My short bio: I'm based in Western Canada and I worked for Class 1 railways (the big ones) as well as a couple short lines. I'm currently a humble yard switchman and have a couple hours to kill. AMA!

If you have super specific questions I'll do my best to quote federal rules. We have specific guidelines (unknown to most) that we must follow, so, I'll backup everything I say with sources when asked. :)

My Proof:

edit 1: had a nap there, this kinda got out of hand...i'll see how many i can answer, but i'm here for a while! edit 2: thanks for the gold, kind stranger!

Comments: 346 • Responses: 42  • Date: 


Do You have a miniature model train set at home you play with glee?

bigwilliec88 karma

negative. fun fact: a lot of railroaders do.. they're known colloquially as "foamers." this is largely due to the rabies style foam they seem to get when being near/seeing a train. they are best ignored.


And finally does this theme play aloud every time you arrive to work?

Or this one when you're leaving?

bigwilliec35 karma

you have no idea how much i wish both of those were true. there's a haunting to both that seem to sum up my disappointment...

type_your_name_here38 karma

How accurate were the train sequences on Unstoppable?

bigwilliec124 karma

As the piloting was in "Airplane."

missing_eyeball25 karma

Do you wear a neckerchief and blue pinstriped "train conductor" hat?

bigwilliec40 karma

i have several, but i do believe you'd get your ass kicked for wearing something like that. it was -35 2 weeks ago. a toque (beanie) is recommened. :)

Brad_Wesley22 karma

Do you get a lot of hobos? I know a guy who uses to hobo around and he said there was sort of an unspoken code where the conductor would leave one boc car open for them and in exchange they wouldn't break into/fuck with the other cars.

bigwilliec75 karma

hobos or transients never bothered me. if i walked by one i'd say hi, make sure he was okay and politely asked him not to get run over. not much you can do. we're not responsible for opening or closing cars. they get sealed up at their respective points of origin. other conductors might act differently. here's my hobo friendly guide:

  1. Stay out of large yards. They have a cop on duty. Stay in the suburbs. 1 or 2 tracks max. Start seeing 3, 4, 5, 6+ tracks? Bail. There's also a good chance you're going to be stationary for a long time IF you don't get bounced by the fuzz.

  2. Avoid inter-modal traffic. These. They're uncomfy and very expensive. If one gets broken into and you're around...jail. They are however priority usually, and the best way to get somewhere fast. the ones with reefers (a refrigeration system [you'd see it to know it] mean it's probably perishable and has a priority to get somewhere.)

  3. Vandalism. Don't? Why? Find a wall? We remove most spray paint anyway. It's like an easy make-work-project. BUT if you HAVE to...avoid the car marks. By that I mean the 4 letters and the 4-6 digit number of the car. best way to have your graffiti last. a decent example.

bobbernaut14 karma

It's an unspoken rule in the graffiti scene that you DON'T paint on the numbers on the cars. Have you ever caught someone spraying paint in action?

bigwilliec15 karma

never caught anyone. those letters and numbers are so pivotal to my job. having them clearly visible is awesome.

tell your hooligan friends "thanks" from your local conductor. :)

bustednugget20 karma

When a train sounds the horn,does it have a specific meaning? And do you hate graffiti artist?

bigwilliec36 karma

"Officially" there are certain whistle signals that mean certain things. Most common of which is "Long, Long, Short, Long" which you'll hear at any rail crossing. Apart from that we'll blow the whistle at pretty much anything.

There's a lot of deer and other miscellaneous wildlife out here, so we go bananas on the horn to try to get them to move. but usually, at 1/4 of a mile from a crossing, there's a sign with a "W" on it, and that's when you being your "Long Long Short Long" until you're occupying said crossing.

Brad_Wesley19 karma

Are there train groupie kinds of chicks that are all of your shit when they find out you work around trains?

bigwilliec31 karma

you have no idea. there was a time in the 90s when all you needed were work boots and some diesel fuel on your coveralls...Kamloops BC...girls. instant girls.

it's also an amazing icebreaker. i recommend it. going to sound douchey, but it's helped get me laid more than once.

Brad_Wesley9 karma

Nice, I like time to myself so I always figured enginner or conductor would be a good job for me.

bigwilliec14 karma

Do it up! Check for colorblindness and deafness first. Or you're in for an unpleasant surprise.

Brad_Wesley7 karma

I'm too busy with other shit. I heard it pays pretty well though as you become more senior.

bigwilliec10 karma

sure does. seniority is everything. it's a union job so it's organized heavily by "who came first." contractor jobs, however, are not. they kind of reward 'good work' over everything else.

TripleOGeg4 karma

That is insane I would never of guessed chicks dig train conductors. (No offence)

bigwilliec14 karma

We're a rough breed...but loyal and hardworking.

Unidan16 karma

This might seem like a really grim question, but what is the protocol for striking someone on the tracks?

I was on the way in to NYC one time when someone committed suicide by stepping in front of our train and we had to disconnect cars and all kinds of complicated things, but we were sort of left out of the process, understandably. What would be happening on your end of things if you were the conductor of the train?

bigwilliec15 karma

they'll give you ~3 days off, offer counselling. not much can be done.

it's a mess. don't do it :)

there's a person driving that train. it's not victim-less. there's 1 or 2 sets of eyes that stare down everything in front of them. including suicides.

FiggleJam16 karma

This is the best AMA I've read in a while. Makes me feel like a 10 year old again. Thanks for doing it.

bigwilliec9 karma

ah you're welcome :)

redtexture15 karma

Track ballast. How come we see this redone, on some lines, especially when replacing rails? What is your take on how well track and roadbeds are maintained in general...well, at least in Canada?

bigwilliec24 karma

i work quite closely these days with the track maintenance folk, and i do not envy their job.

that being said, it's a tricky business. the ballast we seem to get is nice and coarse, and an excellent weight distributor. the track is "tamped" immediate after dumping and settles back into it's normal grades.

the maintenance of way employees are unsung heroes. they're usually seasonal (due to harsh Canadian winters) but come summer they get out of the way for trains quickly, and i'd venture to say our rail/roadbed is the best on the planet.

edit: failed to answer why ballast gets replaced with rail: might as well. if you're shutting down a mainline to replace rail, new ballast is recommended. these days a lot of "bolted" rail is getting replaced by "welded" rail, so chunkier ballast is needed in order to maintain high speeds. it's all about weight distribution.

joedude2019 karma

Track Maintenance Engineer from UK here, can confirm that the ballast usually gets replaced because it gets contaminated very easily with soil, poor drainage, sand etc & it can actually become essentially concrete due to water pumping up sand & soil. But also because fresh ballast isn't contaminated its worth avoiding the risk & just ripping out all the old stuff out.

bigwilliec13 karma

Yeah, what he said. :)

joedude207 karma

Really interesting AMA by the way, always cool to hear from a railwayman from a different part of the world :)

bigwilliec9 karma

never gone by railwayman...might have to start!

ichegoya14 karma

Hey, why do I see trains that have engines on both ends, and they both seem to be running? What's the deal?

bigwilliec19 karma

engineering. through certain hill-types it's easier/more fuel efficient/more hauling efficient (not a word) to have 2 engines on the front and one on the back. or 1 on the front and 2 in the middle. and various combinations there-of. every engine on that train is controlled by the head-end engine. the others are "slaves" but we in western canada call them "Remotes." sometimes it's better to push than to pull. more engines is fine, but less is better, if they're in the right place on a big big train. :)

redtexture12 karma

Is it typical that a train-set is parked for hours with the engine running, ready to go, as in the recent run-away oil-tanker train disaster in eastern Canada?

What are the multiple proper things to do, to make sure a train does not move?

I thought I read (maybe incorrectly) in that oil-train instance, that the air pressure on the brakes was not adequate to hold the train. I thought that failsafe brakes required adequate air pressure to keep the brakes open, and inadequate pressure means that brakes will be applied.

How do brakes work, in the sense of assembling a train, connecting up a long freight train? Do all of the air-hoses (if that is what runs the brakes) need to be manually connected? If so, it seems it is a lot of labor to get a big freight train ready to leave a port or freight yard, and dangerous to have people wandering around a track switch / freight yard too.

bigwilliec13 karma

Yeah i'd like to answer that, but i mean...definitely not going to tell you how a train works so as to move it.

As of that accident all trains are locked up now. Don't bother.

nishankk9 karma

How much do you make?

bigwilliec17 karma

last year i made a humble 62.5K. CDN. i work half a year. 5 on 4 off 5 on 5 off 4 on 5 off. days. kids, do not underestimate working straight days. they'll lure you in with money to work on call, or nights. not worth it. days.

when i worked at Canadian Pacific my best year was 97.5K as a road conductor,

wingsAbove9 karma

what is the most ridiculous guideline that is just too funny that you have come across?

bigwilliec20 karma

the common saying is "the (our) rules are written in blood." and that's completely true. every rule exists because something happened. someone dies, or lost a limb or something horrible happened, so they made a rule or rules to prevent it. it's getting a bit out of hand now.

the most ridiculous is ice cleats IMO. literally spikes that fit over your boot to prevent slipping. again, in my opinion, i feel my cause more injuries than they prevent. certain styles hurt your back, and most just serve as an obstruction to getting onto railcars. you can get caught or snag them super easy. ice cleats. good idea, bad implementation.

FatherPrax7 karma

My grandfather was a railroad engineer for 30+ years. Back then, I know part of the process was a color test because color deficient/blind people were not allowed to be an engineer.

He wound up buying the book they used for testing, memorized the proper answers, and cheated his way thru it. As far as I know, he never had an issue because of his color deficiency.

My question is do they still test for this? Do you think being color deficient would actually cause you problems in the modern day of engineering?

bigwilliec4 karma

yes, they still test for it.

they typically use [these.](

fail any of those and you're out. it's a "safety critical" position. one step up from "safety sensitive." medicals every 5 years until you reach a certain age and then they increase to every 3 years.

ChaseAlmighty7 karma

As a Carman in the US my question is; are you guys as slow as our Operations guys? They don't do much all day and when they have to they purposely take as long as possible to do it.

bigwilliec13 karma

I think that's the nature of unionized work. why take 4 hours to do something when often times (with premiums) it pays more to do it in 12?

they literally reward failure.

ChaseAlmighty3 karma

That is definitely the issue but we are union too and aren't nearly as bad. The key difference seems to be that the supervision has zero power over Operations whereas in the Car dept we would get in trouble if we pushed things that far. Don't get me wrong, there are shitbags in our dept on every shift, but even they know not to push past a certain line.

Also, it trips me out that anyone in either dept would be so lazy. There is only X amount to do in any given day and yet people still whine and bitch. But that seems to be the nature of the job. We have guys who bitch when they get one track, 4 tracks or when there is a derailment and we have nothing to do all day.

bigwilliec7 karma

you can never please a railroader. give him a million dollars and he's complain about the denominations.

TheApollo12326 karma

Have you ever worked around Steam Locomotives by any chance?

bigwilliec7 karma

no. strictly diesel electric. steam's a wholenother (sp?) level of efort and concentration...

Betrivent5 karma

If I really love trains, is this the job for me?

bigwilliec12 karma

don't do for a living what you enjoy as a hobby.

redtexture4 karma

Talk about the career path to conductor, and your own path in the railroad world.

I understand the conductor is in charge of running the moving train-set, in supervising role, at least for passenger rail. Is that right?

What role is the equivalent leader-in-charge for freight train-sets?

bigwilliec10 karma

I am strictly freight. I went to school. Got hired on out of school and the rest is history. I'll recommend not going to school, as most railways hire off the street. As long as you're not...insane. Out west there's so many contractor rail companies they're basically begging you to work for them.

My path is long and sordid. ;)

redtexture4 karma

Who supervises the freight train set? Conductor?

bigwilliec8 karma

the conductor is in charge of the train. that is, the cars, and the engines.

the engineer is in charge of the engines alone.

those are the 2 people on a train. at least in the freight world of canada.

Dido_of_Fartage4 karma

So how many passengers can an average train hold?

bigwilliec7 karma

Depends how many cars...add more cars..add more engines...add more cars...add more's a matter of horsepower to haulage capacity.

Milith4 karma

This report on computerization of jobs gives a 96% chance that locomotive engineers will be replaced by machines in the next 20 years. What do you think of it?

bigwilliec31 karma

skynet. that is all.

the_foxy_cow3 karma

Why do trains need to constantly sound their horn as they pass through small towns? This pisses me off to no end.

bigwilliec4 karma


Rule 13 (L) (i) At public crossings at grade: Trains exceeding 44 MPH must sound whistle signal 1/4 mile before the crossing, to be prolonged or repeated, until the crossing is fully occupied. Note: A whistle post will be located 1/4 mile before each public crossing where required. Movements operating at 44 MPH or less must sound whistle signal to provide 20 seconds warning before entering the crossing and continuing to sound whistle signal until crossing is fully occupied. EXCEPTION: Engine whistle signal is not required when manual protection is provided, or shoving equipment other than a snow plow over a crossing protected by automatic warning devices. (ii) (#) At other whistle posts indicated in special instructions.

Sorry, but if there's a whistle post, we are obliged by federal law to throw down 4 blasts on the whistle. if we're caught not doing so by a company officer or transport canada inspector we'll be hauled out of service and investigated. if we hit something/someone at those crossings and are found to have not blown the whistle, or had headlights on etc, then the crew is immediately at fault. resulting in probable dismissal.

cjwojoe3 karma

I have been looking into getting into railway work. How hard is it too break in and where do people generally start? Do you have to go to a trade school?

bigwilliec7 karma

you can go to several IT schools across the country. SAIT, George Brown etc...

Most people just hire on off the street. Check the big websites. They're probably hiring in your area right now.

dancam4112 karma

You don't happen to work in Edmonton? If so you cause me to be late ALL the time :(

50th street railway suuucks

bigwilliec5 karma

I used to work in Edmonton yep! I mean...nooooo. That wasn't me... :P

dancam4112 karma

God dammit! :P do you really purposefully block the roadways? Or is it like well we HAVE to do this now

bigwilliec3 karma

i never block a crossing longer than i have to. trust me, i get stuck at my fair share in my automobile as well.

lazy_slob2 karma

Edmonton! I knew a few people in the yard there (that have also now left) At least you're not in Calgary ;)

bigwilliec5 karma

how bout those flames eh? we should combine teams and make one super pile of shitty hockey.

jdmoney852 karma

Are your hours of service the same as in the U.S.? Can only work maximum of 12 consecutive hours on duty..10 hrs rest, or anything under 12 hours worked requires 8 hours rest?

tvismyfriend5 karma

12 hours is the most for a single trip. If you can get in under 10 hours you can take 0 hours of rest if you want. Anything over 10 hours and you're stuck on mandatory rest, which is 6 hours at your away from home terminal and 8 at home. Also, there are jobs where you can take 0 hours rest and jump on another train to go home. If you do this then the time spent between the two trips cannot exceed 18 hours.

If you're stuck on a work train though, then they can work you for 16 hours.

bigwilliec5 karma


holyhandgrenade082 karma

Locomotive electrician here. Is it true that train crews sabotage equipment to delay trains? I've heard the rumor from several coworkers.

bigwilliec2 karma

i never have but have heard of people who do. you gotta SOMEkind of desperate to start risking criminal charges just to avoid a switch...

blink0r2 karma

What's your opinion of Hunter Harrison? I know his slash and burn technique is great for shareholders, but have his changes affected you directly?

bigwilliec2 karma

i hired on with CP to avoid Hunter, and I quit CP years later to avoid Hunter. from what my work mates are telling me i made a wise decision.

but really the railway needs to change from top to bottom. it's 2014 but the way it runs is basically like it was in 1914.

DuckPhlox2 karma

I saw a pickup upgraded for rail service. On addition to the steel wheels for mounting the rails, the truck has a hydraulic reservoir, cooler, pump, and a dual hose reel. What is the hydraulic setup for? Are there hydraulic actuated switches?

bigwilliec2 karma

this is definitely greek to me. sorry! not sure what your question is...

Kryogenetics1 karma

Do you work with the Public? I'm about to go for an interview with a company over here in the UK. What would your role be when dealing with passengers from the moment you get on the job till the moment you leave? What tips would you have for me in the interview?


bigwilliec8 karma

SAFETY. i don't think you can overemphasize your commitment to safety. like, impossible to overemphasize. say it at the beginning, middle and end.

my passengers are coal, grain, potash and containers. they're a quiet, relatively well behaved bunch.

ooo001 karma

There is a train station running behind my work place. Last week someone committed suicide by train right behind our building. How often does this happen and have you experienced this while on the job?

bigwilliec5 karma

meh, it happens. people look at trains as big faceless machines. they're not.

i'm in there.

watching what's ahead of me...