Happy birthday Basic

“Happy 50th birthday Basic.”

The Guardian informs me this morning that today is the 50th birthday of Basic, the programming language “that played a crucial role in teaching people to code and led to the democratisation of personal computing.”

I’m not sure what prompted me to pause and read the piece; at least I wasn’t until a few lines into the story. Then it hit me — like the approach bell announcing an unexpected eastbound on the interlocking plant at Eastend tower.

Basic, that Basic! I know Basic, or at least I used to. And the memories came flooding in.

My introduction to Basic came as an adjunct to my assignment to the position of Third Hour Operator at Eastend.

I was an unwitting student of Basic in the early Seventies when it and I were both young. My introduction to Basic was an unexpected adjunct to my September 1973 assignment to the position of Third Hour Operator at Eastend, a lonely blockhouse at the diamond crossing of the CP Windsor Sub and Chesapeake & Ohio (formerly Pere Marquette) Sarnia Sub in Chatham, Ont.

I arrived a couple hours early for my first shift on a rainy Saturday night. Bob Pattison, the swingman working second trick at Eastend got an early quit. I got more than I bargained for.

The first surprise was the interlocking plant that controlled the diamond, three mainline crossovers, connecting and wye tracks on three of the four quadrants of the diamond, wig-wags at Princess Street and Adelaide Street, and the call-on for southbound C&O trains to cross the CN diamond nearly a mile to the south. Bob gave me a fast primer on the plant and made a quick exit. (Hey, it was Saturday night.) He made no mention of the Teletype machine brooding off in the corner of the office. Or of the Chatham Turn. Or of the connection between them.

The Teletype hammered out train consists and messages throughout the night. They were interesting and occasionally useful, but “machine work,” as they called it was the business of clerks, not train order operators. Or so I thought.

Things went well the first night. Train orders were old hat. I mastered the interlocking plant and learned the operating patterns and practices of the C&O: three freights in each direction and yard jobs that delivered interchange traffic on the north side of the yard, lifted from the south side, and made occasional trips on a spur to the lumber yard and elevator downtown.

Sometime after 0200 on the second night, I informed the dispatcher that Extra 8767 West was on the bell at Kent Bridge. I had a clearance and bulletin orders ready for what I presumed was just another westbound through freight. “That’s the Chatham Turn,” came the response.


The existence of the Chatham Turn — a six-nights-a-week job out of London that handled much of the then-considerable traffic to and from the C&O — was news to me. So too, was the fact that the train would require a “mechanical consist” for its return to London. On five of those nights, there was a clerk on duty to perform the machine work. On Sundays, it was the operator’s responsibility.

And that was the night I was introduced to Basic as a noun and a verb. The latter an action to be performed by me. In addition to copying and hooping train orders, operating the interlocking plant, coordinating yard moves, lifts, set-offs and deliveries on two railways, I was required to “Basic” the waybill of every car originating or received in interchange, every terminating train and the full consist of every originating train.

Learning the obscure code was complicated enough, but there were station numbers and chop-codes for every shipper and consignee, commodity codes, and contents and tare and 6-lines galore. There were codes for every line of code: 1 for loads, 2 for empties, 6 for information, 9 for the vitals. There were mysterious “figs” and arrows that all meant something and were all-important elements of the code.

The entire process was performed on a keyboard that had neither a screen, nor a live print of what was typed. All entries were punched out in a long reel of ticker tape that was then input through the Teletype to a mysterious and massive HAL-like mainframe somewhere in CP headquarters in Windsor Station in Montreal.

After a tension-filled waiting period, HAL would deliver an acknowledgement, and if all was in order, an OK. If there was a single typo (more often than not there was, given my non-existent typing skills), it’d spit back the entire message or consist with lines of error messages. The report would have to be corrected and re-filed.

After a few nerve-wracking nights I made my peace with HAL and with Basic. It helped that I also learned quickly how to pick HAL’s brain for valuable information: ↗CYTRRRCP, figs key, and a string of road numbers allowed to me perform all-important traces of FAs, RS3s, surviving CLCs, and other locomotives of interest. If I exceeded ten numbers, HAL would politely reply, “ONLY TEN REQUESTS AT A TIME PLEASE.” But he always obliged.

So thanks to the Guardian for reviving memories of some near-forgotten experiences. And happy birthday Basic.



Oh yeah, thanks HAL. I forgot to include an old mechanical consist for the Chatham Turn with engineer J. Clarke, conductor G. Flenniken and a pair of FAs. Consists had the basic train information in the opening 9-line followed by the power and engineman beginning on line two. The rest of the train was entered from the van forward to simplify revisions to reflect set-offs or lifts made en route. Note that the equipment code for Flenniken’s ride, CP 439433, is V for van, exactly as it should be.


Mechanical consist for the Chatham Turn, October 11, 1973.

Operator's desk and interlocking plant, CP Eastend tower, Chatham, Ont., December 21, 1973. The line-up on the plant is for the C&O yard engine to lift interchange fro the south side.

Model board with No. 904 stretched across the plant, June 2, 1974.