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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Death by locomotive

My dad worked for a railroad full-time from 1947 to 1958 and part-time for 8 years more. His co-workers knew that I had been through difficult and lengthy illnesses, so I got to be a mascot of sorts at the freight yard. They let me operate locomotives, throw switches in the yard, go anywhere in the yard office or the roundhouse, etc. These days that would get them all fired, of course, but besides lifting my spirits their indulgence allowed me to see railroading from the perspective of the employee -- not merely someone who watches trains and doesn't really know what's going on.

Forward to the late 1970s, when I had the opportunity to serve weekends on the safety crew for the steam train excursions that Southern Railway used to run. There was never a dull moment, and over the years of service I learned a lot more about the railroad life.

There is nothing glamorous about railroading as a career -- at least not as a locomotive engineer or conductor. Although union jobs pay reasonable wages, the hours are long and unpredictable, conditions are harsh, rule enforcement is unforgiving, and the work is downright dangerous. Understandably the railroads try to weed out applicants who think it would be a fun job. Instead the railroads hire steady, level-headed folks who can handle the responsibility. When train employees make mistakes, people die -- often the railroaders themselves.

One sobering thing, in particular, I came to know. Nearly every locomotive engineer at some point in his career has watched a trespasser on foot or occupants in an automobile die in a collision with his train. Some of these accidents, we know, are suicides; others are the results of intoxication, inattention, or mortal lapses in judgment. It's tragic for victims and their families, but it's also tragic for locomotive engineers. Many of them become emotionally incapacitated, especially if it happens to an engineer more than once. I've been on a train that hit a vehicle at a grade crossing. It is a horrific experience, although I wasn't in the locomotive cab at the time.

It happens that I've also been on a train that was shot by someone with a .22 rifle. The bullet missed me by a yard after making a clean hole in the window of the railroad car.

So, the next time you wave at a locomotive engineer and he (or she) doesn't wave back, don't take it personally. It takes a lot of concentration in that locomotive to manage 10,000 horsepower pulling 10,000 tons of train. The engineer may be wondering if you're about to throw a rock at him or step in front of his train. And almost certainly, the engineer is looking ahead to the next grade crossing -- and praying that people will keep out of harm's way.