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Out of the Depot

Time Is Key To Safe Railroad Operation

By J. K. Gurner


Every man who worked for the railroad and had anything to do with movement of anything on the tracks, had to have the most accurate watch he could buy. He had to set his watch by the depot clock whenever he worked. And, his watch had to be checked by a qualified technician every three months.
When I was a kid, I wondered why my Dad, B. G. Gurner, was always going to the depot to set his watch, even when he was not going to work. He wanted to be sure he had the right time and always added, “that’s railroad time.”
For many years people measured time based on the position of the sun; it was noon when the sun was highest in the sky. Sundials were used well into the 1800s, at which time mechanical clocks came into use. Cities would set their town clock by the sun, but every city would be on different time due to their different geographical locations.
Britain was the first country to set time throughout a region to one standard time. The railroad was most concerned about the differences in the local mean time and they forced a uniform time on the country. The Great Western Railway of England was the first to use a standard time. This standard time became known as railroad time.
The main purpose behind introducing railroad time was to overcome the confusion caused by having non-uniform local times in each town and station along the expanding railway system and to reduce the number of accidents that were becoming more frequent.
The railroad needed two things in order to have an efficient and safe operating system. That was a timed schedule and a means of communication. By this time the telegraph had developed into a useable means of communication. The railroads and Western Union Telegraph had an agreement where Western Union supplied the equipment and know-how, and the railroad supplied the manpower. This is why the railroad depot became the center of communication in most towns.
The time was a more difficult matter. Standard time in time zones was instituted in the U.S. and Canada by the railroads on November 18, 1883. Prior to that, time of day was a local matter and most cities and towns used some form of local solar time, maintained by a well-known clock (on a church steeple or in a jeweler’s window, for example).
A Canadian civil engineer who worked for the railroad was the first to instigate the adoption of the time zones that are in use today. The railroads were the first to use this method for setting a standard time for the entire country. Although the large railroad systems in the U. S. adopted standard time at noon on November 18, 1883, the new standard time was not immediately embraced. It was many years before such time was actually used by the people.
Keeping the correct time was a necessity for the railroads. Western Union looked at the problem and developed a system that would transmit a time code to clocks that needed to have the exact time. So, at noon Eastern Standard Time, the standard time signal was transmitted to every office cut in on every telegraph wire.

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