Six Deadly Sins

Occasionally, a passenger will ask me something “train safety” related like, “Do they ever inspect these trains to make sure they’re safe?” or, “It seems like this train came into the station awfully fast. Don’t these trains have speed limits?”

The many levels of train safety inspections (everywhere from the many brake safety tests preformed out on the mainline, the inspections completed in the shop every day, and up to the very detailed and involved quarterly locomotive and passenger car inspections that take that train out of service for a week to complete), are far beyond what most would think.

But what about the engineer? What checks are in place to keep the driver of the train in line?

Train handling safety rules, and speed limits are very strict, but with positive train control now in effect on our system, which forces speed compliance, a speeding train normally isn’t a thing here. However, under certain circumstances, it is possible for the engineer to break some rule. When that does happen, the consequences for doing such can be quite severe.

In fact, if an engineer were to commit just one certain operational error, his license is immediately revoked, and when proven in an investigation, he isn’t allowed back on duty for a month. At the railroad’s discretion, this might be reduced to fifteen days with proper retraining and other remedial compliance. A second error within two years will result in suspension of the license for six months, a third within three years requires a one-year suspension, but of course the railroad would have sent that engineer packing long before.

There are six of these terrible rule infractions, and we call them “The Six Deadly Sins”.

In a nutshell, here they are:

  1. Passing a signal requiring the train to stop.
  2. Exceeding the speed limit by 10 MPH.
  3. Failure to complete all required brake tests.
  4. Occupying main tract without authority.
  5. Tampering with any safety device.
  6. Violation of any FRA drug or alcohol regulation.

At first glance, this looks like an easy list to comply with. Just don’t run a stop signal. Don’t speed, don’t do drugs or drink on the job, etc. But its not quite that easy or simple. For example, in the regular routine of the day, checking safety equipment when taking the controls and performing the proper brake tests is second nature, but when things go wrong, problems (and mistakes) can multiply. For example, the possibility of missing a critical procedure increases when taking over a late train in a non-typical location, from another engineer. Was there a proper briefing in the handover? Were proper brake tests completed by the previous engineer for the current direction? Are all records and safety seals as they should be? These non-routine crew changes usually happen after an incident or when there’s major delay anywhere in the system, and thus when there is pressure to hurry and get going.

Even #1 on this list could sneak up on you if you’re not vigilant. It’s not just running a red light. When doing a walk-around while taking over an unattended train, if you were to miss seeing a “Blue Flag” that some repair technician forgot to remove when he finished his work, that’s a de-certification of the engineer for “passing a signal requiring the train to stop.”

It was “Deadly Sin” #2 that got me, and again, it didn’t happen in a way that you would traditionally think of when talking about speeding.

Currently, I drive trains in an early morning shift, including during sunrise. One of the GCOR rules that we follow, is to dim our headlights for oncoming trains in the dark, except when at a crossing. This exception is because we are required to have full-brights on for the crossings. When our headlights are dimmed, our ditch-lights, the ones at the bottom of the triangle of the train’s headlights, are off. If both of these lower lights fail, our maximum speed allowed through the crossing is 20 MPH. So by dimming the headlights, the maximum speed allowed at the next crossing is suddenly reduced from whatever it previously was, to 20 MPH.

Right in the waxing phase of dawn I met my usual Southbound meet, and as usual, dimmed my headlights as we passed each other. Only this time, in the gradual brightening of the morning sky, I missed turning them back up to bright. I wasn’t distracted. I was on my game and very attentive to my job, but somehow, I missed it that one time. A few miles down the track, unaware of my impending doom, I committed that unpardonable sin as I passed the next crossing at the normal full speed.

It was at the next station that I discovered my error and realized my fate. My repentance was now too little too late as the radio calls soon followed. “Train 10, we have reports of a ditch-light out on your train…” Soon after that call the supervisor a few stations ahead of me was asked over the radio to contact control by phone. Sure enough, as soon as I pulled into the station, he was there to relieve me from duty and to send me back to our home offices where drug & alcohol testing, formal suspension, and other instructions on what to expect in the coming weeks if I were to regain my license and job.

I’m not someone who takes shortcuts or who tries to cheat the system, and I have been pleased with my job performance up to this point, so when this first happened, I was in shock. What really happened back there? How did I miss it? Even though I would never figure out those answers, I knew that with the aid of at least five video camera angles (3 on the train with 2 pointed at me, one at the crossing where the unpardonable sin occurred, and at least one at the next station where I discovered my mistake), and also with the tell all download of the onboard events recorder that logs my every flick of a control switch, the management investigating my incident would have all the answers.

After shock came my disappointment in myself for making the mistake, and maybe just a little disappointment in a system that seemed to be setup to foster failure. I pondered over the previous four and a half years when I had done everything right. Didn’t that count for anything? What about those countless close calls, where I knew that my constant alertness and quick response with the train horn and emergency brake system had save lives… many lives.

On one such dramatic incident I was almost at full speed blasting through a driving snowstorm. My windshield had resembled the Starship Enterprise going into warp speed. Ahead in the blizzard, I saw the oncoming headlights of another train on the adjoining track. But in the blizzard those headlights didn’t quite look right. Were they really on my track? Immediately dumping my train into emergency stop mode, I didn’t wait to see what it was. I had been laying on the horn for the last half-mile or so, long before I could see what was actually ahead of me. Only a few seconds before impact I could finally clearly see that the pickup truck had slid off the road and was high centered on my rails. In just the last second, the blur of a man ran around from the far side passenger door, between his truck and my train and off to the side. In the noise and rumble of the crash, I didn’t know if he had made it clear. Did flying debris from the crash hit him? Were there others in the truck that didn’t make it out? I didn’t know until later that I didn’t kill anyone that night. But I did know that if I hadn’t been as vigilant as I was, I would have killed someone. This had been my second similar crash in a matter of only a few months.

I pondered over the many close calls with cars and pedestrians that came just short of actual contact. Yes, my alertness and train handling skills had indeed saved many lives. Yet here and now I felt like I was a captured criminal.

Back at headquarters, I blew the breathalyzer, proving I had no measurable alcohol in my system. Now I’ve never had a drink of alcohol in my life, yet I was thankful that mouthwash isn’t part of my morning hygienic routine or I would have still failed. After providing the required samples to be sent into the lab for my drug test, I was ushered into the small conference room where I was formally charged. I also wrote out my own confession of when I had dimmed my headlights and why, along with when I realized that I hadn’t turned them back up to “brights” again.

After the formalities of this meeting, including handing over my actual engineer’s license, now officially suspended, I was released to find my way home while the formal investigation continued. It felt like I was out on bail.

I don’t consider myself overly prideful or arrogant, otherwise I wouldn’t be telling this story right now, but it was still embarrassing and humiliating to now face my coworkers with my shame. It was obvious to others that I was out of my regular routine. When asked, I just frankly replied, “I just got decertified… Headlights.” That was all that needed to be said. They all knew what it meant.

In a way it felt even more shameful that such a simple thing got me. It was something I had preached to all my student engineers to never do. “Don’t dim for the oncoming train unless it is still dark enough so that you can SEE that they are still dimmed after the train passes… Make sure you have a procedure in place to POSSITIVILY remind you to turn them back up to bright again.”

Well, I’ve now paid my debt to society. With proper retraining and retesting to prove that I can, once again, become a competent railroad engineer, I am allowed back on the rails after only a half a month. Of course, I am on probation. Any mistake within a year will be revisited with vengeance. If it’s one of those 6 deadly sins within 2 years, the penalty is suspension for 6 months… 3 times within 3 years and I’d be out for a year, but of course my employer, FrontRunner, would have written me off well before that.

What’s different for me now? Well for starters, I’m surprised at how much it is taking to rebuild my self confidence that I can do my job perfectly every day, with no mistakes ever. I think about that while I watch the crowded highways along side the track. How many cars would still be on the road if every driver lost his license for not using proper signals going through an intersection? I’m thinking that alone would clear the streets.

Of course, I no longer qualify as a driving instructor for new engineers. So, I now only serve them as the bad example. “Don’t do what he did!”

As I drive the train now, I am continually looking for ways to dot my every i and cross my every t., even when we get knocked out of our regular routines. Before this happened to me, a fellow engineer, and former student of mine, Scott, suggested that we might benefit from the Shias Kanko practice used in Japan by their railroad engineers. Apparently shisa kanko is Japanese for “pointing and calling”. Scott says that research shows that this pointing and calling out of critical operations reduces error by 85%.

So if you are like some of my passengers, who have asked me questions about “…if we take safety seriously when working with the trains, let me assure you that if its safety you are concerned about when traveling up and down the Wasatch Front, you should stay off of the freeway and just ride the train.

I have been completely rehabilitated and am, once again, a safe train engineer. So, no need to worry if you see me pointing at something in the distance while talking to myself as I’m driving your train. I’m just practicing “Shisa Kanko”. So, you can rest assured that I’ll drive you through all public crossings with full brights glaring away. Or as Tom Bodett would say in his old Motel 6 commercials, “I’ll keep the lights on for you.”

A Little Bit of Everyone

I’ve just completed another stint as the driving instructor for a new batch of FrontRunner engineers. Since the beginning of this year, this is the third time around, training members of a group of duly licensed student engineers, each class for about 6 weeks. It shows how little a chance I’ve had to drive my own train in 2019.

Another group is now working through their classroom portion of training, ensuring that I won’t be alone for long. But for now, I’m left with my own thoughts as I help move passengers up and  down Utah’s Wasatch front.

The first time I rode in a locomotive was after I had almost completed my own classroom portion of the training. That morning, we’d just successfully finish one of the big tests, and so for the afternoon session, the training department finally allowed us a real peak of what we were getting into.

At the closest station, three of us students piled into the cab of the locomotive, and a quick introduction was made. Keyleigh, engineer 7451, wasn’t expecting the “ride along” any more than we were, but she is a “people person” and comfortably chatted with my fellow students, Jeremy and Stew, who had quickly taken the front and center positions around her, as she guided the train northbound.

From my more conservative position, standing behind the others, and also with the surprisingly loud noise and rattle of the locomotive roaring 79 miles an hour down the track, I couldn’t hear much as she described what she was doing and why, as the train proceeded smoothly, yet quickly along from station to station. So I didn’t hear the context of one comment, yet the part I heard made me smile. “I can usually beat the other train to the meets.”

That was the only time I ever watched Keyleigh drive a train, but a little piece of her rubbed off on me that day. My latent competitiveness awakened, and though I’d never yet driven a train, I now wanted to beat the other train to the “meets”.  That little bit of Keyliegh is still in me.

My first time ever actually driving the train was in our railroad yard, with a speed limit of 10 mph. My brand new student license was still warm from the laminator and I had been rehearsed and drilled on the mortal sin of exceeding the speed limit by even just 1 or 2 mph.

Train engineer Rob (6473), who was authorized as an instructor, watched me closely. “I see you are watching your speed very closely. That’s good, but you need to look up too. You need to keep an eye on everything around as well.”

MJ (1089) my first instructor out on the mainline also enforced this. “You need to be in the habit of constantly looking around. Scan the whole landscape.”

Here’s a little secret for everyone out there on our alignment. Yes, we can spot a trespasser a lot quicker than they think we can, but we also see a lot more then you think we see. We have everything along our alignment, that is within sight, committed to memory. This is a natural result of 100’s and then 1000’s of times we go up and down the same 88 miles of rails. So if there’s a pallet leaned up against that fence that wasn’t there before, I know someone has used it as a ladder to enter our alignment. And that backpack that wasn’t hiding behind those bushes yesterday tells me someone has set up camp where they think they are out of sight and mind, so I know there’s another trespasser wandering around next to our rails.” We frequently make radio calls such as, “Control, there is a small hole in the chained-linked fence, on the east side, at mile-post south 4.5 that wasn’t there yesterday.”

MJ taught me a lot besides making it a habit to always scan the alignment for anything out of place. It was from her that I first learned about what you need to do so the train can make a feathered stop. This is something we all do when driving cars, but in cars it’s a lot easier and so we don’t even realize we’re doing it.

The next time you come to a stoplight, don’t back off on the brake pedal, as you normally do. Right at the end of the stop, that whiplash you get is the result of NOT properly feathering your brakes out at the end of the stop.

When driving a train, it’s a lot trickier to it get right. That’s because there’s a time delay between setting and releasing the brakes and when they respond. Then once you back off the brakes, if you’ve misjudged your timing and are forced to go back into it to actually bring the train to a stop, you will now go past the correct mark on the platform while causing a very jerky “slack action bang” stop. To make it even more difficult to teach, and to get right, because of the weight of the heavy locomotive, the engineer can’t really feel the slack action jerking and banging that the passengers feel.

Now when teaching my own student engineers, I call the perfectly timed feathered stops, “M.J. Stops”.

Back in my first few weeks with my own instructors, I fumbled and struggled like you would expect. The whole time my instructor’s voice was ringing in my ears. While fumbling in the 4:00am darkness of the locomotive cab, Francis (4151) barked, “You need to know your cab… where things are… even in the dark.”

He also transformed my “book learning” into muscle memory and practical knowledge as I did my “walk around inspection” before departing the yard, and as I responded the first time to a Union Pacific “train in emergency.”  

Under his tutelage I learned how to glide in more quickly to make fast station stops. He taught me how to respond to a cab signal speed reduction, by releasing the automatic brakes proportionally earlier, depending on how deeply those brakes are set, so we can continue at the new required speed instead of dropping too far below that speed.

He also gave me a quick practical lesson in using the independent dynamic brake system, which is somewhat comparable to the semi-truck’s “Jake Brake”.

Mike (3114) was my instructor for just a few hours, but the lessons I learned I still use daily, and now teach my own students.

He masterfully taught smooth “split service braking” coming into a station. “Make a minimum set a little earlier so they can take up the slack action before you go in deeper… See how the dynamics are now working… So you can now go in a little deeper with the automatic brake… Think of your grandmother coming down the stairs from the upper-level of the train to get off at this stop. You don’t want her to fall down the stairs with a slack-action jerk.” Combined with what MJ had earlier taught me, I was finally able to start making nice stops. In fact, Mike was the one who taught me to call those smooth stops, “M.J. stops”.

Mike also taught me little tricks to make up the “lost time” spent making those “Grandma injury-free stops”. “The island circuits that ‘call the gates’, activate earlier if the train is moving faster. So you want to get your train moving to a faster speed as quickly as you can. Then you need to back off so you don’t over run the gates before they lock down.”

Mike taught the concept that everything I do with the train is time-delayed. “You need to brake before you need the brakes to work, and you need to ‘notch-up’ (accelerate) before you need more power. You have to learn to drive the train a half a mile ahead and behind you.”

Instructor Sam (7198) also taught me how to finesse the brakes in controlling downhill speeds. “Just do a minimum set for about 2 seconds. That will be just enough. If you wait until you can feel the brakes, you’ve set too much, and you’ll end up slowing more than you want to.”

Sam also taught me the useful hack of killing-off the dynamic braking, which tends to hold on after the air brakes release. This causes over-slowing and a bit of a bumpy braking transition due to the slack-action between the coach cars. “Just take a ‘notch’ as soon as you release the brakes.” I learned that “taking that notch into power” would cause the dynamic brakes to drop off evenly along with the air brakes.

A few years ago, I wrote a whole blog on how Sam taught me to “ride the beeps”, which has become my favorite way to maintain maximum authorized speed. (See my blog “Quick Like a Fox”)

I loved listening to Ananda (5976) telling me of his experience watching young boys in India, who were hired to hang out on the locomotive and sand the rails for traction while those old trains climbed steep mountain grades. He told me about this while showing me how I could push a button to drop a little extra sand on wet slick spots while our train was accelerating.

If you ride our trains, you can still hear Ananda’s smooth Sri Lankan/British accent. It’s his voice that makes certain passenger safety announcements.

Back then, I gleaned many other little tidbits, which are now in my own “training tool box.” I drove under Mark (3418) only once for about 2 hours, but his voice is echoed in mine constantly as I teach the up and down grades of the alignment. “Through this stretch, I find that between notch 4 and 5 works well.” I now use this teaching tool constantly when teaching my own students how to maintain maximum authorized speed through the ups and downs of the alignment.

Keller (7341) gave the words of wisdom, “Generally, if you take care of your cab signals, they’ll take care of you.” I now use his words, while teaching my own students, and then follow up with focus and emphasis on where the few exceptions to that statement can be found.   

Bob (7126) was a master at efficient work in our railroad yard, with assembling train consists, and moving trains around, along with throwing all the switches that are needed to do this work. My “Checkers and Chess” story reflects what I learn from him.

Kindly recognizing that my verbal skills are even more dismal than my writing skill, he also helped me better verbalize my radio calls. “You need to think through what you’re going to say before you key up the mic.”

Derrick (5425), an all-around train enthusiast, gave me a peek into how our commuter rail interfaces with our railroad neighbors, Union Pacific, and their local freight system. Full of trivia, he  helped me remember the strangely numbered Intermodal 7 signal, by telling me his theory of why it is named I-7 instead of I-1. I now repeat his theory as I help my own students remember to call it I-7.

These many bits of knowledge, along with many more, are in me as I drive and teach others to drive FrontRunner trains up and down the alignment.

As I have worked to continuously improve my train driving skills, I’ve discovered some of my own tricks along the way. Likely, other Engineers have already perfected and use these refinements daily, but they weren’t around to pass along these skills along to me, so I’ve had to learn them on my own.

I’m enjoying this small break from teaching others, while I continue working on honing my own skills. Just this week I figured out another new train handling trick to slip up my sleeve. I am very aware that when it comes to skillfully driving my train, I’m a little bit of everyone, and just maybe, before I’m done playing on this big-ole train set, Ron (8050) will even leave a little bit of me in some of my students.

Walking the Neighborhood – My Neighbors

Our commuter railroad, FrontRunner, gives me the duel role of Engineer and Conductor. When we are out on our mainline, moving people up and down Utah’s Wasatch Front, the engineer is responsible to drive the train, and the Conductor is responsible for everything else needed on the train, including the security and safety of our passengers.

One of the most visible aspects of my conductor duties is when I walk the train. It’s kind of like a good neighborhood watch program. We take frequent walks through the train to ensure that everyone is safe and secure, following the “good neighbor rules” and to give assistance and answers questions.

Same as any neighborhood, ours has all sorts:  including nice neighbors who’d do anything for you, some people who, given a chance, would play their music too loud, the quiet unassuming who turn out to be really cool once you get to know them, and a few boisterous who want to both be seen and heard.

Ours is a diverse neighborhood from all walks of life: Young and old, traveling for work or school, and the adventurer out to a special event, and even a “foamer” or two (my explanation of foamer here), coming along just for the ride.

Our eclectic crowd include small children, excited to be out exploring the world with grandma and grandpa, the busy professional who’s work doesn’t stop because of the commute to and from, and many artistic types, who’s steady hands continue creating even though the movement of the train jostles them about.

I like the little glimpses of how people spend their time while riding. A lot of people read their scriptures on the train, but reading pretty much anything on almost any device (including old fashioned paper & ink) is the most common activity. Watching movies and other shows comes in as a close second. I’ve observed that “The Office” is a very popular way to pass the time as they travel. Solitaire is a favorite game on electronic devices, but I’ve seen whole electronic gaming consoles, with multiple monitors in action as well. Laptops, tablets, and even plain old cell phones in “selfie mode” makes a great mirror for fixing make-up, hair and such, but of course I see lots of actual selfies being taken as well. Lately, I catch a frequent glimpse of someone with headphones on, quietly doing their version of FaceTime with family or friends. Refusing to be completely relegated to yesteryear’s “steam-era”, activities such as sleeping, sightseeing, and chatting with the actual physical people next to them, can be seen if you watch closely.

Adapting to our good neighbor rules, I see many of our passengers continue on with their life while we do the driving. It brought me a smile to walk past fellow on the edge of his seat, jamming on his fancy new fangled guitar (the real thing, not just an “air-guitar”). His headphones were plugged into the instrument, so all I heard were the whispers of his fingers on the strings strumming to the beat.

As I go up and down the track everyday, little sub-cultural differences, based on where people live along the Wasatch Front, are interesting to observe. On the southern end, people tend to be quieter and more reserved, yet very polite. I hear “Thank you for the ride” a lot down on this end. Up north, people are more likely to strike up conversations and share little snippets of their lives. One of my “northern neighbors” brought on a small chuckle when I overheard her say to her girlfriend, “My mother said, ‘I hope you have a child just like you…’ and so I’ve never had any kids.”

Occasionally, the train becomes a neighborhood social or party as large school groups or sports fans are headed to their big event. If things get too loud or unruly, we are there to help quite things down. I’ve seen some pretty large groups headed to State football championship games, but the most massive crowds I’ve encountered were those traveling to and from the Air Show, sponsored by Hill Air Force Base. It reminded me of watching YouTube videos of overcrowded trains in Asia, where station workers help push the commuters into the train so they could get the doors closed. When possible, we now expand our “Neighborhood” for such occasions, by adding additional cars to the train.

As is the case anywhere in public, I see can little dramas play out everyday. Visitors, their first time on our train and thus lost on our street, ask lots of question until they learn the ropes for themselves. More than once, I’ve rescued these newbies who thought they were locked out of the next car forward, confused because some doors swing open and some slide. One time I found a kid caught in the vestibule going between two cars thinking he was locked out in either direction.

Of course as I walk the neighborhood, I see the same regular commuters, day-in and day-out. Like the neighborhood bar on the old sit-com “Cheers”, these commuters get to know each other pretty well in the short time that they frequently cross paths. Many tend to sit in the same places, chatting and bantering like characters on this favorite show. Over hearing this “chatting over the fence” gives me little snippets into their lives. Of course I don’t hear enough to get the whole story, so my imagination fills in the gaps as my version of who they are emerges.

I once watched a father and son board together. The father was older, like me. His son was about thirty. The family resemblance assured me that the acorn, in fact, doesn’t fall far from the tree. They sat together on the mostly full train and conversed occasionally, but the son mostly worked on his laptop. They were close enough to where I stood that I watched them for the next thirty minutes, wondering where they were headed together and what they were up to. Then as we pulled into a station, only the “son” got up and prepared to leave. In the process, he formally introduced himself to the older man that I thought was his father as he wished him a good day. This surprise reminded me how far off my quick judgements and mental storytelling can be.

My people watching skills are better than my verbal, and other such skills, so I happily do it all day, while I quietly go about my work day. As an added bonus, with the help of my sometimes erroneous imagination, I get to know a wide variety of lots of really cool people.

Without question, the best part of my job is when I get to drive the train as the engineer. I do it every chance I get. But I’ve discovered that, being the conductor, quietly moving about the train, ready to fix “train problems”, answering questions, and in general supporting the neighborhood, is a pretty good gig too.

Forging our own Iron Road

They said it wouldn’t work, and I agreed with them. I knew something about how to do such things, because it was my business. This was what I did for a living.

It was back in 1990, in a rugged mountain forest outside of McCall, Idaho. I had pulled the mobile home up the steep narrow mountain road laced with hairpin switchbacks so tight that the cab of my mobile home toter almost past the back end of my trailer through each turn. It had taken hours of skill and luck, mixed with sweat and angst, to arrive at the delivery point.

I would have been exaggerating to call the final dirt trail into the clearing, a road. I stopped my truck, set the brakes, and climbed down to the half dozen waiting recipients of my delivery.

The man in charge, obviously the property owner, walked me through a narrow opening of trees, across a small ravine, and up the mountainside to another clearing that flattened out to a beautiful vista of rugged Idaho beauty. “This is where I want to put it.”

Along with his resident naysayers, I emphatically stated that my truck was not capable of pulling the mobile home to the desired spot. “I don’t have the wheel clearance to make it through that ravine. Even after you clear away those fallen trees and brush, I wouldn’t have the traction to pull the trailer over all those loose rocks going up that steep hill.”

Pointing to his small tractor-backhoe, he asked, “Do you think I can pull it up with this?” I told him that just the weight alone of the trailer tongue, the hitching point, would pop the front of his small tractor in the air like a playground teeter-totter.  But undaunted, he persisted, “Just let me try. I value your experience and suggestions, but will you just stand-by and let me try?”

I reluctantly agreed, and we chained his back-hoe bucket to the tongue. With the back-hoe out-riggers down, and the front end of the tractor chained to near-by trees, I watched in amazement as the powerful hydraulics moved this house on wheels forward four feet at a time to its destination.

I was a few hours longer making that delivery then I wanted, but these 28 years later, I still value the lesson learned as I watched someone armed with almost nothing but determination, say the words, “Please let me try.”

Versions of this same story resonate through history. Back in the Victorian era, the railroad innovators struggled to develop engines to propel trains, so they could replace their horses.  When the innovators of the day finally adapted the steam-engine technology to the point where the trains we know today could become a reality, a new crop of naysayers decried these iron monsters with fears of harm to the passengers. “It will be impossible to breath while traveling as such velocity… the passengers eyes will be damaged by having to adjust to the continuous motion.” Twenty years later, people flocked to this mode of transportation. It changed the face of Victorian Britain forever.

Early American transportation companies built on the successes of British railroads as they supplemented their canal transportation networks with the much more flexible railroad projects to connect the older seaboard cities and industries with the expanding new American territories. They too had skeptics which were eventually silenced as iron roads crisscrossed the new nation and became the first choice of transportation for travelers and freight. In the long run, canals simply couldn’t compete with such things as flexible destinations and speed. Unlike canals, these new iron roads were open yea10 Year Pocketwatchr-round.

I think of these early railroad stories, along with my impossible mobile home delivery up in the mountains of Idaho, when I review FrontRunner’s start-up. Early naysayers said it couldn’t be done. The experts of the industry said that the only way it would work would be to contract it out to a third-party. As with any big change to the Wasatch infrastructure, there was plenty of community dialog and input about whether FrontRunner was needed, and how to go about getting it up and running. Back then as a spectator, I did my own armchair quarterbacking on the project.

Now that it is here, along with many others, I have my own perfect 20/20 hindsight about what they did right and what they did wrong with building out and starting up FrontRunner. But here we are 10 years later, and FrontRunner has become a vital part of the Wasatch Front transportation system. Because I now work for this new iron road that has been forged through our communities, I can see how it has become a blessing to individuals, business, and communities alike.  More than once I’ve had passengers say to me versions of, “I was against this when they were planning to build it, but now I depend on it. I’m sure glad it’s here now.”

As the increasing Wasatch population continues to pressure our other transportation systems, FrontRunner will only increase in value as a vital part of our infrastructure. Cries of, “It’s not needed.” and “We just need to build more roads, and more parking.” remind me of yesteryears naysayers comparing the start-up difficulties of railroads in general to best of the horse and buggy and transportation canals of the day. Though public transportation won’t eliminate the need for private automobiles, even those who will never ride the train benefit from such things as reduced traffic congestion and better city parking, as our trains move many thousands to their destinations without competing for those overworked roadways.

Even with all the miss-steps and bumps along our first ten years, look where we are now. We are a vital part of thousands of peoples lives as they live and work along the Wasatch Front. I can only imagine with some experience under our belt, how much more effective and vital our iron road might be in the coming years. I imagine somewhere up in the mountains near McCall, Idaho is a now beautiful estate. While pulling a mobile home to a very unlikely place, I’m sure I had only seen the beginning of what that property owner created. I can only imagine what a beautiful place it is now.

As I see where we are in the first 10 years, I am pleased to be part of what lies in our future as we continue to build, grow, and improve our own iron road.

Quick Like a Fox

I know that my children, and all my family for that matter, think I’m not a gamer. But they don’t know what I do at work. While one son is at home playing Star Wars Battlefront, and another is buried in StarCraft or Call of Duty Black Ops, I’m immersed in the game I call “Quick like a Fox”. I named it after the last instructor I had before I got my Engineers license.

At the end of my training, I thought I was pretty good at driving the train and managing the Cab Signal System which has a short temper and can stop the train anytime it’s not happy. But Sam Fox inspired me into thinking that “pretty good” wasn’t really good enough. His question, “Do you like to ride the beeps, or are you afraid of the Cab Signals?”, shamed me into not wanting to be afraid of them.

The Cab Signal System is a safety device designed to keep the engineer from exceeding the speed limit. These speed limits which vary up and down our alignment must be followed to exactness. It’s not like driving your car out on the roads and hi-ways, where “five-over” is ok. This Cab Signal System starts to beep a “happy chirp” when the train is approaching the speed limit for that stretch. There is a fine line between this “happy chirp” and the “angry beep” that suddenly shuts off all power to the locomotive while applying full brakes to stop the train.

The problem is, with our single track for trains running in both directions and our very tight schedule from station to station, we can’t afford to go anything slower than maximum authorized speed. Those few seconds here and there add up to minutes, and then five, and ten. Cumulatively down the whole length of our alignment this really adds up. Because we run on a single track, the other trains have to wait at the meeting point for the late train, which eventually makes all the trains late.

So every time I drive the train, the game “Quick like a Fox” is on. I don’t want to be that one engineer that single handedly destroyed our reliability rating for the day.

Riding the beeps

So this is how it works. The Cab Signal beeps the “Happy Chirp” when I get up to it’s approved speed for that particular stretch of track. If I go any faster, the system beeps the faster “Angry Beep”. When it sees that I am not complying with it’s warning, it quickly takes over and the shut down sequence is activated. At this point, there is nothing to do but sit there and wait for the train to stop. Then penance is paid as systems are reset, the radio call of shame is made, and we are on our way, now an additional 2 minutes later than before the penalty.

“UTA Train 6, northbound at south 7.5, to UTA Warm Springs Control. – Over”

“UTA Warm Springs Control. – Over”

“UTA Train 6 was penalized on a 45 Cab Signal. I have recovered and we are proceeding into the station – Over.”

At first, these cab signal beeps and chirps all sounded the same to me. When Sam Fox would try to explain the difference in the sound of the beeps, it all sounded like gibberish to me. Kind of like listening to the popular novelty song “What does the Fox say?” by the Norwegian comedy duo Ylvis.

“What does the fox say?

What the fox say?

What the fox say?

What the fox say?

What the fox say?

However in time, I could understand what the Fox says… Sam Fox. I learned to distinguish the “happy chirp” of that’s fast enough, from the “angry beep” of “I’m going to shut you down.” He told me that he learned to ride the beeps, because he was too lazy to keep looking at the speedometer. With the constantly changing grade of the track going up and down, going too slow on the “up grade’ is a problem. So when the Cab Signal System isn’t beeping at me, I have to keep a close eye on my speed to ensure I don’t drift slower and slower.

Once I learned to speak “Fox”, it wasn’t hard to also learn the cab signal system algorithms with it’s automated reasoning systems. Once I could think like a the cab signals, it was relatively easy to keep them happy so they could beep at me but not get angry and shut me down.

Some Engineers get nervous when the Cab Signals start beeping at them for fear of being “Shut down”. But now I get nervous when they stop beeping at me.  I do have to keep my head in the game though. The margin of error is too close for sloppiness. Another factor that complicates this is that everything you do when driving a train is time delayed. Trains don’t respond like your car does.

Playing this game is also how I beat the boredom that can cause mistakes when driving up and down the same 88 mile stretch day after day.

The rules of the g25981260ame

Beat at the meet: I give myself the most points for beating the other train to our meeting points. I win at the meet if the other train gets his signal upgrade allowing him to proceed past me before I get my signal to proceed. There is also more method to my madness here. If the other train gets his signal to proceed quickly enough, he doesn’t have to slow down, thus he clears the track ahead of me more quickly and I get out of the meeting point more quickly too. It’s a win, win.

Keep the Beep: I also get lots of points if I can keep the Cab Signals happily beeping all the way from when I get up to full speed until I have to set brakes to slow the train for a slower speed stretch of track or for a station stop. This can be tricky with the elevation of the track constantly going up and down. But on good days, when my  head is in the game, I can do it the whole distance of our alignment in both directions. That’s a lot of “Beeping”.

I also give myself bonus points if I can shave a little distance off of how long it takes to get up to full beeping speed. I have self imposed check-points all down the track where I need to be at full speed for that stretch.

Quick Stop and Go: Additional bonus points are earned by gliding into the station quickly and exiting exactly on the departure time. Braking is challenging when coming in quickly, yet smoothly. Feathering the brakes back to a smooth stop is much harder on a train then in your car. When I do it right… bonus points. When I screw it up, I lose points.

Losing Points: One enjoyable challenge is to avoid taking a “reliability ding”. Even when the system is bogging down, and other trains are making me late, my challenge is to keep my train less than 5 minutes late in leaving each station. With anything more than 5 minutes late, our commuter rail takes a reliability ding. So I’m watching my watch very closely to make sure I can depart in time. If I don’t make it out in time, and incur the “reliability ding”,  I lose all my points and have to start over.

Losing the Game: Sometimes I’m trying to make up for lost time and pushing my luck just a bit with the Cab Signal System. Of course this increases the threat of a penalty. No matter how well I’ve done that day up to this point, if I get shut down I loose the game for the day.

Is it cheating that my opponents don’t know the rules, or even that I am playing against them? Just like my when my children loose all track of time when they are wrapped up in one of their games, my work day playing “Quick Like a Fox” goes by so fast that it’s not really work to me. But don’t tell my Beautiful Wife or she might want me to go out and get a real job.

Confessions of a Railroad Engineer – Why Trespassers Trouble Me

It was my last run of the night. At about 1:35 a.m. the FrontRunner dispatcher called me on the radio to warn me of a vehicle reported to be on the track ahead of my train. Even before he finished his sentence, I realized that it was just around the curve in front of me. Dumping my 79 mph train into emergency braking was too little too late. All I could do was to apply those emergency brakes and lay on the horn.

As I rounded the corner and hit the full sized pick-up truck pointed nose down into my track, I was still going 63 mph.

I hate making radio transmissions that start with “EMERGENCY, EMERGENCY, EMERGENCY…” and end in “Contact made!!!” But I’ve had to make that radio call twice. Luckily, I only managed to destroy two perfectly good late model pick-up trucks while narrowly missing the fleeing occupants. Unfortunately, about every 3 hours, a person or vehicle is hit by a train.

Heinrich’s Law – How to stop the carnage.

I’ve taught Heinrich’s Law in processing and manufacturing plants many times. This law also applies to trains and railroads. Based on exhaustive research, this law states that for every 300 unsafe acts, there are 29 minor injuries or close calls, and 1 major injury or death. So the way to stop major injuries and death is to eliminate all those unsafe acts.

That’s why railroads in general, and in this case UTA FrontRunner specifically, goes to great lengths to eliminate all possible unsafe acts. Right at the onset of building our modern railroad, the design process included all features possible to keep everyone away from the railroad right-of-way.

Anytime someone breaches this right-of-way, they are trespassing into danger. In my time here, I’ve observed that Heinrich’s Law is a pretty accurate predictor for railroads too.

Our Safety Department has a 3-pronged approach to prevent trespassing, including technological, enforcement, and education. As you might expect from me, I’ll attempt to explain all of this, laced with stories from my personal experiences.

Technological – “If we build it, they won’t come.”Trespassers1

This place was designed to keep everyone safe. Just look around. The grade crossings are not only decked out with lights and gates, but they also have curbing to keep cars approaching the lowered crossing gate from driving around it. Signs are posted, at access points to our right-of-way along the tracks, warning that entrance is dangerous and would be trespassing.

On the station platforms more signs give warning and instructions. “Look both ways… Use designated crossings…  Stand behind the yellow tactile strip when trains approach…”

Even with what was originally built into the infrastructure, like lots of fencing, signage, and lights, problem areas have cropped up.

Even those fancy grade crossing protections, I just mentioned, can be circumvented if you try hard enough. Not long ago, I was approaching one of these crossings shared with Union Pacific. This was an extra wide crossing with two UTA tracks and even more Union Pacific tracks. As I approached at nearly full speed, a car sped into the exit side of the crossing, and then crossed the tracks in front of me while shifting back to his side, so he could exit the other side of the crossing, thus avoiding all safety measures. The dude was driving almost as fast I was. I didn’t even have time to dump it into emergency before it was all over. After the shock of witnessing this close call faded, the thought of what I had read somewhere came to mind. “Five out of six participants find no problem playing Russian Roulette.”

As train engineers, we report all trespassers observed on our right-of-way. These occurrences are tracked so that additional measures, such as surveillance cameras, fencing, and police patrols can be added to the problem areas.

One area plagued with frequent trespassers was a swimming hole discovered by many high school and college age kids looking to cool off from the summer heat. The problem was that they parked their cars on one side of the railroad right-of-way and then cross over several active tracks to their summertime gathering place. Apparently, wire cutters were always included in their standard swimming gear, because the chain-link fence couldn’t survive even a day without renewed breaches. Stronger fencing was added with some success. But probably more effective were the measures taken at their illegal parking area. With appropriate signage, the area gave directions of how to access the swim hole legally, and this parking area became an active tow away zone. Problem solved.

However, more problem areas crop up elsewhere. It’s like we’re playing the arcade game “Whac-A- Mole” here, and the mole soon popped up farther down the line.

When fishing is fabulous word spreads quickly. The bigger problem here is that this was a family event including everything from small children to the family dog trekking into dangerous territory as a shortcut to the fishing hole.

Solutions to the fishing hole were similar to the swimming hole. But not before I experienced one tragedy. There just isn’t time to react when a train comes blasting around the curve from behind at 79 mph… for me or the victims. The two beautiful dogs, running side by side down my track never knew what hit them. It’s a terrible feeling, but I’m thankful they weren’t the small children.

Education – “Teach the Children Well”

Not long ago, there was a YouTube video spreading around of a “Dare Devil” laying down on our UTA tracks and letting one of our FrontRunner trains speed over the top of him. Even though “seeing is believing”, this dramatic video seemed impossible to those of us that work here. “There just isn’t enough space to lay down on the track and not be hit by low hanging parts of the train. Add to that the high speed, with all the associated bouncing and rattling, and the video just couldn’t be real. As it turns out, it wasn’t. Though it looked absolutely convincing to the general public, video editing experts detected anomalies that showed how the train going over the top was merged with video of the “dare devil” laying down on the UTA track.

There are several serious issues that come out of this story. First and foremost, is the lie it teaches to others. How many other wannabe daredevils would believe this and try it themselves? Then of course, there’s the issue of this fellow trespassing onto the railroad track himself to set up and film his phony escapades.

With him providing such clear evidence of his own trespassing onto the FrontRunner right-of-way, the police made quick work of hunting this guy down, and the YouTube video was removed.

However, it’s not just guys like this one that glamorize hanging out on railroad tracks. In pop culture I’ve seen everything from the Rocky Balboa, of yester-year, training alongside tracks with active trains, to a 48 Hours Program of yester-week showing a woman walking along railroad tracks with a beautiful back drop so they can depict healing and serenity.

This leads to the Popularity of railroad tracks as a backdrop for such things as graduation and wedding portraits. The metaphors of life are out there. But please, don’t drink the cool-aid. It’s a lie. What they don’t show is the broken bodies and carnage.

It’s too bad there isn’t something out there that can debunk these lies and deceptions. Oh wait! There is!

Operation Life Saver is a godsend for educating the public on railroad safety. Both on a national level (here), and state wide (here). They teach rail safety in all Drivers Ed courses and to any other group or organization willing to give them a voice. Yes, they even taught a course to me and my class as part of my training to become a railroad engineer. One memorable anecdotal story I still remember from that course was the story of a fellow who thought he was being careful about putting a coin on the tracks well before the train came by. However when it did pass, instead of squashing the coin as intended, it flipped up and whizzed past his head with such velocity that it embedded in the tree next to him. Yes, with these big lumbering iron monsters, the danger is real.

So as a society, how do we develop a healthy fear of these railroad danger zones? Images in my mind, of things I’ve seen recently, haunt me. Memories of a dad slowly walking along on the ties while his little daughter carefully balances to walk on the rail, and of a grandpa with a toddler scavenging along the rails.

What are we teaching our children? Please teach the children well! As a kid bouncing a small rubber ball on a railroad platform, my dad wouldn’t let me retrieve it when it bounced down onto the rails. We walked away and left it there. I walked away with a healthy respect for the railroad right-of-way. My dad taught me well. Please teach the children well.

Enforcement – “Does anyone actually receive a citation for trespassing?”

So what are the actual laws regarding trespassing into railroad right-of-ways? In a nutshell, it’s something like this:

  • A person may not ride or climb or attempt to ride or climb on, off, under, over, or across a railroad locomotive, car, or train.
  • A person may not walk, ride, or travel across, along, or upon railroad yards, tracks, bridges, or active rights-of-way at any location other than public crossings.
  • A person may not intentionally obstruct or interfere with train operations or use railroad property for recreational purposes.

Safe railroad crossings are so important that even emergency vehicles, with lights and sirens blaring, must wait for the crossing gates and lights to clear before proceeding. And even for those of us who are working for the railroad and who are even properly equipped with proscribed safety vests and such, must follow specific protocols and have specific permission from our railroad controllers to enter this right-of-way to do our jobs.

Examples of actions considered trespassing and subject to citations and fines that we see happen frequently include:

  • Taking any shortcut across the tracks (not at a designated grade crossing).
  • Proceeding through any grade crossing that has activated gates or lights.
  • Climbing up on a locomotive (even just for a peek).
  • Cutting across from one station platform to another outside of the designated crosswalks.
  • Attempting to hang on the outside of the train when it is moving.
  • Hiking along the track within the railroad right-of-way (even out of town in the beauties of nature).

So does anyone actually receive a citation for trespassing in these places? As engineers, we call in the offence to the dispatchers, who keep a log of such activities. Frequently, these offences are in front of cameras, so we have additional evidence of the illegal activity. If the dispatcher is able to get field supervisors or police on scene quickly enough, they are also called in. Also as I said, trouble areas are identified and patrolled more heavily.

So I ask the question again. Does anyone actually receive a citation for trespassing? The simple answer is yes they do! Getting such a report of how many and what happens to them is a little more complex because there are many jurisdictions involved. Besides the UTA Police and the Utah Highway Patrol, there are many city and county police jurisdictions along our 88 miles alignment along the Wasatch Front.

However, I did speak with several police officers who work along our railroad alignment and their responses all went something like this.

“Oh yes, all the time.” The first police officer that I asked went on telling me about it so fast that the details blurred. But the bottom line is this. They are frequently writing citation for trespassing on our alignment. And depending on the seriousness of the situation, those can be pretty hefty fines. If the offence is where there is clear signage, or a repeat offender, the fines can quickly go into the hundreds. One officer explained that certain Federal trespassing offences relating to our railroad carry a $15,000.00 fine.

Paying for trespassing with more than money… When things go bad…

Here are a few more factors that make trespassing “Not Cool” from my perspective.

As I’ve said in previous blogs, everything we do when driving the train is time delayed. So if we see a trespasser ahead that we have any doubt about getting out of our way, we will automatically “dump” the train into an emergency stop. This is hard on the train parts like the wheels, and hard on our passengers as it throws them forward unexpectedly. Then even after the trespasser has cleared out of our path, the train comes to a stop and remains in “Emergency” while the entire braking system builds enough air to recharge. So this rough ride and delays are not a good experience for our passengers.

Also, suicide by train is a real thing here at FrontRunner. So anytime someone is suddenly out in front of us, we don’t entirely know their intent. There have been times that the person in front of me was definitely a troubled soul. I am convinced that at least once my emergency stop was in time to save someone from “ending it all” that day.

Not all engineers have lucked out like me that way. One fellow who was just beginning his training wasn’t as fortunate. It was after he went through the process of recovering from experiencing a suicide, I became his instructor.

At one point we were entering a station for our regular stop. This is a very stressful experience for a new engineer to stop just right anyway. But just at this moment, a guy ran forward and lunged toward our track, stopping just before going over the edge of the platform. At that point it became apparent that he was being funny for his girlfriend. My student engineer didn’t think it was funny though. He was suddenly forced to relive the traumatic suicide experience of a few weeks before. Mentally he shut down at that point. Eventually he gave up learning to be an engineer.

There are many others that make sport of playing chicken with the train. I’ve had several experiences where the trespasser was “acting cool” as they slowly clear the track in front of me just in time.

Sometimes while “being cool” they misjudge. Soon after we first started FrontRunner service, back in 2008, a fellow darted in front of the train entering the station. He made it past, but his girlfriend didn’t. She ran straight into the side of the moving train where a handrail hit her in the head so hard that she sustained brain damage that she never fully recovered from.

One lady was trying to cross over station platforms without walking down to the crossing. It was a hard jump down onto the tracks and she broke both ankles.

I’ll never forget coming upon a trespasser dressed in black at dusk. He was walking on my rail with his back to me and I didn’t see him until moments before I would hit him. I can tell you from that experience that at least sometimes you do not hear a train bearing down on you. I hit the horn and he spun around at he fell out of my path. Even though I didn’t hit him, his look of “I’m dead” on his face still haunts me.

Trespassers who are focused on one train frequently become victims of another they didn’t see or hear. Stopped freight trains in crossings scare me because of who might be climbing through and into my path. I’ve even come upon people laying on my track waiting and watching a slow moving freight train on the adjoining track.

In the same area where these previous two incidents happened, a guy climbed though a stopped freight train. Not seeing or hearing it, he walked right into the side of our fast moving FrontRunner train. The impact took his arm off.

Most of these stories are about good people who just don’t understand the danger and thus make a terrible mistake. There are a few heart wrenching stories on the internet that sums this up better than I can. Both of these stories involve kids using the railroad tracks as a backdrop for their photo shoot. One story is from right here in our Wasatch Front.

If you are ever inclined to teach your child how to walk on the rail… or skip the crossing and take a short cut… or do a Rock Balboa and “ train” next to the train… or hangout down there to take cool photos… Please view these two stories first.

ABC News story of Tragedy in rural Maryland (here.)

Union Pacific Selfie Tragedy Story (here.)

I don’t like trespassers… because I like people… and I don’t want to hurt them!

Confessions of a Railroad Engineer – What I Wish My Passengers Understood

UTA Station Signs

“I thought those trains ran automatically… like at Disneyland.”

Back when I was first training to be a railroad engineer for FrontRunner my Beautiful Wife was amazed at how much went into that training. (See Drivers Training – Train Edition) To quote her exactly, she said, “I thought those trains ran automatically… like at Disneyland.”

Since hearing that statement, I’ve see many more examples of misconceptions the general public, and even our regular passengers have about the operation of our commuter railway. Here are a few of my observations along with my responses to them. For additional clarification, I’m including the words of talented Train Host Joe Rees. His train limericks say it better than I can. (

“How do you drive the train backwards? Are you still in the locomotive?”

The FrontRunner trains run adjacent to the back fence along the street that I live on. Not too long ago, a neighbor asked me, “How do you drive the train backwards? Are you still in the locomotive when you are going south?” I think this particular neighbor’s FrontRunner experience is watching from her back yard as the train zips back and forth. But even regular riders sometimes seem confused when we arrive at the end of our line, and within minutes are headed in the opposite direction.

FrontRunner, along with many other commuter railroads around the country, operates as a “Push Pull” system. For us, this means that when we are headed north, we drive the locomotive which pulls the train along behind. Going south, the locomotive pushes from behind while we drive from a little compartment which is in the “last passenger car”. We call this the “Cab Car” because it is equipped with an operating cab that connects to the locomotive’s controls.

In a matter of minutes within arriving at a terminal station, we can “Cut Out” the one end of the consist, “Cut In” the other end and “Turn and Burn” as we say, if the schedule is tight.







Joseph D. Rees

“Smack it like it’s your husband!”

There are a few things about proper station protocol that I wish my passengers understood.

You need to be on time.  And by “on time” I mean early. When it comes to passenger trains, the truth is, “If you’re early, you’re on time. And if you’re on time, you are late. And if you’re late, you are forgotten. (See “People wait for trains, trains don’t wait for people.”)

Even though I’m more likely to wait a few extra seconds if I see you hurrying, I simply can’t delay the train for latecomers. Our schedule is just too tight. (And there would always be one more latecomer to wait for.) It’s not like the bus. Once we’re moving, I can’t easily step on the brake and open the doors again. Once moving, the train is slow to stop, and if any part of the train is off the platform by the time it does stop, I cannot open the doors anyway.

Since you are there on time (which means early), I wish you would read the signs and warnings on the platform. They instruct on how to navigate the system, keep you safe, and remind us all to be nice to each other.

Besides the platform signs, sometimes there are Platform Hosts, along with the Train Hosts who are there to help and answer questions. Please feel free to ask questions. As our limerick poet Train Host put it…







Joseph D. Rees

One of the things that seems confusing to new passengers is how to open some of the train doors. When the original push button door switches wear out they are being replaced with new-fangled electronic “Tap Switches”. The problem is, pressing these switches won’t activate them. You have to actually tap on the lighted green button. Usually, when a passenger is having trouble opening one of these doors, and we say, “Hit it!” or “Tap on it!” they carefully press, but much harder, to no avail.

When my previous attempt to instruct a nice little lady, who was struggling to open the door failed, I finally said, “Smack it like it’s your husband!” Impulsively now, she smacked the green light with the back of her hand, and the door immediately opened. She was laughing out loud as she stepped onto the train.


When boarding the train, folks resist

To hit the button REAL HARD with their fist!

And, as you may have supposed

the door remains closed

and the train leaves them there and they’re PISSED!

Joseph D. Rees

“Tickets and passes please?”

Tap on, Tap off:

Paying the fare is routine for our commuters.  Most just tap on when they board and tap off when they exit. This convenience works with any electronic fare card such as FAREPAY. But it also works for anyone using a contactless credit card. Credit cards that have the Wi-Fi icon turned on its side work like that. Simply Tap on at the platform card reader before boarding and again when exiting. Just don’t forget to tap off at your destination or you might be charged for further than you went. And you can only tap on and off for one person. Tapping on twice for two travelers doesn’t work. I’ve seen someone try that. I’ve also seen someone who was not traveling, offer to tap on for someone who is. That doesn’t work either. You have to have the card in your possession as proof of payment.

Ticket Vending Machines:

If you need to use the Ticket Vending Machine, please give yourself enough time to read through the options and make your purchase. There may be discount options if you are transferring from a bus or Trax, if you are disabled, a senior citizen, or traveling as a group. However, you may have to wait in line to use the machine, so allow yourself enough time.

Other payment technologies coming soon:

There will soon be more, and easier ticketing options as payment machines are updated and smart phone apps come on line. But the bottom line is that you need to have a valid form of payment BEFORE you board the train.







Joseph D. Rees

“See Something? Say Something!”

While FrontRunner runs up and down the Wasatch Front, we frequently walk through the train to answer passenger questions, remind passengers to be nice to each other (“Please keep your feet off the seat”), and make sure everyone is safe.

Occasionally, we come across an unruly passenger who seems to be there just to make trouble for others. When trouble arises, whether it’s a medical situation, or a troublemaker not following the rules, we can (and do) respond with a radio call for backup.

We have our own UTA police force frequenting the trains and stations. But local law enforcement in every town also works with the UTA police, responding whenever needed.

Additionally, each station is well covered with electronic surveillance. So if you are up to no good at the station, not only do we know about it. We have video evidence. Hopefully, if you are a law abiding citizen, just making use of our public transit system, this information is reassuring.

Of course everyone’s eyes and ears are valuable in keeping us all safe, and we take our “See Something? Say Something!” campaign seriously. When a passenger reports a suspicious activity, a troublemaker, or anything else that just doesn’t seem right, we do respond to it. If we can handle it on the spot we do. If not we call in back-ups.

However, sometimes it may seem like a problem but it’s not. Here are a few of my stories of such.

Once while walking the train as a conductor, a concerned passenger who was sitting in the south end of the northbound train, while looking through the window of the locked southbound operating compartment got my attention. “Sir, are you aware of that unattended bag, sitting in that compartment?” My response: “Yes sir! That is my personal bag. The compartment is locked and I need to have the materials in that bag in my possession when I drive this train southbound.”

Another time, after we had just arrived southbound into Provo, I was in the process of doing the necessary brake checks as we “turned the train” northbound to head back for Ogden. A very concerned passenger stopped to tell me about the “wheel thump” he had heard while riding. He finished his report with the question, “Do you ever check things like that on these trains?” Most passengers have no idea how often and detailed these sort of inspections are. Take this flat spot on a wheel for example. There are very exacting standards for how large a flat spot can be before it is taken out of service and replaced. Complete passenger car inspections with detailed checklists, inside and out including looking for flat spots on the wheels, occur daily on all trains in service.

Going along with this last story, occasionally I’ll encounter passengers who are bothered by the “bump” they sometimes feel when the train begins to move or slow. Again, I’ll get some version of the question, “Do you ever check under the train to make sure everything is OK?” These “bumps” are caused by the slack action, because of the small gaps in the couplers that hook the railcars together. Cumulatively, as these small gaps are suddenly stretched or compressed, the heavy weight of the train give you a pretty good “bang for your buck.” But these things are also closely inspected on a daily basis.

Along with the “slack action” bumps, when wintertime ice builds up under the train and then breaks free, it can cause quite a ruckus as it ricochets along the undercarriage. Dear passenger, rest assured that these are normal wintertime sounds, and our inspections are detailed and regular.







Joseph D. Rees

“Matt – Guard this with your life. It’s our only copy!”

Those with disabilities are of course welcome to ride anywhere they want, along with all other passengers, however if you need assistance we can best help you in the southern most passenger car. It’s the one farthest from the locomotive. That’s were we have the bridge plate to cover the gap when boarding and exiting, along with personnel to lend any other needed assistance. If you are at this end passenger car and ask for it, we will help you if we can.

Among the many other things that Train Hosts and Conductors do is to collect the many items that are left on the train. It is surprising how often passengers’ things are left behind when they get off. Everything from people’s sack lunches to nice phones and laptops are sometimes left behind. A coworker once told me about a business binder that was left in the seat. On the cover was printed in big bold print, “Matt – Guard this with your life! It’s our only copy!” For the many “Matts” out there whose life is turned upside down because of a careless moment, rest assured that we do our best to find your lost treasures so you can retrieve them from our lost and found.

“Where’s my boots?”

Each FrontRunner train has two bathrooms, one in each of the two cars farthest from the locomotive. Most passengers use these facilities appropriately. However, these always seems to be those few that haven’t yet learned that kindergarten lesson, “Be nice to others.” On the list of “Frontrunner bathroom sins” are prohibited activities such as smoking. Amazingly, there actually are a few people who think if the bathroom door is closed, no one will know. We do know, and you’ll likely be removed at the next stop and cited for it.

I’ve observed many quick change artists, who will step into the bathroom in work clothes and then emerge a minute later dressed for a night on the town. Of course that is no problem. But there are the few, who take over the bathroom like my teenage daughter. Not only do they tie up the bathroom for an hour, stopping those who need it for it’s intended purpose, but when they finally do come out, it’s of no use to anyone else until the train it serviced. Wads of hand towels don’t flush well. I wonder how difficult it must be to take a complete shower from the small wash basin. But it is apparent that some try when there is no more wash water available.

Once one of these scenarios played out with the fellow FINALLY emerging from the bathroom.  He headed to what must have been his previous seat, the hour before and demanded accountability. “Where’s my boots?” Surprised, the conductor replied, “Oh! Were those boots yours? I turned them into the lost and found half an hour ago as we passed through Salt Lake Central Station.”







Joseph D. Rees

“If you are going to bring treats to class, bring enough for everyone!”

There are a few perks that you can enjoy on FrontRunner. For one, you can bring your bike along. We have a special car equipped with bike racks and all. But please don’t try to bring your scooter or motorcycle on board. Flammable liquids (such as gasoline) are prohibited.

Wifi is also a feature on all FrontRunner trains. Feel free to log in and enjoy. But please keep it to yourself. Headphones are required so that everyone else is free to their own version of enjoyment.

One of the perks with our mode of commuter travel is that it’s ok to enjoy food and non-alcoholic drinks on board. Sometimes as I’m walking through as a conductor, a passenger car will truly look and smell like a dining car.

One Saturday morning, I had just boarded to ride to work, along with a group of extended family. I settled in to work on my latest writing project, but was distracted as this family group settled in all around me. The aroma that wafted out of their carry-on bags told of the breakfast feast that was about to get underway. After a few minutes down the line, when even more of their family group joined them at the next station, they broke out the grub.

Boxes of bagels, tubs of cream cheese, gallons of Orange Juice, and thermoses’ of hot chocolate were just the beginning. The food just seemed to keep coming. It was apparent that they had more food than people. Soon the matriarch of the group was offering the food to the other passengers. Obviously she had learned well the school days lesson, “If you are going to bring treats to class, bring enough for everyone.” She was a very persuasive lady, and soon the whole passenger car became the dining car. It’s amazing what good food can do to unite people from all walks of life.

“If you brought it on board, please take it with you!”

Just a quick note that goes along with the “be nice to others” theme. Please don’t leave messes for others. Trash cans are located on all station platforms. If you brought it on board, please take it with you! It seems just a few too many missed those kindergarten lessons about being nice to others. So we do have cleaners who periodically board to clean up the trashed bathrooms, spilled drinks, and abandoned garbage.


On the Frontrunner, folks should restrain

From leaving wrappers and junk on the train!

And, if you MUST sneeze,

Fold you tissue up, please.

Cause buggers can leave a BAD STAIN!

Joseph D. Rees

“Any passengers remaining will be conscripted onto the cleaning crew!”

There sometimes seems to be confusion regarding our schedule. Half hour service vs. hour service, and week day service vs. Saturday service are too often confused. The result is someone is left waiting longer for the next train or worse yet, the service has ended for the day and the late night passenger has to find an alternate mode of travel.

To simply state the schedule that so many misunderstand, our trains run more often during the peak commuter morning and afternoon/evening times. And they run later on Saturday nights then on weeknights.

Even with the frequent announcements ahead of time that a train will be going out of service, there always seems to be one or two who think if they simply stay put in their seat, we will eventually take them to where they want to go. I’ve had some of these passengers ask me things like, “Well, what are you going to do with this train now? Can’t I just sit here?” Sometimes, a passenger, reluctant to leave will actually try to hide when we walk through to clear the train.

A few times in this situation after most passengers have exited, though in jest, I’ve added more detail to my announcements. “Ladies and Gentlemen, may I have your attention please! This train is now out of service and will be taken back to the yard for inspections and servicing. Any passengers remaining on board will be conscripted onto the cleaning crew and be required to scrub out toilets all night.” I think this detailed announcement helps the reluctant few understand that they probably have better options than continuing their sit down strike.

“I came from Boston, and their trains always run on time!”

With our single track system, it’s a big challenge to keep the train on time. So much is involved here that a previous blog post where I attempted to explain the complexities of achieving this, became three blogs to tell the story. (See Checkers and Chess Part 1Checkers and Chess Part 2Checkers and Chess Part 3)

During our peak 30 minute commuter service, when we have almost twice as many trains in service, all competing for the same signal track, and with the corresponding increased passenger loads that require more time at each station, running on time is a fun challenge. It’s during these times that I am less yielding on extending the station stops for late comers.

Sometimes our passengers are a little too relaxed and forget to exit at their stop. When the light on the green door button goes out, the door will not open no matter how hard you press it. At this point your ride had just been extended to the next station.







Joseph D. Rees


When everything is going as planned we can and do run on schedule during these busy times. However, especially with our single track that all trains in both directions must travel on, it doesn’t take much to spoil things.

If one train has a mechanical issue, extended stop for police action, or a switching or crossing gate problem, that train will be late to the next “meet” with the opposite bound train, making it also late. Despite our best efforts, this domino effect rolls through the entire system before long. It is then very difficult to get all trains back on schedule until the peak commuting time is over and we drop back to five trains out in the system instead of nine.

Like I said, despite our best efforts to run on time, with our present system, it doesn’t take much to make us late. Some of these delays are caused by the very passengers that are unforgiving when we are behind schedule. Passengers slow to board or exit the train slows our tight schedule. Even more so when someone forces a door to remain open, causing it to jam. Suddenly a few second of delay becomes 5 minutes or more as we locate the jammed door and fix it.

Another delay is caused when passengers run in front of the train as it enters or exits the station. If we throw the emergency stop, all of the system air is “dumped” into stopping the train. It then takes time to rebuild the air in the system before we can proceed.

Even though our passengers sometimes don’t recognized it, weather related problems such as winter storms causing delays, generally impacts our adjoining freeway more than our railroad. This past winter after an impressive storm slowed our progress as it affected such things as our signal systems, switches, and grade crossing, the train I was conducting on pulled into the station about thirty minutes late.

I listened patiently while receiving a tongue lashing from some of the waiting passengers. When they finished, I apologized for our delay explaining that in the current weather conditions, we were doing the best that we could. When they seemed unsatisfied, I pointed out the fact that if they were trying to get to work on the freeway just then, they would be sitting in that traffic jam for at least two hours, perhaps more. Knowing I was correct, they conceded that we as a railroad were at least doing better than the interstate road system was at that moment.

Another woman, unsatisfied with our best efforts through the stormy weather, indignantly declared, “UTA just needs to get their act together! I came from Boston, and their trains always run on time!”

“The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence”

This woman’s statement left me a little defensive as I pondered if her accusation was fair. Was stacking Salt Lake City’s commuter rail service to Boston’s a reasonable “apples to apples” comparison? Everyone knows that the population density is vastly different. I wondered if Boston’s commuter rail ran on double track, or on single track like we have? How many years has Boston had to refine their commuter rail? I googled it. They boast of having the oldest such system in the United States. Then I read a recent news clip that Bostonians were up in arms because they were talking about dropping their weekend service to save money. The article also made the comparison that, “Even Salt Lake City’s UTA, in a much smaller market provides Saturday service.”

Then another static caught my eye. The previous month’s massDOT’s reliabiltity rating for commuter rail was 86%. During this same period of time FrontRunner’s reliability was in the low 90% range.

Though we continue to have glitches as we strive for perfection on our own reliability, the lady’s “Boston comment” stings less now. I guess no matter who we are, where we came from, or where we are headed, as the old proverb says, “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.”

But I want my passengers to know that we go to great lengths to make their train ride a great experience. There is a lot more going into that commitment than meets the eye.

Hello, Goodbye

Hello, Goodbye

As 2016 dies and 2017 is born, as we say goodbye to the old and hello to the new, while we contemplate the past and anticipate the future, my introspective mind replays the human drama I’ve witnessed daily. People watcher that I am, up on my perch in the locomotive northbound, or tucked away in my almost hidden cab car compartment southbound, my memory is full of little glimpses of people’s lives.

The routine daily commute of the many headed to and from school or work, is peppered with memorable little snippets of drama.

Last spring I walked the train as the conductor when an old Frenchman wheeled his very feeble wife onto the train. I knew he was a Frenchman because this was the language he tenderly spoke into her ear. He sat right behind her wheelchair and leaned forward to hold her. She seemed only half aware of her surroundings, but she was fully aware of his presence.

I wondered of their love story. Watching him care for her, I didn’t wonder that it was a beautiful story. He comfortably draped himself over the back of her wheelchair while chatting on his phone, also in French. He seemed as at home as if they were at their place in Marseille, lounging on the sofa, watching TV.

It was chilly outside, an early spring storm in progress. He layered his old jacket on top of her current wraps to help take the chill from her. As we neared their stop, the rain was coming down harder. I watched his worried face. He pulled out another hat, one with fur lined flaps to cover her ears. Then he placed another wrap on top of her. Where he got that one from, I had no idea.

As he ventured out into the rain, seeking their bus connection, I thought of my own Beautiful Wife. Hoping in our declining years, that my health holds out longer then hers, so I can be like this wonderful Frenchman, doting over the love of my life when she really needs me.

I’ve glimpsed many late night farewell hugs and kisses, as lovers young and old are parted by the closing train doors. To some, it seemed to be the ending of a great date. For others a temporary parting, as one is headed to an overnight job, or off to the airport on a business trip.

Frequently, as I roll into the station, a large group catches my eye. The huddle, focused on one person in particular, tells me that this is a farewell. Only one will be boarding my train.

Sometimes it seems that it’s a joyous occasion. The well-wishers are as excited for the new adventure as the traveler.  But more often the sadness of saying goodbye seems to reveal uncertainty. Perhaps the welfare of the traveler is the concern. Likely the parting brings loneliness, a separation with an unknown future.

When I see these tearful, unwilling partings, the image of the first time I was scared to death by a movie comes to mind. I was a small child attending a Saturday matinée. Darby O’Gile and the Little People was showing. (Yes, I’m am that old. This was fifty some odd years ago.) I was scared to death as the Banshee called for Darby O’Gile. My four or five year old self watched in fear and trembling as the Death Coach came gliding down from the stormy night sky to collect it’s unwilling passenger.

As I bring my train to a stop at the station and open the doors, I can still hear the Coachman from that movie command Darby O’Gile, “Step in!”

On one poignant occasion, I was the ominous faceless black robed figure, impatiently waiting to move on into the black stormy sky.

A woman, likely the small boy’s mother, stepped on my train as I locked up the doors and began my departure. Looking back from my mirror was this small boy standing on the platform watching our departure with unrestrained tears as we distanced from the station.

This conjured a wave of sorrow in me. Suddenly I was the little boy, standing on the platform watching as my own mother, who passed away this year, left on the train.

Now I was the driver again, wondering where the woman was headed, which station she would be getting off at. I thought there must be a happy reunion coming on the other end of her travels.

I pondered this experience as a metaphor of life and death. As 2016 closes we, as a society, have watched many of our great ones pass on. As we are left to wonder how life will be without them, I’m the small boy on the station platform watching the train depart with my mother. My mother’s sad goodbye to me soon became a happy hello to my dad and others who have passed on before.

As we say goodbye to this 2016, and the many experiences that went with it, and as we say hello to 2017 and its promise of new opportunities of life, my hellos and goodbyes mean more to me now.

Some of my hellos and goodbyes are framed together within a few seconds on a train platform – small glimpses of the little things that make the drama of life. Many are in life long relationships built with loved ones. But to me, all of these hellos and goodbyes improve me. As I experience them up close or from a distance, they bring me joy and happiness.  They make me a better person. Amidst the trouble and turmoil of daily living, along with the pain and suffering that we all endure, these hellos and goodbyes are the seasonings that make this life worth living.

Checkers and Chess (part 3 of 3)

Railroad Grand Masters Playing 50 Opponents Simultaneously

Bobby Fischer is considered by many to be the greatest chess player who ever lived. I remember watching with interest, back in 1972 – at the height of the “cold war”, when he played the Russian Chess Grandmaster Boris Spassky for the world championship. (Yes, I’m that old!)

Seen as symbolic of the political confrontation between the two superpowers, it was called “The match of the century.” At the time, the Soviet Union had dominated in chess for the previous twenty-five years.

Included in the prime time media frenzy about our American chess genius was a story and photo of a previous exhibition where Fischer played 50 opponents simultaneously.

Fischer playing 50 opponents

With that image in mind, I participated in, watched, and listened as a fierce storm blew into the Wasatch Front and instigated a railroad chess exhibition, where our Railroad Grand Master Controllers were suddenly called to play their own 50 opponents simultaneously.

I was on my regular work, waiting to depart from Ogden with my train, as we were just beginning our peak 30 minute service for the afternoon commute. At about 3:30 pm, just minutes away from my departure time, while watching the severe thunderstorm roll in from the west, the radio came alive with calls from Control. “UTA Control to any MOW in the Clearfield/Layton area.”

MOW was a few miles away but responded to the call. Power was out at the Layton south control point. This was soon followed by the report of the track “showing occupancy” between Clearfield and Layton. More calls continued describing more problems up ahead of me. I didn’t know it at the time, but Utah had just experienced two tornados right ahead of me. Right here in Utah, where even a single small tornado is a rare event.

Before I could get the 20 minutes down the line where this troubled area was, many supervisors and MOW personnel were on the way to inspect the track and man the switches that would now need to be operated manually. However I-15, the freeway along our track, also suffering from the blast of the storm, was gridlocked and our reinforcements, now caught there, were going no where fast.

By the time I arrived at Clearfield Station the “Occupancy” reported earlier had cleared and I was given the directive to proceed at Restricted Speed almost all the way to the next station, which was Layton. Where 79mph was normal, this was a rather long way to go at a maximum speed of 20 mph. But with the mandate to “be able to stop within half the range of vision” of a whole list of possible hazards ahead of me, I went slower than that for much of it.

There were lots of debris strewn along the railroad right-of-way that Union Pacific and FrontRunner share through that stretch. Mostly tree limbs and other small items strewn up very close to the rails. I had to proceed slowly enough to sort out what I was seeing, determine if there was anything that might cause damage to the rails or the train, and be able to stop well before encountering such a threat.

Eventually, I came to a mostly intact metal roof blown from a nearby building. It was just off of our rails but it covered some of the UP tracks. This was the most likely cause of the earlier “Track Occupancy” that originally showed up in the Control Room. I’m sure that continuing wind from the storm had moved it just off of our rails before I had arrived, allowing my train to cautiously venture beyond the Clearfield Station.

After I finally arrived at Layton Station, my train had to hold there and wait for the northbound train, which was now caught behind the dead South Layton signal and switch that splits a siding off the mainline track so trains can “meet” at the station.

Because of the traffic gridlock on I-15, MOW and the Operations Supervisors still hadn’t arrived to help. So the Engineer of the northbound train had to tie down his train, and go down on the ground to manually throw the switch for his train to enter the siding into the station. Besides the process of unlocking it, taking the switch out of automatic and manually cranking it to the proper position, specific radio protocols with the controllers must be followed throughout the process. Once this has all been completed and the engineer is back on his train, which has once again been made ready to go, he now communicates with Control as they follow another set of radio protocols allowing his train to proceed past the improperly displayed signal.

With my train moving from Clearfield Station to Layton Station at mostly 10-20 mph where 79 mph is normal, and the wait while the northbound train worked his way through his signal and switch issues to finally make it into the Station, by now we were really running behind schedule.

The MOW first to respond finally found some back roads that got him to the troubled switch and signal up ahead of me just in time to manually line the switch for my southbound movement so I didn’t have to tie down my train and do it myself. I still had to go through the red signal by-pass procedures which of course continued to delay us even more, but we were finally moving away from the worst of the storm zone.

Problem was, my train was now so far behind schedule that I was out of sync for meeting each of the oncoming northbounds and so I repeatedly had to wait. Now, the numbers of waiting passengers at each station swelled because it had been such a long time since a southbound train had been through. This further delayed my progress as these many irate passengers overcrowded into my late train. By now I was so late that passengers, used to boarding the train behind me, arrived at each station thinking I’m trying to depart a few minutes early.

UTA Warm Springs Control continued to scramble, trying to manage everything going on and somehow get the trains back on schedule. Among many other things I’m sure they were doing, I observed or was aware of the following.

  • With an increasing number of trains now running substantially late, they added at least one extra train to help take up the headway for the many commuters (our King) trying to get home.
  • Extra trains and regular trains falling back to later headways of course increased the management complexity as the already busy single track corridor was even more crowded and the crews on various trains were working other than their normal headways and trains.
  • At some point, these crews needed to be shifted to their correct work positions so they could end their tour of duty at whatever location their work ended and before exceeding their maximum allowed hours of service.
  • Several signals continued to malfunction for some time, requiring Control to continue directing the ground personal who were manually “throwing” the switches, along with the cumbersome process required of them for the trains to proceed after following the “Red Signal By-Pass” radio protocols.
  • Along with the signal problems there were three “Crossing Protections” that stayed in affect for many hours. Each of these crossing protections were separate “Mandatory Directives” that had to be given to each train (when stopped so they could be written down) and then read back to confirm that each detail was exactly correct. The train engineer then had to proceed up to each crossing at a specified speed, while sounding a specified horn sequence. Control needed to keep track of which train and which engineer had received each crossing protection. Because these crossing protections continued for so long, Control needed to reissue the crossing protections to the “new” engineer after the crews rotated out but before they reached the crossings under protection. When the crossing protections were finally released, Control needed to contact every train and every engineer still on duty to void each crossing protection.
  • Along with keeping track (and directing) of the mayhem on the mainline, the required paperwork they now needed to keep up on was just as intense. Along with what I’ve already mentioned about documenting “Crossing Protections”, MOW’s access permits to the mainline track via “Track and Time” and “Fowl Time”, keeping track of what trains were running in what headway, and who the crew members were on all these train in this now mixed up system, they now had reports to complete every time a train departed a station more than 5 minutes late. In this storm of delays, that alone was a mammoth task.
  • The feedback coming from UTA’s customer service department, through instant mediums such as direct customer cell phone calls and Twitter comments needed to be taken into account as decisions were made about whether or not to hold an already late train for transfers from light rail or bus. Most customers were unaware of the challenges to the whole system caused by such a brutal storm on our north end, especially those on the south end of our alignment.
  • At least several of our trains (now working later assignments than they were intended to) needed to be taken out of service for refueling and time sensitive inspections. This was accomplished by making train swaps with “fresh” trains that were ready to go.
  • Also of course getting the proper train crews on their proper trains was an on going process that took many hours to complete.

It was over 8 hours after the storm (after I had gone home) when I finally stopped listening to the radio chatter. Even then, sorting out the aftermath continued. The three crossing protections, scattered in the storm zone, were still in effect when I turned off the radio and went to sleep. It literally took all night to get everything working properly again.

I’m sure when 21 year old Bobby Fischer finally finished his chess exhibition of playing 50 competitors simultaneously, or when 29 year old Bobby Fischer won the “Game of the Century”, he went home, kicked his feet up, open a cold one and said, “Wow, what a game!”

Fisher in match of the Centry

Even though it might be fun to play Chess, “Railroad Control Room style”, for now I’ll leave it to the Railroad Chess Masters of FrontRunner. Because at this point, I’m having too much fun just driving the train.






Checkers and Chess (part 2 of 3)


Well, if the rail yard work can be compared to playing checkers, with it’s billions of possible move combinations, then certainly railroad operations out on the mainline should be compared to playing chess with it’s trillions of possible move combinations.

FrontRunner Chess

Each “Chess Piece” out on the Main Line have different functions and move differently about the “Railroad Chess Board” Besides the Railroad Engineers driving the train, there are:

  • Conductors – Sometimes when we aren’t driving the train, as engineers, we work as conductors walking the train making sure everything is the way it should be. We are there to do everything from fix common door problems to getting on the ground to flag the train through malfunctioning crossings.
  • Train Hosts – They are both at stations and on the trains, helping passengers.
  • Field Supervisors – They work throughout the alignment doing everything from dealing with trespassers and other illegal activity to helping with the trains and the rail alignment locations that are having problems.
  • MOW Rail (Maintenance of Way) – Personnel that maintains the rails, switches, etc.
  • MOW Signals – Personnel that maintains the signals systems and automatic controls.
  • Radio Technicians – Maintaining the many two-way radios in our operation as well as the automatic announcement systems on the trains.
  • Frontrunner maintenance personnel – They usually work in the yard, but do venture out on the mainline when a train with problems warrants it.
  • The Instructors – They have licensing authority (can issue and revoke our engineers licenses), give efficiency tests and check rides to determine if we are still doing everything correctly and if we can still keep our licenses or not, and teach the basics to new engineers.
  • UTA Police and Fare Inspectors – Out there keeping everyone honest and safe.
  • FRA inspectors – They can be anywhere at anytime watching our operation to make sure we, as a railroad, are following all Federal Railroad standards.
  • Controllers – They direct everything from a our Control Room. Everything that happens on the mainline is under the direction of the Controller on duty. I think of really good controllers as the “Grandmasters” of our Mainline “Railroad Chess Game.”
  • Customers – And last but not least, I like to think of our customers, the passengers, as the King of our Railroad chess game, because everything else that the rest of us are doing ultimately is to take the best possible care of our passengers, just like the number one objective of all other chess pieces is to protect the king.


I read that there are 318,979,564,000 (that’s almost 319 billion) possible ways to play just the first four moves of chess. I think this is a fair comparison our mainline railroad operations.

Even when everything goes like clockwork, it’s a pretty complicated mechanism to run that “Clock”. Timing is everything, as the north and southbound trains meet each other. Typically this is at eight different locations along the alignment during our peak 30 minute service.

All it takes is something like heavy passenger loads, taking longer than usual to board and exit at the stations, to really mess up the schedule for all nine trains competing for the same single track. Add to that a door not functioning properly or a million other mechanical glitches that can happen and the delays can really add up.

Then the Grandmasters in the control room might start changing things up, trying to get the flow of trains down the track in both directions smoothly again. North vs Southbound “train meets” at the sidings may be switched, so that the normally faster train to the meeting point stays on the mainline and the normally slower train, which is now first to get there, goes into the siding and waits for the train to pass by in the other direction.

FrontRunner Control

That maneuver can help get the slower train back on schedule because it won’t have to slow down as it passes the train coming from the other direction. However even that can be tricky. Because the switches have to be lined well ahead of time and then the Controller is committed once he guesses which train to line into the siding.

Other variables that affect the timing and flow of trains as they move in both directions along our single track include the fact that no two engineers drive the train the same way. Sometimes in the mix are new student drivers along with their instructors.

Some engineers drive the trains faster than others. Some try to push the limits of our automatic speed controls and frequently get shut down. That makes them slower in the long run than those who go slower. Some engineers leave such a cushion of safety that they never hear the Cab Signal System beeping  the warning that the train is going as fast as allowed for that particular stretch of track. I would describe these engineers as “Slow but sure”.

As I drive my train, I strive to always run at maximum authorized speed by keeping the “happy chirp” of the cab signals going as much as possible but avoiding getting to the point of hearing the “angry beep” of that signal system saying, “I’m going to shut you down!” I’ve also learned that keeping a train on time has as much to do with efficiently coming into and out of the stations as with running at maximum authorized speed through the open stretches.

All of it involves a fine line between great train handling skills and excessive penalty stops and causing a jerky ride for “The King” our passengers. It’s a lot of continuous practice and work to get it right.

Also, no two trains can be driven exactly the same way. Our 19 locomotives and over 50 passenger cars are constantly being remixed and matched as units are pulled out for repairs or preventive maintenance. Each time a particular consist is changed it handles differently. Variables include locomotive power, exactly what is required to keep the Cab Signals happy, and how the train responds to braking.

Opponents that can challenge the railroad chess players include:

  • Form A Protection – Temporary speed restrictions because of track conditions.
  • Form B Protection – Speed restrictions with possible stops required used to protect men and equipment working on or near the rails.
  • Restricted Speed – Special reduced speed requirements that includes a mandate to watch for and stop before encountering a list of possible obstructions.
  • Additional Speed Restrictions – Can be issued for any speed, for any stretch of track, for any time required, to protect either the train or men & equipment on the ground near the track.
  • Crossing Protections – Special procedures including sounding a horn sequence and speed restrictions, with possible a stop for a flagger at crossings with malfunctioning crossing gate and/or lights.
  • FrontRunner Efficiency Tests – Conditions in place on the train or track requiring the engineer to respond following specific protocols. These many different possible tests, administered under the direction of the training department can vary in complexity and delays to normal operations.
  • Union Pacific Efficiency Tests – Same as the FrontRunner efficiency test when operating on the Union Pacific alignment. One big difference is the Union Pacific supervisor administering the test has less regard for the length and timing of the test that affects FrontRunner’s schedule. I’ve been involved with some of these tests that caused substantial delays to FrontRunner during our peak morning commute.
  • Union Pacific Trains in Emergency – Because of the length and resulting cumulative slack action, when a Union Pacific train applies it’s emergency brakes (regardless of the reason), there is a possibility that their consist may become uncoupled or even derailed. When this happens on our adjoining track, it is possible that our track may be fouled by it. Also, the UP personnel must then walk and make a visual inspection of their train before they can proceed. We have special protocols to follow in how we can proceed past (and reporting about) the UP train as long as it’s in emergency.
  • Police Action on the Train – Whether it’s someone running or hiding from police on the train, or someone is observed engaging in something criminal, the train may be asked to hold at stations while the police do their thing.
  • Police Action on the Alignment – The various police agencies along our alignment will contact our control center anytime they have police action along the alignment. We will then be asked to proceed with various levels of caution (and reduced speed) depending on what is going on and how close they are to our rails. It is surprising how often this happens. Criminals and good people doing dumb things seem to gravitate to the railroad tracks.
  • Medical Emergencies on the trains and at stations – It happens, and does cause the delays you might expect for such things.
  • Bomb Threats – From a positive perspective, the traveling public are increasingly aware of their surroundings. The “See something, say something” awareness campaign is working. I’ve even had my own bag, locked the operating compartment of the train but seen through a small window, reported to me as an unattended bag. Even though it requires man power and other resources, usually the frequent sightings and reports can be quickly investigated and resolved without causing delay to the trains. However, even in my short time working for FrontRunner, I’ve seen these sort of threats close down a station and shutdown and evacuate a train. In the latter case, apparently a homemade tattoo machine, forgotten and left on the train, can look a lot like a bomb.
  • Cars crashed or stranded on the rails – It is surprising to me how often confused, impaired or reckless drivers end up stranded on our rails. Of course this brings disruption to our regular train service, while the incident is investigated and the car is cleared from our tracks. One such incident recently happened on our main line tracks next to our rail yard. The innovative way that our controllers kept our trains rolling, and kept our “King” the customers happy, seemed as clever as the unique castling move in chess where the King is protected by simultaneously trading places with one of the rooks. In our railroad version, our “in service trains” full of passengers, were routed through our yard, thus avoiding being stopped on our closed mainline track. Besides the yard speed restrictions and personnel out throwing yard switches to accommodate their movement, the jurisdiction and communications for the train moved to the yard supervisor and then back to the controller as each train made their “Castling” move.
  • Debris on the tracks – Certain types of debris (blown, dropped, or otherwise left on the tracks) can show “an occupancy” and require investigation before the signal systems are working properly and trains can proceed normally.
  • Disabled train on the alignment – Nothing will disrupt the flow of all the trains running up and down our single track quicker than a disabled train anywhere on the alignment. Frequently, the mechanical problems occur at a station with things like door problems. If something happens causing the train to loose power between stations, the goal is to coast into a station so at least other trains can continue to run down our single track. When that doesn’t work, it’s really inconvenient. Bus bridges around the disabled train and the trains on both ends of the “blocked track” running back and forth on the shortened remaining line then become a reality.
  • Train involved in collision with a person or vehicle – These events, almost always including personal tragedy will stop the train at the scene for hours. Like the disabled train on our single track, bus bridges and the remaining trains making shortened runs on each end of the accident to keep our passengers moving.
  • Extra trains – Whether it’s a single locomotive sent out to rescue a dead train on the alignment, a replacement train to replace one with problems, or an additional train sent out to take up the headway of a substantially delayed train, the extra trains out competing for our precious single track during our peak 30 minute service can really complicate routing and flow of the other trains.
  • Snow storms causing Signal issues – All the switches on our mainline are equipped with heaters to keep them from freezing in cold and snowy weather. In spite of our fancy equipment and all that the Maintenance of Way personnel do to keep these things working, stormy weather always seems to break the weakest links in the chain. The results include stopped trains, engineers tying down their trains, trudging out in the snow to manually throw switches, and a whole list of special radio dialog mandated to keep the system safe while trains begin moving (albeit slowly) through a manual system.
  • Power Outage – Though the specific cause is different, switching and signal issues when the power goes out along the alignment is very much like what happens when snow storms cause havoc with our mainline switches and signals.
  • Tripped Bollards – Bollards are posts mounted in certain places between our rail and very close Union Pacific track. If in these very “tight spots” a UP train (or something from the UP train) trips the bollard, it falls over onto our track causing any of our trains in that area to receive a “Zero Speed” on our cap control signal system, shutting down that train completely.
  • MOW (Maintenance of Way) with Track & Time or Foul Time – Whether it is preventive maintenance or helping to get things up and running when the system fails, The controllers must also keep track of MOW personnel out on the track as well as the trains. Depending on what they are doing, when, and where, various types of permits are granted, and monitored by the controllers so that the trains and employees who maintain the track system don’t occupy the same space.
  • Common Corridor Emergencies – When the emergency is bigger than just FrontRunners’s world, coordination in responding to, and managing the situation includes the other outside entities involved. Just recently, an I-15 wreck, involving a truck with potentially explosive material not only shut down the interstate in both directions for many hours, but also closed a close by section of the FrontRunner track. Like a disabled train on the alignment, Bus Bridges and trains makings shorter runs back and forth on each side of the track closure were included in the responseshe included in the responce de of the track closure also closed a  that the Controllers made in that particular railroad chess game.
  • Trespassers – People along our rails is a constant occurrence. Many don’t seem to know that they are trespassing into dangerous territory. Others know but don’t care. Whether it’s just someone looking for a short cut, a foamer out trying to get the perfect picture, or someone with a death wish, they complicate and often slow our safe passage up and down the rails.
  • Managing delays while holding for transfers – The controllers on duty are often weighing the balance between holding trains for transfers from the other modes of transit which are behind schedule and also making the FrontRunner trains late. “Do they sacrifice a bishop to save the Knight? Which one is more needed in the future to keep the King safe?”
  • Train Host left at the Station – In the hustle and bustle of passengers exiting and entering the train, once in a while the train host, buried in the crowd, is left on the platform (often standing there holding the bridge plate that was just used to help someone in a wheelchair cross the gap from the train.) Once the train is off the platform it can’t go back, and the controller now needs to get another train host on board, somewhere down the line, until it can all be made right again.
  • Holiday “Saturday Service” congestion – Even late at night on a Monday holiday, Controllers deal with congestion along the alignment as the late night “Saturday Service” trains continue until 2:30am, the five overnight trains are deadheading to their starting points in Provo and Ogden, MOW is looking to get on the tracks for inspections and maintenance, and the overnight freight trains are looking for their usual night time windows of opportunity to cross over the UTA Main track as they service the many businesses along both sides of our rail.