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Avoiding a Train Wreck

Trains need to run on time, and the 5 o'clock news needs to start at 5:00:00. So when I read a story in "The New York Times" about operating problems the Union Pacific had getting freight trains through its system, I looked for comparisons with the kinds of problems a television station can have.

To recount the "Readers' Digest" version of the Union Pacific story, the difficulties were basically with cargo trains trying to get into and out of the Los Angeles basin. Every day, dozens of trains were parked on sidings, waiting for congestion to clear so they could move toward their destinations.

What struck me was the combination of apparent reasons for the congestion.


First, according to the story, one Union Pacific customer was deemed more equal than all the other equals: United Parcel Service. The shipping company launched a coast-to-coast delivery service that relied on a train leaving Los Angeles on Tuesday and arriving in New York on Friday. To keep that train running on time, all other trains were subject to being diverted to sidings.

Second, the UPS train had to travel between Los Angeles and El Paso, Texas, on the Sunset Route, largely a single set of tracks between the two cities. To allow for the necessary margin of safety, other trains had to be put onto sidings hours ahead of time to permit the unfettered passage of the UPS train.

Delays along the Sunset Route tipped a series of dominoes, most critical of which seemed to be that railroad crews could work a maximum of 12 hours, according to federal law. This led to a number of trains being stuck on sidings in the middle of nowhere with engineers who were not allowed to drive them again, at least for a while.


That does not sound much like TV, or maybe it does. There's often a two-ton gorilla, like the UPS train, that has to get through, regardless of what it leaves in its wake. It's the news department, or a big-spending client of the sales department, or (fill in the blank).

The difference between trains and TV is that, in most cases, all the TV shows have to go on-air on time. There might be some flexibility with the time leading up to airtime, but the 4 o'clock syndicated program has to go on at 4:00:00, too.

This means that even though you might have to miss the primary feed of that syndicated program to swing a dish to pick up a news feed, you absolutely can't miss the second feed.

Like the disclaimer read at light-speed at the end of a radio commercial, the satellite dish gatekeeper owes a "we-can't-do-this-twice" warning to the individual asking for the dish swing. If there's something more important you're going to need later, you've sealed your fate by insisting on this now.

Since there are few train wrecks among actual trains, I have to think that the railroads have a pretty good system of figuring out which train is most important. While you and I and the next person may be hectoring our delivery service as to where our package is, on Tuesday, the UPS train is going to have the run of the Sunset Route, and the train carrying our new camera batteries is going to be sitting on a siding.

A TV station's 2,000-pound gorilla is likely to have lots of competing interests, each of which seek to invoke the mantle of the UPS train. We often have a poor graphics operator being pulled in three directions at once. (After all, two locomotives will not actually smack into each other.)

This is where I've found the No.1 gorilla needs to supply its own train dispatcher. The graphics operator is not supposed to know which project is most important; someone at gorilla-central should prioritize the projects. The graphics operator needs to send the sneak-attack requesters back through that prioritizer.

The single pair of tracks running between Los Angeles and El Paso also rang particularly true in the railroad and TV station comparison. If you have only one of anything in a TV station, you have a potential choke point. If you have only one graphics station, only one effects-capable edit suite, only one of anything, it is going to be a problem.

And beyond having just one of any particular facility, if one suite has markedly more capability than the others, that's going to be a choke point as well.

I remember a point when the station where I worked launched an evening magazine show and acquired an effect-capable U-matic edit suite. Suddenly, the other four cuts-only edit bays would not do, and we had editors lining up throughout the night to cut their pieces in the "super-edit" bay. We'd have been better off having purchased two, slightly less capable bays than the one we ended up with.

But then I bet the railroad people wish they'd laid a couple pairs of tracks to El Paso.