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.