train movement is obtained it must not be considered final because operating conditions may require running of additional trains or change in lineup". When a line-up could not be obtained, the 1952 C&O rule book stated "Movement may be made without line-up, under such flag protection as may be necessary, or extreme precaution exercised, and speed controlled so that car can be stopped short of obstruction or removed from track to prevent accident". As you can guess, there was many an operator who had to hustle to get his motor car out of the way of an approaching train or in the worst case, jump for his life!

Motor car operation rules on other railroads were included in a book of safety rules that covered most or all employees. An example I have is a 1956 Book of Safety Rules by Illinois Central that contained 551 rules in total, 59 of which were relevant to track car operators. The American Association of Railroads (AAR) also published a book of safety rules containing a section for motor, hand and push car operators.

Rule books, like timetables, are advertised in magazines, seen at swap-meets and are listed on eBay. A check on December 9th showed a total of 212 railroad rule books advertised on eBay, priced from $1 to $49.95. My experience is that track car rule books sell on eBay for between five and ten dollars. An unusual rule book that may become collectable in the future is the one issued by MCCA, early editions of which are now ten years old.

We should all take to heart the following advice from a 1964 Erie Lackawanna Railroad rule book for track car use and operation: "At any rate, follow the rules. Someone learned them the hard way".

 Other Paperwork

Two other relevant pieces of paperwork were a timesheet and a daily performance report. These could be two separate pieces of paper or combined. A good example of a Soo Line daily performance report is shown with this article. It is the summary of a day’s work on November 11th 1984 in the Upper Penninsula of Michigan, east of Gladstone. The track inspector covered 26 miles on this day, including sidings at Swift and Gould City. No defects were found. In 1984 the Soo Line still had motor cars but this form doesn’t give us any clues about whether a motor car or hyrail was used.

One essential piece of paperwork carried by motor car operators that is not usually considered a collectable is……..toilet paper.

 Other Interesting Paper Items

One fascinating railroad item is a track chart for the area or division that your car came from. Here you can see the track owned by the railroad, including all sidings, spurs and junctions. If your chart is prior to 1980 you’ll be marveling at how much is now gone. These track charts tend to be more expensive than timetables and rule books but what an excellent resource!

Books issued jointly by the railroad and the union would have been of relevance to motor car operators. For example, the contract between the union and the railroad spelled out details that today would be contained in a corporate benefits manual. An example of a 1951 Nickel Plate booklet containing such is shown here. Striking a blow for equality, Rule 53 in this book states: "The pay of female employees for the same class of work shall be the same as that of men and their working conditions must be healthful and fitted to their needs". Rule 57 states: "The railroad will see that an adequate supply of suitable water is made available to employees living in its buildings and camp cars. Where it must be transported and stored in receptacles, they shall be well adapted to their purposes". Finally, many railroads issued regular magazines for their workers, which detailed life in the company. Both of these collectibles can be found for reasonable prices.

In summary, you can add to the charm of your motor car by collecting the paper items that would have been used by its operator. These items also make very interesting reading. Buying them is not an expensive proposition and the availability of so many of them online makes it possible to find the specific ones that compliment your car. I would like to thank Red Richardson for his suggestions and Ron Zammit for his review

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Last Edited 20 December, 2002