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On the Right Track

Tom Murphy is paid to keep an eye on trains across the country

by Rosalyn Graham

Eight years ago, when Tom Murphy took a job with the railroad the summer before grad school, he didn’t know a boxcar from a tank car. These days, he runs the American Rail Dispatching Center in St. Albans, a company that uses technology to keep trains in 24 states safe and on schedule.

Tom Murphy let his sister, Kristin, persuade him to come to work for the railroad. He had graduated from SUNY Brockport and was waiting to begin graduate studies in psychology. He was also married, had a baby daughter and needed a summer job. 

Kristin was the executive chef for Walter Rich, the owner of the New York Susquehanna & Western Railroad, who annually hosts a party at his Cooperstown, N.Y., mansion to celebrate the inductees to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Murphy was hired to help with setting up and taking down the tents and decor — which took weeks. 

“I got to know some of the engineering guys, and the chief engineer said, ‘Why don’t you stay on until you go to graduate school and work on the tracks with us?’” That was eight years ago when, as he says, “I fell in love with the railway, even though I didn’t know a boxcar from a tank car.” Grad school is still waiting.

Today Murphy lives in St. Albans, and not only does he know a boxcar from a tank car, he is also director of a high-tech, 21st-century railroad business that keeps trains in 24 states safe and on schedule. As director of the American Rail Dispatching Center, he leads a team of highly trained people who use technology to control the movement of trains for 25 short line railroads with 5,000 miles of track. 

photoAmerican Rail Dispatching Center’s 16 dispatchers work around the clock in a maze of offices on the second floor of the 100-year-old landmark building that once was home to Central Vermont Railway. Gilles St. Amand, rail traffic control specialist, takes a quick break to pick up his beverage.

The company’s 16 dispatchers are on the job 24/7/365. They sit in a maze of offices on the second floor of the 100-year-old landmark building that once housed historic Central Vermont Railway, watching computer screens with a network of horizontal lines representing the railways they are controlling. Connections are by fiber-optic, cell phones, microwave towers, digital technology and Geographic Information Systems to trains or switches as far away as Washington state. 

Murphy was working as a rail traffic controller for one of  New York Susquehanna & Western’s short line railroads, the Toledo Peoria & Western in Cooperstown, when it was bought by RailAmerica, a tiny holding company in Michigan. He declined an offer to move to Illinois to work for RailAmerica and was hired as a rail traffic controller at New England Central in St. Albans, which was owned by the huge holding company RailTex. 

Then RailAmerica bought RailTex. Knowing that Murphy had the know-how, RailAmerica moved rail traffic control for Toledo Peoria & Western to New England Central. 

“We had great success,” Murphy says. “We were number one in safety and that is the most important thing in railroading. You can’t ‘play’ with trains. You have to know what you’re doing. We’re very heavily regulated.”

Then “along came Charlie Moore,” Murphy says. Charles W. Moore was (and is) vice president of RailAmerica for the Atlantic Region, which stretches from the Canadian border to Pensacola, Fla. 

Murphy remembers Moore’s saying, “This is a pretty neat thing you’ve got going here,” as he quickly proposed adding his nine railroads to the network. 

Moore realized, Murphy says, that “there was no reason they shouldn’t protect those trains using a computerized system instead of pieces of paper. The savings were tremendous. We were now handling 11 railroads from this one location.”

RailAmerica saw the excellent safety record of the system, and the savings, and began adding more RailAmerica properties to the mix. This created a problem, however.

“As we started to add more of Charlie’s railroads,” says Murphy, “we started to add more people. New England Central was only budgeted for five people for that specific task. We had seven or eight employees at the time, and as we started adding more people, New England Central began to have questions on their financial statement about the high cost of labor.”

Murphy and Moore offered a solution. “We said we would give them a proposal to take this off as its own company.” On Jan. 1, 2004, American Rail Dispatching Center became a legal company, registered in the state of Delaware and doing business in Vermont as a wholly owned subsidiary of RailAmerica. Moore is president  and Murphy is manager.

Moore is excited about the growth of the ARDC customer base, with plans to add responsibility for dispatching the entire Ohio Consolidated system with 600 miles of track this summer, and two more dispatchers to handle the increased business. 

Both express pride in the high-tech jobs with good salaries, good benefits, a six-month training program and a great feeling of teamwork. Politicians drop in frequently to admire what some have described as “the biggest model railway setup,” Murphy says.

photoAmerican Rail Dispatching Center uses its system to monitor traffic, throw switches remotely, keep on top of schedules and work rules and stay on the lookout for storms. Roy Knutsen, rail traffic control specialist, surveys his bank of screens

He is quick to stress, however, that they are not playing. They are providing services to short line railroads that the railroads could not afford for themselves.” There are 500 short lines in the United States.

ARDC controls the traffic over the short lines in its system, monitoring traffic, throwing switches remotely, keeping on top of schedules and work rules, and even watching the weather. “We have very sophisticated systems for tracking the weather, using Geographical Information System coordinates to pinpoint the position and predicting exactly when a severe weather cell is going to cross the railroad.” 

This spring that monitoring paid dividends on the New England Central when WeatherData alerted them to the saturation of a section of rail bed, then sent a crew out and found a washout with the track hanging across it. Amtrak was four hours away.

One customer of ARDC who had a close-up view of the early development of the business and its operation today is Brad Ovitt, general manager of RailAmerica’s Virginia Consolidated Properties, three railroads with headquarters in Ahoskie, N.C. Ovitt is a fifth-generation railroader who grew up in the Central Vermont Railway family and worked closely with Murphy from the time he started as a dispatcher. 

“They provide a service I couldn’t come close to doing for the same cost,” Ovitt says. He admires Murphy’s willingness to think outside the box. “He looks for something new, better ways to make things work, and he’s taken that ability and shown other people that by doing that they can provide a great service.”

In a business that seems to have the power to capture the imagination and loyalty of its employees, Moore and Murphy come to ARDC from very different backgrounds. Moore comes from Kansas, began as a clerk with Norfolk & Western in Kansas City, Mo., went through their management training program and worked in many states. He has been in railroading for 40-plus years and with RailAmerica for 10.

Murphy’s background couldn’t be more different, although he does say that “railroading is the only job I’ve ever known.” He was born and raised in Philadelphia, moving to Cooperstown when he was 10. “My parents ran a pretty unique mission,” he says. “They took people off the streets to live with us, boys and girls who had been living in boxes. That’s where my love of people and psychology came from.” 

He also had a love of wrestling, and it was wrestling that attracted him to SUNY Brockport where he became an All-American wrestler as well as psychology student. His summer job with the railroad diverted him from his psychology path, but nothing has distracted him from the love of wrestling. He has expanded his interest to martial arts and he has a martial arts school in St. Albans where he teaches 25 to 30 guys every night. 

Murphy’s high school and college wrestling success opened up another area of exploration, which he mentions with the comment, “I hope you won’t hold it against me.” Murphy regularly fights professionally in the Ultimate Fighting Championships, an “anything goes” competition in which two rivals are locked into a cage where they use whatever martial arts strategies are necessary to come out the victor. Last year, he appeared in a Spike TV reality show, and in March this year, he defeated Icho Larenas in a heavyweight bout at the Mandalay Bay Event Center in Las Vegas. 

Back home in St. Albans, the big guy with the buzz cut and the charming grin is totally involved in the community where he lives within walking distance of work. He stops in the middle of explaining the intricacies of computerized rail dispatching to whip out his cell phone and show photos of Abigail, 8; Isabel, 6; Claudia, 5; and Tom, 2.  “We’ve really taken to the community,” he says of himself and his wife, Wendi. 

Murphy was part of this year’s St. Albans-Franklin County Leadership Education Aptitude and Development (L.E.A.D.) project, a program modeled on Leadership Champlain in Chittenden County. He was also a loaned executive to the Franklin-Grand Isle United Way during its last campaign.

“We were lucky to have him,” says Jeff Moreau, United Way’s executive director. “He has tremendous personality and really loves working with people. His celebrity intrigued people and everyone wanted to meet him. If you’ve heard about his Ultimate Fighting successes, when you meet him in person, you can’t imagine him in that position. He’s such a genuine, caring person. He has young kids, and he wanted to demonstrate to them something about giv,ing back to the community.”

Maybe there’s a line that connects growing up as Murphy did, with par.ents committed to helping youths, and his commitment to the work of United Way and his success with American Rail Dispatching Center — it’s all about getting on the right track. •