Station agent duties and tasks

nw-mailing-list at nw-mailing-list at
Sat Jan 15 04:16:44 EST 2005

To: "N&W Mailing List" <nw-mailing-list at> 
Date: Fri, 14 Jan 2005 07:12:44 -0500 
From: nw-mailing-list at
Subject:  Re: A question about waybills, switch lists
and other paperwork.

I was always interested in the "paperwork" aspect of
railroading, as well as the role of the station agent.
 It seems to me that a lot of us know very little
about how this was done for real, as most of us have
never worked on the prototype railroad and our
experience is limited, and perhaps skewed, from what
we have learned as modelers.
Just what did the conductor do on a freight train? 
Certainly, he did more than ride in the caboose!  And
just what were the responsibilities of the station
agent?  He didn't just sell tickets to passenger
I think this would make for a very interesting series
of articles for the Arrow from those who are in the
know on these matters.  In today's world of fax
machines, e-mail and cellphones, the folks who did
formerly did these jobs "the old fashion way" have a
wealth of information that will be lost unless it is
Just my thoughts.
Jim Brewer
Glenwood MD

January 14, 2005

Hello, Jim:

I was never a station agent on the N&W but did work as
one during summers on the C&O's Piedmont, Peninsula,
and Rivanna Sub-Divisions.  I'll outline a few
activities that come to mind on the assumption that
responsibilities were similar between the roads.

The title "agent" is not one to be used loosely.  It
comes from the concept of "principal" and "agent" in
commercial law, which in turn is based upon common law
master-servant relationships.  The master is
responsible for the servant; an agent acts on behalf
of and in place of its principal.  Because of legal
implications, "agents" are few and far between on
railroads --or any other business, for that matter. 
Most railroad employees and all contractors are
usually stipulated to not be "agents," just like
window tellers --oops, I mean customer
representatives-- aren't bank "vice presidents."

Railroads formed the business model of a large
enterprise with a divisional work force and
substantial capitalization.  One aspect that was
needed was a person who represented the faceless
company within individual communities and bind the
carrier in contracts for the performance of
transportation services.  These contracts were
"straight" and "order" bills of lading for freight, as
well as tickets sold for passenger services.  The
person who could legally bind the carrier for the
performance of these services in exchange for the
established rates and charges was the agent.  To
establish boundaries for their performance, agents
were not allowed to stray from the printed terms in
tariffs or bill of lading contracts.  They also had
plenty of procedural rules and guidelines to keep them
from becoming "loose cannons."

There were four different "types" of station agent,
based upon size of station and scope of
responsibilities.  At terminals in major cities, the
responsibilities for carload (CL) freight, less than
carload (LCL) freight, passenger ticketing and
baggage-mail-express might be divided between
separately-appointed agents for each facet.  Each
agent commanded tiers of staff to perform the
functions in their name.  At large stations in
medium-sized cities, there might be just two agents;
one who oversaw a staff dealing with passenger
services such as ticket clerks, baggage and mail
handlers, and custodians.  The other dealt with the
freight side of the business, such as LCL/CL/express
clerks, freight handlers, and the "operator."

In small cities or significant towns --such as ones
where junctions of two or more rail lines were served
by a single shared "union" station, there might be an
"agent-operator" who supervised a clerk and perhaps a
flunkie who did cleaning, light maintenance, and
tended a coal furnace if the building was so equipped.

The smallest towns had an "agent-operator" who did
everything that needed to be done.  I'll focus most of
my comments on that one person's activities since the
majority of stations I worked had that combined role.

Before I do, one should note that not every small
station had an "agent-operator."  Some only had
agents, such as Diascund or Pendleton.  If one sees a
station building exterior picture and there is no
train order or block signal on the track side, there
was no operator inside.  Even though the agent did not
record train passings, all employees were always
expected to observe passing train for defects.  As an
aside, this was also true for Doswell on the RF&P and
C&O.  The operator sat across the RF&P track from the
station at HN tower.  Whenever there was an
interlocking tower in close proximity to the station,
as with AF vis-a-vis Alexandria Union station or G
Cabin at Gordonsville, there was seldom an operator
within the station building.  Roanoke passenger
station and large terminals were an exception, since
train crews would pick up orders from an operator's
office.  For example, DO office in Main Street was
down the hall from the Chief Dispatcher's office, and
adjacent to the rooms where the Piedmont-Peninsula and
Rivanna dispatchers were located.  Those fellows were
behind a door stenciled "strictly private." 

Since I've mentioned the title "operator," I should
describe what that person did.  This individual was
usually an arm of the operating department for train
movement.  She --as in the case of women telegraphers
hired during war years when men were scarce-- or he
was the eyes and ears of the dispatcher and worked
under that person's direction, not the agent.  The
operator's role is mostly described in the railroad's
operating rules within sections regarding train orders
or manual block rules.

There were three types of operators.  Most common were
those one normally thinks of, who sat in the bay
window area of a station with responsibilities that
I'll outline below as a part of an "agent-operator"
discussion.  Next, some worked in an interlocking
tower and often performed the function of a leverman. 
Finally, there's Abram Burnett's favorite: the young
buck hot ace who carried a Vibroplex to work and
scorched the wires at the telegraph (later reformed
into teletype) offices that were major communications
hubs of a railroad.  This last operator category
sometimes had limited railroad knowledge, instead work
experience worked on news wires or commodity exchanges
that had high message volume and demanded fast
word-per-minute throughput.  They were valued for
their speed and accuracy, usually using a "mill"
(read: typewriter having only upper-case letters and
numerals) when receiving messages instead of copying
them in long-hand.  They also did not work for a
dispatcher; instead, they reported adminstratively to
an office manager and functionally to the wire chief. 
When they wanted to slow down in life or settle in a
family way (read: they reached "thirty-something"),
they drifted into the other types of operator jobs
mentioned above.

Here's an off-the-top-of-my-head list of
agent-operator tasks that I believe were commonly
performed in stations of Pocahontas Region railroads. 
No doubt, others can add to the list or perhaps adjust
it based upon N&W-specific knowledge.  I performed
these activies at stations such as Columbia, Sabot,
Mineral, Beaverdam, and Providence Forge during 1971,
1972, and 1973.  That said, railroads were more like
they were 35 years earlier than they are now 35 years

Agent - freight:

Several activities were performed routinely during
mornings, such as...

Count the money in the safe if one was not the person
on duty during the preceding shift

Perform yard check of cars on the house track, team
track, plus any blind sidings the agency was
responsible for

Retrieve waybills left by local freight conductor in
phone or bill box for cars spotted overnight

Pick up mail from post office lock box

Prepare transmittal of payments received on freight
bills for the zone accounting bureau

Inspect shipment for damage claim submitted by

Update demurrage records

Read and file tariff updates, bulletins, memorandums,
and embargoes

Handle official correspondence

In the afternoons, responsibilities shifted to...

Receive car order for following day from shippers

Call in car order to the car distribution clerk

Prepare bills of lading for outbound shipments based
upon information provided by consignor

Split out the waybill copy, fold vertically in half
with car initial and number facing upward, and stack
in car order on the spur

Send message to yard clerk where local freight is made
up to advise the number of cars to be picked up and
the location of the waybills

Put copy of message around waybills and place in
designated spot for retrieval by local conductor

Send freight bill of lading invoice copy for collect 
shipments to zone accounting bureau

Mail any outbound correspondence before the last mail

Where there was no passenger service, receive Railroad
Business (R.R.B.) mail from the local freight
conductor, or submit outbound mail to the local
freight conductor.


Receive calls from dispatcher to copy train orders,
repeat the order back, and record time of completion

Acknowledge display of train order signal according to
dispatcher's instruction 

Prepare clearance card for approaching train, if
required, and "make it complete" with dispatcher

Observe passing trains for defects and watch for
markers on the final car

Record time of train passing on movement record

Report time of train passing to dispatcher, including
classification signal if displayed

Report time of train passing to the next operator on
duty in the direction of travel

Answer and handle calls receive on message line or
block line

Other duties as assigned:

Periodically sweep floors and cobwebs

Pick up litter around building perimeter

Clean inside toilet facilities or periodically put a
scoop of lime in outhouse chamber

Burn trash

Remove ashes from coal stove and keep two scuttles of
coal on hand

Oil wooden floors once a year
Periodically order supplies and receive from the
supply train (in later years, it was a parcel post
delivery from a central stores department)

Some things I didn't do but will mention in passing
based upon early training or awareness:

Agent - Western Union:

Receive message copied off wire by operator

Arrange for delivery

Receive message from public, calculate charge
according to tariff, and collect funds

Record payments received on ledger and remit funds

Give message to operator for transmission

Retain record copies of messages received and

Agent - Railway Express:

Receive shipments from express messenger or driver and
inspect for condition and count according to the

Notify consignee of arrival

Receive shipments from public, prepare bill of lading,
and collect payment

Tender outbound shipments to express messenger or

Record payment and remit funds from day's transactions

Calculate storage charges on shipments not picked up

Forward any unclaimed shipments to Railway Express

Agent - passenger

Account for ticket stock and sold tickets daily

Provide rate and schedule information upon request

Reserve sleeping car or reserved coach accommodations

Issue tickets for coach, Pullman, or human remains

Receive, handle, or deliver passenger baggage

Calculate storage for baggage left beyond free time

Periodically send unclaimed baggage to designated

Announce expected arrival of passenger trains and
where patrons should be on platform for their type of

Update arrivals board based upon information provided
by operator in conversation with dispatcher

Observe station premises for loafers and ask to see
their ticket; if none, ask the person to leave

Place newly-received public timetables in rack and
discard obsolete copies

Update tariff, instructions, and memorandum files with
supplements received via company mail

Receive and dispatch passenger baggage or human
remains to/from the baggage master on a train

Receive Railroad Business (R.R.B.) mail from the
baggage master on a train, or submit outbound mail to
the baggage master.

Agent - LCL

Receive shipments from local freight conductor and
inspect for condition and count according to the

Notify consignee of arrival

Receive shipments from public, prepare bill of lading,
and collect payment

Tender outbound shipments to local freight conductor

Record payment and remit funds from day's transactions

Calculate storage charges on shipments not picked up

Forward any unclaimed shipments and damaged freight
(if claim proceeds paid to consignee and the items
become railroad property) to nearest LCL terminal for

Agent - U.S. Mail

Receive pouch(s) and/or sack(s) from mail messenger
and record quantity and train to which they are to be

Keep in secure area (usually the agent's locked
office) until train arrival

Turn over mail to the Railway Post Office (RPO) clerk
on a train, or the baggage master if there is no RPO

Hold mail received from train in secure area until
claimed by the mail messenger

Note: a mail messenger may have made these exchanges
directly without involvement of railroad personnel

In closing, there is much more to be said about this
topic.  Jim, some aspects of what I've briefly touched
on are covered in 20th correspondence school training
course or textbooks published by the College of
Advanced Traffic.  The multi-volume SCIENCE OF THE
RAILWAYS is a good example of something that can be a
useful reference for people interested in agency work.

Hmmm, train 1 on the night trick has a flag stop for
one of the Gilpin clan at Boyce to Knoxville.  It's
always "steak and sleeper" for those folks.  I'd
better get outside with my green and white



Dr. Frank R. Scheer, Curator
Railway Mail Service Library, Inc.
f_scheer at
(202) 268-2121 - weekday office
(540) 837-9090 - weekend afternoons 
in the former N&W station on VA rte 723 
117 East Main Street 
Boyce  VA  22620-9639
Visit at

More information about the NW-Mailing-List mailing list