This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

April 29, 2010 - railroad

[This week's column is a true story, in his own words, by one Francois Pretorius. My thanks to library Delta County Libraries District Director Annette Choszczyk for passing it along.]

The North American Freight Railroads operate 90,000 miles of track 24 hours a day. On some of the busiest lines, such as Chicago to Los Angeles, and many other sections, trains are scheduled every 10 minutes under the watchful eyes of dispatchers far away in Omaha, Jacksonville, Fort Worth, Atlanta, Edmonton and Calgary. Observing the progress of the trains on their arrays of LCD screens, these dispatchers issue instructions to move switches, clear signals, and schedule time for the maintenance gangs to fix and grease and grind and level the track as needed. The operation is not as glamorous as the air traffic control system, but is every bit as complicated.

Tying all of this together is a communications network comprised of fiber-optic lines, radio base stations on mountain tops, copper wire strung on poles along the track, cell phone modems, satellite links and phone lines. Railroads have been operating for 150 years or so, and have seen every bit of new technology deployed. This mix of old and new is looked after by the back-office technicians, who co-ordinate the efforts of armies of maintenance personnel out in the field. If something breaks, a maintenance truck rolls, sometimes for a few hundred miles, and rain or snow, 24 hours a day, it gets fixed.

The trains have to keep running. Stopping a train can cost as much as $250,000.00 per hour, and can back up traffic for hundreds of miles, affecting dozens and dozens of other trains. If the communication circuits go down, the dispatchers can not issue instructions to clear signals, and things grind to a halt. If the problem can not be diagnosed within a few minutes, further experts are called out of their beds, and if they are stumped, the phones start ringing for the engineers that built the system originally, regardless of where they are or what they are doing. Nothing is more important than keeping those wheels turning.
I am one of those engineers, and I operate my business out of a little town in Paonia, Colorado. I get paid to answer the phone 24 x 7 x 365, and when it rings, it normally spells trouble, since by that time all the usual things have been tried, and train stoppages are snowballing on each tick of the clock. Very stressed people on the other side of the call are only interested in "what is wrong, and how do we fix it."

Thanks to the magic of the modern Internet, I am then able to remotely connect to computers far away, and assist in the troubleshooting. To ensure that I can be effective, I have two land line phones, an Internet voice phone, two cell phones from different providers, dial-up internet connections, and a DSL Internet connection.
Until the day the road construction people cut the fiber-optic cable between Delta and Paonia. I was in the middle of working with some of my customers to upgrade their system, when I lost voice and data communications with the outside world, and the town of Paonia and I learned with a shock that the cell-phone towers for both providers, the Internet circuits, and the phone lines all ran through the very same fiber-optic link. So much for connection diversity!

We could make local phone calls in town, and to the nearby town of Hotchkiss, but other than that, we were cut off from the outside world. I had a crisis on my hands, since we were in the middle of the upgrade process, and without my help, the railroad personnel could not go forward, and could not go back. A lot of trains were going to be stopped.

I started calling around town to see if anyone had a satellite internet connection, but no one did, and time was running out. Someone suggested I try the Hotchkiss Library, since they had a radio internet provider and may be ok.
Success! With my laptop under my arm, I walked into the Hotchkiss library, explained my predicament, and was given a table in the corner where I could set up camp. Within a few minutes I was back in contact with my customers, and we finished the upgrade in time to prevent any train delays. 

One library saved the day!

LaRue's Views are his own.

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