Sunday, July 13, 2008


I don't regret not taking the job as a Conductor at the KCS.

The more I think about it the more I realise that it's a tremendous amount of hard work and a fair span of years ahead of me before I get to any sort of position of pay and responsibility, much less off the bottom of the totem pole. No, that job is for a young man, for me perhaps some twenty years ago had I known, but not now.

I've been reminded of that decision here of late. One of my favourite places to trainspot is right across the river in Pineville, good ole' Control Point Mallin at UP milepost 595. It's got more traffic than anywhere but the yards and it's easily accessible, plus there's always something to learn there.

For instance, switches.

The diamond is currently having some troubles, you see. There's something wrong with the mechanism that controls the signal lights between KCS and UP, and so it makes for interesting times for the train crews passing through on the UP. Currently the procedure is thus:

Train approaches the diamond. From their approach across the Red River Junction bridge they see a red over red signal, which means a complete stop for traffic, which in most every case isn't usually THERE, but they have to stop nonetheless. KCS is a 'black area' there, no central control so if there's a KCS setup anywhere within a few miles of the diamond it'll automatically lock the system down. So, the UP engineer will slowly draw the train to a stop, giving himself enough space that he can still see the signal lights from the cab. Here the conductor detrains.

The conductor then walks the fifty or so yards up to the signal control box, unlocks it, verifies there's no traffic coming from either direction and manually switches the signal lights to give the UP a go-ahead and to give the KCS line in both directions a red over red. Then they all wait.

Fifteen minutes to be exact, the time required by the operations guidelines for a train approaching from either direction to have ample opportunity to see a signal change and stop in time. After that quarter hour has passed in the boiling humidity and summer sun of Louisiana the conductor looks both ways again and manually waves (literally waves) his train forward.

This is the fun part. Watching a 6,000 ton train come inching forward. There's no sense in pouring on the power, you've only got 50 yards to go before you stop again, so they come creeping up like some monstrous snake, exhaust fumes making everything shimmery and strange until just the frontmost pair of wheels crosses the split between solid rail and the diamond, making a tremendous metallic clang.


Then, they stop again, so the conductor can reboard, his duties complete.

Conductor Reboarding

That is, complete until they make it the three or four miles into Tioga, where the same problem exists at another nearly identical crossing, where they'll do the same thing over again.


I overhead one conductor there griping, which is the soldier's duty, naturally. He'd come onto his shift at the Alexandria yard at 2pm. He'd managed to get his train across the river and into Pineville by 6pm. They were supposed to be in Monroe that evening, and he was afraid he'd not make it in his twelve hour shift.

Yeah, there's times I'm glad I didn't take that job.

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Blogger Todd said...

We're on the same page. When I attended a hiring session with Union Pacific in May, I was stoked. I thought "here I am, sitting in an interview for my dream job!". Fortunately the guy MC'ing the hiring session was a no bull kind of guy. We all thought we were applying for positions that were posted for specific cities. Come to find out, you are applying for a "service area". I was applying for the "Roseville Service Area". It extends from Klamath Falls, OR at the California/Oregon border to San Luis Obispo which is nearly 300 miles south of where I live, 567 miles south of Klamath Falls. Then east to Winnemucca, Nevada. That's a mere 421 miles northeast of my home. He laid out a worse case scenario for the newbie with no seniority. Once you "mark up", a term for getting on the seniority list, you bid on jobs wherever your seniority will take you. For instance, the only available job is in Klamath Falls, OR. I bid on it and have 48 hours to get there. I trek the 393 miles from home to Klamath Falls on my own dime. Find myself a cheap, roach infested motel to stay in since I'm not yet being pais. Or maybe even just live in my car for a few days. The station master calls me and tells me I've been bumped. Now I have to bid on another job. I find that Winnemucca, NV is now available. Fortunately I made no long term lease arrangements at the roach motel. I set out for Winnemucca, 307 miles. While I'm actually enroute, they call my cell and tell me I've been bumped again. I'm on highway 140 near the Nevada border about halfway to Winnemucca with no other way to go except through Winnemucca (check the Google map, you'll see! Once I get there I find a shift I can fill in Bakersfield, Ca. in the central valley. Saddle up!! Winnemucca to Bakersfield is 572...AND you haven't earned a penny yet!

Granted that's a worse case scenario for someone fresh out of training with no seniority, but I'm sure there is a bit of truth to it! Even if a small portion of that were true, I don't believe I would care to participate.

The MC for the hiring session said that the railroad is not paying you for your skills or knowledge, but for you and your families inconveinience. It sounds like there's a lot of that!

Would have been fun as a youth with nothing to tie you down or hold you back. Now I think it's just as enjoyable to dream about it and avoid the "inconveinience" that us old codgers don't particularly care for!

July 22, 2008 at 10:34 AM  
Anonymous Dave Beedon said...

Railroads are cool---I love them. But their working conditions are terrible. The block signal work-around would be funny if it were fiction. Alas, it is a grim reality; no wonder the conductor was "complaining." Todd's comment points out the insulting attitude of railroads toward its employees. Even if I were 20 years old and unmarried, I would not even begin to consider such work. I am content to stand next to the tracks and foam.

August 14, 2008 at 9:13 PM  

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