NJT’s Frank Bookstaver: From steam to state-of-the-art

Written by Daniel Clark

In his 65-year railroading career, New Jersey Transit’s Frank Bookstaver has seen and worked through more changes in the industry than most railroaders would care to admit—and he’s proud of it. Bookstaver, 85, retired July 6 as NJ Transit’s Assistant Chief Dispatcher at the agency’s ROC (Rail Operations Center). NJT honored him on Wednesday, Aug. 14, with a special ceremony during the agency’s August Board of Directors meeting.

Were it not for some health issues that now limit his mobility, Bookstaver would still be on the job. “I’ve enjoyed working for the railroad all my life,” he says. “I enjoy the challenges—that’s what the dispatching job gave me.”

He has also enjoyed what he describes as the “family atmosphere” at NJ Transit, where he been since the agency’s Rail Operations division was formed in 1983. “It has been a privilege, a real honor, to work here; NJ Transit has been exceptionally good to me.” he says. “NJ Transit is 180 degrees different from what I was used to,” which was equivalent to a military-type culture. He cites the cooperation among different departments that kicked in when Superstorm Sandy caused extension flooding and damage to NJT’s Meadowlands Maintenance Complex (MMC), where the ROC is located, Hoboken terminal, and many of the agency’s commuter rail lines and rolling stock. “It all boils down to the work ethic,” he says.

Bookstaver was on duty when Sandy’s storm surge flooded the MMC. He recalls his co-workers yelling “There’s water coming up the road!” He went to the entrance, only to see the water level up to the doors on his car. He and 30 other MMC employees lost their vehicles to the storm surge.

Bookstaver, whose former supervisor, Senior Director System Operations Jim Sincaglia, describes as “just incredibly hard-working,” began his railroading career in 1948 as a block operator on the Erie Railroad, after graduating from Fairleigh Dickinson University in Rutherford, N.J. His father—who retired at age 91 from a consulting firm after working on the Erie from age 12 to 65—was a superintendent on the Erie at the time. Bookstaver actually began working on the Erie at age 15 as a summer clerk in the passenger department, and as a baggage and mail clerk and platform train announcer during Christmas break at the Erie’s Jersey City terminal.

In 1950, Bookstaver qualified as a train dispatcher. In 1960, the Erie merged with the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western to form the Erie Lackawanna. In 1968, Bookstaver relocated to Youngstown, Ohio, where he was an assistant trainmaster. In 1970, he again relocated to Cleveland, where he was a power control supervisor.

In 1975, the pitiful state of the Northeast’s railroads and the subsequent amalgamation of EL, Penn Central, and other bankrupt carriers into Conrail, prompted Bookstaver’s return to New Jersey, where he became Assistant Chief Dispatcher for Conrail’s commuter train operations out of Hoboken Terminal. When NJT took over passenger operations in the state from Conrail, Bookstaver stayed with the new agency as Assistant Chief Dispatcher, a position he held for the next 30 years.

Bookstaver began his career in the days of steam locomotives, interlocking towers, and telephoned train orders. He recalls qualifying for those jobs out on the road on the head end of a train, to learn the territory. He spent the latter part of his career working with state-of-the-art traffic control technology at the ROC. So in a very real, practical sense, he has been a part of the industry’s technological evolution in communications and signals and traffic control.

“We are honored to recognize Frank for his dedicated service to this agency,” NJ Transit Executive Director Jim Weinstein said. “His drive and dedication to this agency have been an inspiration to all those who have worked alongside him. He will be missed.”

Photo, left to right: NJ Transit Rail Operations Deputy General Managers Bob Lavelle and Angel Soto; Frank Bookstaver; General Manager Kevin O’Conner, and Senior Director System Operations Jim Sincaglia.

Tags: , ,