Eyeing banks of computer monitors, Jesse Kottner coordinates trains, track inspectors and track repair gangs on CP’s Chicago and Milwaukee (C&M) Desk. The train dispatcher, also known as a rail traffic controller in Canada, has more than 20 years on the job, and the railroaders who work with him know him best by the initials JJK, as he’s identified on the radio.
On weekdays, the C&M desk, named after it’s endpoints which are separated by 82 miles of double track, handles 62 Metra commuter trains, 16 Amtrak passenger trains, and 20-odd CP freights. Jesse handles an eight-hour shift of coordinating all this, with track inspectors and repair gangs that need to use stretches of track to complicate matters further. He does it all from an office five stories above the street grid of downtown Minneapolis in CP’s Minneapolis Operations Center. Canadian Pacific Magazine visited him there to find out more about his role.
What made you decide to be a train dispatcher?
I’ve always had an interest in transportation. This seemed like a good opportunity. I met a guy in college who worked in CP’s signals and communications department, and it seemed like a good thing to start out with after college. I started with CP, originally as a crew dispatcher, and after a year went into train dispatching.
When you describe to family or friends what you do, is there a job outside the railroad industry you compare it to?
I compare it to being an air traffic controller. We’ve had many former air traffic controllers work here. There are a lot of similarities between the two occupations. You have traffic and you try to organize it.
Looking at your computer screen, the trains appear as red dots on this schematic. Do you ever forget what train is where?
No. You don’t forget your trains. That’s one purpose of the paper train sheets. I write down when each train passes certain points, which helps me to remain closely focused on every train on my territory.
What’s the most satisfying part of your job?
There is a sense of accomplishment in getting all your trains over the road. There are obstacles you have to overcome to get your trains to destination every day and each day is different.
Do you find it strange when you visit the property and meet the people you frequently talk to over the radio in person, like train crews and track inspectors or foremen?
Sometimes it is. Often times you recognize them by voice, but sometimes you don’t. It’s weird. The radio does make it a little different. It’s always nice to go out on a road trip and meet the people you work with all the time.
How important is it to talk with crews about what to expect in the miles ahead?
It depends on the location. The rules prohibit us from telling them the appearance of a signal in advance, but places where they have to hold back for crossings, it’s always a good idea to let them know in advance if they’re going to have to stop. We can also use it for fuel conservation measures, or inspecting their train if they’re going to be there long-term.
What are some of the curve balls you have to deal with in this job?
There are many surprises to deal with: track defects, weather-related issues. Right now, with it being winter, there are different issues that come up every day, and they’re at different locations. I often have to change my plans based on what’s happening out in the field.
Do you always work the C&M desk?
It’s the desk I work most commonly, but I’ll fill in on other desks as they need me to. This job requires you to be flexible in many different ways, but that’s part of what I like about it.
Is there a story behind the American flag you keep mounted above your microphone?
My daughter got that at a birthday party back when she was a toddler. She was really into all kinds of flags at the time. I brought it to work so I could see it and think of her. That was more than 10 years ago.
I hear your daughter wants to be a train dispatcher. What do you think of that?
Absolutely. If that’s what she wants to do, she’s fully capable of doing it for sure. She’s sat in with me at my desk and seen what I do. I think she likes it. It’s been good for me, and I think, well, we’ll have to see how she feels about it as she gets older.