Ask a train engineer

Last week or so, a couple of members asked that I start this thread, since I tend to pop up in railroad-related threads in GQ quite a bit. My guess is that there are some pretty neat questions people have about railroading that I might be able to answer. There is at least one other Class I engineer on the Dope, so if he’d like to pop in and provide some insight, that’d be cool as well.

As background, I have a Federal license to operate a locomotive, and passed the rules tests for the GCOR rulebook (I’m unfamiliar with NORAC rules.) I was first a steam train engineer at a tourist railroad, then went to work for a Class I while I finished my education. Although I am no longer an active employee, I still maintain a close relationship with my former railroad and coworkers.

So…if there are any questions, ask away!

What’s with all the littering? All the train tracks are littered with plastic water bottles that the engineers toss out the windows. Is this just an older engineer thing? Are the younger guys less prone to doing this?

Culturally, yeah, I do think it’s an older generation thing. They provide us with both the water and a trash can in the cab, so I always threw mine in the trash, and very rarely saw another crew member litter.

However, I do think a lot of that comes not from the train crews, but the MOW guys who work on the tracks. Though you might not notice them as much as the trains, they’re out on the rails quite a bit–as are track inspectors in hi-rail pickup trucks.

How is your hearing? I videotaped an interview in a locomotive cab once, and those things are LOUD!

How do you become qualified? Is it similar to the licensing process for truck drivers and pilots? Do you have to take a formal curriculum or can you become qualified by showing up one day and passing the knowledge and skills tests? One problem that pilots have sometimes is fearing going to the doctor because they might be given a diagnosis that disqualifies them from flying or that requires them to submit rehabilitation documents to the FAA. Do y’all face this problem too?

Personally, I had some hearing loss from an ear surgery as a child, so I’m not best qualified for that one. It didn’t get worse while railroading, but I will say that the more modern locomotives are much, much more quiet than the older ones. It’s easy to have a conversation at normal vocal volume in the cab.

Different story on the steam engine. Yelling was required, and I generally wore my issued earplugs. We were issued earplugs on the big iron, too.

Most people show up to a cattle call for conductor jobs at their local terminal. If you have a high school diploma/GED, a good driving record, and no criminal background, you can get hired. The basic tests are easy–about the same as you’d expect at any big company. Can you read? Can you write? Add and subtract? Can you carry a car knuckle 50 feet? Can you hang on a ladder with one hand for 5 minutes?

Conductor school lasts several weeks, with mostly classroom instruction and studying for rules tests, airbrake tests, etc. Then it’s on to on-the-job training on your subdivision. After (normally) a few years, when an engineer posting comes up, you can apply. If hired, you go to engineer school, work on the simulators, then more on-the-job training.

I have known a couple of older guys who were worried about going to the doctor because of heart conditions, but it never was a concern for me or most of the people I know. I don’t think the physical is as big an issue on the railroad as it is for pilots. The only thing that pops up right off as a DQ is color blindness…

Is railroading something for younger persons or can you take it up as a second career at, say, 55 ?

Why would a train be traveling very slowly? A town I drive through has a RR crossing. The train used to go flying by. The past few times I’ve had to wait, it was creeping along.

Since it’s all seniority/union, I wouldn’t WANT to take it up late in life–at least, not with a Class I railroad. It takes some years of service to actually get to work consistently, and even more years to be able to bid on (and get) the fast, daytime trains. Low men on the totem pole start out on the extra board. You get called when someone higher than you marks off (calls off sick, vacation, etc.) or a crew dies on the law. And that call can come at any time, on any day…or not at all, for a while.

So, this suggests that the entry level position is as a conductor, and you would then work your way up to being an engineer? This intrigues me, if only because I was a train buff when I was younger, and I recall reading that it’s the conductor who is generally “in charge” of the operations of the train (and, yet, it sounds like it’s a more junior position). Could you clarify? Or, is my recollection incorrect?

Also, what sort of steam locomotive did you work on?

So what exactly does a train conductor do? What’s an average day like?

It could be any number of things. If there has been a repair to the track, or a rough spot that needs repair, the MOW foreman can set a speed restriction. 10-20MPH is common. In hot weather, at least down south, there are speed restrictions because the sun can kink the rail. It could be that there is trackwork going on on an adjacent track, or the MOW guys are working on signals. Could be that traffic is picking up and the engineer can’t get in touch with the dispatcher to clear a route.

Also, the way track signals work is that they tell you the status of the block you’re entering as well as the next 2 blocks (or signals.) A green light means there is nothing ahead of you to the next signal, AND there’s nothing in the block after the next signal. A flashing yellow means the next signal is yellow, then the one after that is red (meaning that 2nd block has a train in it.) Solid yellow means the next signal is red. Red can mean either STOP or stop/proceed or even proceed at a restricted speed. That’s why you have to know your route–which signals are permissive versus absolute?

Anyway…point is, maybe you used to see trains at track speed on green signals, but now you’re seeing trains following other trains, and they’re “running the yellows” and having to go slow.

Serious question: why do they call you drivers engineers anyway? There’s been a big push in private industry to only call professional engineers, engineers. Other positions have slowly been changed to “Specialist” and the like. Has there ever been any discussion about renaming train engineers?

Do you ever have trouble finding your train keys?

No, you’re right. It’s the conductor’s train. He says stop–you stop. The engineer is just the guy pulling the levers. However, the conductor’s REAL function is paperwork. Any time the train is delayed, he fills out a form. He keeps track of what cars get picked up and dropped off, and where. He goes out and pulls the pins and hooks up air hoses. Being an engineer requires more skill, and so the money is better, but it is the conductor who is in charge of the train itself. He normally works the radio, too.

Steam engine was a Crown metals 4-4-0 in 3 ft. gauge.

See the above. And it’s hard to really say what an average day is like, because the railroad is fickle. There were runs where everything went right and we got to our away terminal in 4 hours, got our whole day’s pay, and went to the motel (or the bar.) Then, there are days where everything goes to shit–the train breaks apart and you have to walk back 90 cars carrying a damn spare coupler knuckle, install it, get the train back together, then you stall on the hill. You’re in the middle of nowhere when your 12 hours are up and you have to quit working–then you wait another 2 hours for the limo to get there with the new crew and to pick you up and take you back to the motel for your 8 hours of rest…and at the SECOND that 8 hours off-duty is up, you’re called again to report in 2 hours.

Steam engine…operator was an engineer. To my knowledge there’s been zero discussion about changing the title.

There’s a remote control locomotive switching area that I pass by sometimes. Do you have any experience with that? Are the locomotives controlled remotely by engineers as well?

I did not personally have to deal with the remote control locomotives. When I was working, you didn’t have to be a licensed engineer to operate one, so conductors were able to do that (generally newish conductors who got stuck–or, I suppose, chose–in the yard. Only the specific locomotives at that terminal would have the remote control equipment. On the mainline, the engines require an engineer in the cab to operate.

Every once in a while, you hear about a conductor running himself over with his train on the remote control…although that’s a diligence thing; fatigue can get you.

This is what the remote looks like–it slings around the waist.

OP – you tell us that you’ve worked on steam locos on a tourist line.

I’m a railfan – UK citizen and resident, in my sixties: Britain’s national rail system used steam locos on a regular daily basis for the first twenty years of my life – a scene that I fell in love with. If I understand things rightly, regular daily commercial use of steam ended in the USA, a few years earlier than in the UK – re the States, hard to pinpoint a specific date.

Some of my fellow-enthusiasts in the UK are pessimistic about the future of the many preserved / tourist steam lines currently operating here – opining that once the now very much ageing generation of enthusiasts who knew steam in daily service, die / become too ancient and decrepit to work as preserved-railway volunteers, the steam preservation movement will collapse: just too few younger folk who never knew steam as a daily thing and thus became steam railfans – not enough new-generation volunteers to “carry on the torch”. I’m more optimistic: feel that there will be some – not in enormous numbers, but enough – who in childhood fell under the spell of steam on preserved lines; to carry the thing on.

Would be interested to know your opinion on this – with the US’s having got rid of steam some years before the UK – how is this matter looking these days, on American preserved / tourist steam lines?

The outlook here, as I see it, is good in many ways. I’m 31, and worked on the steam train starting at about age 22. In that line of work, you sort of learn a hell of a lot of “steam theory,” since the things require so much tender loving care. I saw a lot of railfans come through, of all ages, and there were plenty of younger guys interested enough to carry the torch. Union Pacific’s steam program isn’t going away, and there’s guys passing on the previous few generations’ knowledge to keep it going, both in operations as well as just maintaining the things and repairing them–including casting or machining new parts.

The downside is financial. Steam railroading is just more expensive, which translates into higher ticket prices, and with the downturn in the economy, I’d imagine tourism suffered as well. The place I worked has essentially replaced the steam engine with a diesel crawler except on holidays. We all know the politics of public funds, so I don’t see that as a viable option. Probably what you’ll see is stuff like Thomas and Chuggington being used to lure a bunch of kids to the tourist railroads once or twice a year, which will subsidize the rest of the operations…just a guess.

I seriously doubt steam will disappear.