locked Re: Extraordinary Obsolesce - Section Houses
Ike:toggle quoted messageShow quoted text
My sense is that mechanization was a major driver in the reduction, or elimination, of MofW section gangs and the need for section houses. I’d like to see some documentation of this hunch, but Southern, like most other railroads in the 1950s, realized that they no longer needed section gangs every five to ten miles to maintain a given section of track. The sections were expanded in size when routine labor-intensive functions, such as spike driving, tie replacement, or ballast regulating, were economically performed by machines. While mechanization probably came to the large system gangs first, it did eventually trickle down to the sections.
One other consideration was the sense that a pretty railroad was not necessarily a cost-efficient railroad. We all love to see images of main line trains on rock ballasted track with a knife-edge definition to the ballast line. Restoring the roadbed to this condition after routine maintenance was, in the old days, performed manually with shovels and a large straight-edge - it was called dressing the track. As the 1950s progressed, that knife-edge appearance disappeared, not only because of deferred maintenance, but because the railroad no longer believed it needed a pretty right of way.
Another consideration is vegetation control. In the days of sections, weeds and brush were manually cleared to the right-of-way line - maybe 100’ on each side of the track - to prevent fires from passing steam locomotives. Section hands used picks and shovels and maybe scythes or sickles in this process. Once the steam engines disappeared, many railroads, Southern included, stopped clearing brush and weeds by hand, and depended on chemicals from weed spray trains to control stuff growing between, and just outside, the rails. In the Brosnan era, Southern even economized on weed control, spraying diesel fuel on the weeds instead of a specialty chemical. A review of photos of Southern trains from the 1960s will show that diesel fuel was largely ineffective on weeds, and the track and right-of-way really looked ratty.
All factors mentioned above made the old style section gangs - where you had a gang of five or six men and a foreman assigned to a section, which covered five to ten miles of track - an unnecessary luxury. Not all of the massive layoffs among the MofW forces in the 1950s were due to mechanization of the big gangs. Many men from the local section gangs were laid off too.