Sunday, August 25, 2013

After 64 years on the RR, oldest U.S. Train Dispatcher to retire

Received the following comment via email with link to article below.

Who can claim that they have worked ANYWHERE for sixty-four years, these days?! This fellow already had two years of seniority in the Erie Railroad's Interlocking Towers and was promoted to Train Dispatcher before the Korean War broke out! The next most senior train dispatcher on the NJ Transit roster is almost a quarter-century younger than Frank “Bookie” Bookstaver... 

Following article is from The Star -Ledger dated 8-12-13. 

After 64 years working on the railroad, oldest U.S. dispatcher to retire 

By Mike Fassinelli 

Did you hear the one about the train that slid sideways into the ticket booth, leaving investigators wondering how to clean up a wreck that left 17 cars of coal perpendicular to the track?

Or the one about the wooden train station office that was so hot, employees ended up practically working in their underwear?

How about the tale of the skittish tower operator who jumped out of the tower every time a train approached, out of fear it would strike him?

Lend Frank “Bookie” Bookstaver an ear, and the stories will flow.

Bookstaver, whose days of working on trains date to the World War II era, is filled with more than six decades of track tales.

After 64 years of working on the railroad, Bookstaver, 85, America’s oldest train dispatcher, is retiring and taking his stories with him.

A legend among NJ Transit employees, Bookstaver had planned to work at least another year and a half. After all, his dad, also a railroader, worked until 91.

But treatment for prostate cancer has left his right leg numb, making it increasingly difficult to get around the rail operations center in Kearny.

“He was almost like a fixture here,” said his boss Jimmy Sincaglia, senior director of rail operations. “Nobody expected him ever to leave.”

The employee closest in age to Bookstaver at the center is 24 years younger than him.

“I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” Bookstaver said from his North Haledon home, where he sat with Grace, his wife of 65 years. “It was no chore to go to work.”

He will be honored Wednesday during NJ Transit’s monthly board meeting, at 9 a.m. at the agency’s headquarters next to Newark Penn Station.

“Frank’s drive and dedication to this agency have been an inspiration to all those who have worked alongside him,” NJ Transit Executive Director Jim Weinstein said. “He will be missed.”

Sincaglia said NJ Transit will never again see the likes of Bookstaver, who started his career on the Erie Railroad and ended it after 30 years with NJ Transit.

“Frank has a very old-fashioned work ethic — just incredibly hard-working,” Sincaglia said. “He thinks different than a lot of the newer generation. Twelve- and 14-hour days were the norm.”

Sincaglia plans to display in the lobby Bookstaver’s NJ Transit ID and the resignation letter Bookie sent him — typed on a typewriter.

A train dispatcher is the rail version of an air traffic controller, monitoring activity on tracks and communicating with crews. Bookstaver was assistant chief dispatcher, a supervisory role.

Sincaglia chuckled as he remembered Bookstaver’s stories — which often started with a rail accident or tragedy, but ended with a tale of how the employees came together.

In many ways, the story of the Bookstaver family is the story of railroading in America.

The son of a rail man, Bookstaver’s career started in an era of steam engines — powered by firemen who would shovel coal — and ended in an era of dual-powered locomotives that operate on diesel fuel or electricity.

It started in an era of frequent train crashes and ended in an era of automatic signals and controls to ensure safety.

“Prior to this, we had dark territory, which you depended strictly on a dispatcher’s phone, or the telegraph years ago,” Bookstaver said. “All these things now have been completely changed around so that we can tell in a matter of minutes what’s happening and what’s going on.”

Bookstaver survived rheumatic fever at age 7, a heart attack at 73, and numerous close calls on the trains.
He’s earned the right to tell those stories.

Like the one about beginning a ride on a steam train wearing a white shirt and coming back home with a blackened one.

Or the train breakdown in the New York tunnel that required moving 800 people in 100-degree temperatures up a circular staircase into the Weehawken parking lot.

Though his career spanned 64 years, his time on the trains goes back even further.

Bookstaver, who grew up in Rutherford, started as a clerk in the passenger office at age 15.

In 1948, he began working in the towers, then became a dispatcher about two years later.

He was a chief dispatcher in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1968, then an assistant trainmaster, before returning to New Jersey in 1975.

Bookstaver was recovering from a heart attack when terrorists struck on Sept. 11, 2001, one of three defining moments in the first 30 years of NJ Transit’s rail division.

But he was working during the other two: A 1996 collision between two trains that killed both engineers and a passenger at the border of Secaucus and Jersey City, and last year’s Hurricane Sandy.

“I was riding with that engineer on the first trip and they asked him, could he make another round trip, and he said, ‘Sure,’ ” Bookstaver recalled. “When he came to Bergen Junction … he went by a red signal and hit (the other train), which was going west.”

The National Transportation Safety Board determined the engineer failed to see the red signal because of an eye disease.

That Feb. 6, 1996, crash led, in part, to the building of the rail operations center in Kearny, the central nervous system of the railroad, where traffic managers control train signals and switches and study screens that monitor every NJ Transit train in the state.

Bookstaver was at the center when Sandy struck.

His white Mercury Grand Marquis was among 30 employees’ cars ruined by the storm.

“The guys hollered, ‘There’s water coming up the road!’ ” Bookstaver said. “I said, ‘It can’t be.’ It rained, but never anything like that. I go down, here it is all the way up to the door already.”