The Three Rs - Part One

On Friday 29th June 1963 I went to Swindon for a medical examination.  My diary records I was first given an old shoe box which contained strands of variously coloured wools, all pretty dirty from use.  When I had sorted them out by colour, the supervisor was satisfied that I was not colour blind.  I then had to write my name on a piece of paper and then he dictated “A light engine, when on any running line, must always carry a red tail lamp in the rear.”  I was flabbergasted to realize that I had just taken a literacy test (I had just completed my second year at university) and even more surprised to learn that the day before an applicant had made 14 mistakes with those 17 words.

A freight train arriving at Oruro, Bolivia.  The yard is completely walled in.  Note the cast metal coat of arms of Bolivia located above the windshield.  While I was taking this picture our pilotman was getting a copy of his clearance.

I didn’t think much more of this until almost forty years later.  After my retirement, I spent some time in Bolivia training government railway safety inspectors.  We were in a track car in the yard at Oruro on the high (around 14,000 feet) Altiplano – two government inspectors, the railway division engineer, a native Aymara driver/pilotman and me.  While we were waiting for a freight train from Uyuni to clear I asked the driver to see his track permit (via libre).  He replied, in Spanish, “It is number one, two, six”.  Thinking that I had made a mistake in my poor Spanish, I replied “Let me see it, please”.  There then followed a quick fire exchange in Spanish and Aymara which left the railway engineer looking sheepish while the driver went to the dispatching office to get a paper copy of his authority.  He came back with a pink via libre, number 126 giving him authority to run all the way to Uyuni.

Lunch break at Challapata, Bolivia.  These four wheel inspection cars have to be used because hy-rail equipment will not function on the narrow (metre) gauge track.

Honour was satisfied on both sides and we ran straight through to Uyuni where we stayed the night.  The next morning we set off for Potosi over what was at that time, the highest railway summit in the world.  The driver proudly showed me his pink via libre and we set off for Potosi.  We were following a train ahead and the dispatcher was clearing the line ahead for us as the train proceeded.  I kept track of the locations as we progressed and asked why the driver was not writing down the points to which we were cleared as they were given over the radio.  There then followed another quick-fire exchange in Spanish and Aymara and the answer was again lost in translation – something about he can remember so he doesn’t write it down.

Afterwards, it has become clear to me that the reason for the problems was that the Aymara pilotman could not read or write so it was useless to give him a written via libre and he could not write down the extensions to his clearance.  Although the rule book said otherwise, he had to remember this all-important information.  Of course, everyone knew that once the freight train had arrived at Oruro there were no other trains running that day so why did he need a piece of paper to tell him something that everyone knew?

The value of that test taken so many years ago now became quite clear to me.  It is essential to be able to read and write.  Next time I will talk about the value of the third “R” - ‘rithmetic.

Ottawa Central Railway, Spareboard, April 2008.

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