Marv Winkeler - Various jobs, Dupo, Illinois, St. Louis and Omaha.


Working on the MoPac Railroad

What was your first job on the MoPac and what were the daily duties?  

My first job on the railroad was working the extra board.  This consisted of being on-call 7x24 to cover any vacancy the office had on a job that I was qualified to work.  I actually “broke in“on the various office jobs over the Christmas holidays on MY time, not the railroad’s.  I established my seniority date of January 5, 1971 as the messenger (carry-all driver and I’m pretty sure it was 3rd shift).   This consisted of making a couple of trips throughout the yard, picking up trainman time slips, putting paper in the remote printers for switch lists, and driving crews to different ends of the yard or picking up crews on inbound trains for delivery to the hotels in St. Louis. 

 My second working assignment (in the same week) was keypunching waybills for computer input and typing up local waybills from the immediate area businesses.  We received a number of waybills from the Chevy plant and had to type all the VIN numbers onto the waybill.  It seemed like an eternity to finish just on bill and we used to get 10 to 15 carloads a day.   This assignment also helped getting all of the waybills together for the outbound trains. 

What was the most interesting job on the railroad you had?

The most interesting job was working on the help desk which I did for over 25 years.  It was quite the job in talking with folks from across the entire railroad assisting with procedural, software and hardware problems.  Initially, I was handling procedural and simple hardware problems.  But, as the systems evolved, so did the complexity.  It was always a challenge to try to imagine what the client was describing to you and not being able to actually see the “error” or “hardware” condition. 

One of the most interesting, and perhaps stressful, jobs on the Help desk in St. Louis was in the area called YATS support (Yard and Terminal Systems).  We had the duty of managing these DEC middle range computers of the day remotely via dial-in modem at 300 baud (unimaginable in this day of high speed communications).  We literally talked folks through changing out large disk packs for these machines to get inventories restored when there were hardware failures.  We did have daily maintenance tasks to run and hardware calls to manage and even procedural support in transmitting train reportings to the mainframe. 

Often enough, we were sent on assignment to some of these field locations to handle these maintenance tasks, especially during significant software upgrades.  I do remember spending a week in Chicago when it was planned for only two days.  We worked a lot of nights correcting those problems because that’s when the machine was most available to complete the repairs (a disk compatibility issue). 

What was best part of working of the MoPac?  

The best part of working for the MoPac was the work attitude of the entire company.  The MoPac had the proper awareness of where they stood in comparison to the other railroads.  They were keenly aware that they were the “middle” carrier in much of the freight business and had to court that business in the midst of a multitude of railroads that could do almost the same thing.  There were days when I didn’t appreciate the penny-pinching ways but it kept the company afloat.  I think there was an appreciation for running the railroad efficiently (at least within the headquarters confines).   I think this attitude set the MoPac apart from the other railroads.  Having come out of receivership in the late 60’s, the MoPac was keenly aware of managing costs but not totally blind to the needs to maintain the infrastructure. 

There was definitely an attitude of the “good old boy” network, even with the local agents and superintendents.  They took care of their local customers and the local customers were “appreciative” of that in many varied ways.  For example in Dupo, empty open-topped hoppers were distributed each day by the superintendent.  He had the authority ration the available hoppers as he saw fit to the local businesses along the river for loading limestone and the like.  In some regards, this kept a personal relationship with the customers we served. 

What did the railroad focus on as your daily responsibilities?  

In the Yard, the focus was getting the daily trains built and departed on time with a correct consist transmitted to the next down line station.  There was a certain casual attitude in the yard office especially around the holidays with the folks bringing in food.  We had one lady who would bring in a full Thanksgiving dinner for the clerks and the yardmen on duty (of course we did compensate for the work but she sure could cook). 

In the Headquarters, I had two experiences – one working on data quality and the other the help desk.  In data quality, we were charged with verifying interchange discrepancies electronically using records provided from the AAR computer database.  This required finding contacts on the various roads we interchanged with and then building relationships to be able to resolve the discrepancies.  This was no small task as many dollars of revenue rested on resolving these issues resulting in per diem cost savings. 

On the Help Desk, the focus was to keep the local operations fluid despite hardware, software or communication failures (which were the worst).  We tried to maintain a professional attitude and correct the problems as quickly as possible.  The severity obviously varied with the size of the affected location and demanded many a creative solution to keep information flowing. 

How did the MP differ from other railroads?

I don’t know how much MP differed from other roads but I did note that it was often THE thing that made towns and held them together.  It provided the majority of jobs in many towns and the folks were good about keeping it that way.  I sincerely believe that the local folks stuck together in keeping things going, no matter the hour, the day, the personal inconvenience.  This camaraderie spilled over into the various town’s activities and celebrations.  I know, when the Help desk folks were having a party, there was always someone who would take some food to those who had to work during the celebration.  It was this kind of “family” atmosphere that I was able to experience.

What changes did you see in your career that you felt were significant?

The biggest changes revolved around the railroad embracing computer (and later facility) technology.  The continued push to improve the computer systems, the printers, the amount of information gathered and collated was a constant.  This success was driven by folks who were dedicated to preparation of an implementation.  In the early days, I only know of one major hardware/software implementation that was ever reversed.  And there were a lot of yards that experienced these changes.  From a help desk perspective, it was a nightmare to support but the railroad implemented computer systems that were tailored for the particular yard operation.  The large ones received large computers; the smaller ones got smaller varieties.   The movement to faster card readers, CRT input of waybills vs. typewriters, smaller and faster printers really improved the information flow. 

Of course, there was the pendulum of centralizing reportings vs. input being done locally.  This always caused conflict in getting the work done and correctly.  This pendulum swing also caused the hardware configurations at each location to change as well.  Some yard reportings were assumed by other yards; some were brought into the headquarters for handling. 

But perhaps the biggest change on the MoPac occurred with the change of leadership and management styles.  The movement from the militaristic style of management and the up-across-down access to other departments to the more collaborative style was probably one of the most notable and most challenging changes to implement.  It did not come without pain or rearrangement of personnel.  It definitely took a top-down approach to make it happen.  Slowly, but not completely, the focus of correcting business problems moved from assigning blame to an attitude of how can we avoid it again. 

Any stories you can tell now you couldn't when you were working?   How did working for the railroad affect your personal or family life?

Working on the railroad always affected your personal and family life.  Trying to see your children grow up and witness their sporting events or school plays was always difficult.  With the varied hours (who works during the night) and strange days (two days off together was a blessing even if it was Tuesday and Wednesday), it was just plain hard to make it work sometimes.  Then, add the stress of trying to go back to school and get a degree when you couldn’t be guaranteed what days/hours you would be working, it was always a real juggling act.  When there was overtime to be made to advance the family financial situation, it always seemed to fall during a birthday party or Christmas Eve celebration.  And, in the early years when you had little to no seniority, you were “forced” to work being the youngest. 

I will freely admit that, from the day I hired out, I never had less than a 40-hour week.  It was good, steady, honest work.  But it often left the burden of walking the floor at night with a crying baby to others. 

So many stories could be told as the culture of the early railroad was much, much freer and not constrained by political correctness.  The characters who worked on the railroad in the early 70’s often had criminal records and carried guns to work.  Many a beer was consumed during a switchman’s shift.  Often a “blind eye” was turned when some boxcar of TV’s mysteriously was emptied or even an entire carload of grain seemed to disappear.  But also simpler things - how suddenly a fresh watermelon to be shared would appear in the office from the carload just outside the door. 

And the humorous stories – as one night we had the inbound route clerk believing that we had received in interchange a carload of canaries and he was shouting at the yardmaster that the car had to be set out to “feed, water and rest” these birds.  An extra car number written on the inbound check list, a phony waybill and the yardmaster’s cantankerous refusal to comply made the laughter even louder. 

Or the time when a “High/Wide” placard was taped to one of the larger young women in the office by mischievous switchmen. 

What will be regarded as accomplishments you made in your MoPac career?

I think my accomplishments are really related to longevity.  I was able to progress from the yard office to the general headquarters into a new job of the Interchange Service Bureau.  We used computer events from the AAR to resolve interchange discrepancies.  Then, I moved into Data Collection during the implementation of the Car Scheduling system on the railroad.  I then moved onto the Help desk, when after 18 months, I was promoted to Asst. Manager. 

So, I feel my accomplishments were my ability to grasp new information and work with it.  Then I was able to lead/manage my fellow workers.   

What was Mopac's relationship like with the unions?  Other railroads, customers.

Union relationships were rather contentious for many years during my start with the MoPac.  I was advised by more than one person to purchase “shove out” insurance as it was affectionately known.  The railroad often “fired” personnel for pushing cars out the end of a track or the like.  This insurance provided a daily amount of money to subsist on while awaiting the disciplinary time to expire.  It was good insurance and was widely held.  I think that spoke volumes to the contentious nature.  It was all too commonplace for union reps to be on site attending disciplinary hearings.   There was often a genuine disdain for both sides from both sides.  The union held a fairly strong position exemplified by the fact that a person could get fired and be hired back in less than six months. 

The “us vs. them” mentality continued for many, many years.  It started to mellow along with the overall change in corporate culture from the “blame” to “make it better” approach. 

What was it like working for the MoPac during the UP merger?

The merger was a truly stressful time and also a confusing one.  It was learning another railroad and another culture and way of doing things.  I had never truly interviewed for a job since I hired out.  I had more than 12 years in when I was required actually create a resume and get a photo.  There was no coasting on your past excellent work record.  You had to re-earn your job.  It also presented the first time that relocation might have to be an option since there was a corresponding help desk in Omaha.   The MoPac upper management with whom I was familiar was now in the second seat in the decision making process. 

It was a confusing time because the UP had so many more “extras” than we were accustomed to.  The purse strings seemed looser.  Who ever heard of a Railroad marching band or country band?  We felt lucky to be able to have two pencils in the drawer at one time.  I remember working for weeks with reduced lighting to try to save money to make budget.  Yet, when it came time for the United Way campaign, there was a big outside party with the country band on stage.  Everyone was given lunch (burger or dog) but still the price was right. 

The challenges from an I.T. perspective were huge.  Choosing which systems would survive and which would be converted/eliminated.  The MoPac TCS system won out but the implementation was arduous.  Operating two help desks in two cities was a genuine challenge.  Operating two of everything was a strain. 

A lot of frequent flyer miles were earned in those first couple of years.  Two headquarter locations, two computer facilities, two operating departments, all these created their challenges.  The Monday morning TWA flight to Omaha was ¾ filled with MoPac folks heading to meet their counterparts.  Likewise the return flight on Friday was in great demand.  But it slowly worked its way out.