J. Alex Lang


The last vestiges of the last vestiges… Operator Jim Largent poses with his “hoop”, used to hoop up NORAC Form D train orders to moving trains. Jim started his career out with the Pennsylvania Railroad, working interlocking towers like LEMO, BANKS, and ROCKVILLE. Eventually, the towers were all gone, and the few remaining operators were occasionally called to act as switch tenders at manually-operated crossovers like this one at LYONS, along the Reading Line in eastern Pennsylvania in the fall of 2001. To us “rail bluffs” (as Jim would call us), seeing these guys out in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s was awesome! It was anything but awesome to these old timers – anything but a compliment: sitting outside in the extreme weather, giving roll-by inspections and hooping up train orders written on someone else’s authority.

In my college days in the late 1990’s, Conrail was busy with track work on their Harrisburg Line.  Since there were few dispatcher-controlled crossovers to allow trains to get around the track work, Conrail made frequent use of temporary block stations in places like DERRY, PALMYRA, CLEONA, and SHERIDAN, where hand-throw crossovers were located. At these block stations, block operators like Homer Enyon and Jim Largent enjoyed modest accommodation. Some of the TBS stations featured a little booth as pictured here; in many cases all the guys had was their automobile and a port-a-john.  All us young railfans saw was the “hoop” and an actual, somewhat-friendly human being along the tracks. We took little note of the rest… So, as we got to know Jim’s voice on the radio, we’d go find him wherever he was, and would try to bring him a cup of coffee or some donuts.

Jim joked (and still does) about how the “rail bluffs” would come around, acting like they know more about the railroad than he does, but then would ask him when the next train’s coming.  On one occasion, we got into a friendly debate about the next westbound, which was a few miles away.  I pointed out that the train, an empty autorack train, actually featured a few loaded cars on the head end. Jim, calling my bluff, said that he would buy me a coffee and a donut for every loaded autorack that passed us.  As Conrail ML-401 passed by a few minutes later, I can recall having caught over ten loaded cars, and receiving a box of donuts about a week later!

While we had fun passing the time with Jim and the others, it took quite awhile for me to appreciate a different aspect of the situation: These guys were living ghosts, who once enjoyed a more prideful & intellectually stimulating career, and were now counting down the days until retirement. Thankfully, Jim is still enjoying his, but this would be the last time I saw him in “action”.

Photo date 10/16/2001

This piece was featured in the Photographer’s Railroad Page, Edition #142, January 15, 2011.