History of the Railroader's Timepiece
Keeping time on the railroad began as an imperfect science. Timepieces of the very early 1800's were notorious for losing as much as ten minutes a day.
Ever since the first train departed, the question has been asked “what time did it leave?” or “what time will it arrive?”
Keeping time on the railroad began as an imperfect science. Timepieces of the very early 1800's were notorious for losing as much as ten minutes a day. As more and more trains began to operate on the same track, risks of confusion arose with many different trains operating on a non-standardized time schedule. As automatic signaling had not yet been developed, railroad operations were coordinated around timing.
This lack of precision finally resulted in the fatal collision of two trains outside of Cleveland, Ohio. Following this incident, railroad investigations revealed that the accident was due solely to the fact that the engineer was using a timepiece that was defective and had not been displaying the correct time.
But what was the correct time? Each railroad had its own opinion and each station along the way did too. The railroads operating in America sat down following the findings of the investigations and agreed to establish standard times and to create a standard clock.
Railroads would also establish requirements for what an acceptable time piece was. Among several highly technical internal specifications, the early requirements for a railroad approved timepiece was that it must be open faced (pocket watches without a closing cover), engineered to keep accurate set time within 30 seconds per week, as well as have a plain white dial with black Arabic numerals.
Railroads installed clock stations at central points where train crews were assigned and rules went into effect stating that all crewmembers were to set their watches to the standard time as displayed by the central clock and coordinate time with each other prior to their tour of duty.
This advancement proved to be very beneficial and exponentially improved the railroad's operating efficiency and drastically reduced the number of near-miss incidents or actual rail collisions resulting from poor timekeeping.
Secondary benefits from these changes in how time was viewed created a renewed interest in timekeeping and accuracy. Companies like Ball, Waltham and Hamilton in America and the newly formed Hans Wilsdorf Watchmakers (later designated as Rolex) and the Louis Brant watch company (later renamed as today's Omega S.A.) of Europe began manufacturing pocket-watches that were capable of withstanding extreme temperatures, moisture, as well as being bumped and dropped, perfect for the demanding environment incumbent on the railroad.
Although much has changed since those days, time is a very crucial element to railroad operations. All railroads operating in North America, including Norfolk Southern and CSXT (our host railroads) continue to have watch construction and time keeping specifications. As watch making is vastly superior to the early days of timekeeping, the technical requirements for a watch's movement are less technical or in some cases, absent.
However, the requirement of no greater loss of 30 seconds is acceptable and all numbers must be displayed as Arabic numerals. United States Naval Observatory time is statistically one of the most precise clocks on earth and is established as the “standard clock” given today's relative absence of large centralized train crewing locations. VRE crews coordinate their personal timepieces with the timing on the USNO clock daily to ensure you arrive to and from your destination on time.