IamA (former) train conductor/engineer. AMA!
While in college, I worked on the railroad, beginning as a brakeman and eventually becoming an engineer. Today I work as a college professor, but still volunteer with Amtrak.
Yeah, you run into train hoppers. Having done it myself as a teen, I looked the other way. Some would ask us where our train was headed, and I'd tell them, knowing full well they'd catch out. If we had a DPU locomotive in the middle or the end of the train, I'd 'mention' that it had heat/AC and a seat that reclined.
Mainly, you just try not to communicate about anything other than the job. It's like not liking any coworker, really.
I was caught hopping onto an SD70MAC out of Waycross, GA once. The conductors stopped the train and told me to get off and ride in the freight. I felt really bad and also really grateful that they let me go. It was freezing and I was a fairly innocent looking teen. They had guns.
Everyone's a little different, but the crew shouldn't have had firearms. That's against all of the Class I Railroad rules. You sure it wasn't the bulls?
Yep, I'm sure. They came directly from the first engine and I saw them walk back to it. Interesting.
Sometimes the RR Police ride the locos, but even if it was the crew, it's not unheard of for them to carry guns--still against the rules, but I've seen it a time or two.
Dang man that's pretty cool but letting them ride in the locos? That's dangerous as shit. I'm a railroad mechanic. I guess that would explain the smells of shit and piss inside the engine rooms. All this time I thought it was engineers. Nope; hobos.
Never had any issues--and I can't imagine why anyone, crew or hopper, would use the engine room instead of the toilet.
I'm just curious, you're speaking in freight train terms(DPU's wouldn't be too common on Amtrak, nor would hobos) but the image I'm looking at shows a young Amtrak conductor and potentially a manager, or his father or is that you or? I'm just a little confused, I think this whole thing will make sense to me if you're the man on the left side of the image who's older in age, am I right?
I'm the one on the right. Both of us were volunteers for Amtrak's 40th Anniversary Exhibit train a couple of years ago. My seniority date on the railroad is June 10, 1999, and I worked in freight service and then passenger service.
Did you hit any vehicles at grade crossings?
Yes. Some resulted in fatalities, while others didn't. It's a terrible feeling.
Sorry to hear that man. My dad was an engineer for 20 years and had two instances with fatalities. One was some kids racing the train at a crossing and the other was ruled a suicide.
There was absolutely nothing he could have done in either case, but it didn't stop him from having plenty of "what ifs" go through his head. If he had just left a minute later, hit the brakes a split second earlier, etc.
Yes, you certainly never forget the look on the people's faces. And even knowing that it wasn't your fault/nothing you could have done, there's the guilt of taking someone's life. In 20 years to "only" have 2, though, is not bad at all.
Well, I guess I should rephrase that. He was with the railroad for 20 years, but was only an engineer for 5 or so. I'm pretty sure there were other incidents, but only 2 with fatalities.
is it really boring or exciting? what would happen if you fell asleep for an hour? would the machines make sure the trains are all right or would something bad happen?
Well, each day is different, so it doesn't get boring in that sense. Being on duty for 11 and a half hours on a slow-moving train can get to be a drag, but there are always slow orders to observe, crossings to go through, kids to wave at...
If a crew member falls asleep, the train will go into emergency braking and stop. We have alerters in the cab that sound an alarm every so often (more often when going faster.) If you don't press a button within 30 seconds or so, the train will stop.
How many of your co-workers were drug mules?
Zero. We only work within about a 150 mile radius of our homes.
Have you hit somone? If so were they trying to end their life or trying to make it across the tracks? How has it affected you?
Yes, I've been on board for trespasser and grade crossing incidents. One teenager, it looked to us, was a suicide.
It affects different people in different ways. The railroad has people you can talk to, and when I was a railroader, you could take 3 days leave after a fatality. Seeing what a train can do do a human body is never fun.
But at the end of the day, when you get hired you're told that it's not a matter of if, but when you'll have a fatality, and most people handle it pretty well. I've been on crews where we simply got the local fire department to hose off the locomotive and we went on and finished our tour.
Do you notice pennys on the track before you squish them? Have you ever seen brake slag shoot out? Is there a specific route you would recommend for someone to ride on amtrak for the great experience?
Unless you actually see the person place a penny, nah, you don't notice them.
Not that I can recall.
I'd say the Pacific Surfliner or Coast Starlight.
Hey, super neat AMA!
Do you know anything about technical differences between engineers' jobs on subway and light rail compared to larger vehicles like those on Amtrak?
Also, how does track maintenance work on really long lines?
Oh I can awnser that! Former frieght conductor turned subway operator.
First big difference, controls. Heavy rail has reverser, throttle and dB brake, automatic and independent brakes. So five handles. Plus the radio, a bunch of other minor controls, as well as all the computer stuff for distributed power
Subway has a reverser knob, and a combined throttle and brake. A radio, a speed control unit, and a small information screen.
Subway doesn't have to deal with slack (movement between cars) and what brake to apply and when, and charging the air. Or ever changing lengths of train or worry about it coming apart.
You don't have to deal with ensuring your whole trains slack is drawn out before hitting the throttle, subway is just full throttle from a dead stop.
Stopping on a subway is soooo much easier and quicker. Apply proper amount of brake and slow. Heavy freight you have to make sure your slack doesn't run in, if you're on a grade, how heavy you are, if its wet or dry on the track.
The signals are also very different. Frieght was close to thirty different indications and subway(my line) has seven.
Subway has issues there will be a mechanic there asap, while going to fix it. Heavy freight you're most likely fixing it yourself unless it's FUBAR.
Subway is electrically powered by a third rail. Frieght is diesel powered.
There are lots more but off the top of my head that's the major ones.
Let me know any specific questions you have.
Nice addition, man!
There wouldn't be a lot of fundamental differences in the skillset; running equipment on a steel track is basically the same everywhere. It'd be akin to driving a Honda versus driving a Toyota in terms of the cab layout. The big difference would be characteristics of the train. A light rail operator wouldn't need to worry about managing slack, or being unable to start the train because it's stretched, or waiting an hour to pump air into the brake pipe.
Track maintenance is broken down by subdivisions. You've got a boss in charge of about 150 miles, and he coordinates repairs and upgrades as he sees fit, or as directed by corporate.
I'm thinking of starting a career in railroading. Do you think it's a good industry to get into?
If you don't mind working long hours in variable weather conditions and basically never being able to count on being at home for birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, or anything, then yes. It's good money and a good retirement system, and good benefits.
But it is a career that kills marriages.
What if I don't like my wife, will it have the opposite effect?
Maybe absence will make the heart grow fonder!?
I live in a dense city area, and in the evening I hear a lot of train horns. In the daytime, however, the trains that run along the interstate never seem to blow their horns. Why do some trains do this and some don't?
I always figured that the trains had to blow a horn as they went through a certain part of town, but I've never seen one actually do it.
Do they have to at night but not in the daytime? Or is it only trains that go along a certain railroad? None of the above?
Except in cities with "quiet zones," all trains should blow a standard crossing signal on the horns at each grade crossing. Could be what you're hearing are trains serving spur tracks or local industries and not out on the main. They'd be going through crossings that other trains did not.
Okay, for reals, why are "you" guys always parking your goddamned trains right across streets during rush hour? I live near a train track. There are three main exits from my greater neighborhood and they all have to cross the same train track. It is ridiculous how often one or two of those streets will be blocked by a train just sitting there, not even moving. This happens fairly often during rush hour, which causes a huge mess.
So, what's the deal? Does that just mean that stuff is going on further down the tracks and this train has to wait for a slot wherever it's going? And what are the criteria for deciding where to stop? It seems to me that if there is no room at the destination, the train could stop a few miles north of us and not cause any problems. I'd like to understand more about how this all works and what's really going on because I'm sure it's not just the rail company being dicks.
Well, one thing to bear in mind is that in 99% of cases, the tracks were there before the streets and neighborhoods were.
Railroad lines are broken into a series of blocks, each of which is governed by signals. Some signals, called "absolute" signals, are controlled by a dispatcher at a remote location. A train coming to a red light an an absolute signal must stop before passing it. Sometimes, it's just a matter of another train crossing the track ahead; other times, it's because of a stalled train, a derailment, or a logjam up the line. The engineer doesn't get to move until the dispatcher says so and clears that signal. Sometimes, that means blocking crossings.
Now, why not break the train at the crossing to allow people to get through? If the train is particularly long, breaking it in half means that when we recouple, it will take a while, sometimes up to an hour, for the air compressors on the locomotives to recharge the brakes on every car back up to 90PSI. So doing that would actually result in the crossing being blocked for a longer time.
The blocks were divided up when the lines were built, often in the 19th century.
If it becomes a problem of access, it's on the city/county/state to build an overpass or underpass, and in this environment, folks don't care much for tax increases to pay for those.
That very last point is another issue I have with my own state. There is a bridge near here that had to be refurbished. Lots of construction. That was the perfect opportunity to build an on/off ramp from our area directly onto the interstate. That would have alleviated almost all of our traffic problems and would completely avoid the train tracks. For whatever reason, they didn't avail themselves of that opportunity.
I hear you. I generally haven't had good experiences with any level of gov't!
Any preference to GE or EMD?
I always preferred the GEs.
You must admit the throb of a 645 is awesome?
Not for 12 hours straight. I always dug the chug of the GE's.
Hi, I also worked on a passenger train for almost 4 years. Were you a foamer before you got a job on a train? Have you become a foamer since starting this job?
I was always interested in railroading, but I never got into chasing trains or photographing them, really. I think I have a touch of the aspie in me, so mechanical things have always been fascinating to me.
Why did you leave railroadng as a full time career?
Ha ha, Totally understand. Since you still volunteer for Amtrak I assume you still find it an enjoyable experience. Would you ever want to work as an engineer, fireman, or brakeman on one of those old historic steam engines?
I've done the steam thing, and it's fun, dirty, sweaty, hard work. But you get to participate firsthand in the preservation of history and a skillset that not many have left.
So how do we fix our nation's train system? I personally have taken Amtrak on short trips through Northern CA, and enjoy it, but it seems like I'm in the minority
Well, that begs the question about whether it needs fixing in the first place. You can regulate something until it almost doesn't exist anymore, and still have accidents. Short of investing trillions of dollars to improve what is already a pretty safe industry (when you look at rail-miles travelled per year) I'm not sure.
The one thing I'd like to see is better design of railroad tank cars. There's work being done on that out in Pueblo, but it'll take decades to replace the current fleet.
I guess when I say improve, I mean improve passenger rail to make it cheaper and faster. It seems like it's dying in the U.S., especially when compared to High-Speed rail found in other countries.
Oh, that's easy.
Subsidize the everloving hell out of it.
But getting the politicians on board....
Was that pun intended?
It wasn't, but as a damn English prof., it should have been!
Did you see that episode of Breaking Bad were they robbed a train.
I did, though I don't recall whether I found it realistic or not.
How on earth do you break into the field? I'm looking for something that pays decent while I study for the gre, and I'm getting bored working as a stage technician.
Most of the time, it's who you know. A family member or friend in the industry is often the gateway.
Not OP, but I'm a rail safety contractor...you really don't need anything more than a high school diploma and clean urine. Railroads all over the US are constantly looking for conductors.
That said, you won't have time to study and work on the railroad. At a lot of RRs, you're on what's called the extra board when you start for a year to many years - this means you're on call for certain days, and may or may not work. The hours are usually shit, like 5 p.m. to 5 a.m.
If you can tough it out, it's an amazing career. But it's typically 12 hour days, and it's rough work. The pay is great, though.
Stage tech hours are already pretty bad, so I'm not worried about that.
If you don't know anyone in the industry, check the RR websites for open cattle calls for conductor trainees. You'll probably have to attend several of them, but as more old heads retire, there'll be a lot of spots to fill.
Can you tell us why it's talking so long getting commuter service to Nashua, Manchester, and Concord, NH? Everybody here would love to be able to take a train to Boston instead of driving. Thanks!
Semi-specific question: How do the signals indicate that you are going on a diverging track? I'm used to the British system where a diagonal aspect or illuminated number is displayed. How is it done in the US?
There are 2 methods widely used in the U.S. I'm only familiar with route signaling (as opposed to the speed signaling of the northeast.)
Basically, there will be more than one signal head, stacked vertically. If I'm coming up on a switch and my train will take the diverging route, which is clear at the next signal, I'll see something like red over green (or red over red over green.)
It would look like this: http://1001.nccdn.net//000/000/13e/5fb/Diverging-Clear-signal.jpg
Hey there, been wondering about this for a while, even though the news hasn't said anything lately about the Philly Train crash... what are you thoughts? My own impression of the event is that the conductor did it on purpose.... With your knowledge of Amtrak, what do you think is the most likely reason for the crash to have happened?
I doubt it was on purpose. From the beginning, I've thought that it was operator error; the engineer just came into the curve too fast.
whats your favorite movie in which trains are an important element?
Exactly what rough work does working as a brakeman or engineer entail?
This happened to me several times:
It's December, 3am, you've been on duty for 8 hours. Your train goes into emergency. As the conductor, you get to walk back 150 cars over rocky, slick, unstable ballast to discover a broken knuckle. You now get to walk 150 cars back up to the front, get a spare knuckle from the locomotive, and walk BACK 150 cars carrying that 100-pound sonofabitch and your tool bag, replace it, then radio the engineer to make the joint, hook up the air hose again, then walk your monkey ass BACK up 150 cars, get on board, and fill out a whole mess of paperwork about why the train had an emergency brake application, why you were delayed, why you tied up the main for X amount of time...and you proceed at about 10mph (restricted speed/delayed in block) until the next signal.
- Would you recommend train hopping?
- Would you recommend doing what you used to do?
1) As a soon-to-be father, no. It's dangerous as hell and illegal, and people get seriously injured or killed doing it.
2) I enjoyed the job, but like I said earlier, it's not really family friendly.
Thanks for answering! Just one more question, since you highly advise against train hopping would you say traveling by train (legally) would give you the same travel experience?
It's similar in some ways, but no, it really isn't the same experience. Too many creature comforts, lol
Being a train engineer is a job I've always secretly wanted to do, is it fun? :P
There are elements of it that are fun. But it's a job like any other. It gets to be a grind, and you hate it sometimes.
But overall, I enjoyed it.
Whats the weirdest thing you have seen on train?
Hmmm...that's a good question.
I once watched my engineer poop into a plastic trash bag while still at the controls.
Would you mind sharing some of your tain hopping stories?
Is there a way for hoppers to know where a train is heade? (Using the loaded cargo, for example)
I x-posted your AMA on /r/hitchhiking, thinking they might be interested (there are a few train hoppers on there).
If I get some time, I can share a few stories. They're not terribly exciting.
Without context, it's kind of tough to know exactly where a train is headed, aside from general direction. There is a train hopper "bible" out there, generally it's passed on from person to person and they frown on putting it on the net (it is on the net, however.) It gives the best places to catch out from just about any city/state, and has useful advice on which trains leave for where each day.
Other than that, a hopper should have a scanner or radio (I have a 2-way walkie programmed with all the RR freqs. It's illegal to transmit, but a lot of the time you can simply ask over the radio where a train's headed. Depends on the crew.) I'd also have a railroad timetable (available at train shows or ebay) which tells about each subdivision, major stations, mileposts, etc. And, if you have a good sense of people, you can walk up and ask an employee. Many will help you out.
I live in new jersey and we had a train conductor speed up to 140 miles an hour while approaching a know curve. The train derailed killed 2 people, and injured about 70 people. My question is do train conductors sometimes put people at risk trying to make up time? Does your train have a speed controller on it?
In today's world, no, not at all. Each section of track has a speed limit, and there are always managers out in the weeds with radar guns checking to see if the crew obeys all rules, including speed limits. The Operating Rules are taken more seriously on the railroad than any other industry I've ever seen, other than aviation and nuclear energy.
In general, no, there is not a speed controller.
That is not an Amtrak conductor you are standing next to and I don't think that is an active sleeping car. Excatly what do your volunteer duties consist of?
I'm in the conductor outfit, and you're right. That sleeper is part of Amtrak's 40th Anniversary Exhibit train.
I do various events like that locally, as well as volunteer as a member of a grassroots organization which revenue manages 3 Amtrak long-distance routes.
Sounds cool. The display train with the heritage sleeper makes much more sense. Do you miss running? Did you work for a freight or pax railroad?
I'm fortunate enough to be able to still have enough friends in the industry to pull throttles from time to time, so I'm still connected to it.
I don't miss the crew caller waking me up after 4 hours of sleep.
I worked for both during my career.
did you ever have any hobo encounters? what did you do?
what do you when you don't like the brakeman that's on your run for 11 hours?
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