Key railroad workers must wear accurate watches

Reading the news of the terrible train wreck made me think of a couple guys I used to know who were railroad workers for Southern Pacific. They once told me that all railroad workers, regardless of your job, had to wear a certain kind of watch while on duty at all times. Is this still true, and what kind of watch is it?

— Tom, Eagle Point

Certain railroad workers do in fact have to wear accurate watches, although watches likely wouldn't have helped in the case of the Amtrak train that derailed in December, killing three during its inaugural run from Seattle to Portland.

Excessive speed is believed to have been a factor. The train was traveling 80 mph in a 30 mph zone when it fell off a railroad overpass onto I-5.

Tom Ciuba, corporate communications manager for Genesee & Wyoming Railroad Services, Inc., said certain railroad workers, including engineers, are required to wear watches.

"They have to wear a watch that is accurate and single function," he said.

Watches have to be set periodically to United States atomic clocks, which keep ultra-precise time, Ciuba said.

Watches must be single function and can't have extra capabilities, like email or fitness tracking, he said.

Jim Armstrong, an engineer with Central Oregon & Pacific Railroad, said certain on-duty railroad workers must wear a watch that is accurate to within 30 seconds of the official time. The watch must display hours, minutes and seconds.

Other workers must have access to an accurate watch or clock, he said.

Workers can call a number to find out the correct time and check their watches, he said.

Armstrong also confirmed that the watch must be single function.

Railroad companies don't want their employees to be distracted by multifunction watches or cellphones.

Armstrong said he can have his cellphone with him on the job in case of emergencies, but he has to have it turned off and stowed away.

Railroad companies became sticklers about time in the 1800s following fatal accidents attributed to inaccurate employee watches, according to an account about railroad accidents and watch history by

In 1853, 14 people were killed in Rhode Island when a conductor's watch was off by two minutes.

Other cases were more egregious. Two deaths in Illinois in 1882 were linked to a watch that was slow by 54 minutes. A conductor whose watch was 20 minutes slow was indicted for manslaughter following an 1878 accident in Ohio that killed 18 people.

Some railroad companies began inspecting and certifying employee watches, with some issuing approved lists of watch types.

The quest for accurate watches for railroad workers helped drive innovations and improvements in the watch industry overall.

Although soldiers were wearing wrist watches in World War I, railroads were slow to allow the new technology. Railroad pocket watches were required into the late 1950s. Accurate Swiss and American-made watches eventually gained approval from railroad companies.

Because of the accuracy and quality of historic railroad watches, many have become prized collectors' items, according to the Smithsonian.

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