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A train dispatcher is a railroading professional who is responsible for coordinating the smooth use of railroad tracks within the area which the dispatcher supervises. Acting much like an air traffic controller, a train dispatcher is responsible for deciding when trains get to use which tracks, and for allocating tracks so that they are used as efficiently as possible. Most train dispatchers are employed by railroads, and they must go through extensive training before they are allowed to work as dispatchers.
In the early days of railroading, coordinating usage of the tracks was not critical, although most trains tried to keep to a timetable for the benefit of their customers. Over time, however, as utilization of train tracks increased, it became necessary to have dispatchers to control use of the tracks with the goal of preventing accidents, ensuring that trains do not end up on tracks which are not rated to carry them, and helping trains keep to their published time tables.
Also known as a rail traffic controller, a train dispatcher works long shifts in an office which has extensive monitoring equipment which can be used to monitor all activity on area railroad tracks. Train dispatchers use computerized systems to monitor and control trains, along with radios so that they can communicate directly with train crews. They must also be concerned with conditions which could impact their trains and tracks, such as poor weather which forces a train to slow down, accidents, delays on other lines which translate to backups on the dispatcher's lines, and heavily laden freight trains which are forced to travel more slowly.
Like air traffic controllers, train dispatchers are largely invisible to the public unless they make a mistake. They are capable of coordinating the safe and effective use of huge areas of track, often keeping track of multiple trains and ongoing issues at once. A skilled train dispatcher must be able to multitask, in addition to having an in depth knowledge of the tracks in his or her area, along with a knowledge of the railroad industry.
Railroads tend to train their own dispatchers, using on the job training and mentors to familiarize people with the system and the protocols the railroad has in place. Train dispatchers need to learn to use radios and computer systems, and they must also be familiar with the signaling and communications methods used on railroad tracks. It helps to be passionate about trains to work as a train dispatcher.