Working on the Railroad
In 2012, after moving back into my parent’s house in my mid-20s and lacking real prospects, I took a job in St. Paul, MN as a freight conductor on Union Pacific trains. Recently, the delightful David Gilbert asked about the experience, and this is way too much for a tweet, so I thought I’d sprawl and make a blog post about it.
Jeff we want train stories!!— Nag Champa Enjoyer (@PowellsLeftArm) July 21, 2023
Choose any combination of the following:
-what kind of work did you do
-what surprised you about the job
-what did you learn from the job
-what did you learn about yourself
-how did it change you
What kind of work did I do?
I could go into a ton of detail here that most people would not care about. The short version is that I was mostly a road conductor and occasionally a yard conductor. The old adage is that the engineer owns the engine, and the conductor owns the train. Most of my work centered on getting cars from point A to point B. This could vary considerably in complexity.
For example, one regular job in my region was a Norfolk Southern intermodal express train that Union Pacific carried outside the NS service area. This train arrived at the terminal fully assembled, it had priority above all other freight trains, and no cars were dropped off at the destination terminal. So as a conductor, my only job was to talk to the dispatcher every few hours and get new track warrants, as ours expired.
However, manifest trains could involve picking up cars off of multiple tracks in the correct order at the origin terminal, which could take hours depending on the other active jobs and trains in the yard and where the cars were in the yard. If, by some miracle, you make it to the destination before hitting the 12-hour mark (the maximum amount of time a train crew can work per the FRA), those cars would have to be dropped off in a particular order on particular tracks at the destination terminal.
The average day consisted of a few hours of actual work, 6 - 8 hours of tedium, and finally, a few hours of sleep-deprived work at the destination. It was also common to get stuck waiting for another job or a dispatcher or something for literally 12 hours, the maximum amount of time train crews are allowed to work, and we’d clock out and go home. Predicting what would happen from one day to the next was hard.
A specific job near Eau Claire, WI involved shoving (traveling backward) several miles from a lumberyard to the terminal. Because we were going backward, I had to get on the back of the train and tell the engineer how much farther they could keep moving (e.g., “Job 80, you’re clear for another 80 car lengths”). Anyway, there was a huge bridge over the Chippewa River between the lumberyard and the terminal, and holy shit, the rush of holding onto a ladder on the side of a boxcar while several hundred feet above a raging river was incredible. I couldn’t help but howling with joy at the sheer rush of it. It was one of the most intense life-affirming moments I’ve ever experienced.
There were a lot of peaceful moments that I remember fondly. Being stuck at a siding in the middle of rural Wisconsin at 2 AM, smoking a cigarette, and looking at the Milky Way. Being stationed in Superior, WI / Duluth, MN and watching the dawn over a frozen Lake Superior. Rattling along stick rail through the fall Midwestern foliage.
I met some characters too. An old head engineer named Carl saved someone’s life once. He was rolling along the rail and saw someone sitting in the middle of the tracks, I’m not sure if that person was there because of addiction issues or a mental health crisis, but regardless, Carl realized that he wouldn’t be able to stop the train in time, so he jumped out of his seat and ran onto the stairs on the front of the engine and reached out and grabbed the person and hoisted them up onto the train, all while the train was in motion! Carl was skinny and gruff, and there was always the odd chance that he’d start yelling at me for whatever reason, but he had a good heart.
There was a guy in my conductor class named Ryan, and he joined up after being a private contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan. He told me that he liked the job because it let him get away from his family and spend half his time in hotels. He also told me that he missed killing Muslims. He was not a good guy, but the experience of meeting someone so wildly different than anybody I’d ever met before was interesting, at least.
I also met a conductor named Jack, who had been an Army intelligence officer before joining up with UP. He loved trains, a foamer through and through. He was the only person I met on the railroad who actually wore an old-timey conductor hat. He was a very kind, very thoughtful guy. He was always so calm. Nothing ever fazed him, so I liked working with him when I was new and terrified.
There were many dark moments. Being on call 24/7/365 was brutal. Most of the trains were at night, so I’d sleep all day. It was impossible to make friends in a city where I knew nobody. Seniority in each graduating conductor class was determined randomly, and I drew the lowest seniority out of the whole class. This meant that I couldn’t hold a job anywhere in the region, so they kept me in training for almost a year while waiting for a job to open up. That was fine, except that it meant I moved all over the region to train. I spent 2 months in a Super 8 in Adams, WI, another month in a Best Western in Superior, &c. It was the loneliest I’ve ever been.
I was laid off a few days before Christmas. On the railroad, “laid off” is similar to being furloughed. I decided to head home and spend Christmas with my family. I got home, soaked up warmth and love, and drank with a friend that night. I was woken up, still drunk, at 7 AM by my union rep calling me to tell me I was back on the board and scheduled to be on the third train out of Adams. I drove, first tipsy, then hungover, for 18 hours straight, and checked into the Super 8. I lay down and 20 minutes later, my phone rang, and I had to be at work in 90 minutes. Fucking miserable.
Two things happened that made me finally say, “fuck this” and quit. First, conductors need a certain number of miles traveled to qualify for vacation time, and at the end of the year I came up 20 miles short. So, I was looking at 2 years on the job without a dependable single day off. Second, a vacancy finally opened for me, and it just happened to be the only job in the entire region that I hadn’t been trained on. It was also in Eau Claire, so I’d have to move from St. Paul. So I quit and spent the next few months chewing through my savings at a bar, growing increasingly depressed before finally moving back home to Denver.
What surprised you about the job? / What did you learn from the job?
A lot of things surprised me. First, just how dangerous it is. While I was in conductor school, someone in our service unit in a yard in Iowa got pinched between the knuckles of two cars. Our instructor told us that when that happens, you don’t die until they separate the cars. They bring you a phone so you can call your loved ones, and then you tell them that you’re ready. I worked with quite a few people with missing limbs from one accident. Even with modern safety standards and FRA regulations, it’s still an incredibly dangerous job.
There’s an entirely different language on the railroad too, and that was a fun surprise. As I mentioned, “laid off” means you aren’t on the board for upcoming jobs. “Fired” means that you’ve hit your 12-hour maximum for your shift, and you have to tie down the train and wait for the relief crew. “Foamers” are railroad enthusiasts, and “emergency” means the air brakes are applied because of loss of air pressure. Your “lantern” is your flashlight, and “humping” is letting cars loose at the top of a hill and letting gravity bring them down into the yard. And of course, there’s the most important rule of road trains: “number one in number one, number two in number two:” don’t ever take a shit in the lead locomotive. I’ve forgotten so much of it, but rail workers talking to each other is almost incomprehensible to everyone else.
I was also surprised by just how strong the union was. We didn’t work for the carrier. We worked in the union and just happened to be on Union Pacific trains. If an injury happened in the field, they warned us over and over to never say a word to anybody from Union Pacific. We call the union and let them speak for us, always. The relationship with management was downright adversarial. They’d hide in the treeline next to a yard and watch us, waiting for us to slip up and violate a rule, and they’d pop out and write us up.
I’d never been in a union before. In fact, when I worked at FedEx in my early 20s, I was misled into signing something that prevented us from unionizing. The railroad ingrained the value of labor and collective bargaining. There were no performance reviews. There was no begging for a raise. I had almost no reason at all to interact with management. They’d try to be chummy, but we’d never get too close. They tried to be friendly so they could milk us for information about our brothers and sisters, and we had none of it. We’d bring our concerns to the meetings where we could all discuss them and come up with a plan instead of bringing them to management so they could sweep them under the rug. Yeah, seniority sucks if you aren’t senior, but the value of speaking with one voice vastly outweighs the negatives.
What did you learn about yourself? / How did it change you?
I learned I’m not the stoic rock I thought I was. I learned that while I had the highest grades in my conductor class on the exams, I would get nervous and second guess myself and fuck things up in practice. I do well with a mentor next to me. I learned that community and camaraderie are incredibly important to me, and I do not function well without them. Lastly, I learned that I shouldn’t drink, at least not as a crutch. I made many bad decisions during my last few months in Minnesota. All the beer and whiskey in the Midway didn’t make me any less lonely. It only isolated me further.
I also learned that as much as I wanted to be the carefree adventure guy, that’s just not me. I’m comforted by routine and schedules. I’m infinitely happier solving puzzles while coding.
- We love it when you wave at us.
- Railroad workers are confined to a region of maybe four to six terminals where they spend their career. They can transfer to other regions but lose all of their seniority.
- Railroad pension is awesome.
- More? I donno, ask me on Twitter, and I’ll add to this.