Ask the freight train conductor

in this thread I explained that I started a new job as a freight train conductor (trainee)
Somebody suggested it would make a good “ask the” thread. I’m not sure that I know enough to be an authority on the subject but I’m really bored right now (which is a prerequsite for the job as it turns out).

My job is to be the eyes of the engineer basically, and to be responsible for the cargo we haul. I’ve learned that trains aren’t arranged soley on where they’re headed, but on what they’re carrying. For instance, a haz-mat car must be buffered by other cars and placed certain distances from the lead locomotive. Empty cars shouldn’t be placed in the middle of a train because of the weight distribution and accordian effect caused by the slack involved with trains (it makes the train weak in the center). Haz-mat cars can’t be placed near refrigerated cars or cars with lading that can shift.

There are well over a hundred signal indications I need to know and there’s very little uniformity to the whole mess. Actually it’s closer to two hundred.

Most train wrecks are caused by conductors leaving switches in the wrong position in dark teritory. Dark teritory is where trains aren’t governed by signals at all.

I haven’t been around long enough to see any collisions or anything but I have seen a few derailments.

Also, freight trains are run by deisel fuel only to supply electric traction motors which really drive the train, and air pressure mainly to operate the brakes, plus the electricity it needs for the whole operation.

A few things I was surprised to learn was that they actually have things called derailers. They’re used to derail trains in the name of safety.

Trains can be rerailed rather easily.

Trains can run with the engine at either end in full speed.

Trains can be either really loud or can sneak up on you without ever making a sound.

This where you got your user name?

*Well, I can hear the whistle from a mile away.
It sounds so good but I must stay away.
That train is a beauty makin’ everybody stare,
But its only destination is the middle of nowhere.

Yeah, watch out brother for that long black train.
That devil's drivin' that long black train.*

From Josh Turner's song, "Long Black Train"

It used to be said that if a man could "get on" (hired) with the railroad, he'd have a good job for life. Is railroading still a good paying and secure occupation?

No, It’s the name of a Doors song but I must admit that I like those lyrics. I’ll have to check out that song.

Railroad Retirement is supposed to be better than social security but I really don’t know. I’m pretty sure that RRT has a surplus or at least is solvent at the moment.

I’m constantly running into people who’ve been out there for 30 plus years. But people do quit because of the hours. It takes years to get enough seniority for a half decent schedule.
They really started getting serious about safety though and you can get put “out of service” for a whole host of reasons. There’s even “out of service” insurance you can buy. Out of service is a long suspension.

There’s been at least one person fired since I’ve been there.

Typically what are your hours? 12 hours a day?

I’m noticing pretty quickly that most jobs tend to run close to twelve hours. That doesn’t include taxi time, which they also get paid for. So if they have to leave their train somewhere to be relieved by another crew they get paid until they get back to the yard.
I’ve already seen it take upwards of two hours for one of their taxis to show up. I’ve heard of people waiting for six hours or even more.

They also have yard jobs. That’s where you get trains ready to go. These jobs are eight hour shifts but there are far more of the other types of jobs.

The local and regional jobs aren’t all that far but you can be held at one signal sometimes for a couple of hours.

How much does a fully-loaded rig weigh? I’m thinking particularly of a Grateful Dead song from Touch of Gray called “900,000 Tons of Steel” which seems a bit of an overestimate.

Are most of the conductor runs of a there-and-back-again variety?

They did tell us what the typical weight of fully loaded trains are but that’s escaping me.

The max. tonage per locomotive axle depending on the grade is anywhere from 63 to 867. There are some engines that have six axles and they’re designed so more than one engine can be coupled together as one unit.

I know that some of the engines that I’ve been in weigh 410,000 lbs on their own.
Some of the jobs are run through and back but sometimes it takes more than one shift to make that happen. We have to use some tracks owned by other railroads and getting permission sometimes takes a lot of time. No crew is allowed to work past twelve hours so trains are often left somewhere along a route for another crew to pick up and continue it’s trip.

When I was little I remember my Daddy singing all of the old ballads like “Wreck of the Old 97” and such. Do these stories still circulate amongst the railroad community?

In mountain country it seems that the weight of the train is crucial. There was a bad derailment in Cajon Pass several years ago that was blamed on the train being heavier than advertised. As a result of that there were too few locomotives and therefore not enough dynamic braking to supplement the air brakes. The engineer ran out of air before reaching the bottom of the pass and was going something like 70 mph on a curve limited to 40. The train derailed into a San Bernardino residential neighborhood with a lot of property damage and as I recall the engineer was killed. About a week later the neighborhood erupted in flames because the train had damaged a natural gas pipeline in the derailment. It was a real mess.

What are the whistle signals? I know when a train is coming to a crossing (where a road crosses the tracks) they blow loooooooooooong looooooooooooong short-loooooooooooong.

What else is there?

Do trains still have a reserve of sand that drops on the rail to provide traction on steep sections like they did in the early steam engine days?

Why do steam engine trains spin their wheels when they start to move?
I see this in the movies all the time.

NinetyWt , No. Not yet anyway. Most of the people I’ve worked with so far seem to have a better than average sense of humor though. I don’t know if it’s an industry thing or just that I’ve been lucky so far. The thing about that is when it comes time to work nobody jokes around and they become totally serious.

David , I do know that there’s a schedule for gradients that a train is supposed to go by and that the dynamic brakes are really important. They pretty much sound like the reverse thrusters on an airplane.

Mary , I’m going to cheat and look in my book. I’ll leave the more boring ones out:
( - = long & o = short )

    • o - is approaching public crossings at grade, where roadway workers might be at work or approaching and passing standing trains
  • o When running against the current of traffic approaching stations, curves, passenger or freight trains

ooo When standing, used as a warning that the train is to back up. When running, the train is to stop at the next passenger station

oo acknowledgement of a stop signal other than a fixed signal

Kanicbird , they still do use sand to gain traction an it’s supposed to add to the weight of the train for traction.

Marine , I don’t know anything about steam trains but I’ve seen our engines spin wheels and even stop while trying to push a particularly heavy load or trying to climb a steep incline.

Other things I found to be interesting being new to the industry were:

The windshield wipers run by compressed air instead of electricity.

The windows are supposed to be bullet proof.

Some trains have cab signals which are transmitted through the rails themselves.

In most cases the trains dermine what the signals are going to be around it for other trains just by being there.

Are there still hobos riding the rails? Are they ever allowed to ride, or are they still chased off and/or arrested?

I haven’t seen any yet but I think they’re more concentrated out west. Around here it’d be a lot of waiting for a fairly short ride.