Railroad Conductor: ‘Railroading Has Changed So Much’

Steve Early

Brian Lewis at work on the railroad.

For three years in the ear­ly 1970s, jour­nal­ist Studs Terkel gath­ered sto­ries from a vari­ety of Amer­i­can work­ers. He then com­piled them into Work­ing, an oral-his­to­ry col­lec­tion that went on to become a clas­sic. Four decades after its pub­li­ca­tion, Work­ing is more rel­e­vant than ever. Terkel, who reg­u­lar­ly con­tributed to In These Times, once wrote, I know the good fight — the fight for democ­ra­cy, for civ­il rights, for the rights of work­ers has a future, for these val­ues will live on in the pages of In These Times.” In hon­or of that sen­ti­ment and of Working’s 40th anniver­sary, ITT writ­ers have invit­ed a broad range of Amer­i­can work­ers to describe what they do, in their own words. More Work­ing at 40” sto­ries can be found here.

In Work­ing, Terkel inter­viewed Bill Nor­worth, a rail­road work­er for fifty-three years who had recent­ly retired as a loco­mo­tive engi­neer on the Chica­go North­west­ern Rail­road. In 1970, he was still serv­ing as pres­i­dent of his local of the Broth­er­hood of Rail­road Engi­neers (which is now part of the Team­sters) in Work­ing, Nor­worth described some of the changes in tech­nol­o­gy — includ­ing the tran­si­tion from steam to diesel pow­er — that affect­ed work­ing con­di­tions, job skills and staffing lev­els dur­ing his career work­ing on pas­sen­ger and freight trains. Reflect­ing on the high­er sta­tus of rail­road­ers in the hey­day of the indus­try, Nor­worth told Terkel: They were the aris­to­crats at one time, but that time’s gone now…. The engi­neer was respect­ed then, and now there’s no respect for him. He’s just a dum­my….” As for dete­ri­o­ra­tion of U.S. pas­sen­ger train ser­vice, already evi­dent four decades ago, he observed that, If they had good trains again, peo­ple would ride. But they dis­cour­age you…”

Forty-two years lat­er, Bri­an Lewis talked to In These Times about his job as a Union Pacif­ic Rail­road con­duc­tor, which he has just retired from after 36 years in the indus­try. He was long active in the Unit­ed Trans­porta­tion Union and also belongs to a cross-union reform group called Rail­road Work­ers Unit­ed (RWU). RWU has been fight­ing indus­try attempts to intro­duce sin­gle-employ­ee train crews, which it believes are unsafe. RWU has also tried to warn reg­u­la­tors and the pub­lic about the dan­gers of longer and heav­ier trains, par­tic­u­lar­ly those haul­ing haz­ardous mate­ri­als like Bakken crude oil from North Dako­ta. Lewis talked to In These Times about how rail car­ri­ers have changed in the decades since Norworth’s long tour of duty and the chal­lenges fac­ing rail­road work­ers today.

It was a child­hood dream to become a rail­road work­er. Ever since I was a kid, I always loved trains. After grad­u­at­ing from UC-Berke­ley and try­ing my hand at jour­nal­ism for a few years in the ear­ly 1970s, I end­ed up at the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency (EPA) in San Fran­cis­co. I felt stuck in the office, doing intake on air qual­i­ty com­plaints and set­ting up inves­tiga­tive inter­views. Then, one day I saw a job adver­tise­ment — the West­ern Pacif­ic Rail­road was hir­ing switchmen/​brakemen” for its freight haul­ing oper­a­tions between Salt Lake City and the Bay Area. I got my train­ing and ori­en­ta­tion in Por­to­la, CA., a small rail­road town north of Lake Tahoe, in the Sier­ras. The union was very involved in the whole process — job train­ing, test­ing and help­ing to decide who made the grade and was ready to go. Half of my train­ing class con­sist­ed of sons or daugh­ters of exist­ing railroaders.

Rail­road­ing has changed so much since then. In this day and age, they want you to have a col­lege degree. But I didn’t dare tell them I had fin­ished col­lege because they would have fig­ured I wouldn’t stick around and not hired me. I real­ly thought I’d be com­ing back to the EPA so I took a 6‑month leave of absence, just in case. After two months on the rail­road, I called and said I was nev­er com­ing back. In my first six months, I made dou­ble and triple the mon­ey I was earn­ing at the EPA. Of course, I was work­ing a lot of hours. You used to be able to work 16-hours con­tin­u­ous­ly before 12-hours on duty became the max­i­mum. It was a lot of very phys­i­cal work, jump­ing on and off of mov­ing equip­ment, throw­ing switch­es, with cars rolling in sev­er­al dif­fer­ent direc­tions. They don’t let you climb on and off mov­ing cars like that any­more. It was dan­ger­ous — and that’s why thou­sands of rail­road­ers have been maimed or injured over the years.

No mat­ter how short or long your haul, the union rules required a crew of four — two brake­men, a con­duc­tor and an engi­neer. If one of them was miss­ing, you didn’t leave until you found anoth­er warm body. The con­duc­tor is in charge of the train; he’s the boss. When I start­ed out in the indus­try, the rail­roads employed about 500,000 work­ers, includ­ing an army of clerks. Now, that total num­ber is down to about 220,000.

The big changes began in 1980, with dereg­u­la­tion. Before then, the gov­ern­ment set all the rates and there was no com­pe­ti­tion based on price, just ser­vice to the ship­pers. Dereg­u­la­tion led to indus­try con­sol­i­da­tion, from 25 major car­ri­ers to just four today. In 1985, our com­pa­ny became part of Union Pacif­ic. The rail­roads were free to sell off their branch lines and charge what­ev­er they want. There start­ed to be a lot of pres­sure to reduce crew sizes through attri­tion because of the new tech­nol­o­gy that per­mits remote con­trol mon­i­tor­ing and even direc­tion of train oper­a­tions. It became a kind of race to the bottom.

For­tu­nate­ly, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment stepped in and put the brakes on the trend toward using remote con­trol loco­mo­tives oper­at­ing out of sight. But we still went from crews of four to three, then three to two, and now to one-man crews in some places. In that run­away oil-train derail­ment and dis­as­ter in Lac-Megan­tic last year, we saw how well that works. That engi­neer could not do a prop­er secure­ment of the train alone. You need an engi­neer and a sec­ond per­son, a qual­i­fied con­duc­tor, to get out and set the brakes before test­ing whether the train moves.

Bakken crude oil is pret­ty damn volatile. But, with a lot more of it to trans­port in the last year or so, the oil indus­try just dic­tat­ed to the rail­roads: Find us more cars!’ So the rail­roads went out and grabbed any kind of tank cars they could find, includ­ing old­er equip­ment not designed to load and car­ry volatile mate­ri­als. There’s a lot that were just used to haul wax and tal­low and oth­er mate­ri­als like that. Some oil train cars today are not even up to stan­dard in terms of their wheels, brakes, and springs. It’s scary — you need to have the right equip­ment and more trains, not giant trains a mile and a half long. And they cer­tain­ly shouldn’t be allowed to oper­ate, now or in the future, with one-man crews.

After many years of union activ­i­ty, I’m now involved in the Nation­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Retired and Vet­er­an Rail­way Employ­ees (NARVE), which is a cross-craft retirees’ orga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cat­ed to main­tain­ing the nation­al rail­road work­ers retire­ment sys­tem. We don’t get Social Secu­ri­ty ben­e­fits. Our pen­sion sys­tem was cre­at­ed before Social Secu­ri­ty, and pro­vid­ed a mod­el for it. Both rail­road work­ers and man­agers are cov­ered by it.

For the last ten years, I’ve also been a mem­ber of Rail­road Work­ers Unit­ed (RWU), which is not a union, but a cross-craft advo­ca­cy group. The idea was that any­one who works on the rail­road could be a mem­ber of RWU. We would pro­mote uni­ty and sol­i­dar­i­ty among all the rail unions and try to reduce the infight­ing between them so we could present a unit­ed front against every­thing that threat­ens to destroy labor on the rail­roads. Our goal was to influ­ence the var­i­ous nation­al labor orga­ni­za­tions and bring to the front-burn­er issues that some of them were ignor­ing, like safe­ty, staffing, the loss of jobs, and the whole race to the bot­tom on con­tract conditions.

RWU has opposed one-man crews, tak­en a posi­tion against remote con­trols, and tried to warn the pub­lic about the dan­gers of oper­at­ing trains that are over­loaded and too long. These heav­ier trains are hard­er to han­dle and rep­re­sent a threat to rail­road crews, track­side com­mu­ni­ties, the envi­ron­ment, and pub­lic safe­ty generally. 

Steve Ear­ly worked for 27 years as an orga­niz­er and inter­na­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca. He is the author of sev­er­al books, includ­ing Refin­ery Town: Big Oil, Big Mon­ey, and the Remak­ing of an Amer­i­can City (Bea­con Press). 

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