Smile Politely

Steel Wheels, Green Fields: A Day on an Illinois Freight Train

We hear them moaning in the dead of night, curse if they cross our paths when we are driving, or make a wish if they pass over us.

Freight trains are a part of our landscape.

I had an opportunity to take a trip on one of those monsters and talk to the engineer about life on the rails. This reporting took place under-the-radar of the train company, so I have blurred certain facts, places and names. Other than that, everything reported here is truth, exaggeration or hearsay.

Stepping out of the car by the railroad crossing, I find myself alone, surrounded by hectares of horizon. Awkwardly, I stand by the side of the two-lane country road and pretend to be a corn photographer as the occasional truck driver passes and looks me over.

After half an hour of this, my friend Casey the Engineer piloting one and a half miles of freight train comes for me. As the train inches to a stop at the crossing, I climb the steep metal steps on the tip of the engine, wrestle open the thick iron door and hit my head on the train’s 17,000-ton mass as I enter and ascend the steps to the tiny cabin.

The space inside the engine, where the engineer sits, is roughly as big as the cockpit of a passenger jet, but with fewer instruments than a Toyota. A bank of grimy windows, augmented by binoculars at hand, allow the crew to see signals and any major problems there might be time to brake to avoid.

The train accelerates to 30 miles-per-hour. Like a ship plowing through a turbulent sea, sometimes we ride a ridge above the fields, other times we cut a trench beneath them. Our route slices through a cross section of Illinois few see. Not that there is much to see out here, far from major towns and highways.

From childhood picture-books I thought the conductor would be riding in the caboose with a lantern, but the engineer and conductor sit side-by-side. While the task of driving the train falls to the engineer, the conductor serves as co-pilot and is called to action if something goes wrong with the train. He does indeed have a lantern, and a huge duffel bag (“grip”) of technical manuals, rules and regulations.

When I ask the conductor if he was lured to the position by the romantic mythology of the American railroad, he says no, he was just looking for work. The engineer is slightly more enamored of the job. He likes the independence, train music, scenery and the wildlife he gets to see: coyote, wild pheasant, wild turkey, deer. He speaks wistfully of routes along the Mississippi or in Oregon that offer more breathtaking vistas, and has in the past tried to get transferred to such areas, but is currently resigned to downstate Illinois.

The hours are irregular. They might be called in at 3 p.m. or 3 a.m., and might ride for six or 16 hours. Typically they ride up north to Chicago, are put up in a hotel, and then drive another train down the next day.

Though the job of driving a train isn’t “rocket science,” as Casey the Engineer tells me — he doesn’t have to steer, obviously — there’s a lot at stake. Those responsible for wrecks do not get a second chance; they are lucky enough to be unemployed instead of dead. The company doesn’t bother putting seatbelts in the cabin.

Braking a train is, as you can imagine, difficult. Casey said that to pick me up he had to begin preparing the braking maneuver a mile before he reached the crossing. Casey’s biggest worry as an engineer is stopping, he says.

When I asked Casey if he’d ever hit a vehicle, he said “not yet.” The possibility of hitting a car or truck is especially bad in Illinois, with its rural crossings without gates, tall corn restricting visibility and bad fog.

He’s run over dogs, cats and deer. Casey knows engineers who were involved in more serious accidents. We pass a crossing where a couple of crosses in the ditch commemorate an 18-year-old motorist who, after waiting for a train to pass, did not look the other way to see a second train coming before pulling across the tracks. His car was knocked into the ditch and caught fire. The engineer stopped the train and ran out with a fire extinguisher, but it was too late.

The locomotive I am riding is modern, having been built within the past five years. This train is actually being pulled by three engines which together have more than 13,000 horsepower. They can carry more than 5000 gallons of diesel. Older engines from the 1970s, offer a more authentic experience. A deafening horn sits right over the cabin. The roof leaks. In the winter, the cabins are freezing and snow blows right in. And the older toilets are deplorable. Even in this modern engine, I would still rate the bathroom as a notch below a passenger jet and just above a porta-potty at the Chicago Blues Festival.

Even the crew — jaded men — have not adjusted to the Medieval quality of the facilities and avoid using them.

The maximum speed allowed for a freight train on this track is 60 MPH. Passenger trains such as Amtrak have a 70 MPH maximum. Back in the day, trains would periodically stop to have inspectors walk their length to look for problems. Now automatic sensors count the axles as they pass and a synthesized voice chirps the report over the radio.

The human crew has thus been pared down from several to two.

We go up a hill — an Illinois hill — imperceptible save for the audible strain of the engines. With a mile and a half of train, even a small hill is something for the engineer to think about. He’ll have part of the train going uphill while part is going downhill, and must control the tension. The train, he says, is like a big slinky, and he must keep it either bunched up or extended. A sudden change of state can easily break it in two.

We are hauling coal from southern Missouri to northern Illinois. It’s an easy day at work for these two — a six-hour shift, midday. They will hand off the train with plenty of time to get a beer after work. Coal is not a very exciting cargo, but certainly preferable to toxic or nuclear material. Trains can carry anything, Casey says, including any toxins that exist. Rules stipulate there must be five cars between the crew and any hazardous material, but they tell the story of the conductor who walked back to inspect the train and was instantly killed by leaking chlorine gas. Since September 11th, dispatchers (who track the movements of all trains and control the switches that adjust crossovers between tracks) are not housed in shacks along the tracks to pull levers when the train approaches, as I had pictured, but work in central locations so protected and secure that I won’t mention which cities. Dispatchers are as important as air traffic controllers, because a train with a hazardous cargo is a potential threat to a city.

When they carry assorted cargo, it could be anything: food, guitars, UPS deliveries. Around the holidays, some trains carry only beer. With the rising cost of fuel, train transportation is becoming an increasingly attractive shipping option. They can fit hundreds of semis worth of cargo on a single train, after all, and that is often exactly what you see: trailers of the sort used on semi trucks stacked on “intermodal” flatbed cars.

There are a few neighborhoods near Chicago where things can get dicey. Citizens there throw rocks or leave shopping carts on the tracks. Once someone left a toilet on the tracks, but the engineer plowed on through and pulverized it to porcelain dust. If the train is forced to stop in these areas, the crew may not leave the cabin without an armed special agent escort. It is not uncommon in Roseland for thieves to climb onto a moving train, peel back the roofs of the trailers as if opening cans of sardines and toss down the cargo. This will by no means bring them good loot — they might get widescreen TVs, or… Depends. Apparently one such criminal tossed out a bunch of boxes only to discover he had intercepted a shipment of bedpans. Reportedly tracks in the area are still littered with hundreds of bedpans.

The route we are traveling is far from the inner city. Rivers are at the bottom, towns are at the top, Casey explains the geographic wisdom of one who must remain astutely conscious of a subtle topography most of us can’t see. We cross a river they don’t know the name of. The locomotive normally sways from side to side just enough to make one wonder, so crossing a narrow river bridge is a bit nerve-wracking. If the train fell, you’d be exiting it from the river bottom if you were lucky enough to stay conscious. Casey has crossed the Mississippi on a freight train and assures me that that is a high bridge.

I am permitted to blow the horn as we approach one of many towns that seem to be towns in name-only. I measure out the blasts: Long-long-short-long.

This route is mostly a single track but there are a few sidings that allow for “meetings” — when one train passes another. When we pass a train going the other way, the conductor throws an earnest wave through the little windows and, after passing, radios the word “highball” to let the other guy know that his train looks okay.

Railroaders all end up with nicknames. They tell stories. And, by the way, some of these fellas may take a drink now and again or be known to make a joke or two some might consider crude. It’s a man’s world. I am told that in the 1960s and 70s, in the spirit of the times, crews would engage in a lot of partying and tomfoolery on moving freight trains — real-life Casey Jones behavior — but a few critical accidents put a stop to that by the 80s. It’s always fun until a school bus gets crushed.

As we approach my drop-off point near a mound of rusted farm equipment and tractor tires, I see a farmer in blue overalls dismounting a red tractor, surrounded by a cloud of doves. The sun shines over all this.


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