Confessions of a Railroad Engineer – What I Fear

Back when I began my training as a railroad engineer, I couldn’t help but be impressed with the well developed safety culture. It left what I saw from the food processing industry, that I had just come from, looking rudimentary by comparison. But, I thought it made sense that 180+ years of trial and error, learning from past disasters, and literally generations of refinement would evolve into a very mature safety culture.

Railroad terms such as “The Red Zone” used to describe the immediate area in front of, behind, and under a train that requires specific protocols to be adhered to, paint a graphic picture in my mind of how they got their names.

Breaking certain critical railroad safety rules would cause me to lose my engineer license immediately, as mandated by the FRA (Federal Railroad Administration). So I need to be constantly vigilant in the many procedures that can easily become routine, then mundane, and finally forgotten just once. For example, the average passenger has no idea how many different types, and how frequently, brake tests are performed on each train in service throughout the day. If I forget one of them just once, I’m decertified.

A common cliché, passed along as one engineer takes over the train from another is “Be safe”.

But with all of this talk about what we need to do to “Be safe”, what I fear the most are the safety rules broken by our passengers and by the public in general.

What I Fear:


Unlike how it’s depicted in movies and other media, railroad engineers don’t like seeing someone in our space along the railroad track. Our anti-social behavior of blasting our horn and radioing in for the police instead of the friendly wave like I just watched again on a “Rocky” movie is meant to save lives. This is trespassing into dangerous territory. People who do this sort of thing do not understand the dangers.

For one, there is an optical illusion in play. The size of the train makes it’s speed seem deceptively slower than it may be.

It’s impressive to me, that from a certain angle, how a large jumbo jet that is landing seem to just hang in the air over the ground. It seems to me that it is hardly even moving, when in reality even the latest and greatest 747 jumbo jet with full flaps and slats deployed, it’s slowest speed in the air is still moving at 125 mph. Our trains only go 79mph. But that’s too fast for an unsuspecting trespasser who has misjudged our speed to get out of the way. The shear mass and power of our trains plow the air like a fast moving winter plow in deep snow. The resulting “Wind wake” may suck you into the train rather than blow you away.

For the railroad engineer, is also the fear that the person in front of me on the track is there to end it all. Suicide by train is more common than most would think, and is only reported in the media when the resulting transit disruptions impact and cause delays to many people. Whether they are just being stupid or are there to end it all, we don’t like seeing anyone even close to our danger zone.

Railroad Crossings

Crossings at grade (where surface streets cross railroad tracks) is another possible area that can cause me some fear. As my train approaches our South Jordon Station from the north, I can’t help but notice a street that no longer crosses the railroad tracks. Back in 1938 this street had one of these “at grade crossings”.
School bus crossing 5
The school bus driver, slowly moving through a bad winter blizzard with high winds and almost zero visibility had stopped here but still didn’t hear the train coming. The northbound Denver & Rio Grande Western hit that bus of 39 high school students, killing 22 of them as well as the bus driver. As the worst school bus – train accident in US history, this tragedy led to our nationwide laws requiring buses to stop at all railroad crossings and open the bus door so the driver can both look and listen for oncoming trains.
School bus crossing 6School bus crossing 7
Now as my train moves through the many crossings in our railroad alignment, the biggest crossing hazard isn’t the bus driver who has been trained and is following the crossing safety rules that were written in blood, but the unwary other drivers who like to play Russian roulette.

I fear the impatient driver who has seen too many movies where a stunt driver beats the train in a spectacular fashion. But just as scary to me, is the timid driver who is slowly entering the crossing when the gates come down. Please know, timid driver, that if you become “trapped” by a lowered exit gate, do not stop on the tracks. The railroad wants you to keep on going through it. The gate was made to breakaway in such an event and can be repaired surprisingly quick.

Any time I’m approaching a crossing that is occupied by another passing train, I hope there isn’t someone on my tracks waiting for the train in front of them to get out of their way. They wouldn’t be looking my way or hear me coming. Worse than that is the impatient driver who darts in behind the passing train just as it clears the crossing. I might just then enter that same crossing on another track going 79 mph. The possibility of those same impatient drivers in heavy fog scare me for similar reasons.


In my work in the food industry, we would have never considered allowing the general public easy access to our heavy active machinery with nothing more that a yellow warning strip to protect them. But in reality, when our trains are entering the station, the potential for disaster is greater then in those manufacturing plants.
Yellow warning strip
It seems that the more teens and young adults get together in social situations, the more they feel immortal, like nothing physically can hurt them. Their “bravery” scares me when my train is entering the station.

There’s a reason that horseplay is always banned in the first tenants of any workplace safety manual. This kind of rowdy behavior, which throws caution to the wind for just a few moments as part of having a good time, can turn a jovial carefree moment into a lifetime of regret and sorrow.

The curmudgeon in me comes out when a teenager’s attempt at flirting with his date includes pretending to shove his gal in front of the train and then saving her by pulling her back to safety. Darting in front of my approaching train in the station crosswalks, or bravely standing on the yellow caution strip and patting the railcars is dangerous. As my three quarters of a million pounds of machinery comes lumbering into the station, I may still be moving 30 mph while slowing to the proper stopping location. Their fool hardy antics scare me to death. As much as I’d want to, I can’t make a sudden stop to compensate for their miss-judgement. An emergency stop, where we dump all the brake system air and suddenly lock-up all the wheels on the train, will only stop the train 20% faster than our regular full service braking action. As the cliché goes, “It’s hard to stop a train.”

Rowdy teenagers, seeking a good time out on the town, aren’t the only ones who seem to miss the sense of potential danger as trains enter and leave the station. Too often, I am scared to death for small children whose parents are on break from parenting at the train station.

I know common parenting practice now days includes more reasoning with the child then forcing behavior on them, however personally, I’d like to see the child live long enough to learn the consequences before making poor safety choices, like testing their limits at the railroad station.

Once a few months ago, on my way to work, I was waiting for the train along with the other passengers including a mother and her tween son. The rambunctious boy ignored his mother’s pleas to stay off the edge of the platform and down by the track. By the time my curmudgeon self stepped in, the train was approaching the station. My rant began with, “Your mother is right…” and ended with a condensed version of if he slipped and fell over the edge, that train right there couldn’t stop in time and you would be ran over. I don’t know if it was my gruff old man voice or the official looking uniform, but that kid lived to ride another train.

On another occasion it was night time at our Salt Lake Central Station. This time I was waiting for my ride home. I watched as several young families also waited for their train. They seemed to be extended family with the several couples seated on the available benches while the dozen small children ran and played some sort of tag game. People watcher that I am, for the next ten minutes, I paid close attention to how these small children darted back and forth from edge to edge of the island platform we were on. It made me uneasy to see the younger ones of the group, toddlers, teetering on the edge next to the track as they played. None of the parents seemed to look up or notice anything about what their happily playing children were doing. The clanking of the train bell seem to alert everyone except these parents and their children. The adult talking continued as did the now dangerous tag game. By the time I was finished reacting to that one, I should probably call my self “The Curmudgeon” instead of “The Story Teller”. Am I the only one who senses danger?

As engineers departing the station, we look back in our mirrors to ensure all is safe behind us. Too often, I see a late would be passenger, running along the platform banging on the door trying to make a dramatic entry like they’ve seen in the old movies. One slip in the 8 inches between the platform and the moving train would be a gruesome scene for everyone there. This futile attempt to open the locked doors is not worth it. I’m thinking that it’s better that they kill 30 minutes waiting for the next train than themselves trying to get on this one.

My biggest scare

To finish my confessional, I’ll tell about the time I have been most afraid while driving the train. It was just a routine morning commute. I was headed south, picking up my regular passengers who ride the train to work everyday. These passengers are mostly seasoned commuters who know the pattern of rail traffic flow every morning and night. Some of them rarely look up as they flow like water, and stream 9onto the train and off again. And that’s why this story got so scary to me.

There had been switching problems up ahead which cause my train to meet another train in a station instead of our usual siding. I thought nothing of it when my train was routed into the east side of the platform instead of our usual west side. As I approached, my regular riders were approaching the station like they always do. My lights and bell were on as usual.

One man, approaching the crossing onto the station platform, had his ear phones in and his phone in his hands. This was normal, but I did make sure we had eye contact so he was aware I was there, coming into the station. He looked at me and then back down at his phone as he stopped walking right in front of the crossing. Moments later as my train just reached the crossing, with his head still down looking at his phone, he started walking again. As I slammed my hand down for the horn button, I didn’t know if I had hit him or not. Then the flash of his shocked face in my mirror told me he was as scared as I was.

Why did he do that? He knew I was there. We made eye contact and he had stopped. I have wondered about that many time since. Was he so used to me coming in on the other side that he somehow thought I was on the west side even though he saw me on the east side? His brain was focused on whatever was on his phone.

Habits and mussel memory are powerful things. That’s why you don’t even think about what you are doing when you work the controls in your car or when you turn on a light in your own house. I’ve learned to change what I normally do whenever there are small changes to my routine. Then I’m even more vigilant in looking out for the safety mistakes others might make. I don’t care if I look like and old curmudgeon for blasting my horn for no apparent reason. I’ll do whatever I can to make my train safe to be around.

Change Day


As we emerge from the cold of winter, I have a possibility of also emerging from the dark of night. On our upcoming Bid Day, all the UTA FrontRunner engineers line up according to seniority and choose our work for the next four months. On the last bid, I was number 46 of 46. That didn’t leave a lot of choices of work, driving me to continue my nocturnal life that began when I licensed eight months ago. This time I am bidding number 43 out of 52. A little better chance of seeing some daylight.

My Beautiful Wife thinks I make a lousy “night owl”. I have always thought of myself as an early morning person. I think I may get that from my dad who, as a kid on a farm during the great depression, was assigned the task of milking the cows before breakfast and school. He kept getting up earlier and earlier to do his work until his mother threatened him with, “Norman, if you don’t stay in bed until 4:00am I won’t let you milk the cows anymore.”

It’s an eclectic crowd that make up the FrontRunner engineers. Besides coming from other railroads, our backgrounds include bus and truck drivers, the aviation industry (helicopter pilot, air traffic controller, airlines), military, heavy equipment, mechanics, realtors, business managers and owners, social workers, continuing college students as well as those relatively new to the work force.

The supervisor who drove me to the station where I boarded the train to take my licensing “Check Ride” told me about this group of men and women that I was joining. “We are a big dysfunctional family here… bickering and fighting galore. But if anyone from the outside says anything against you, everyone is right there like a pack of wolves to defend you.”

I have since received a lot of advice from my “Big Dysfunctional Family”. Some is just overheard, because I listen more than I talk. I have found that learning from someone else’s mistakes is a whole lot easier than learning from my own. Those who have “been there and done that” have saved me more than once. I take in advise, direct and indirect from all sources that I can, and then mentally sort out what is useful to me. I just smile at the young 40 somethings giving me general “life advise”, thinking they are older and wiser in everything because they have driven the trains longer than me. I take these guys about as seriously as celebrities who are presented as “parenting experts” on a TV program because they are famous.

As I have worked closely with a few of these co-workers, and come to know some of their personality quirks, I feel more and more like a member of this big, likeable, dysfunctional family.

Back when I was training, one instructor was giving me a compliment on my work ethic. He said something like, “You go after the job like Keller. Do you know Keller yet?” When I said that I hadn’t yet met Keller, he added, “He’s an Idaho farm boy who really knows how to work.” Being an Idaho farm boy myself, I took the compliment as kindly as it was meant.

Later, Keller came into our operations room where my trainer and I were. So I was introduced to this very likeable fellow.

Me: “I heard you are from Idaho?”
Keller: “Arizona and Idaho, but I lived in Idaho for over twenty years.”
Me: “Where at in Idaho”
Keller: “Rexburg”
Me: “I’m from Rexburg”
Keller more thoughtful now: “Let me see… Haroldsen… Do you know Norman?”
Me: “He’s my dad.”

My trainer, Keller, and I laughed about this “Small World” coincidence and talked about the strong if not harsh work ethic we came from. I mentioned that you could almost tell an Idaho farm boy if his hands had at least one chopped finger. Keller smiled and held up one of his hands, proudly displaying four and a half fingers. He simply said, “Potato harvest.” I laughed and said, I’ll bet you didn’t take much time off of work for it either. Keller’s reply as he headed out the door to something more productive was, “I was back to work that same afternoon.”

I have worked with many different people from all walks of life. Everyone from kids with their first job to those retiring. From many varied cultures and backgrounds, from those with my same sub-culture (who think and talk like me), to those from exotic places around the world. Those who have part-time unskilled first jobs and “Top Executives” in large corporations. But I have never worked with a finer group of coworkers then I have the pleasure of working with now.

Maybe it has something to do with the “weeding out” process required to succeed at this job. It isn’t easy to jump though all the fiery hoops to get where we are now. Maybe it just takes a special breed of people to be willing to go through all of this for an average wage.

Whatever the case, it makes it a pleasure to come to work everyday. Change day is coming, where we are shuffled like a deck of cards. I’m looking forward to the new mix of coworkers that I’ll be sharing a chunk of my next 4 months with.

One comment I heard from an old timer, that has me thinking as this work shuffle goes down is, “It doesn’t matter if you really like your new work of if you really hate it. Because it only lasts four months and you will be bidding for new work again.

Helping Others

Rail Card

It was my trip of a life time. My dad and I touring Australia from top to bottom and from side to side on a one month Austrail rail pass that allowed us unlimited travel on all the railroads in the country. We were two weeks into our “Australian walk-a-bout” when riding a Melbourne commuter train toward their main station named “Spencer Street Station”.

Bouncing along eating an apple and enjoying a glimpse of this city of then 2.5 million people, I carelessly set my rail pass on the upholstered arm rest of my seat. Within moments a lurch of the train sent my plastic “credit card” like rail pass slipping into a small crack between the bench seat and the wall of the train. Our efforts were useless. There was no way we could get the rail pass back. The realization that this would effectively end our Australian travels filled me with dread and panic.

We wondered who could help us. What could we do? I wanted to send Dad for help at the Spencer Street Station while I just stay in the seat and ride to the other end of the line and back. I figured this was the only way to keep track of the exact spot where my rail pass lay hidden. But my dad wasn’t about to leave his teenage son going off to who knows where in this foreign city of 2.5 million.

We wrote down our train number and the railcar number. How could we identify this seat? Now the train was pulling into Spencer Street Station. We needed to get off here to go for help. I stuffed a wadded up train schedule into a vent above our seat as we stepped off the train.

The fellow at the information booth listened to us and then said we would need to speak to the station master. From my perspective, this was a very large station, and I wondered if and how long it would take to give my tale of woe to someone who could actually help. But within about 5 minutes, the station master came and heard my story of careless stupidity.

He expressed doubt that we could locate the exact car and seat where my rail pass lay hidden. We gave him our paper with the train number and carriage number that we had ridden. With continued doubt, he explained that we could have a maximum of 5 minutes when that train returned to the station. They couldn’t hold the train any longer. He could have a “Car Builder” there to pull one seat only. There wouldn’t be time for a second try.

The uncertainty of the next 2 hours waiting for the train’s return dragged. But just as promised, a few minutes before the scheduled time, this same station master and a mechanic with a tool bag arrived. As our train rolled into the station, our “car number” came into view. The four of us stepped inside, and I quickly looked for my ill-fated seat. Above was no wadded up train schedule. Was I turned around? Had the train turned around? Again I quickly scanned the interior. Over on the other side was my train schedule marking the spot.

I quickly stepped to the seat and pointed to the crack between the arm rest and the wall. “Right there!” I said with renewed confidence.

In a flash the “Car Builder” had his tools out and went to work. It took him less than a minute to unbolt the seat. As they lifted it away from the wall, my plastic green card lay right where I said it would be.

With a big smile and the “Aussie” accent that I had grown to love, the station master held up my wadded up train schedule and said, “Now that’s American ingenuity”.

This experience was back in May of 1977. So for almost 39 years, because of this one time that they helped me out, I have felt nothing but praise for all of the Australian rail systems. Things could have turned out so differently for me. And if they had, I could have only blamed myself. They had listened and understood what my problem was, outlined what they could and could not do to help. And then followed through with what they said they would do.

Since working for UTA as a railroad engineer, I have thought about this long past experience often. Every time someone makes a frantic inquiry about a lost cell phone, or needs help in some other way, I think about how I should respond. Do I really listen to the person who is asking for help (or in some cases isn’t actually asking, but needs a helpful response)? Do I blow them off “because their problems are caused by their own stupidity?”

I’ve been there, down stupid alley, as we all have. On the other hand, we clearly have restraints and guidelines on what we can do to help. But do I give the same respect that I, as a stupid teenager, received after I had screwed up? The station master actually gave me praise for my “American Ingenuity”. I can assure you that it feels better telling this story than if he had said to me, “What kind of dumb @#$ leaves his rail card out on the seat in a moving train?”

My lessons learned from that long since past experience that I hope that I incorporate into my daily work as a railroad engineer include:

• Am I a good listener? Like that great station master, do I really listen to understand the full scope of the problem at hand?

• Do I give clear communication of what I can and can’t do to help? As in my story, we also have restraints on what we can do to help someone. When that train returned to the Spencer Street Station, I knew we had one try and only one try to pull a seat to retrieve my rail pass. If I had failed to identify the correct seat, I would have gone away disappointed and dejected, but without ill feelings toward that Australian railroad. I would have known that they also wanted to find that rail pass and had done what they could.

• Do I do what I say I’ll do? I need to be careful not to make promises that I can’t keep. But I also need follow through with what I have agreed to do. Imagine the story I’d be telling these 39 years if that station master hadn’t returned with his “Car Builder” when that train came back into the station?

• Am I respectful in how I treat others? Whether it’s those I work with, or the customers that we serve, that station master of yesteryear helped me with more than saving the last two weeks of my “Walk-a-bout”. He was a great example of how to treat others, even when they screw up or do something dumb. Even when it’s just a dumb teenage kid.

As I get better at doing this, I’m creating a better quality of life. A better quality of life for me, for my co-workers, and for our customers. UTA likes to call this “Living the UTA Way”. I like to think that it is more just that way I am… the way I WANT to live.


People wait for Trains. Trains don’t wait for People.

Train Watch

“People Wait for Trains. Trains don’t Wait for People.”

Even as a small child, my father taught me well to be early to everything. Through my life I have assumed that this is a sign of respect to always be on time. Over the years, I’ve observed many who weren’t taught as well as me and seem to operate in a different time zone. Though it doesn’t seem to matter if someone is late to church, a ball game, or a family gathering, it makes a big difference when arriving late for any public transportation, including trains.

In fact, trains invented strict time schedules more than anything in our recent history. They had to for safety’s sake when many different trains were sharing the same track.

Back in the day… every town or city, large or small kept their own time, based in some way on the position of the sun at high noon and proudly displayed on something public, such as a church clock or in the jewelers display window. So one city may have said that the official time is 10:00am, and a town down the road fifty miles says at that same moment that the time is only 9:55am. This system worked just fine because with the slow mode of travel, time was such a relative thing.

When trains came along, with ever increasing speeds, and the need to time their travel with other trains using the same track, this less than formal time keeping system began to show it’s weakness. As the circle of travel continually expanded, the railroad dispatchers needed to keep a correspondingly expanding table of reference of the dozens (and then hundreds) of time zones, as they managed the train schedules. With the new communication technology of telegraph (usually ran along the railroad track), all of these many time zones needed to be referenced in real time.

The railroad’s solution was to implement standardized time zones. Of course you are familiar with these time zones because we still use them today.

So starting way back then, trains are always striving to run on time. Early on, a late train caused accidents. Now days it causes missed appointments and commitments for both people and products.

My morning commuter run is full of people depending on me to get them to work on time. Most of these people are lined up at the station platform before the train arrives. Of course there are always a few who are scrambling to the platform after the train stops. If I can, I’ll delay just a few extra seconds, but my mandate is to keep the train on time. Because of the hundreds who arrived on time and depend on me to get them to their destination on time, I can’t wait for the late comer. I think Star Trek’s Spock would say it this way. “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many out weigh the needs of the few.” So though it appears heartless and cruel to depart the station when a late comer is scrambling to make the train but is too far off, I am thinking, “Be kind to those on time.”

As my train is rolling out of the station, occasionally I’ll see in my mirror, someone running up and banging on a passenger door, expecting it to open on the run. It’s not like the old time movies with the drama of someone running to jump on the train while it is picking up steam. Now days the doors are locked before the train can move so once it is moving the drama is left behind at the station. Unless of course a passenger on the train is asleep or other wise distracted and is too slow getting off at his stop. The frustration is palatable as they pound on the door from inside while the station begins to move away. The next stop in the next town is now his only choice.

The experienced traveler (and commuter) avoids these anxieties with a readily available schedule and a good watch. Of course back in the day, the train engineer needed a good quality watch that kept time in sic with the dispatcher and all the other trains. Back then the quality, and corresponding accuracy, was measured by its jewels. The officially approved Railroad Watch had at least 19 and as high as 30 jewels in its mechanism. Soon “Railway Time Keepers” were marketed to the general traveling public. These fake imitations were cheap watches that weren’t jeweled. They looked like the real McCoy, but were less accurate. So the savvy traveler cushioned his departure time to compensate.

Even though most watches today are much more accurate then the best of yesteryear, our fast paced lives are filled with unexpected delays. We frequently miss calculate how long it takes to go and do the things of our lives. So like the wise Old Timers, we need to cushion our schedules to compensate.

The one rule that is as applicable today as in the early days of railroads is that people wait for trains. Trains don’t wait for people.

I know that many times a person is running late because of unforeseen delays. Weather, traffic, or numerable personal problems can easily mar the best planned “Just in time” scheduling. The only fool proof answer is to plan to wait for the train a little bit.

As train engineers, and other railroad workers, we wait for trains more than anyone. For the trains to run on time, we must be there early every time.

I live 45 miles from where I report to work. Regardless of how I get to work, I have to leave early enough to be there on time even in the worst case scenario. For me, because of train schedules, that means if I ride the train to work, I generally arrive an hour early… and wait. If I drive, to compensate for unexpected traffic and weather, I arrive about 30 minutes early… and wait. (Waiting is great writing time for me.)

During the course of my work shift, I am frequently waiting on the train. After the required pre-pullout inspection, I wait for the prescribed time to pull out onto the mainline. At each station I watch my pocket watch (because I’m old fashioned that way) until the exact departure time. At our terminal stations (the end of the line each way) I wait for the exact time my train begins its next run back the other direction. When another train is late arriving at our meeting point (the short double track where we can pass each other), I wait. If there are problems along our alignment, with switches, crossings, mechanical problems with other trains, etc… I wait.

So everyone involved, (passengers, rail workers, cars and pedestrians at crossings), end up waiting for trains. Of course our goal is to keep that wait to a minimum. But if people didn’t try to make trains wait for them, everyone would have to wait a lot less.

Years ago, I observed a wise Greyhound bus driver counseling a young man who had arrived late. “You will have a lot fewer problems in your travels if you will just learn to be a little bit early.”

What I’ve taught my children applies to trains:

“If you’re early, you’re on time.

If you’re on time, you’re late,

And if you’re late you’re forgotten.”

So it’s true that people wait for trains, but trains don’t wait for people. But ironically, as they watch the train pulling out of the station, the people who try making trains wait for them; end up waiting the longest because they now have to wait for the next train.

If I Drove My Car Like a Train

When I first started driving trains, I couldn’t help draw comparisons to how I drive my car. Some train rules are the same (or very similar) to the rules of the road for cars and trucks, though the consequences for breaking them may be much more severe.

For example, if caught exceeding the speed limit by more than 10 MPH in my car, I may or may not get a speeding ticket, depending on the circumstances. But in a train, I would have my license revoked even if the speed had just reduced, and I was in the process of slowing down to the new lower speed.

However, most of the rules for driving a train aren’t that similar to cars or trucks. For example, when I first started to drive trains, and then drove my car again, I had to fight off the impulse to turn on some sort of warning bell or honk my horn when passing through intersections.

If we drove cars like trains, I imagine that a quick trip to the store would go something like this.

My Beautiful Wife: “Honey, would you run to the store and pick-up a gallon of milk?”

Even though she’s a licensed driver, like all moms, she is always over her “Hours of Service” and so she can’t actually drive anywhere. Anytime someone with a license works more than 12 hours in any given day, or more than 13 days in a row, whether they are actually driving or not, “They go Dead” as we call it. Meaning that they can’t drive until they have the prescribed rest period. Since mothers never get any rest, they are always “Dead” and can’t drive.

Our closest grocery store is Walmart, which is two miles away.

Me: “Sure, I’ll go right now. I’ll go start my pre-op if you can you come out to the garage in five minutes to help me with the brake test and call my shove out of the to the street?”

I then go out and do my walk around the car to make sure everything looks good. I open the trunk to check that all the emergency equipment is in place. I then get in the drivers seat and test all the controls such as honk the horn, check that all the lights work (This includes getting out and visually checking them.) and checking all the paperwork to verify that all proper daily maintenance inspections have been performed. Fortunately, earlier today I had already spent the several hours completing these daily inspections and so the paperwork was in order.

In addition to the inspections paperwork, I need to have copies of all state, county, and city driving laws and ordinances in my possession when operating. Like everyone else, I keep a copy of these things in a backpack that I just carry with me when going anywhere. As I review this paperwork, I realize that I haven’t got a copy of the “Daily Highway Bulletin”. So I run back into the house, log into the State Highway website, and print it out. I then need to review it before proceeding.

Also, I not only can’t use my cell phone, or any other electronic device while driving the car, but these things must be completely turned off and put away in my backpack along with my operating rules books. Of course our car doesn’t have any other radio besides our special CB radio that connects us with the UHP Control Center. Music or any other type of entertainment is prohibited. Also any type of food or drink must be stowed away while I’m driving.

My engine is now running and headlights on. Specific lights need to be on anytime the car is moving or even parked out in public.

My Beautiful Wife, decked out in the proper safety vest and other gear, now comes out. She has a handheld CB radio which she uses to provide me with the “radio check” that I need to make before moving the car. Next, with a flashlight, she gets down by the rear wheels where she can see the brake shoes engage and disengage as I apply and release. On her command I work the brakes so she can verify that they are working properly.

She now stands back and waits while I contact the State Patrol Control Center (via CB radio on a specified channel) to get authorization to enter the street system.

Me on CB Radio: “Automobile operator #152569419 to USP Control – Over”

USP Control on CB Radio: “USP Control – Over”

Me on CB Radio: “Operator #152569419 requests permission for Auto # UT 375 HSP to enter the road system at 1428 N Reese Drive, Provo and proceed to Walmart Supercenter at 1355 Sandhill Road, Orem. – Over”

USP Control on CB Radio: “152569419, University Parkway is currently congested at Geneva Road. You have permission to proceed to Walmart via 2000 South Orem to Sandhill Road. – Over”

Me on CB Radio: “Auto # UT 375 HSP has permission to enter the Utah road system at 1428 N Reese Drive, Provo and proceed to Walmart Supercenter at 1355 Sandhill Road, Orem via 2000 South Orem to Sandhill Road? – Over”

USP Control on CB Radio: “Auto # UT 375 HSP, that is correct. USP Control out.”

Me on CB Radio to Beautiful Wife: (Who is now standing at the end of our driveway.) “152569419 to #152562871, Auto UT 375 HSP is ready for a westbound shove onto Reese Drive. – Over”

Beautiful Wife on handheld CB Radio: “Auto UT 375 HSP, the driveway and street are clear and you are clear to shove westbound 100 feet onto Reese Drive. – Over”

Me on CB Radio: “Auto UT 375 HSP is clear to shove westbound 100 feet onto Reese Drive. – Over”

Beautiful Wife on handheld CB Radio: “Auto UT 375 HSP, that is correct. – Over”

Before I begin to backup, I sound my horn with two short burst to indicate that the car is about to begin movement.

After I proceed half way down our driveway, my Beautiful Wife must call out that I am clear 50 feet and then count down my progress to a stop. Of course she is back behind me observing my backing process.

I’m now clear to proceed forward, of course only taking the route cleared by USP Control.

Before I speed the car past 10mph, I need to test the brakes again to make sure they are responsive in the moving vehicle. If I forget this “Rolling Brake Test” I could lose my license. As I pass 1440 N (just past my house) my headlights must be on “Brights” and I sound my horn. Turning west on 1520 N, I of course sound my warning horn. These many subdivision side streets have me sounding my horn more than not. As I come to Geneva Road, I must stop before the white painted stop line. Of course when the road is covered in ice or snow, I just have to know where this line is. Over running a stop sign or stop light will get my license revoked immediately.

Just down Geneva Road, I turn right onto West 1680 North. As I round onto this small side street, an state patrol trooper flags me down. He asks to see my operators license, checks my cell phone to make sure it’s turned off and tucked away in my paperwork back pack and then climbs in the front seat of my car, informing me that he will be riding along with me to observe my driving. (This is common enough that every driver can expect it once in awhile.)

We proceed through the short connector streets culminating in the round-a-bout that dumps us onto Sand Hill Road. Soon we are at the red traffic light waiting to turn into the Wal-Mart parking lot. Again, I must stop before the white line at the intersection. Also, I can’t proceed with a right turn into the parking lot until the light changes. Any of these things will get my license revoked.

Eventually, we arrive in the parking lot. I now have to sound my horn while moving about as I find a parking space in the far reaches.

The space requirements between parked cars make for a full parking lot even though there are relatively few shoppers here today. The cars can’t be parked closer than 20 feet from another car (front to back) and walking paths to the store, between cars requires at least a 100 foot space. So I feel lucky that I can park at all, instead of having to just leave and come back later.

Of course in order to exit my car and proceed through the Wal-Mart parking lot into the store, I have to wear the proscribed safety vest and move about the parking lot so that I don’t get too close to any parked car.

Once I’ve got my gallon of milk, and I’m back at my car, I need to wait my turn for the parking lot worker to call my shove as I back up out of my parking stall, just like my Beautiful Wife had to do to get me out of our garage back home.

In due time I’ve complete my radio calls to USP Control and gain permission for my return trip home. As I’m headed down Sand Hill Road, suddenly there’s a reduced speed 1000 feet a head sign. However at the prescribed distance there is no reduced speed sign. Of course I recognize what’s going on and slow to 10 MPH before I reach the 1000 feet distance. This is an efficiency test. If I don’t slow from the posted 35 MPH speed in time I will lose my license. These efficiency tests can take any form and can happen at any time.

As I approach a car stopped along the road, I honk my horn as a warning that I’m passing. I am also required to report any problems that I see along the way, including trespassers.

When it’s all said and done, I’m back with the gallon of milk in an hour and a half. As I close the garage door and carry my gallon of milk into the house, I think to my self, “Next time I’ll just walk to the store.” But then I realize, “I can’t do that. Walking along the public roadways is prohibited, and I’d be arrested as a trespasser


The first time I heard the expression was in my job interview. I was answering the question, “Why do you want to work for a railroad?” I had addressed the query with examples of my favorable past experiences and interests in trains, finishing with something like, “I want to make a career change and think I’d like to work with trains.” From his follow up question, “Are you a Foamer?” my blank stare was all the answer he needed. He moved on to a different line of questioning. Apparently I wasn’t a Foamer.

Through my training, I heard many more references to Foamers. Finally, the expression was explained to me. A Foamer really, really likes trains! He is passionate about trains! In fact, he presumably “foams at the mouth” with excitement at the very mention of trains. They know trains like an avid sports fan know their team and players stats.

My first good exposure to this was when I was doing my training in our railyard. During this overnight shift, as we were preparing our trains for the early morning pull-out, I was watching the larger locomotives in the Union Pacific yard across from us. They were “kicking” freight cars through various switches as they made up their trains. I said to my trainer, “I wonder how many horse power those locomotives have?” He noted their six traction motors (as compared to four on our locomotives). But he really didn’t know the difference in horse power. Then he said, “We’ll just ask Paul. He’s a Foamer.” Later that night when we caught up to him, this was Paul’s answer. “It depends on whether it’s a SD45 or if it’s been rebuilt into an SD45-2. He then started into the history of the EMC (Electro-Motive Corporation) SD45 that Union Pacific rebuilt into SD45-2’s which increased the horsepower. As my trainer and I walked away to our next yard duty, he just smiled at me and said, “That’s a Foamers answer.”

I’ve observed many subsequent examples of the passion Foamers have for all things Trains.

While working with the other railroad engineers, I’ve become familiar with many who share their passion for trains in many additional ways besides just working for the railroad.

One fellow has a vintage locomotive tattooed across his back that is almost larger than life. It truly is a work of art. From him, I’ve learned of such things as the Hostler Model Railroad Club of Ogden and the Evanston Roundhouse Restoration Group who jointly sponsor the Roundhouse Festival in Evanston, Wyoming. Of course that Train Festival is an annual pilgrimage for him.

One fellow Engineer works to restore some of the old vintage railroad relics of the past. I heard that he once purchased an old locomotive of his own to restore. How do you do that? It’s not like you can just tow it home and rebuild it in the garage. His foaming passion can be seen in some of the retired work horses of the past on display at the Historic Train Station at Ogden’s Union Station. He’s made a mark on the Heber Valley Railroad as well. This is a railroad that was established in 1899 that now offers the train travel experiences of yesteryear.

One fellow Engineer is a kid younger than half of my own children. He is so new to FrontRunner that I’ve been here longer than he has. Yet he can talk trains with the best of them. “Did you know that there are actual Foamer Clubs where they go play with model train sets, but everything you do (including proper radio calls) have to follow the G-Core rules or you could be De-certified?” All that Foamer practice makes for a great start as an actual Railroad Engineer. I’m sure when he answered that job interview question, “Are you a Foamer?” his answer gave very high marks on the interviewing panels score cards.

Those Foamer Clubs reminds me of when I was a Cub Scout. We visited the Eckersell Funeral Home in Rigby Idaho. Mr. Eckersell had the whole basement of this place laid out in model train tracks running everywhere. The walls were murals of scenic mountains, valleys, and such. And he had a railroad control center that operated his many trains, switches, crossings, and everything else in his little foaming world.

Rivet Counters… Foamers of a higher order.

In chatting with some of these Foamers, I’ve learned that a Foamer’s Foamer is called a Rivet Counter. The expression has to do with detail to the smallest minutia. The Rivet Counter puts every possible detail into making their railroad passion accurate. A Rivet Counter’s model train would not only have all the authentic logos, numbers, and equipment to make it real enough to function as a miniature in film making, but even the little things, such as how many rivets are needed to show holding the train’s body together are to be perfect.

Foamers at large.

Some of the passengers get in on the action as well. A couple of commuters from the north end wrote a FrontRunner song, recorded it, and submitted it to UTA. They were hoping that we would incorporate it into our advertising. In its own goofy way, the tune was catchy and the lyrics clever (including made up nonsense phrases like “Incremental Power Glide”). But I think it would have only been an effective advertising jingle if everyone were true blue Foamers.

There is also one fellow who rides the train who dresses up like a railroad engineer of the Steam Locomotive era, with the coveralls, hat, and all. Some people like this we have to keep an eye on to make sure they don’t try to sneak onto the Locomotive at the station stops.

While driving the train, I often get to give a little toot by special request to excited little kids (and some not so little) along the way. Seeing the happiness on the faces of small children when acknowledged by the train horn draws me back to when I was just as small.

I think my childhood train experience surpasses anyone else.

I grew up on a small farm in Southeastern Idaho, but my Mom is from the very metropolitan Vancouver, BC, Canada. When we were a young family, it wasn’t always easy for Dad to leave the farm for an extended Canada pilgrimage back to Mom’s old stomping grounds. Somewhere in the mid 60’s, Mom and all us kids got to ride the Union Pacific passenger train to visit Grandma & Grandpa Tillack in Canada. The photo is of us boarding the train in Pocatello, Idaho. As kids, we loved running from car to car, exploring the limits of our train access. I also loved riding up in the dome car, getting a bird’s eye view of the changing scenery. For a young guy, the 800 plus mile trip actually seemed short to me.


When I began first grade, the PTA had a competition to get the parents to sign up for their organization. The winning class got a real train ride. Of course the first grade won, and our whole class of 30 or so students rode a school bus 15 miles to the Rigby train depot. There we all crammed into the caboose (Yes they still had cabooses in use back then.) where we rode the train back to the Rexburg train depot. I felt like an old pro here, because I’d already taken the train all the way to Canada. The highlights of that short ride for me were riding over the old Lorenzo Trestle Bridge and of course my only chance ever to ride in a caboose.

I rode trains a lot as a child. Several trips were also taken to Colorado. One of those trips was with my next older sister. We were going to stay with our Aunt and Uncle while Mom and Dad continued on to visit the New York World’s Fair. This was a true whistle stop for us. The train rolled into Greeley, Colorado where a man helped lift us down from the train. The conductor handed our two small bags down and waved to the engineer who blew the whistle and then the train was rolling again. We stood there with our aunt and uncle, waving our abrupt good-bye to our shocked parents as they quickly rolled away. Dad said that he doesn’t think that the train even actually quit rolling. Mom was very glad that our aunt and uncle were standing right there to receive us or she would have gotten off as well.

One of my Dad’s pipe dreams was to build a small railroad around our egg farm. Our 28 acre farm seemed just the right size and several of us boys got involved and investigated the logistics of such a project. But our busy lives got in the way and that pipe dream is now just a happy memory.

My Beautiful Wife and I rode trains all over Italy a few years back. There we experienced everything from the regular trains, to the commuter trains, to the high speed trains.

But my most fond memory of riding trains was back in May of 1977 when I got to take a trip to Australia with my dad. Dad studied world maps like Rivet Counters studied train trivia. And his idea of traveling to see the world had more to do with racking up mileage that he had previously traced with his finger on the well-worn maps then actually stopping and sightseeing. Just ask my Mom who has been to many world landmarks but hasn’t actually see them some of them. After my Beautiful Wife and I visited the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Mom told of her experience there. They rode the train to Pisa, but never left the train station which was a short ride or 15-20 minute walk to where you can actually see Pisa’s tower and its other landmarks. So when Dad wanted to make a second trip back to Australia, Mom wasn’t excited about going along this time. I was in the right place at the right time and got the job.

So for the month of May, 1977, we traveled Australia the way Dad liked to travel.

The only thing that was prearranged for our trip was our air travel and a month long Austrail Rail pass that allow us first class passage on any public transportation in the country.

The Indian-Pacific

Within hours of landing in Sidney, Dad had us booked on the Indian-Pacific. At the time it claimed to be the second longest train run in the world (behind only the Siberian Express). Thus named because it runs between the Pacific Ocean (Sydney) and the Indian Ocean (Perth), totaling over 2700 miles. This first week of rail travel was real classy. We had 1st class sleeper berths with a conductor who waited on us hand and foot. (Yes, literally… frequent snacks in our hands and shined shoes for our feet.) He attended to our every assumed need like an English Footman, but he also hung around and just chatted, telling stories for an hour at a time. I loved listening to his accent, not realizing that around here we were the ones with accents.

This train had a formal dining car with fabulous meals served three times a day, on fine dinner ware like you would expect in a nice restaurant. It was movie moment memorable to be dining in such a nice place with waiters bringing each course under a covered silver platter, while watching wild kangaroos bouncing across the Nullabor as our train rolled westward.

Cook… Broken Hill… Kalgoorlie… These relatively small towns, each so isolated that they are named on a small world globe back home. The landscape shifts along our route gave glimpses into this wonderful country that is almost as large as the Continental United States. This railway alignment includes the longest run of straight railroad track in the world. I swear that those 297 miles are so straight that there isn’t even any curvature of the Earth going through there.

Riding the rails day and night.

After our luxury trip across to Perth on the Indian-Pacific, we roughed it for the rest of our month long pilgrimage on the rails of Australia. We logged a total of only three hotel nights the entire month. Mostly we traveled through the nights from city to city. And the day was spent touring each new area on the local rail transit. This worked well to see Australia up close and personal.

Headed for the Great Barrier Reef region

By the last week of our month of Australian railroad travel, we were riding up the northeast coast of Queensland. Our goal was to make it to Cairns before we were forced to double back for Sidney for our flight home. We now couldn’t take the time to ride around in the cities along the way or we wouldn’t make it to Cairns. Before my 18th birthday on May 25th, we had run out of Australian cash and couldn’t leave the train long enough to find a bank to exchange our American bills. I don’t know why we didn’t use credit cards? But we had run out of money and chose to just go without food rather than miss our chance to visit Cairns.

The Kuranda Scenic Railway

After another night sleeping in our seats, we arrived in Cairns early in the morning. It had now been two days since we had eaten anything. But before the bank opened, and we could get cash for food, the Kuranda Scenic Railway would depart for a day trip into the Australian mountainous rainforest.

We had to choose. Either take this bonus train ride on a very historic narrow gauge railway that was built in the 1800’s. A ride that includes 15 dark tunnels, over 40 skinny bridges, and 98 sharp bends clinging to the rugged mountain side, while climbing up the mountain rainforest with jungle so thick and dense that anything short of just being there can’t give justice to the experience… or we could spend the day in Cairns and eat something.

We were really hungry by now and Dad asked me what I wanted to do. Without hesitation, my answer was, “Let’s take the train, we can always eat later!”

Yup after starving for two days, and after already riding maybe 12,000 miles on trains in the previous 3 ½ weeks, as a starving teenager, I chose to wait another 7 hours to eat anything so I could ride another train.


Groundhog Day

In the months since licensing as a railroad engineer, my work block has mostly consisted of overnight work on the northern half of the FrontRunner alignment. This work shift includes taking the last train of the day to Ogden at night where I perform necessary safety tests and inspections. I then tie down with the train for a few hours, before taking the two early morning trains farther up north to Pleasant View on Union Pacific alignment. (This requires two of us, one serving as conductor and the other one as the engineer.) I then bring my train back south with early morning commuters headed for Salt Lake and other points south.

My second Tri-annual bid for work has now left me with this same piece of work at least until April. And the repetition of going through this same workday, day after day, has mentally placed me in the Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day”.

Being caught in the “same day loop”, Phil Connors eventually out grew his bungling, self-centered; second rate self, into a very talented and rather nice guy. I’m hoping for something similar as I relive my own Groundhog Day… day in and day out… week by week… month after month.

Currently, a small piece of my repeating Groundhog Day is as follows. Whereas the movie character Phil Connors nightstand alarm clock clicks from 5:59am to 6:00am and Sony and Cher start singing “I’ve Got You Babe”, my watch is sliding from 3:59am to start the last active portion of my work day. Mine is to the rumble of the waiting locomotive instead of Sony and Cher singing their signature song.

4:00am – I look across the Ogden Station Platform from my locomotive to the locomotive for Train 3. James stands up, dons his safety vest, gathers up his gear and climbs down out of his Locomotive. He is headed back to release the hand brake at the other end of his consist and make ready for our departure. I likewise gather my things together, climb down from my Train 5 Locomotive, enter the back door of Train 3’s Loco and release its handbrake. I then proceed up to the cab and settle into the Engineers seat and begin the preliminary paperwork.

4:10am – James joins me in the Loco cab and we complete the Union Pacific Job Briefing Checklist, review the daily UP Track Warrant, and begin the Conductor Report. This daily routine doesn’t take long and we are soon down to small talk while waiting for our departure time.

James tells of his latest weekend – Surfing on a California Beach (his flight attendant wife gives him travel perks), while I desperately struggle to think of something from my “weekend” that I can mention so he doesn’t realize that I have no life. In the pause in dialog, James brings up sports. I finally have to admit that I don’t follow sports… have always just worked. I’m thinking, “I do actually have a life… it includes long distance running on empty 2:00am city streets… trying to write… playing my harmonicas…” But those seem like awkward conversations as well. What kind of eccentric runs up and down city streets in the middle of the night for fun? And it is assumed that anyone who plays the harmonica, plays “Blues Harmonica”. I don’t… can’t… OK… the truth is I play ON the harmonica more than actually playing the harmonica. So I don’t bring it up.

4:22am – Time to go… bring up the cab signal… get a door loop… headlights… gen field on… radio call to Warm Springs control… bell on… reverser forward… throttle notch one… and we move forward toward the end of the platform where we lose our cab signals and have to stop to reset them for movement in Union Pacific territory.

I’ve made this same trip to Pleasant View many times. It is all exactly the same except it’s always different. The different trains vary in how they handle… some more power than others… they all brake differently than how the last train braked… I’ll have to quickly get a feel for this one and make adjustments accordingly.

4:25am – As I approach our first control point… CP G001, I need to slow down to 25mph… Both James and I call out the signal (as required) “Clear”. I give the brakes a minimum set… they seem to glide along too far and then grab a bit later. I’ll have to make adjustments to how I brake with this train. I call out my speed to James (the conductor) who makes the necessary notes in the Conductors Report. He is recording the required info on the UP radio for this signal. We both call out our next signal as it appears in the distance… “Advanced Approach”. I reach my landmark (an electrical box along the alignment) and notch up to speed the train to 55mph.

4:27am – James makes his UP radio transmission… “UTA Train 11 at CP G003, Advanced Approach – Out”. My speed is now 55mph and I drop back to “notch 2”. I know that this exact timing and combination of power will maintain our speed at exactly 55mph until we come around the corner and can see our next signal, “MP 4.6”.

4:29am – We both call out “Approach Restricting” at the same time. James makes his radio call and I make a minimum brake set. “It took me a long time to get this one right. (Kind of like Phil Connors repeatedly stepping in the slush filled pothole in Groundhog Day.) I need to slow to 40mph very quickly but was always slowing too much because the track runs steeply uphill here. I have finally learned to apply only a minimum set and release at 45mph and then immediately go to notch 4 on the throttle. As we roll up to the control point we always seem to be going too fast, but the train continues to slow and now the speed is always exactly 40 as we pass it, with enough momentum to maintain this speed until our next control point. (This is where I really start to feel invincible like “Groundhog’s Phil” stepping in to save the pending wedding or the choking man in the restaurant.)

4:32am – At CP G005, I need to be slowed down to no more than 15mph. This one should be easy, but the variation in braking from train to train gets me when going this slow. This time I cross the signal going 13mph. This is well within the speed requirement, but I wanted perfection at maximum authorized speed… that’s the game I play over and over. That and the perfect station stop. I’ve got a ways to go on that one too. Since licensing, I have never had to make the radio call of shame to tell control that I’m a door long, but too many of my stops could be classified as sloppy.

4:34am – This station stop was perfect. We now perform the needed operations to “turn the train” which means that we will be operating from the other end of this same train as we depart south bound in 18 minutes.

I will pass this same 12 minutes of Union Pacific track another 3 times, doing the same thing before arriving at Ogden Station where I begin collecting the masses of commuters headed south.

6:03am – I bring my “Train 5” to a stop on the Ogden west platform to the gathering group of southbound commuters. My conductor, from our just completed “Pleasant View” trip has gathered his bags and the special UP radio, and exits the train. As a southbound train, I am operating in the “Cab Car”, which is on the opposite end from the Locomotive. Down here, I am more visible to my passengers, and they to me. While passengers are boarding, I open the operator’s window to greet my newly boarding Train Host, who will be back with my passengers as we proceed south. “Good morning Joan.” “Good morning Ron.” I watch from this opened window while passengers continue to board. Though I don’t speak to these people personally, I know these passengers very well by now. The same man in the dark business suit (now also with an overcoat) who always carries a newspaper under his arm gets on in the Cab Car and takes his seat behind my operators compartment. He always sits facing away from me, and spreads in his lap newspaper as if to share with anyone looking over his shoulder. (He will ride to North Temple Station). The woman, always wrapped from head to toe, (even in warmer weather) takes her seat right behind my operating compartment. This seems strange to me, because this is the coveted seat, the only seat on the entire train where the passenger can see what the engineer sees while the train is moving down the track. But she never looks up. Her face is always buried in the broad collar of her coat, so that only her eyes and nose can poke out at her cell phone which is the continual focal point until she exits the train at Salt Lake Central Station.

I could go on with each passenger within my view every day, but you get the Idea.

6:07am – It’s time to depart, and I am standing at the open window telling the last three commuters, who are still off in the parking lot but scrambling to make the train, to hurry to the nearest train door. It’s always the same three people, and they always seem surprised that the train is ready to leave at 6:07am. (These 3 commuters don’t know this but if I haven’t started to move the train yet, AND they are hurrying… like running if capable… I will wait for the latecomers. But if it’s time to go and they are just walking along in no hurry, I’ll leave them behind every time.)

6:08am – Finally, the last late comer has boarded the train and I close and lock the doors. Now I need to try to make up for my late departure. My first three station stops are rather tight on the schedule, so now I feel like Scotty from Star Trek fame trying get all I can out of the locomotive as we build momentum and climb the Ogden “Flyover” which bridges over the top of the many Union Pacific tracks below.

I know the exact power setting and adjustment as I at first build speed while climbing the “Flyover” and then descend, all while maintaining the maximum authorized speed. A speed which keeps changing as we proceed south.

6:15am – I’m still creeping toward Roy Station on my 15mph cab signal. The same late comers are cutting in front of my train at the platform. I’ve got my hand over the horn button ready to “warn away” any more attempted crossing in front of me as I near. The same man stops and waits. Once he was too close when he crossed. I had tapped my horn. He first completed his run in front of me and then turned and shook his fist at me. I’m sure he had a few choice words for me as well. Now he still comes late as my train approaches, but he waits… glares. I’m thankful that he is alive and well and can glare at me every morning. I’ve heard stories from other engineers where the outcome wasn’t this happy. Of course I make sure he is on board before I depart.

This is the first of three “train meets” I’ll have before arriving at North Temple station. On our single track, we have to meet the trains headed in the opposite direction where we have sidings or at stations where we have two tracks. Some engineers make it a competition to beat the other train to the “meet” and others not so much. I guess I’m competitive that way. Everything I do as I move south is all about beating the other train to the meet.

6:24am – Clearfield Station… I depart almost one minute late at nearly 6:25am… still trying to make up for my departures from Ogden and Roy.

6:30am – Layton Station… train meet with the northbound… depart on time.

6:38am – Farmington Station… I arrive 2 minutes early and can relax a bit. We depart on time at 6:40am.

6:46am – Centerville Siding waiting for the oncoming Northbound train.

6:51am – Woods Cross Station… one minute late because of waiting for northbound train at the Centerville meet.

7:01am – North Temple Station. This is where I am relieved from duty. I just take a seat on the same train and as a passenger now, and let my replacement engineer take me home.

It takes a little less than an hour go from Ogden to North Temple Station. Of course I could tell all, detailing my awesome train handling skills as I meet difficult sections of track, how I can manage the brakes and throttle ahead to provide perfect timing in the trains delayed performance. I could tell stories of passengers from each station. Like how at Clearfield Station, everyone is lined up in perfect single file at each marked spot on the platform for a door. Yes, those are 8 perfect single file lines waiting for me to stop a door directly in front of each one. (No pressure there on making a perfect station stop!) I could brag about rolling into the “Centerville Siding” early enough to get my train out of the way so that the “Northbound” train won’t get a “Cab hit” which would slow it down. But, this is enough… you get the idea.

At least up here on the north end of the FrontRunner alignment, I feel more like the Groundhog “Phil Connors” at the party (after he has honed his talents, as well as his social skills, to perfection) when Rita (who is surprised at his suave interaction with everyone at the party) asks Phil, “What did you do today?” Phil nonchalantly replies, “Oh, same old same old.”

If I ever get to drive the trains on the south end of our alignment, I probably won’t remember what to do. I’ll be like the bungling Phil Connors on his first few days of his Groundhog Day loop again. But for now it’s looking like that by next April, I’ll be operating my Train 5 on the north end like Groundhog Phil playing the piano at the Punxsutawney Celebration.

Driver’s Training – Train Edition

A few weeks ago I took my youngest child down to the DMV to get her learners permit. This is the 9th and final time that my Beautiful Wife and I have to go through teaching our child to drive a car. Way back when, I blogged about teaching my first child to drive (here).

But this time, as my Baby’s driving instructor, I expect I’ll be more patient than usual as I remember my most recent experience of “Driver’s Training – Train Edition” with me as the student.

Let me start out by saying that there are very few similarities between driving a train and a car. Almost everything you do while driving a train is time delayed. They say that with a freight train you are driving 3 miles ahead and 2 miles behind. The reality is a freight train often needs to react 3 miles before an anticipated event. Of course a freight train can be up to 2 miles long. So the engineer’s immediate area of concern can be this 5 mile range. Our short consist passenger trains don’t operate in this wide of range, but they are closer to that than they are to the operating range of a car. For example, our Commuter trains generally start slowing about a mile before making a station stop. If we were to wait to see the station before hitting the brakes, we’d miss stopping at the station almost every time.

And just the brakes themselves are completely different animals then the brakes on your car or even an 18 wheeler. The train brake systems include; Dynamic Brakes (like the noisy engine brakes on big trucks only different). Air Brakes (With many settings that have descriptive names like Minimum Reduction, Service Zone, Full Service, and Emergency. It also has a few non-braking settings with less descriptive names to the layman like Release, Handle off, and Suppression.) Blended Brakes incorporates both Dynamic Brakes with Air Brakes into the same braking action. Independent Brakes and Hand Brakes are also completely separate braking systems utilized constantly on any train in use.

Of course on your properly operating passenger car, the primary instrument gauge that you monitor while driving is the Speedometer. Besides that, there are many other instruments that need to be monitored (and complied with) on the locomotive. Two Duel air gauges with four needles (all displaying something different yet very pertinent to the condition of the train’s braking capability), along with an amp gauge reading the dynamic braking or power being applied to the train – all must be understood and utilized in the proper handling of the train.

Like I said, it’s a little more involved to stop a train than a car. As you might imagine, accelerating and steering a train don’t have any similarity to operating a car either. For example, our trains also have cab signals that can be more brutal than the toughest backseat driver you have ever experienced. (It nags at you all along the way, and if you don’t comply as quickly as it deems reasonable, it will activate a separate braking system and shut you down immediately.)

I might not admit that the first part of actually driving the train was stressful. (I’m sure that my 56 year old wisdom teeth, which have never bothered me, that now became infected and needed emergency extraction after being clenched in a death grip for too long is just a coincidence.) But it wasn’t the easiest thing I’ve ever done. Here is real life dialog (and my thoughts at the time) from just a few of those training runs.

The operating ends are changed at the end of the line and we depart Provo Station northbound:

Instructor: Lock up your doors… got a loop? (We get “a loop” when all passenger doors are properly closed, closing the lockout circuit and illuminating a green indicator light in the control panel.)

My thoughts and actions: Reverser forward… notch 1… release the Automatic Brakes and the Independent Brakes… Bell on… (I’m fumbling because I just switched operating ends and now the brakes are in my right hand and the throttle is in my left… opposite of 15 minutes ago.) … I need to just creep out to activate the crossing gates, but I can’t proceed into the intersection until the gates lock down.

Instructor: Make your radio call to control. Come on you need to learn to multitask.

Me on the Radio: “Train 8 to Warm Springs Control”

Instructor: You are UTA Train 8… and what Warm Springs are you calling, Warm Springs California? Also you need to say “over” so they know you are finished talking. You need to work on your radio protocol.

Me: “UTA Train 8 to UTA Warm Springs Control – over”

UTA Warm Springs Control on the Radio: “UTA Warm Springs Control – over”

Me: “UTA Train 8 is departing Provo Station with operator 8050 and LPI 4151 – over”

Instructor: “Departing Northbound… You need always state the direction of the train… come on, didn’t they teach you anything in class? Come on we need to get going… notch up.”

Me: I’ve now got the train up to about 11mph as we move through the intersection and out of the station.

Instructor: Don’t forget your running brake check… you could get both of us decertified.”

Me: While all of this is going on, I’m also thinking about not exceeding my 15 MPH cab signal speed, which has shut me down at 14mph before.

Instructor: You’re only going 11… your cab signal is going to upgrade right up there. We need to get going to the full cab signal speed or we’ll never make the schedule.”

Me: As we move through the many crossings on this south end of our alignment at progressively increasing speed, I’ve got to turn on the bell for each crossing, and then off again. The Locomotive is so noisy, especially while accelerating, that I can’t hear if the bell is actually on. Meanwhile, each time the cab signals upgrade with it’s associated “Beeps” from 15 to 30, then to 45 or 60, and finally to 79, I need to quickly speed up to those speeds. My instructor wants to hear the “happy” slower beeps. These beeps are from the Cab Signal system warning me that if I go any faster, the Penalty Brakes will automatically apply, shutting the train down completely.

My lack of experience makes it difficult to know when those “Happy” slower beeps become “Angry” faster beeps that will stop the train and require me to make the radio call of shame. (This is especially tricky going over the top of a slight ridge in the alignment, thus starting downhill. The Cab Signal alarm can go from “Happy” to “I’m shutting you down fool” before I can adjust my power setting if I’m not anticipating it.)

Me (over the radio): “UTA Train 8 to UTA Warm Springs Control – Over”

Control (over the radio): “UTA Warm Springs Control – Over”

Me (over the radio): “Train 8 was shut down with a penalty brake on a 79 Speed. We have recovered and are proceeding – Over.”

Instructor: “DIRECTION AND LOCATION… You have to state your direction and location!”

It’s stressful enough to go shooting down the rails, chasing the Cab Signal beeps, approaching grade crossings (Bell on), knowing if someone pulls in front of me, I won’t be able to stop (Bell off). Shooting around blind corners at 79 miles an hour, hoping there are no trespassers to surprise. All while the intensity of the Cab Signal alarm beeping in my ears is increasing my internal stress. But for me, making proper station stops caused my tightest lock-jaw death grip against my former wisdom teeth.

Since we have to begin slowing so far in advance of the station, landmarks are used to know when to begin slowing. At additional landmarks, speed is checked to ensure that I am on track for a proper station stop. It all sounds easy, but my hang up was keeping it all straight. Before I knew the entire rail alignment by heart, many of what we would use as a landmark to “Set Air” to begin the mile long breaking process would look like many other “Non-landmarks”. For example, I could easily confuse a power pole or a highway overpass that is our landmark location to set air with many other power poles or highway overpasses that were not landmark locations. So as I wiz past a distinct pole along the alignment at 79 miles an hour, I’d wonder, “Is that my spot to set air? Isn’t it too soon? Or did I pass it already? Am I now going to blow past the station? That was S-T-R-E-S-S-F-U-L. There are 16 Stations, 14 of which I needed to learn landmarks to approach from two directions. Plus there are several non-station slow-downs for curves that could have an even bigger potential for disaster than just blowing past a station.

Instructor: “You’d better give it a little more air or you’ll miss the stop. This station is downhill.

Me: I increase the pressure on the air brakes while fretting about where exactly I need to bring the train to a stop so that passenger doors line up with the marks on the platform.

Instructor: “Not too much, now you’re going to stop short!”

Me: I back off on my break pressure.

Instructor: “Release the brakes completely. You’re stopping too soon.”

Me: I release the brakes completely and begin notching up the power to get the train moving again.

Instructor: “Not too much! Now you’re going to miss your stop.”

Me: I swing the brake valve handle into “Full Service” and then watch in humiliation as the train ignores my feeble command and cruses passed the door locations painted on the station platform, along with all the people who were expecting to board the train. The train eventually stops about 50 feet beyond the intended marks.

Instructor: “You used up all your air with all those releases and applies. Look, your Dynamics didn’t kick in because you weren’t in Idle. You’re still in Notch 1. Come on, go to Idle, center your reverser, and apply the independent brake. ‘Set and Center’ and make an announcement to your passengers before you enable the doors. Then you need to call control. Hurry up! Oh, and your bell is still on.”
Me: Now frustrated and fumbling, I complete the process to “Set and Center” and key up the PA system. “Ladies and Gentlemen, may I have your attention please? Please watch your step as you… I fumble for words.

Instructor: “Exit the train…”

Me: “… As you exit the train.” (This announcement is needed because our platforms are split leveled to accommodate the two different styled passenger cars within our consist. Some passengers stepping off the train will now have an unexpected deep step down.)
I then make the other radio call of shame (besides the Cab Signal System shutting down the train for going too fast).

Me: “UTA Train 8 at Lehi Station to UTA Warm Springs Control. – Over”

UTA Warm Springs Control Room (over the radio): UTA Warm Springs Control. – Over”

Me: “Train 8 stopped one door long. – Over”

UTA Warm Springs Control Room (over the radio): “Did you make an announcement? – Over”

Me: “affirmative – Over”

UTA Warm Springs Control Room (over the radio): “Copy… Control out.”

Training in the dark.

Just when I thought I was getting my bearings straight and could do everything right, I was quickly humbled once again with my first experience of operating at night… well actually in this case it was at 4:00am, but visually it was the same difference.

Nothing on the alignment looked the same. All my reference points of where I needed to speed up or slow down seemed to be gone. I was once again unsure of where the “At grade crossings” were. And inside the Locomotive itself, I once again lost my way around the controls panels. I fumbled in the dark to turn the bell on or off.

When I try to “Notch up” the power, my wrong hand activates the Air Brakes instead.

Instructor: “What are you doing?”

Me: “Sorry”

Instructor: “Dim your lights for that train.”

While fumbling in the dark over the side control panel for the correct switch, I’m also looking up ahead trying to see the train he is referring to. The rail alignment ahead is splattered with various lights shining back at me. I can see street and yard lights, headlights from the interstate beside us, and lights on building and other structures up ahead. But I don’t see the familiar four light pattern and resembles a triangle with it’s top chopped off that I’m looking for.

Instructor: “See! It’s right there.” (He points off to the distant near-left.)

Me: The Train had already dimmed his lights for me. So now it looked just like the many industrial yard lights that spatter the sides of the alignment. I wonder how he even picked out that relatively dim light as an oncoming train, I couldn’t fathom. As I twisted the switch two loud clicks counter-clockwise to dim, my new stress was trying to remember how soon I would need to switch back to full bright for the next crossing. If I missed this, it was a DE-certifiable offense… one of the 6 deadly sins that can get my license revoked.

UTA Warm Springs Control Room (over the radio): “UTA Warm Springs Control to Train 4. – Over”

Me (over the radio): “UTA Train 4 northbound at… (long pause while I try to figure out where I’m at.)

Instructor: “North 5.5”

Me (over the radio): “At North 5.5 – Over.”

UTA Warm Springs Control Room (over the radio): “Train 4, UP is in Emergency Stop at North 5.5 – Over.”

Just as this information is coming over the radio we come upon the Union Pacific train on the rail beside us. (The one I had just dimmed my lights for.) My brain is now going into over speed trying to remember all the G-COR rules suddenly in play.

• Sound “Men and Equipment” warning sequence on the train horn.
• If a train is reported in emergency on an adjoining track proceed at ??? Is it restricted speed?
• The long UP train in emergency stop may be de-railed because of the excessive slack action caused in emergency braking with their long consist.

Instructor: “Remember the rules? We’re the first train through, so we move at restricted speed and inspect the train in emergency.”

The instructor quickly pushed me out of the Engineer’s seat and took over as we now proceeded to move along at 20 MPH, looking for men or equipment, or any of a whole list of things that would require us to stop for. All the while, sounding the “Men and Equipment” horn sequence. At the end of the train inspection, my instructor made the call back to Warm Springs Control to report the condition so they could continue with the established protocol of dealing with “a train in emergency”. I knew that there were additional rules for how fast the second train through could go, and what he should be doing. I would need to review this part of my G-COR training. Out here in the real world, I needed to know all of this stuff by heart in the heat of battle.

There were many more “firsts” in my training. In time even these additional “first time experiences” seemed routine as my confidence increased.

So at the beginning of my training, I was totally dependent on my Instructor to know what to do and where to do it. But just like my other children that I’ve taught to drive cars, and as will happen with Julianna soon enough, before my mandatory training hours were completed, I could easily do all these things that at first seemed so hard. And I wished that the trainer would just go to sleep and let me drive the train.

Written in Blood – GCOR (General Code of Operating Rules)

Modern railroading, in the United States, includes a complicated intermingled relationship between the many hundreds of railroads operating as well as their regulatory agency, in this case the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). In one sense, each railroad operates independent of the all the others, with their own Railroad infrastructure, trains and other equipment, personnel, operating policies, etc. Yet, they also have a certain interdependence on their railroad neighbors as they share these resources in the course of business. It is common for trains from one railroad to operate on another railroads track. Of course there are rules in place governing how all of that works.

As the early railroads emerged, in the 1820’s, from canal companies in the eastern states, they were focused on developing a faster and more efficient mode of transportation for people and their stuff than anything else in existence at the time. However, critics feared lack of safety. They said that boilers may explode. This was a justified concern. In 1815 in England an exploding boiler killed over a dozen people while injuring dozens more. What about collisions? Some claimed that railroads were of the devil and could cause a concussion of the brain.

The first recorded railroad accident in U.S. history
This occurred in 1832, when four people were thrown off of a car on the Granite Railway near Quincy, Massachusetts. The victims had been invited to view the process of transporting large and weighty loads of stone when a cable on a vacant car snapped, throwing them off the train and over a 34-foot cliff. One man was killed and the others were seriously injured.

Other early railroad accidents
In 1833, a train that carried both Cornelius Vanderbilt (who later headed the New York Central Railroad) and former US President John Quincy Adams. This was a derailment caused by an overheated wheel journal that broke an axel. Two were killed and 15 injured (including Vanderbilt).

In 1837, a lumber train in Virginia rounded a corner, with down grade speed, and collided with a passenger train. Three were killed and dozens of the remaining 200 passengers were injured.

In 1841 two passenger trains collided between Massachusetts and New York. Two were killed and 17 injured.

Then in 1850, the frequency and severity of railroad accidents seemed to mushroom. Apparently, with bigger faster trains, came bigger more fatal accidents. In this year, a railroad drawbridge wasn’t secured and 46 people plunged to their deaths while another 30 were severely injured but somehow survived. The same year two more trains collided killing 13 and injuring 50 more.

1855 – A crossing collision with horse and buggy. Twenty-four dead and 65-100 injured. And then later that year, a bridge collapse kills 31 with 100’s more injured.

Railroad rules:
In time, the various railroads developed rules to make their railroad operations more safe and efficient. These rules are the railroad’s response, after an accident, to make sure the same sort of thing doesn’t happen again. For example, I can see that the present day rule, “When overheated wheels are found on a train, the train must be stopped…” has its roots when Vanderbilt and John Quincy Adams were involved in their train wreck back in 1833.

Over the many years of railroading, these rules have grown into the hundreds.
At first railroad operating rules were often printed as pamphlets or on the back of a time card. Collaboration between neighboring railroads helped this evolve into more universal operating rules. On April 14, 1887, representatives of 48 railroads voted to adopt the Standard Code of Operating Rules (SCOR). This is the basis of the operating rules that American railroad now follow.

The general categories that these rules currently fall under include:
General Responsibilities, Railroad Radio and Communication Rules, Timetables, Signals and Their Use, Movement of Trains and Engines, Switching, Switches, Block System Rules, Rules Applicable Only in Centralized Traffic Control (CTC), Rules Applicable in ACS, ATC and ATS Territories, Rules Applicable only in Automatic Train Stop System (ATS) Territory, Rules Applicable Only in Automatic Cab Signal System (ACS) Territory, Rules Applicable only Within Track Warrant Control (TWC) Limits, Track Bulletin Rules, Rules Applicable Only in Direct Traffic Control (DTC) Limits, and Rules Applicable Only in Automatic Train Control (ATC) Territory.

Of the 510 railroads in the United States (give or take a few), 350 of them operate under GCOR. This body of 350 railroads formally meets every five years to review and update these rules to address newly emerging safety concerns and to keep current with the new technologies. The other 60 or so railroads, mostly in the Northeastern United States do a similar thing with their set of rules called Northeast Operating Rules Advisory Committee (NORAC).

Each railroad may also customize these GCOR rules to fit the unique circumstances of their operation. These railroad specific rules that complement the GCOR rules are called the System Special Instructions (SSI). These rules are reviewed and updated every year.

Additionally, each railroad has its own Timetables (which update periodically), and daily Track Bulletins & Track Warrants.

The Bottom Line:
All of this made for a rather challenging few months for me personally, while digesting these 150 plus years of rule making history as I assimilated the railroad culture into my everyday life.

Of course the improved safety is the great payoff. Statically, today you are 28 times more likely to be killed in an automobile accident than when traveling the same miles in a passenger train.

56 & Starting a New Direction

Though these past seven years have been interesting and educational, even though I’ve enjoyed my work as a processing plant manager, food produ56 and Starting a New Directionct developer, and process & production equipment designer… Even though I was good at what I did here and found great success in this work… alas, I guess I’m just not great at corporate politics. I’ve not mastered the subtle art of duplicity guised as diplomacy. As we found success as a company, and as the company grew larger, and as the “high level” executives were brought in to direct the growing company, the promise of helping to create something great became the threat of being crushed by the monster I helped create.

In retrospect, I’m glad to be rid of my Frankenstein. It had consumed so much of me that I had no personal life. Work duties, phone calls and problems day and night, 7 days a week took a toll on me and on my all-important family.

So as celebrated last May 25th, on my birthday by my family as I anticipated beginning a training program the very next day… I’m 56 and starting a new direction.

Training for Trains

In the many years of my working life, my training for the job has varied widely.
As a teenager, I followed my older brother to his theater job and learned from him to be a movie projectionist on old 35mm carbon arc movie projectors that ran only a 20 minute movie reel. An average movie had 5-7 reels. As we switched back and forth between projectors, we also had to replace the carbon rods and keep them adjusted so the arc burned just right. I loved that job and took his place when he moved on to bigger and better things.
When I purchased a mobile home toter to work as a contractor transporting those big over-sized loads to dealers in the Pacific Northwest, I had never driven anything bigger than our family’s farm trucks and delivery vans. So I drove that large truck around in circles in the field where I purchased it to learn how to drive it before hitting the open road. (This was before CDL’s when my Idaho Chauffeur’s license was my only needed qualification.)
Training at my last employment amounted to the equivalent of, “Throwing the babies in the water. The ones that drowned… too bad. I somehow stayed afloat while learning that job.
So as I applied to become a railroad engineer, the detailed and methodical application and training process was impressive to me. If I could qualify through each step of the way, I would indeed become a well-trained railroad engineer.
Before the Utah Transit Authority’s Frontrunner Railroad would even look at me as a prospect, there was a long list of things I had to qualify in. The application was long and detailed.
Eventually, I was given a study guide and an invitation to take a Pre-qualification exam. Google was my friend as I discovered what terms like CTC, ABS, Absolute Block, and Frog, meant in Railroad lingo.
I passed the exam, got an interview. Then I passed a timed physical test in the railroad yard, which included moving about the train hooking up cables and hoses, and throwing a manual railroad switch.
The training program
Finally, I passed the exam for the DOT Medical card and was given the offer to join their 10 week training program. No pressure here but I needed to pass 3 final exams in the next 4 weeks with a minimum score of 90%, and one final exam with a 100% score.
With that, I’ve earned a student license and can go out and actually learn to drive the trains. After logging at least 120 hours of operating the trains, and then passing that driving test, and then going back and passing another overall written test… I get my license to drive the trains.
And all of this so I can make about the same dollars per hour that I used to pay forklift drivers at my previous employment.
It’s been a very interesting summer. I’ve learned a lot and have lots of stories to tell. So maybe it’s time to start blogging again.