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Right now, the major railroad companies and 13 different unions representing over 115,000 railroad workers have reached an impasse in contract negotiations that have been going on for years, and we are now closer to a national rail shutdown than we’ve been in a generation. President Biden has even appointed an Emergency Presidential Board to try to mediate between the rail unions and the rail carriers, but if that mediation fails we’ll be on the verge of a historic shutdown.
So, how did we get here? If you talk to any railroader in private, you’ll get an earful about how decades of corporate greed, consolidation, cost cutting, automation, layoffs, and other profit-maximizing, shareholder-serving decisions have upended the railroads and turned what used to be good lifelong jobs into exhausting, impossible jobs that veteran workers are leaving in droves. But if any workers speak up publicly about what’s going on on the railroads, they will likely face severe consequences.
Luckily, we were able to connect with Jay, a qualified conductor who was licensed to operate locomotives at 19 years old, and who became a qualified train dispatcher before he was 23. We talk about Jay’s life, how he came to work at the railroads, and what the job of a train dispatcher entails, but we also talk about how the industry has changed in recent decades, the havoc those changes have wreaked on workers and the supply chain, and why we should all be concerned about the crisis the railroads are in right now.
- Mel Buer, The Real News Network, “Corporate Billionaires Are Wrecking the Supply Chain. Just Look at the Railroads“
- Mel Buer, The Real News Network, “Fired Up Rail Workers Rally in Galesburg, Illinois, as Potential National Strike Looms“
- Maximillian Alvarez, The Real News Network, “Railroad Workers Are Being Ground to Dust. Who Will Help Them?“
- Maximillian Alvarez, The Real News Network, “Court Blocks Railroad Workers from Striking over Draconian Attendance Policy“
- The Hill’s Rising, “Max Alvarez: DRACONIAN New Rail Industry Policy WORSENS Supply Chain Crisis, CRUSHES Workers“
- Jeff Schuhrke, In These Times, “US Railroad Workers Inch Closer to a Possible National Strike“
- Leave us a voicemail and we might play it on the show!
- Labor Radio / Podcast Network website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- In These Times website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- The Real News Network website, YouTube channel, podcast feeds, Facebook page, and Twitter page
Featured Music (all songs sourced from the Free Music Archive: freemusicarchive.org) Jules Taylor, “Working People Theme Song”
Maximillian Alvarez: All right, welcome everyone to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and made possible by the support of listeners like you. Working People is a proud member of the Labor Radio Podcast Network. If you’re hungry for more worker and labor-focused shows like ours, follow the link in the show notes and go check out the other great shows in our network. And please support the work we’re doing here at Working People so we can keep growing and keep bringing you more important conversations. Leave us a positive review on Apple Podcasts and share these episodes on your social media and with your coworkers, friends, and family members. And the single best thing you can do to support our work is become a paid monthly subscriber on Patreon for just 5 bucks a month – Subscribe for $10 a month, and you’ll also get a print subscription to the amazing In These Times magazine.
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My name is Maximillian Alvarez, and we are gonna get right to business today for a couple of reasons. First, we’ve got a killer episode that I’m really excited to share with y’all, and it’s a classic, vintage Working People interview where our amazing guest and I talked for almost two hours about his life and work and so much more. So I don’t want to take up more time than I need to before we get right to the good stuff, because you guys got a lot of great listening coming up. But also, I’m gonna keep this short because I’m actually recording this from my folks’ place in sunny Garden Grove, California. This is the first time I’ve been back home in 3 years and, frankly, it’s the first time I’ve tried to take an actual vacation since I started working at The Real News, so I’m trying to soak up as much sun as I can, get as much family time as I can, eat as much In & Out and Mexican food as I can, and remember how to fucking relax. But before I head back out to the hammock, let’s get to today’s episode.
I’m really excited to share this episode with y’all, not just because it’s an amazing conversation, but because it’s a conversation I didn’t think would happen. As you guys know, over at The Real News we’ve been covering the situation unfolding on the railroads since the beginning of this year. I first started getting invested in the struggles freight railroad workers are facing when I learned that 17,000 union workers at BNSF Railway were set to walk off the job on February 1 over the implementation of the company’s new draconian attendance policy, but a US District Court judge stepped in to block the strike. Needless to say, things have continued to deteriorate for workers since then, and it’s not just at BNSF; The supply chain is a mess, workers are reportedly quitting in record numbers, trains are sitting idle, all while executives and shareholders at these rail carrier companies have been raking in billions and billions of dollars in profit. As we speak, the 13 different unions representing railroad workers and the rail carriers have reached an impasse in contract negotiations that have been going on for years, and we are now closer to a national rail shutdown than we’ve been in my lifetime. President Biden has even appointed an Emergency Presidential Board to try to mediate between the rail unions and the rail carriers, but if that mediation fails then we’ll be on the verge of a historic shutdown. So, how did we get here?
Well, if you talk to any railroader, you’ll get an earful about how decades of corporate greed, consolidation, cost-cutting, automation, layoffs, and more have upended the railroads and turned what used to be good, lifelong jobs into exhausting, impossible jobs that veteran workers are leaving in droves. But if any workers speak up about what’s going on on the railroads, they will face severe consequences, so I honestly didn’t think I’d get a chance to record an interview with anyone who’s currently working for one of the class 1 freight lines. Then I connected with Jay, a qualified conductor who was licensed to operate locomotives at 19 years old, and who became a qualified train dispatcher before he was 23. I am so grateful to Jay for being willing to chat with me on the show, and we had such a great conversation about his life, how he came to work at the railroads, and what the job of a train dispatcher entails. But we also talked about how the industry has gone to shit over the past few decades, the havoc those changes have wreaked on workers and the supply chain, and why we should all be concerned about the crisis the railroads are in right now. This is his story.
Jay: All right. Well, first and foremost, Max, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to sit down this afternoon. It’s actually… I guess it’s this morning now, it’s this morning here on the East Coast, and talk with me about the situations that we’re facing in the rail industry. So my name’s Jay, I’m in my mid-30s, East Coast, living all my life in the Southeast now, obviously, and I’ve been working for the railroad for a long time. I’ve been in the industry for almost 20 years. I bring a lot to the table, I have a tremendous amount of knowledge about it, and I’m finding more and more that, as the days go on, that we’re having the same plight across the country, with the organization movement, whatever it may be, there’s people out there that are suffering just like we are, and I wanted to get on here and share my story and let them know that they’re not alone.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. Well Jay, it is so great to chat to you today, and I’m super, super grateful to you for being willing to come on and chat on the show, because as you mentioned, not only workers on the railroads, but workers in so many different industries are really going through a lot right now. Where do we start? Everyone’s hurting from inflation, union busting companies like Starbucks and Chipotle and Amazon are doing everything they can to crush a burgeoning labor organizing wave. And that’s to say nothing of decades of wage stagnation and the ruling class ripping all of us off, a pandemic. So there’s a lot going on, but I’m super grateful to you because we’ve been trying as best we can to cover what’s happening on the railroads right now, and listeners may remember that we actually ran an interview that I did with retired railroad engineer Jeff Kurtz a while back, when workers at BNSF Railway were prepared to strike over a draconian attendance policy that has been a disaster for workers and for the supply chain, and they had that strike blocked by a business-friendly court.
The attendance policy went into effect, and it’s been as big of a disaster as workers and their families said it was going to be. But in that vein, we’ve been trying to cover that more, especially at The Real News Network, and I would encourage folks, if you haven’t already, to go check out the interviews and pieces that we’ve run on that. We’ll link to them in the show notes.
But in those pieces we pointed out that a lot of railroad workers are understandably very, very wary of saying anything publicly, because the rail carriers have shown that they will come down hard on anyone who speaks out about the horrible shit that’s going on on the railroads and that’s been going on for quite some time. And so yeah, I’m just super grateful to you, Jay, for coming on and for being willing to talk with me and share your story, and I know that you’ve got a lot of insight into what has happened to this industry and to the workers there. But for obvious reasons, to everyone listening, we are still taking our necessary precautions to make sure that Jay’s identity is protected and that they can speak freely on here without us getting them into trouble.
But yeah, we’re going to dig into how you got to work on the railroads and the changes that you’ve seen to the industry. But before we get there, as we always love to do on this show, I’d really love to get to know more about you and your backstory. So you said you’ve been living on the East Coast your whole life, is that right?
Jay: Yep, yep. So I’m an Easterner, actually a Northeasterner, a proud Pennsylvanian, you could say, for basically all of my adult life until I ended up moving for work. But in any case, I was born and raised in South Central Pennsylvania, the Susquehanna Valley. Beautiful place to live. Great people, a great environment, restaurants, oh my God, just wonderful places. Little family-owned places. And interestingly enough, when I think about it, it brings me back to a story of a little restaurant in Dover, Pennsylvania, that was owned by a gentleman from Sicily. He moved over from Italy. And we sat and we had many a conversation about the oppression that he experienced when he was a child being raised dirt poor, and they had nothing. They literally had nothing. To have bread once a week on a reliable basis where you could actually get it was something that was awesome. That was a big deal. And if they were fortunate enough to have steak once a year or something like that, that was an even bigger deal.
He came to America and he started the business, and obviously he shared a tremendous number of conservative principles. We have a democratic society where we rely on self-governance, and it’s outlined in all of our founding documents. It was outlined by our founding fathers. And I think in some respects we’ve forgotten that. We’ve lost focus on what it is to be American. We’ve lost focus on what it is to work hard and be successful, and we’ve lost focus on the people who are purposefully attempting to dismantle and derail our ability to do just that. He built himself a very successful life. Turned himself into a multimillionaire. But it wasn’t without hard work and sacrifice.
Maximillian Alvarez: Man, and I could almost have a side story about this guy because I’d be curious. How do you end up in Southeastern Pennsylvania? But if I’m picturing it correctly, you’re from a very gorgeous part of the state. I’m from Southern California, so I grew up in Orange County sprawl, but we were still pretty blessed with… California’s an incredibly geographically diverse state. You can drive an hour in any direction from where we grew up and you’d end up either in the desert, in the mountains with snow, or on the beach. And so we were very fortunate there. But I didn’t really know a whole lot about Pennsylvania growing up on the West Coast, and I remember when I was moving from Michigan out here to Baltimore and driving through Ohio and Pennsylvania, the first thing I thought was like, well, I’m going to race through Ohio, because fuck Ohio. Then I was like, oh, what am I going to expect for Pennsylvania? Is it just going to be flat farm country, maybe some Amish folks hanging around? I didn’t have a whole lot to work with.
And then the closer I got to Maryland, I was just blown away by how beautiful the state was. I was driving through these mountains, there was endless forest, driving over these bridges. So is that the part of the state that you grew up in?
Jay: Yeah, we had small towns all over the place, and for example when I was a kid, Hanover, Pennsylvania, which was named after Hanover, Germany, if you look at the signs coming into the town, it talks about how the town got its name and how it was founded. And I remember when I was a kid, we didn’t have what they call The Golden Mile there now. And interestingly enough, Baltimore is only 40 miles, roughly, from Hanover. It’s not that far, and this is my old stomping grounds. So typically, if I need to fly somewhere, BWI is my airport of choice. Why? Because I can go anywhere from BWI. And you don’t have to go far from Glen Burnie or from Baltimore proper for… Hampstead, Maryland, you get out in these places, you don’t go far from the city and all of a sudden you’re out into what American life used to be.
You have these sprawling forests, you have state game lands, you have nature preserves and things of that nature. You have wildlife. Turkeys and pheasant and deer, you’ve got snakes out there, certain copperheads and eastern diamondback rattlers and all of that stuff. There are possums, you name it. And once you get away from the city and you start looking at just how magnificent – And I’m going to use the word “creation” because that’s my stance on it – Just how magnificent creation is, you’re humbled. And if you’re not humbled, then you have to examine yourself to find out why, because it’s stunningly beautiful.
Maximillian Alvarez: I think you’re right. Humbled really is the word. I struggle to articulate what I was feeling the last time I made that drive, which wasn’t too long ago, actually. I had to drive from Baltimore 11 hours all the way to Chicago for the Labor Notes conference in June, and so I got to trek through that part of the state, and yeah, it was just really… I don’t know. It was a combination of things. Because here in Baltimore, working at The Real News all of the damn time, and it just felt like it had been a while since I was able to get out of that rat-race mentality. And you’re right. This is one of the things that I’ve always really loved about this part of the country is that, again, in Southern California, you could be driving for hours and it’s endless sprawl until you hit the desert or the valley or something like that.
But here you drive 20, 30 minutes and suddenly you’re out in the wilderness and it’s really cool. And I remember snaking through this highway in Southeastern Pennsylvania and being, like you said, humbled by the beauty of it. And even as a kid, when we would drive to Las Vegas or anywhere, you always look out the window and you wonder, it’s like, man, what would it be like if I grew up there in that small town that we just passed? So, I’m curious to know, since I was thinking that very thing driving through Southeastern Pennsylvania, wondering what it would be like to live in one of these small towns, I’ve got a resident from there, so what was it like growing up there? What did you do as a kid for fun?
Jay: Well, the best part for us was when we were kids, mom and dad moved us out of town when we were young and they got us out on a farm. We ended up renting a farmhouse out in the middle of a little town called York Springs, Pennsylvania, which wasn’t far from Hanover, only about a half hour to the north and to the west, up in beautiful Adams County. And we had everything out there. We had everything and nothing all at the same time. And let me elaborate on that.
When I say everything, you had everything a kid needs to be a kid. You had fields, you had woods to play in, you had a creek, you had crayfish to go catch. We had our black Labrador, Chelsea, who was, my God, she was the best dog on the face of the earth.
She was our companion and by our side from the day we got her until the day her health failed and she passed away. And we would go out and we’d catch crayfish with her, and we’d go down and catch little fish out of the creek, and we would climb the trees, and on occasion you’d fall out of the tree and you’d bust your ass and knock the wind right out of you. But the thing is, we weren’t so sensitive back then. Mom and dad didn’t come running and be like, oh my God, oh my God, are you okay? They’d be like, get up, dust it off, you’ll be all right. And now obviously, if you were really hurt they would do something, but more often than not it was just you learned a lesson in how to live life. You learned to be more careful. You learned not to be so rammy.
We had cows. We had all kinds of other wildlife. We had squirrels, we had deer out there, and we put a feeder out for the birds. We had hummingbirds. We did our own gardening. We grew our own vegetable garden. We had everything. We had broccoli and zucchini and cauliflower and tomatoes and peppers of all varieties, and snap beans, lima beans, dill, cucumbers. And we grew all of this right in our backyard, and it was amazing to see the provision that comes out of that. We had more food than we knew what to do with, and it was all homegrown in some of the finest soil you’ve ever seen. And when you would turn the land, you had this dark, black, nutritious soil, you could just tell by feeling it and smelling it that it was going to produce something great.
And I had all of those experiences. A lot of kids, unfortunately, when they grew up in the city, they were led to believe that eggs come from the store or that meat just appears in a package. And that’s not the case. That steak was walking a week ago. And those eggs came from a chicken in a henhouse. And back in the day, somebody used to go out and they would harvest the eggs and the chickens would peck you. They’d flap their wings and beat you and everything else because you’re taking their eggs from them. You just had to get used to that.
Maximillian Alvarez: You’ve got to do some hand to hand combat with the chickens.
Jay: Yeah. They could be vicious, too, especially the roosters. But I had all those experiences, and that was invaluable. I wouldn’t trade my childhood for anything. I would never, ever want to go to something different. And I feel badly, in some respects, for the people that never got to experience that, because they don’t know what they’re missing, and I guess we really get used to what we grow up in. We get… I don’t know that jaded is the right word, but we fall into that expectation and we don’t really realize that there’s anything outside of that in our life. We don’t realize that there’s different types of upbringings, that some people may have never had the privilege to see those things, and what may be normal to you is absolutely fascinating to somebody else. And I think that some of the part where we have to find connections and similarities with other people, is we have to recognize that we all have a story.
There’s a story to be told and rather than allow ourselves to be divided over whatever the case may be – Which, I’m sure we’ll cover more about that later – But we really have to think. We’re all the human race. We’re all people. We all have goals, desires, dreams, places we want to go, things we want to do, and I think we’ve lost sight of that as a country, and it’s sad, unfortunately.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, man. I think you’re right. There are so many ways that we have been trained or that we train ourselves to see each other as almost unrecognizable, different species of people. But I think one of the things that I’m always endlessly grateful about, especially doing this show, doing the work that I get to do with The Real News or interviewing folks for the book that I have coming out next month, which was interviews with 10 workers at what was then the height of the COVID pandemic, I’m truly privileged and honored to get to talk to different working people around the country and beyond on a weekly basis. And I’m always struck – To recycle your word, I’m always humbled when I get to chat with folks like you and. The areas where we grew up could not be more different. But it’s still so cool to hear about and think about you running around in that setting, your family doing all of that farming.
And like I said, now that I’ve seen that side of the country, I can have an even more vivid, visual picture of it. And from my side in Southern California, like you said, you take for granted the surroundings that you grow up in. So my surroundings were… I always tell people growing up in Southern California is like a perpetual sensory overload, because you were never short on things to do in terms of theme parks, you got Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, Six Flags, you’ve got Hollywood up the road, you’ve got the beaches, you’ve got all kinds of museums and sports teams in Anaheim and LA.
So you always have shit to do, and our thing was always going to the mall or hanging out there. And even now, while I wish I had more exposure to the kind of surroundings that you’re talking about growing up, the thing that made me smile was, even though we grew up in such different settings, there are still those similarities where I think about, you were talking about how you run around as a kid over there, you get hurt, you get back up, or unless you get really injured. I always feel bad for my mom, because she always says that I tested her patience more than any of her children, because I got hurt more than my three siblings combined. I was always coming in with a cracked head or a broken wrist or something like that, so –
Jay: The school of hard knocks.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, exactly. So I was not the most coordinated, but I was definitely adventurous, and I found ways to get hurt even in the setting that I grew up in.
Jay: Yeah, pain’s a good teacher.
Maximillian Alvarez: Exactly.
Jay: It’s a blessing and a curse.
Maximillian Alvarez: It’s a blessing and a curse. I still got the scars to prove it.
Jay: Yeah, to prove it, right? You’ve got the battle scars.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and I guess growing up in that setting, did you have a sense that, when you were old enough, that you wanted to leave? Did you want to get into farming? I guess walking us towards how you ended up working at the railroads, what was it like when you started emerging into adulthood?
Jay: So I’ve actually got a really good backstory that elaborates on the childhood aspect of it. So as a kid, I was fascinated with trains. Just fascinated with trains. I love them. Everything about a train, to me, is just fascinating. And to some people, they look and they’re like, oh my God, there that thing is again. Get it out of my way. Ugh. And the lights come on and I got to fly under the gates quick before the train gets there, because there’s no way in hell I’m waiting on that. And it’s just two engines, but you don’t know that. And I remember when I was a kid, there was a train station just down the road from where we lived. There’s one on Center Street in Hanover, Pennsylvania. And I used to make mom and grandma run me down there every night at 11 o’clock to watch the train.
And it’s actually interesting because back then, train crews were more friendly. Companies hadn’t yet gotten to the point where they wouldn’t let you sit and watch what was going on, and the guys would come out and talk. And I remember distinctly one evening, one of the engineers came out. You have a conductor and an engineer, and a lot of times the terms are used incorrectly and interchangeably. The conductor doesn’t operate the train. The conductor’s responsible for the train. So he handles all the cars and the switches and everything outside. And the engineer’s actually the guy that sits behind the throttle. He’s the guy that’s blowing a horn and doing all of that stuff, making the train actually go where it’s supposed to go and controlling the speed, the whole nine yards.
And I just had this dream of being an engineer. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be the guy sitting in that seat. And I remember distinctly at eight or nine years old while we were driving down along the street, and I’d have the window down, the train tracks going right through the center of town, and you could be driving next to the engines. And I was just fascinated with how powerful these things were. The sound of the turbo chargers and the sound of steel wheels on steel rails and the clickety-clack of jointed rails as the wheels passed over it. And then I remember you look down the street and you’d have a little insulated twin box on the tracks, and as soon as the wheels ran over that insulated joint, you’d see the lights come on at the next crossing, you’d hear the bells ringing and everything, and it took me to a place of nostalgia.
It was euphoria, too. Everything about it, to me, was fascinating. And I remember being jealous of the guy sitting in that seat. I thought, God, look at him. He’s doing exactly what I want to do. I want to be that guy. I want to be the guy blowing the horn and waving at the little kids. And I had this almost grandiose expectation, I guess, that this job was great and it was easy. And that wasn’t the truth at all. I later found that out in life, but what it was is it was experience. It was a man who had done the job for so many years. He’d been doing that job for longer than I had been on the face of the earth by over four times. And for him to come out of that office at 11:00 at night and take the time to come talk to my mom and then to me, and tell me to reach for the stars and go over my dreams, that was invaluable.
I would talk about that for a week. Even just a simple wave from the engineer was enough to make a child talk about it for a week. And he actually offered to take me on a ride with him. He was going to run me all the way out to Gettysburg with him and let me ride back. And of course I didn’t do it, I was too much of a chicken, I guess, at the time. Chickenshit or something. And I’ve passed up so many good opportunities in my life for fear that I’d be breaking some kind of a rule or a policy, and if I could go back and do any of those things over again, that would be the stuff that I would change. I’d be a little bit more adventurous, not necessarily in a bad way, but I’d be more adventurous.
And looking at that childhood, that upbringing, there were so many different things that went into it. It was not just those aspirations, but as my mom and my dad, being raised in a good Christian home and being taught to work hard for what you want. We always had everything we needed and some of what we wanted. We weren’t rich, we didn’t have a ton of money, we weren’t poor, but we were very middle class. And I remember back when I was a kid, mom could go to the grocery store and she could fill a shopping cart for a hundred bucks. And when I say fill it, I mean fill it all the way till it’s bulging up on the top with all the groceries it takes to feed a family of four. And dad was the sole income earner when we were kids, and that was a good living. He was able to make enough money to provide a home, to pay all the bills, to make sure we had new clothes and shoes we needed, and all the supplies for school.
We didn’t have new vehicles, we had older vehicles, and sometimes they were a pain in the ass, they didn’t want to run right, and then give us a fit and you’d have to go get them fixed, or something would break. And as we got a little bit older, mom went to work, and things started to change. I remember distinctly as things began to change in the late ’90s, early 2000s. We really went the wrong direction. And all of a sudden one income wasn’t enough anymore. And mom and dad now had to both work full time to provide and pay the bills. The next thing you know, the kids are out doing whatever the kids do, and they don’t have dinner with their mom and dad anymore in the evening like they used to. And then we continue on down that track. We don’t have relationships with our grandparents. My grandma on my mom’s side, oh my God, what a wonderful woman. She is just the most beautiful woman that you could possibly imagine, both in personality and physically.
And it chokes me up a little bit talking about her, because I love her that much. And I remember going out and picking strawberries with grandma. And we would make strawberry jelly and peach cobbler. And we would have corn on the cob. We did it all. And we would go out and I’d spend all day with her, and we had so much fun. Oh my God, we’d go to fairs, we’d go to little carnivals, we’d have funnel cake, we’d do everything. And she was grandma. I call her granny. I don’t call her grandmother. No way. She’s granny. And she told me stories about riding a horse and buggy when she was a kid in the 1940s and 1950s, not having running water in their house and not even having a toilet in their house. They had an outhouse.
All of those things culminated into turning me into the adult that I ultimately came to be. And then of course as life went on and I got a little bit older, your teens come, you can’t wait to get your driver’s license and you can’t wait to get out of school, and I haven’t forgotten any of that.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. No, it’s like I said, I’m smiling listening to all of this, especially hearing those connective points, even though the circumstances were so wildly different, and I’ll explain what I mean. Because my mom always joked that… Because her dad’s side of the family is the white side of our family. So that’s the Prathers. And my grandpa, gramps, who is basically like the walking, living, human embodiment of Foghorn Leghorn. He’s got the same build, the same accent, he grew up dirt poor in North Carolina, he was one of 13 kids, had his first job as a ball shagger at a golf course when he was five. He’s just lived such an incredible life, and for us he was always gramps. He was the folksy grandpa, telling us all these tall tales about North Carolina, and we were always transfixed.
But the thing that really made me smile when you were talking about your grandma is, again, in the setting that couldn’t be more different from what you’re describing, one of the ways that our gramps stayed close with us was that in the summers when we were off from school, he would take my brothers and I and our cousins on the white side to Knott’s Berry Farm. Which, for folks listening outside of California, it’s a little theme park. You’ve probably heard about it, but it’s close to Disneyland. Anyway, so Gramps would take us to Knott’s Berry Farm, and he would basically just let us run wild in the theme park. He would post up somewhere in the park and basically just pound funnel cake all day until –
Jay: Yes, I love funnel cake.
Maximillian Alvarez: Oh, funnel cake rocks. It’s because of my gramps that I love funnel cake. We would always crack up, because when we were on a roller coaster or something and we were at the peak, right before you go down the hill or something, we would play this game. We were like, all right, try to find gramps. Because he was always wearing these bright pastel collared shirts. We would find him sitting somewhere in the park with his pink shirt and a funnel cake in his hand. So that’s what I was thinking of when you were talking about going to fairs with your grandma and stuff like that.
Jay: Don’t you miss that? When you think about what the world is today, what a dangerous place it’s become. Don’t you miss that carefree environment? I miss that. We didn’t have to worry as much back in the day. I remember grandma telling me about them sleeping with their doors unlocked at night. They didn’t have to worry. There was just nothing to worry about. Then things started getting crazy, and now I have at least two locks on every door and security cameras all over the house because I’m like, these miscreants and malcontents that are running around out there today. My God, you never know what somebody’s going to try to do. You go to a theme park and grandpa could let the kids run around all day and you didn’t have to worry about somebody coming in and taking your kids, or you didn’t have to worry about somebody saying, you’re a bad parent because you let your kid fall out of the tree. No, they need to climb the tree and fall out of the tree. It’s how you learn.
They need to get dirty. They need to be covered in dirt from head to toe. I remember when I’d come in and get a shower at night and the water would be brown from all the dirt coming off of me because I was doing kid things. I was making mud pies and climbing the trees and digging in the dirt and throwing stuff at my brother and vice versa. We did it all and I loved that. Mom was like, oh, look at you guys. You’re such a mess. She’s like, all I can see is the whites of your eyes.
Maximillian Alvarez: She’s like, stand outside while I get the hose.
Jay: Yeah. We did that a couple times because we were so covered in mud. She’s like, all right, clothes off. She’s like, get in the shower. And she does of course, and she’s washing clothes all day. But I got to tell you, that was invaluable. That experience was great. Mom was wonderful. She always cooked great meals for us. Always had sweet things and other good stuff to eat, hearty things too, all kinds of things she’d come up with. We’re Pennsylvania Dutch by heritage so all of us know how to cook, myself included. In fact, I’m a fabulous cook. I almost qualify as a five star chef in some respects, but that’s neither here nor there at this point.
Maximillian Alvarez: You keep talking about corn on the cob, funnel cake, and farm cooking. I’m about to end this call and go get some food.
Jay: Hey, you really want to do something good, I actually got to experience a pumpkin funnel cake at the York Fair, which is America’s oldest fair. I believe that fair is over 200 years old. In the last five to 10 years, that fair has just fallen by the wayside. Something that’s been a tradition in America for 200 years is falling out of favor for Netflix, smart devices, and iPads. Give me a break. Are you serious? What is happening?
Maximillian Alvarez: Man, yeah. That’s a real bummer to hear. And to be honest with you, I don’t know. Because I think that’s always the tricky thing about nostalgia. Part of it is us yearning for a time in our lives when we could be more carefree and we could explore and we weren’t buried with responsibilities and debt and all the bullshit that we’ve got today.
Jay: That’s what it is.
Maximillian Alvarez: Then at the same time, though, what does the saying go? The only constant is change. Lord knows that we’ve gone through quite a lot of changes over the past 30 years. I’ve told the story many times on this show, but I was thinking about it when you were talking about how you guys, in your own family, you experienced what it was like to have been able to support a family on a single income, and then to not being able to do that. That’s something that spoke to me. My dad was in real estate, so it was always boom and bust stuff. Basically –
Jay: Ebb and flow with the economy.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. Honestly it all came crashing down in 2008, and that’s really when life changed forever for our family. We lost everything, including the house that I grew up in. My folks, their careers cratered because they were both tied to the real estate market. My mom was an interior designer, my dad was a realtor. Then in the years afterwards I was working as a temp in warehouses, my mom and dad were driving for Uber, Lyft, and any job that they could find after the recession. It was a very clear break from the life that I knew growing up to the life that I’ve known since.
So I guess what I’m saying is it’s always that complicated knot of us yearning for a time in our lives when we could be more free, but also trying to track that along with the actual substantive changes to our economy, our society, our culture. I think an interesting way to sort of talk about that is to talk about how the changes to the railroads have crystallized that, because you talked about that experience of going to the station at night and talking to the engineer and having that boyish fascination with trains. And I meant to ask, did you have a train set growing up?
Jay: Oh yeah, absolutely. Every kid has to have one of those, you just have to have it. [crosstalk] the big ones, I had the G scale ones, the garden railroad stuff. So, these are big pieces of equipment for a house train set. They’re expensive, too. God bless. You can’t model that stuff anymore, it costs too much.
Maximillian Alvarez: Man. But yeah, we could almost track those larger changes by looking at how the rail industry has gone from that to what it is today. So I wanted to ask, from those early years being so fascinated by trains and talking to these conductors and engineers and having your own train set at home, could you talk us through your path into the industry and what it was like when you first started working on the railroads?
Jay: Yeah. So I actually started in the early 2000s in the rail industry. There’s six major rail carriers in the United States for the freight side. So you’ve got Norfolk Southern, you’ve got CSX on the East Coast. You have BNSF and UP, basically, West of the Mississippi. Then you have the two major Canadian carriers, Canadian Pacific and Canadian National. Now there’s other ones in there. Amtrak is also a major rail carrier, but they’re strictly in the passenger business now. Kansas City Southern has grown quite a bit larger over the years as they’ve moved into Mexico and so on and so forth. Now we have this proposed merger deal between KCS and CP.
But the rail industry in the 90s, for example, we had a lot more railroads. We had Rock Island and we had Chicago Northwestern. We had Burlington Northern. We had Clinchfield, before that we had the L&N. We had all these different railroads. As we move on to the point where my career is about to begin, all of this is consolidated. In 1996, Union Pacific bought Southern Pacific, and merged with them. It was an absolute disaster. I’ll never forget the cover of Trains magazine about all the stuff at just total gridlock, stand still. It wasn’t three years after that and CSX and Norfolk Southern split up Conrail. We had trains that were sitting out there for so long that refrigerated cars full of food were running out of diesel fuel for the refrigeration units. By the time anybody figured out where the train was sitting, the food was rotting and it was running out the doors to the sides of the cars. This whole thing just had built in.
Actually, maybe for another time, we could talk about the history of how the rail industry became what it was and then what would’ve attracted people to it and why it was a good career. But focusing on me, roughly 2005 ish, the railroads were hurting. They didn’t have enough people. We still had the old guys around. We had people that had been on the railroad for 60 years. That sounds insane. But we had one guy I remember, he was in his ’80s and he was still working. His career had started when steam locomotives were still the mainline mode of power.
Maximillian Alvarez: Wow.
Jay: Yeah, right? I hired in and I got to work with old guys. That’s the first thing I did. I worked with these brash, old, sour, old men. They were old farts. I walked into the office and here I am bright eyed and bushy-tailed, an 18-year-old kid. There’s these 55 and 60-year-old guys sitting there, utility man, and the engineer and the conductor for the local that I’m about to work for.
I remember when I first went out there, it was interesting, because the engineer and the conductor that I worked with, both of their names were Gary, we’ll leave their last names off of it. But Gary and Gary. I remember the engineer had 42 years running locomotives, and I was 18 years old at the time. 42 years. So more than twice my lifetime he had been sitting behind that throttle, running trains across our country. What was he doing? He was moving raw materials. He was moving finished product. He was part of something bigger. He was part of the economy. If you think about that, everybody has to do something to support their families, to support themselves. And that’s what he did.
You couldn’t get that man to talk. He wouldn’t say a word. But if you could get him on his grandkids, all of a sudden this sour old man that had a frown on his face all day long, his face would brighten up and he suddenly became a human being. What had made him that way? Years and years of working all kinds of crazy hours on call. Your phone rings at 1:00 AM in the morning, you have to be at work at 3:00 AM. Doesn’t matter if it’s snowing like crazy, if it’s raining like crazy, 10 degrees, 100 degrees, it doesn’t matter.
That’s what these guys did, and that’s what I signed up for. Of course, I, again, go back to that grandiose expectation that I’m going to sit in the seat and blow the horn. That’s going to be 3:00 in the afternoon. Yeah, right. That’s not what it was at all. My training class, actually, when I first started, was working the night shift. It was the first time I had ever pulled an all-nighter because the railroad was so short of people that they were running training classes 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They were cycling people through there as fast as they could get them to try to bring people on to move America.
When I first qualified as a conductor, I was the only person qualified on a 43-man extra board. There was nobody else on it. The turn called for 43 people to staff the needs of the rail yard, of one rail yard out of a four yard terminal, for their daily needs of people. It wasn’t uncommon back in the day to come out to work first shift, they would have you off duty by 2:30 in the afternoon. You’d go home, take your nap, and come back out and work third shift. This is before the hours of service laws changed, and this is before the Chatsworth head on collision in 2008. This is before Goodwell, Oklahoma, and all these other training accidents that have happened over the years. Of course, you may remember, we didn’t have positive train control back in the day. We didn’t have conductor certification. The only person that was “certified” on the train was the engineer, and that was by Federal Railroad Administration regulations.
But as things continued to progress, I got in. I’m 18 years old, here I am, I get qualified to be a conductor. By the age of 19, I’m licensed to operate locomotives. By the time I’m 23, I’m a train dispatcher. Now here I am, I’m basically the air traffic controller of the railroad. Just in that short time from 2005 ish to 2010 ish, I saw our managers, our old guys, they had just gone. They were decimated. We had a lot of college kids coming in and they had fancy degrees and whatever it was from rich, affluent families, or whatever the case may be. They came in from Yale and Harvard and Princeton and whatever else they came in from. They thought they knew how to run a railroad.
They’re like, which end of the engine does the coal go in? I remember somebody asking me that, one of our trainmasters, and I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t speak. And you can see, I have no trouble talking. I was like, what? What do you mean which end of the engine does the coal go in? I thought, they want me to call this guy a leader? I don’t think so. This guy’s a joke. That’s what he is. I told him, I was being mean, I was being facetious. I said, go back to the back of the engine. I said, there’s a little door back there, I said, and if you put one piece of coal in, it’ll run all week. He probably tried it.
Maximillian Alvarez: So I hesitate to laugh too hard because I’m like, that would’ve been my ass if I had gone to work on the railroads. I’m still blown away thinking about you at 18 years old. I was a dumbass at 18. To think that I could be responsible for an entire massive multi-ton train is horrifying to think. I wanted to ask, before you got into, like you said, being the traffic controller by, did you say around 23 is when you reached that point?
Jay: 22, 23, right in that vicinity.
Maximillian Alvarez: Okay. So, I guess before that, like you said, bright eyed, bushy-tailed 18-year-old. I was wondering if, for dumb asses like me who genuinely have no idea what that job entails, what was it like? What was like a “typical” week on the job for you when you were starting out there?
Jay: So we would get out there, and it’s interesting because the railroad is a very different place. It attracts… I don’t know how to phrase it. My coworker who actually pointed me in your direction, who’s since resigned from the company, unfortunately, because he’s a very skilled train dispatcher, very good at his job. We’ll move onto that in a minute. But he was one of those guys that actually, he put it best, he said the railroad attracts the most unusual people that you’ll ever find on the face of the earth. I was thinking, well what does he really mean by that? On the railroad, like everything when I started in 2005, everything they said on the radio, in the yard, everything was a sexual innuendo, always. We had a big track of cars we wanted to shove in and the utility man to be back there at the other end. And he’s like, okay. Shove it into me. Like, what did you just say?
I remember hearing this as an 18-year-old. And I was like, oh my God. I would blush because these guys are these gruff, old men, and I’m sitting here and I listen to the HR bullshit down at the class of, you can’t say that. And if you say that, this is what’s going to happen to you. And I’m like, oh, please. Give me a freaking break. Everybody does it, we just don’t talk about it.
So we’d get out there and they’d have these constant little bickering fits and these arguments and all these crazy things that they would say to each other. I remember it took this innocent young guy at 18 years old and it turned me into some kind of an… Alien’s not the right word, but it’s just different. It totally reshaped my way of thinking, because these guys were picking and tormenting me all the time. Suck it up kid, this, that the other. Of course I had gone through hell in high school, being the quiet guy, one they wanted to stuff in the locker and everything else.
Maximillian Alvarez: It was like jumping from the pan to the fire.
Jay: Yeah. Right. Yeah, exactly right. Now I get out with these old guys and all of a sudden here we are, and they’re like, okay kid, get over there and throw that switch. And I’d go look at the switch points like they taught me to do it. He goes, throw the damn switch! And I was like, I got to check it. He’s like, if there’s anything in it, it won’t move. So I was like, wow. Okay, good point. I didn’t think about that. But yeah, he’s right. I guess if there is anything in it, it won’t move.
But the railroad, their approach to it was if you threw it and you were too aggressive about it, something suddenly stopped it. You’d hurt yourself, you’d tweak your back or whatever the case may be. They were right, I get it. But they told me, they said, kid, you’re the only soft, squishy thing out here. And I was like, soft and squishy? How dare you. Do you see these abs and these muscles? I’m not soft and squishy. But at 18 years old, I was unable to grasp the reference that what they were referring to is that these train cars weighed 286,000 lbs a piece. A yard engine weighed 268,000 lbs, and a road locomotive weighed 435,000 lbs. If you got in its way, it was going to crush you with zero emotion. It didn’t matter. These pieces of equipment.
I remember one morning we had sat out, and I was listening to the engine. It was a cool, crisp fall morning in South Central Pennsylvania. We had a GP40-2 locomotive, 3000 horsepower, four axle engine. It was just sitting out there, calmly idling, beautiful, crisp morning in the 40s, maybe low 50s. I had been thinking about that, and I thought, wow, look at this thing. The engine had been idling outside of the yard office. I remember we got our paperwork together. Of course I was with Gary and Gary again. We get out, started heading up the yard lead to go out to the main. We get out there, and I remember Gary says, okay, you’re calling the train dispatcher today. And I was like, oh no, I can’t call the train dispatcher. This is terrible. I can’t do that. I’m afraid to talk to this guy.
Some years later I actually ended up qualifying as a train dispatcher with the same guy that I had started out talking to early in my career, what a gentleman he was. Oh my gosh. The guy’s name was Barry. I’ll leave last name out of it, but Barry was his name. He was just a tremendous person, but I was scared to talk to him. I remember they made me talk, and I’d call the yard who called the train dispatcher, hey this local, whatever our number was our engine number, we’re ready to go. We’d be coming around the corner. The signals are all red, you’d just see red over red. I’d call him. As soon as I dial up the radio, boom, red over green and pop right up. He knew we were coming. We didn’t even have to say anything yet, he knew we were coming. We get up there. We’d take off through the interlocking, 25 miles an hour until we cleared the signal. As soon as we cleared it, we were good for 50.
I remember we took off across the countryside one morning, and I got Gary talking about his grandkids again, and it’s interesting because this is one of these stories that just really hits home with what you don’t expect to happen on the railroad. It’s part of what shapes you as you grow in your career. But they had told us in training class there’s going to be times in the railroad that are not good. There are going to be injuries, there are going to be fatalities. There are going to be grade crossing accidents. You’re going to hit cars, you’re going to hit people. I was like, oh my God, no, that’s terrible. I don’t want to think about that. That’s a gruesome thought.
But we were racing along that morning, about 50 miles an hour. It’s interesting, because I go back to sitting in that seat. So the conductor had put me in the front seat on the side of the engine that we sit on. The conductor sat behind me, and then the engineer was across the cab from me. I remember we’re going down the tracks and I could see the gates going down at the crossings in front of us, and he’s blowing the horn and everything. After we passed the last crossing in town, there are no crossings for almost 10 miles. There’s not another public crossing for 10 miles.
We’re winding through the trees and coming around curves and stuff and I got Gary talking about his grandkids, and he’s smiling. All of a sudden I remember seeing the look of horror on his face. That smile just dropped off. And I was like, what’s going on? I heard the throttle slam back to idle and the air, he grabbed the air right away. You just hit this rushing air in the cab. What that is the brakes applying on the train. As you reduce the air from the brake pipe, the brakes shut up. The more you reduce it, the harder they grab and so on and so forth. So he starts laying on the horn and I’m like, what is going on? There’s nothing here.
At that moment, I turn and I looked out the windshield, but here’s this guy walking down the tracks in front of us and he’s got his back to us, he’s walking his German shepherd. And I was like, oh my God. I’m sitting there thinking, so this is the reference to the soft squishy thing. Time just stood still for a moment. I remember listening to that turbocharger settling down, that high pitched whistle was just coming down to a nice gentle idle, like the engine had been doing an hour earlier in the yard. You hear the wheels on the rail. The little [singing] sounds that it makes as it hits the curves and bounces off of them.
I remember Gary pulling that horn so hard. I thought he was going to snap the valve off the control stand. The kid is walking the German shepherd. And I’m like, oh man, wow, okay. The dog hears us because the dog is turning around, looking at us, and he’s pulling on the leash, and I’m watching this speedometer. 50, 49, 48, 47. I look in the rear view mirror and I can see the smoke coming off the brakes. I thought, well, we’re not going to stop. There’s no way. We’re going to run this guy right over, right here. This is going to be how I started my career, with a fatality. This is the soft, squishy thing reference.
As we’re coming along behind the kid, I guess he must have started feeling the ground shaking or something. The dog gave one final pull on the leash, and he turned around and we locked eyes. I was like, oh my God, he’s got earphones in. That’s why he can’t hear us. He dove to the right hand side of the track. I remember we flew past him and I said, did we make it? And Gary looked in the mirror, he says, him and the dog are safe. He got by. He threw the break back off and grabbed the throttle and pulled it back out, you hear that turbo charger screaming back up. And I said, oh my gosh, wow. This here is what makes you a railroader. This is what you deal with every day.
Maximillian Alvarez: Man. I’m freaking on the edge of my seat.
Jay: Yeah, because this is what we live. That’s what a day on the railroad is like. It’s out of your control. What are you going to do? You’re on this massive machine that weighs thousands of tons just trying to do your job, and somebody who doesn’t think for a moment gets in the way and it changes your life forever.
Maximillian Alvarez: Again, I’m thinking about the romantic image that you had of doing that job as a kid. You almost allow yourself to be in that moment where you’re in the cab, like you said, you’re passing through forests and stuff. It’s got to be idyllic, and you almost want to like, I don’t know, like the classic image. Put your arm half out the window, just look at the landscape, but –
Jay: That’s right.
Maximillian Alvarez: But because you are driving such a massive vehicle that can do so much damage and that is on a fixed track and that cannot stop on a dime, you just have to be constantly watching and seeing stuff way ahead. That’s just wild to me. The thing that it also makes me think of, which is something that you and I talked about a bit before we started recording, not to jump too far ahead. But one of the things that we’ve been talking about regarding where the railroads are now is the fact that for folks out there listening, if you live near a rail line and you’ve suspected that those trains seem to be getting longer and heavier, that’s not your imagination. That has happened.
At the same time that these freight trains have gotten longer and heavier and more unwieldy, the crew, even as you were describing, Jay, I think you said there were three of you in the cab at that point. As I understand it, there used to be even four or more guys there. Over the years, the rail carriers have cut and cut to the point that now you have two person crews, and they want to go down to one. And I’m like, what the hell happens if you’ve got one guy in the cab and you run into a situation like the one that you just described?
Jay: So, that’s interesting. Let’s elaborate on that a little bit. Let’s talk about where America was and where America is. So Pennsylvania Railroad, for example, they built most of the railroad that is in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey. In fact, they built Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, and they had the railroad to Chicago. Pennsylvania Railroad at one time was more massive in their employment roles than the United States government. They had that massive of a payroll that they outdid the government in sheer size for the number of people employed.
We have to look back and we have to say, okay, what did the Pennsylvania Railroad do? Back in the day, we moved people. Before airplanes and trucks became a thing, trains were the way that we moved. We had to build high speed rail lines. We had to go West. We had to conquer the frontier. We had firemen and we had engineers, we had signal folks. We had engineers that built bridges, not run trains, they built structures.
If you look across rural Pennsylvania and most of the railroad heading out towards Chicago, most of the towns that are along the rail lines sprung up as a direct result of the railroad. Altoona, Pennsylvania, being one of them; Roanoke, Virginia, being another. Big diesel shop facilities were there. We call them diesel shops now. Back in the day they were steam shops and machine shops. They built the cab signal. They built the modern wayside position light signal, which is still used on Amtrak today on their Northeast Corridor, their Keystone Corridor, and other sections of railroad that they have.
We’ve gone from having a situation where every person on the railroad was in a specialty position, and if you wanted to move into management, you had to be promoted from within the ranks. You started at the ground and you worked your way up. You started as a conductor, you qualified maybe as a yard master or engineer, and then you’d work into train master, and then eventually you’d move into division-level management. Before too long, you’d be senior management and you’d move your way up into the corporate setting, and then you’d be the COO, and eventually the CEO. All of these people knew what everybody did under them.
Now we move into the 1970s. This is where things really start to get screwed up. Passenger trains are waning, airplanes are starting to take off, and all of a sudden, our values as a country have changed. We go, okay. Now it’s time to start paying our executives exorbitant amounts of money and a college degree is going to be worth more than real world experience, which we all know is simply hogwash. Fast forward 30 more years, we’re in the 2000s, put 20 more years on top of that, and we’re at today.
So once upon a time, you had a five man-crew. You didn’t have an end of train device, you had a caboose. You had a brakeman that was back there, and the purpose of the caboose was that if you had a situation where an air line became pinched or you couldn’t get air through the train and you’re starting to lose control of it, the guy on the caboose could dump the train. We say dump it. That means shoot the air, get rid of it. You put it to zero and the train’s brakes go into emergency, and now they bite with everything they’ve got. If that’s not going to stop you, nothing will. Then you’re on a runaway and you better hold on to your ass. It’s going to be a wild ride if you make it, if you stay on the track. So you have all of these things.
Now, that particular job ended up being replaced by what they called telemetry. So you had an end of train device. It’s this marker to hang on the rear that radio communicates with the head locomotive. You have the ability to now dump the train by pushing a button in the cab, and that got rid of that job. Then we have a three man crew now. So we got rid of the head end fireman. We didn’t need a fireman for diesels anymore. When diesels came around, the fireman’s job became obsolete. Then the brakeman’s job, EOT renders his job obsolete, so they get rid of him, they get rid of the caboose. Now you have a three-man crew. You have a head end brakeman, an engineer, and a conductor. So the railroads go, okay. We’ve got the ability to switch cars and serve customers.
On a three-man crew, here’s how we would do things. So let’s say we’d go out to work in an industry. You’ve got two guys on the ground, me and the conductor. Let’s say I’m the brakeman, for example. Engineer’s running the train. The conductor is back at the industry at the doors where we’re going to spot the cars, and I’m up at the switches.
So I tell the engineer, your conductor says okay ahead. The engineer comes out, I line the switch for him, and then I start talking to him. Okay. Five cars are clear. Three, one, far enough. I throw the switch, bring him back. Four to a couple, two, one. Okay. Coupled up, stretch it, good. Couplings, good. Give me three step. I go in, put the air hoses together, take the hand brakes off. Okay ahead. 15 to clear. He pulls up, I throw the switch. Okay, Conductor. It’s your move. Switch is double checked. Send him back to the engineer. We spot the cars, knock it out. We can do this much more quickly because we have extra hands. So we’ve reduced the workload on the individual, and subsequently, through teamwork, we’re able to do things efficiently.
Then the railroads go, we don’t want the brakeman anymore. To hell with that. We’re abolishing that job. We don’t need anybody to line the switch. We don’t need anybody to help make these moves. So now it’s just the engineer and the conductor, and the conductor has to do everything himself. He has to ride out, throw the switch, go back, make the coupling, ride out again, come back to the doors, the whole nine yards. In so doing, what do we do? We reduce our efficiency. Time is money in any industry. Doesn’t matter what it is. Doesn’t matter if you’re moving train cars, if you’re moving people on an airplane, doesn’t matter if you’re driving a car. You could go 55 versus 85, you’re not going to get there as fast. It’s just that simple.
And then the railroads figured out, hey, positive train control is now a thing. So what we’re going to do is we’re going to outwardly lie to the public and we’re going to tell them that positive train control prevents derailments. No, it doesn’t. Not in that respect. That’s not the proper representation, and let me tell you why, as an industry veteran.
Maximillian Alvarez: And also, if you could, if you could explain. You may have just been able to do this, but just for folks listening, what does positive train control mean?
Jay: What we had back in the day is we just had physical signals along the side of the tracks. The onus was on the crew to comply with the signal indication. If it’s green, you go like a bat out of hell; if it’s yellow, you slow down because the next one’s probably going to be red; and if it’s red, you dare not go by it unless it’s got a number plate on it. And of course, these rules are different in every property, but it’s like a traffic light for a train. Their signals are typically two to as much as three miles apart because you need time to stop. Obviously, you can’t go from green to red in 100 feet. That’s not going to work if you’re doing 60 miles an hour.
We had the old signals out there still. As recently as 2017, we had signals that had been built and put into service in the 1920s that were still functioning. Why? Because we built our own things in America. Once upon a time, working people built those signals. They built them out of cast iron. They built them out of parts that lasted. We had technology in the day that was solid state. Interlocking machines where you would have 100 levers on this thing in a tower that [inaudible] would eventually become a train dispatcher would operate. These things were mechanically interlocked. It was impossible for you to line a conflicting route. If you threw the lever and it didn’t work, it would stop you from doing it. It literally locked it physically.
Now everything’s electronic. So this is what PTC basically did. You get rid of all of your solid state controls and you put them into a computer chip and you say, okay. We’re going to get rid of all of these old signals, all this stuff that’s tried, true, and tested. We’re going to get rid of the old relays, which worked for over 100 years. This is interesting, Max. When we took those signals out of service, the railroads ordered the relays smashed with sledgehammers. They didn’t want them to be replicated because they lasted for so long and were so reliable, they wanted people to forget how we used to engineer stuff. They ordered them destroyed. And of course, a couple of us managed to scrounge a couple of them up. Not going to say who those people were, but we managed to get our hands on some of those things, and we still have some of them.
Positive train control basically was, okay, we’ve had derailments because of speeding incidents where the crew was falling asleep. How do you fall asleep when you’re running a train? Well, try to work like a train crew does where your phone rings any time of day or any time of night. You work first shift today, third shift tomorrow, then you’re off half a day, then you work somewhere in between the next day, and you do that for 30 days straight without a single day off. Imagine trying to do that.
And then imagine having to be qualified on the physical characteristics of the railroad. You may be qualified on 1,000 miles or more of territory. Imagine having to know every single curve, every single speed limit, every hill, and every traffic signal from Atlanta to Jacksonville from memory. That’s what locomotive engineers do. So that guy sitting up in the cab that I thought of as a kid that was blowing a horn and everything, this dude was a genius. He knew way, way more than what I thought. I had no clue what a locomotive engineer actually does. So you fall asleep, you go around a curve at 60 that’s good for 30, and the train derails. That’s a catastrophe. We don’t like that.
So after Chatsworth in 2008, where the locomotive engineer had been on the phone texting a kid that he was going to give a cab ride to, he blew through a stop signal and hit a Union Pacific freight train head on. That was the final straw. In 2008, Congress mandated positive train control, which would basically say, okay, the signal’s red. If you don’t comply with it, I’m going to put the brakes on the train, as the computer, and I will stop you. That was the intent of PTC, is to make sure that you can’t speed into a curve, or make sure you can’t blow by a stop signal. You’re forced to comply with the speed limit. You’re given a five mile an hour grace period. If it’s 60, you could do 65 before it’s going to pop you. You have to remember, we always build infrastructure for more than what it’s rated for. If we post it at 60, it’s probably good for 75, but 60 results in less wear and still gives us the result we want.
So this positive train control thing comes about, and all of a sudden – And the railroads were initially hell bent against it. They said, absolutely not. That’s too expensive. We’re not going to do it. And then they realized they could weaponize that. They could use that to bring all-out assault and warfare against the working man. And what did they do? They turned around and they said, okay. Well, we’re going to run bigger trains. And what we’re going to do is we’re going to tell the public that the second man on the crew is now obsolete. Why are we going to tell them that? Because we can double our revenues. We can capitalize, if you will, on this investment that is PTC. We can bring this “shareholder value”, as was coined by Hunter Harrison, and I’m not going to dare say God rest his soul. To hell with that bastard. Anyhow, we’re going to put this technology in place, and we’re going to sell it as a great thing. This will prevent derailments.
Okay, great. Well, yes, it prevents derailments. But what it doesn’t prevent is derailments due to mechanical failure. So freight trains are hauling everything you could imagine. We’re hauling chlorine, we’re hauling anhydrous ammonia. When we say anhydrous ammonia, what does “anhydrous” mean? It means all the water is removed. It’s pure ammonia, 100%. If you have a bottle of ammonia under your sink and you get a whiff of it, it repulses you immediately. It’s overwhelming. That’s a diluted version, a significantly diluted version of what’s in that train car. Chlorine. The accident in Graniteville killed nine people and put a factory out of business because somebody let a switch open. Well, PTC was designed to prevent that. If the switch is left open, it’ll warn the train and it’ll stop it. So it has good intentions and it has benefits until you try to weaponize it. What they’ve done now is they’ve said, okay, we’re going to do it. We’re going to get rid of the second-man crew.
Let me put together a scenario for everybody who’s listening. Let’s talk about these train tracks that run through your town. Maybe you live very close to the train tracks. Maybe you always have. Maybe you have trouble sleeping at night if the train doesn’t go by. You don’t hear the horn, you figure something’s wrong with the world. Things aren’t right until the train passes through town, then you know everything’s fine. Well, there’s an engineer and a conductor in that train. There’s people that are running that train. People that have families just like you do. People that have kids, people that have wives and husbands, boyfriends and girlfriends, aunts and uncles, so on and so forth. We’re going to go to the local ball field in town. We’re going to take our Little League game out there. We got parents everywhere. Everybody’s cheering and clapping, yelling and hollering. Go, go, go, do it, run, run, the whole nine yards. This is America, right?
Here comes the train. You just expect to pass through town like it normally does. You hear the clanging of the crossing bells, all of that. And then all of a sudden, you hear this catastrophic metal twisting sound, this horrible sound of wreckage that you’ve never heard before, and the train has derailed. We’ve piled up 50 or 60 cars, and unbeknownst to anybody, we’ve punched a hole in a chlorine car. We don’t know it yet, but we’ve punched a hole in a chlorine car.
So as a train dispatcher, I’m the guy in the office. I’m going to be one of your first responders if something like that happens. I’m the guy that’s going to orchestrate the evacuation, I’m the guy that’s going to do all of the hazmat stuff, I’m the one that’s going to be the people that’s going to mobilize the response to get you out of there. But there’s one thing I need. I’m 700 miles away in an office in another state. I can’t tell that that train derailed. All I know is PTC puts up a thing on my screen that says “undesired emergency brake application”. I’m like, all right. Okay. That happens all the time. More often than not, there’s not a derailment. But guess what? Today there is. Now, I don’t know that.
So the crew calls me and says, hey, Dispatcher. The train’s in emergency. We didn’t like what we felt back there. We think something’s wrong. I say, okay. Put the conductor on the ground and send him for a walk. So he gets on the ground, and within a few minutes, he calls me on the radio and says, dispatcher, we got a hell of a mess back here, and I smell chlorine. And I’m like, okay. We’re going to mobilize the response.
Now, we got this Little League game just a mile from the tracks at this field, and he tells me he smells chlorine. So I’m like, tell me on your wheel report, on the paperwork that you have in front of you, what is the last car that you can see that you think is upright and on the track. He gives me a number and I start looking at the file on my end, and I say, oh my God. We’ve got 10 chlorine cars in there, an anhydrous ammonia car, four loads of propane, and something else. So immediately, I’m going to start the proceedings on a hazmat spill. I’m going to be notifying the police department at the control center. They’re going to be calling the local police and the hazmat teams. We’re going to be getting CHEMTREC on the phone, the local trainmaster out there. We are literally going to mount a massive response to get that town evacuated, get those people off that field before that chlorine gets there and kills everybody there. So this is what would happen with a two man crew.
Now the railroads come in and they say, we’re going to put single-man crews in, because PTC is going to prevent that. Well, guess what? That derailment was a result of a broken rail, which PTC won’t prevent. Or a broken wheel that disintegrated because the railroads have abolished all of the mechanical inspectors that used to check train car wheels before they were permitted to leave the terminal. They’re going to say, oh, well, we’ve got technology and scanners that look at this stuff. We’ve abolished the maintenance crews that used to fix these things. A wheel flew apart and caused that train to derail. PTC wasn’t going to prevent that because PTC couldn’t have known that.
So we get rid of the conductor, and I get the same notice. Now we’ve got what they call a traveling conductor. He’s in a vehicle and he’s 35 miles away, 40 miles maybe. You picture some of our major cities like Atlanta and New York, Washington, DC. The traffic is a shit show. Los Angeles, as you would know, Max. Look at the 5. My God, could you imagine a traveling conductor trying to drive on the 5 at rush hour to get to a potential train derailment? How long is that going to take?
Maximillian Alvarez: You might as well walk.
Jay: You may as well walk, right? So now let’s frame this differently. Let’s go to we now have a single-man crew. We’re going to frame this as what could happen. People, if you’re listening, listen to what I’m saying to you. This is your home. This is your town. These are your kids, your people, your friends, your family, people you care about. You have a vested interest in this whether you realize it or not. If you’re ever thrust into this situation, that’s when you’ll find out. I hope and pray it never happens.
Let’s coin this the way the railroads want to now. So they want to abolish this second crew member. Now, based on what I just said, it took us minutes to respond to what had happened. Time is everything when there’s an emergency situation. If there’s a tornado coming and you know about it 20 minutes in advance, you can seek shelter. If you don’t know about it and you’ve got three minutes of warning, you may as well kiss your ass goodbye, because it’s going to get you.
I get the same warning, undesired emergency brake application. All right. Engineer calls me and says, I don’t like what I felt back there. But guess what? He can’t leave the head end because he has no way to secure the train. And you say, well, the train’s derailed. Yeah, but we don’t know that yet. So we can’t take him off the head end and go back there and see what’s going on. So I call this traveling utility guy now on the radio or on the phone, and he’s 45 or 50 miles away. And I say, hey, I got a train in emergency at milepost 282. Engineer said he didn’t like what he felt. Head that way. All right.
Now, he gets stuck in traffic. 50 minutes goes by and I still have nobody there. Meanwhile, this chlorine tank is leaking 100% chlorine. Chlorine’s a brutal death. If you breathe it, it burns your lungs. Basically what happens is you drown in your own body fluids. Your body’s response to inhaling chlorine is to try to dilute it by filling your lungs with water to stop the burning, so you literally drown in your own body fluids from inhaling chlorine. That’s what happens. It’s a brutal death. And we now have this chlorine skirting along this rail right away and heading right towards our Little League game and this baseball field where our kids are playing, where the bleachers are packed with parents and friends and everything else.
Now, we have nobody to tell us what has happened. We have nobody to start initiating that emergency response, because he’s still in a vehicle 50 miles away. Think about the situation. Think about how devastating this is. The news headlines the next morning are going to be horrible. This chlorine gets in here and it wipes out half of that field. It kills half the people there. 75, 100 people dead because of chlorine. Suddenly, the response is going to be, oh my God, this was preventable. We could have done something.
What’s the railroad going to do? They’re going to say, it wasn’t our fault. We didn’t do it. Blah, blah, blah. It had nothing to do with the single-man crews. They’re going to start trying to look for something the engineer did on this massive train that’s three miles long. Did he pull the throttle in the wrong spot or something? Anything that they could try to blame that derailment on him so they can force the blame to that guy instead of to their cuts to all the working men, to the cuts to the car inspectors, everything that they’ve abolished. Has nothing to do with them, will be the way they’ll frame it.
In the newspaper, we’re talking about 75 dead people. We’re talking about half the town having been wiped out at that Little League game because the train didn’t go through town like it usually does, and because we didn’t have somebody there to respond, and because I couldn’t initiate evacuation proceedings. Why? I didn’t have the information I needed. Information is everything. We have to remember that. Make it personal to people. You have to remember what we’re dealing with here. You need all of this stuff. You need chlorine bleach when you go to the store, you need your Lysol and your Clorox wipes and all the other products that you buy every day. This is how we make it. 99% of the time, we transport it without incident. But if that ever happens and there’s nobody there, think about the consequences of that situation of a single-man crew.
Maximillian Alvarez: It’s truly harrowing to think about. I really want to stress for folks listening, you already heard. Jay knows their shit. He’s been working on the railroads for many years. This is the side of things that the rest of us just don’t see. I think that one of the constant refrains that I’ve been hearing from folks working on the railroads or folks who have family working on the railroads, since I started getting involved in covering this. Like I said, I didn’t know shit about any of this until I got invested in covering the Hi-Vis attendance policy at one of the major rail carriers, BNSF. That’s the one we ran the episode on a few months back because we’d learned that, I think it was around 17,000 rail workers were prepared to go on strike over this new, draconian attendance policy that one of the major rail carriers was going to implement. Then they had their strike blocked.
So that was my entry point into learning about this. The more that I learned, the more terrified I got, frankly, because I started hearing stories like what you just described for us, Jay. Look, folks tell me, you have no idea how bad it’s gotten over the years. The more that I learn, the more that I realize this is a huge self-induced crisis caused by the rail carriers themselves, in a lot of ways.
In a second, I’m going to ask if you could just synthesize that for us, Jay, because then we’ll round out by talking about the situation that we’re in now, where negotiations between the rail carriers and the rail unions have reached an impasse. We’re actually closer to a national rail shutdown than we’ve been in a generation. But before we get there, I’m just trying to make sure that folks listening can see all these pieces working together. You have an industry where you used to have five-person crews operating these trains. One by one, the carriers started eliminating those jobs, either replacing them with some technological innovation, or essentially just piling the extra work on fewer people. I think we can’t –
Jay: That’s exactly right.
Maximillian Alvarez: We can’t lose sight of the fact that that’s actually the big brain genius idea that so many of these corporate shitheads have come up with, whether it’s in the rail industry, whether you’re working at a dollar store, or a Chipotle. Their big genius idea is, hey, why don’t we just hire fewer people and make them do more work? And then when we run them into the ground, we’ll just replace them with new folks. And then when we run into issues like staffing shortages or stores not being able to function, these same companies –
Jay: [inaudible] COVID.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, or COVID hits, then these companies are all like, oh, there’s nothing we could do about it. That’s exactly what the rail carriers are saying right now. They’re saying, oh, the supply chain’s a mess because of the war in Ukraine, because of COVID. You have extreme weather events made worse by climate changes. Of course, that is a big part of it. But as Mel Buer wrote about at The Real News in her big piece that we’ll link to in the show notes, the supply chain crisis that no one’s talking about right now is corporate greed. Is the fact that the rail companies, for decades, have been reducing the number of folks working on the railroads and piling more work on fewer people, then implementing these draconian attendance policies where an already stressful job where you have to be on call. If you’re a conductor or you’re an engineer, you, by definition, have no set schedule. That becomes even more crushing with these other attendance policies. Then you add –
Jay: They do it with train dispatchers too, Max. That’s another thing. They do it with dispatchers, too. We’re your front line people. We’re the ones that are controlling the signals and the switches, and you know what they did with us? Sorry to cut you off there, but let me just add to that, because what you’re saying is invaluable when you consider what these companies are doing.
So in the movement office, for example, we had dozens and dozens of desks that controlled smaller territories. Actually, we can throw the Federal Railroad Administration under the bus here as well, and the Surface Transportation Board in some respects, because the Federal Railroad Administration already has rules in place for what is required of the rail carriers, but they don’t enforce it.
So 49 CFR part 239 talks about emergency preparedness response plans for passenger trains. Part of that emergency preparedness response plan is making sure that your train dispatchers are qualified on the physical characteristics of the railroad. When we say that, that means you’ve seen it, you know what’s out there, you know where the bridges are, you know where the tunnels are. You know where there’s no way to get to a particular section of track because it’s rural. You have a road, a river, and then the train tracks. Well, if we have a passenger train derailment over there, how the hell are we going to get there? You’re right, by helicopter. But we need to know that.
So what did they do, Max? I’ll tell you what they did. They came in, they consolidated all the offices. And this has been done across the industry. BNSF went to Fort Worth, Union Pacific to Omaha, CSX to Jacksonville, and NS to Atlanta. And what did they do? They got rid of all of their experienced people. They got rid of everybody that knew the railroad. I used to live near the railroad I dispatched. I literally had it in my backyard. One of the interlockings that I controlled was a mile from the office building where I worked. I could go out at night and I could hear the train that I lined up five minutes earlier going over the switch frogs. Kaboom, kaboom. Kaboom, kaboom. Kaboom, kaboom. Over the night, I could hear him going through those switches, because it was cold outside.
You move that office to Atlanta or Omaha, and suddenly all those people leave. You lose hundreds of years of combined experience and intimate knowledge, and you replace them with somebody in Atlanta who’s never, ever been on the railroad, who’s never seen a train. Doesn’t even know what a train is, really. They want to know which end of the engine the coal goes in. And then you have an Amtrak derailment like what we had in Mendon, Missouri, last month. Think of the consequences. Those people aren’t qualified in that railroad anymore, they don’t get to see it. And here the Feds are, 49 CFR, part 239, are they doing anything to hold the railroad’s feet to the fire to make sure that people are qualified? No.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, this is the thing that’s really baffling to me, frankly, because I think what you’re saying has gotten me sufficiently freaked out.
Jay: Good, as it should.
Maximillian Alvarez: As we should be, because I think this is what other folks have been saying to me. And I’m so glad that folks finally get to hear from a worker like Jay instead of just having me try to relay it to people. But this is a crisis that no one seems to be paying real attention to. And right now it’s kind of on people’s radar because they’ve suddenly heard that, oh shit, we might actually be close to a national rail shutdown. How did we get here? Well, we’ve only covered some of that in this conversation, and I’ve got to round things out. But I wanted us to finish by talking about where we are now, what this all means for railroad workers and their families? What it means for the railroads themselves and the supply chain that we all depend on?
We should not wait until a catastrophic derailment like the situation that Jay described happens. But it feels like we’re careening towards that right now, because again, I’m trying to synthesize everything. Right now the supply chain’s a mess, we all know that. What we don’t know, or what we haven’t been hearing in the mainstream media, is that in a lot of ways, this was caused by the greed and anti-worker actions taken by the rail carriers themselves, who are stuffing money in their pockets hand over fist. Warren Buffet’s ass and Katie Farmer, these executives who are hatching and implementing these bullshit policies like BNSF’s Hi-Viz Policy.
They’re raking it in right now, even while the railroads are grinding to a halt, even while workers are being run into the ground. And we’re hearing that record numbers of folks are quitting. As Jay said, all that accrued knowledge and seniority that is normally passed on to the new generations of railroaders, that’s all been lost or is in the process of being lost.
And right now, railroad companies, or the rail carriers, are complaining about a staffing shortage that they fucking caused. And this wasn’t just the COVID-19 pandemic. If you look at the numbers, the rail carriers have collectively eliminated 30% of their workforce since 2015. They have been slashing and slashing and taking all those excess profits and stuffing them in their pockets while railroad workers are shouting that we are headed towards a major crisis, and no one’s fucking doing anything about it. So I guess I wanted to ask, Jay, do I have that right? Am I overshooting this, am I being like Chicken Little?
Jay: No, you’re 100% right. That’s the problem, people don’t know. How many people didn’t even know the railroad was a job? How would you get into it? Back in the day when I hired out, the railroad put phone calls out. You’d call in every week and they’d have a recording that was 30 minutes long of all the places that they were hiring at, at which hotel and the address that the hiring session would be held at. And that’s the way it was done. You literally would go to a hotel, and they would have reserved a conference room in there, and they would hold a hiring session on site. And it wasn’t uncommon for them to hire 20 or 30 people at a time. And you’d start moving your way up. You’d work your way through the ranks.
And that’s gone, it’s all gone. They don’t do any of that anymore. You go online, you put in an application, somebody with an HR degree sits there and looks at it and goes, oh yeah, this person’s qualified, blah, blah, blah. And then they start in the railroad and they’re qualifying with somebody who’s been in the railroad less than a year themselves. Give me a break. They don’t give me trainees, Max. I don’t get trainees, because they’re afraid I might teach them something. They’re afraid I might teach them to be independent thinkers and to question anything that sounds like it might be wrong.
Our managers can’t even figure out what their own rule book says. So you pull the rule book out and it says, you will do this and this. And they go, absolutely not. Not in this situation. And I say, show me where it says that. How dare you question my authority? Oh, did I step on your tail because you don’t know what the conjunction “and” means? You need to go back to English class.
But this is what happens when you have a society that you let live your truth, if you will. So they just look at the rules and they say, to hell with the rules. The rules are one-sided, they apply only when they don’t cost the company money. When they’re inconvenient, or we don’t agree with you, or we can make you the scapegoat. You’re going to be the fall man. Do as you’re told. But they’ll never put it in writing, Max. It’s always a verbal conversation.
And this is where people have to be smart. We need to take notes, write it down. Date, time, what was said? Who said it? Keep yourself a notebook. Because if one of those accidents ever happens, like that little league thing I was telling you about, they’re going to go in there and they’re going to paint you to be the devil.
And they’re going to read it and do it, and you pull that notebook out and say, I was ordered to violate this rule and this rule and this rule and this rule on this date and this time. And you’ve got all this stuff out there and a judge sees that he’s going to think, bullshit. Absolutely not. You’re lying. And you’re lying under oath and I’m going to get you. And that’s what we need. There needs to be penalty for this. There needs to be personal penalty. These managers are protected by the company. They get away with whatever the hell they want to get away with.
Meanwhile, they’ll fire you for being a supposed racist or not being tolerant of somebody, or this latest thing with the Supreme Court and abortion, if you mention that, they’ll fire you for that. They couldn’t give a damn if you violate an operating rule, if they tell you to. That could put an entire town in jeopardy. They don’t care about that, but they’d rather take on somebody who gets butthurt over political conversation. Give me a freaking break. This is where we are.
Maximillian Alvarez: And the thing that I always think about is something that Jeff Kurtz told me when we first spoke about this. Because again, the justification for the court in Texas for blocking BNSF workers from striking over the disastrous Hi-Viz attendance policy at BNSF was that a strike would cause “irreparable harm”, I think was how he put it, to the rail carrier and to the supply chain. And yet, the judge didn’t have shit to say about what the implementation of that policy would do to the supply chain or to BNSF’s business. And what –
Jay: Nor did he say how their voluntary choice to eliminate 45,000 workers would not affect the supply chain.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. Didn’t have shit to say about that.
Jay: 45,000 workers, didn’t say a word about that. Nobody wanted to talk about that.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and the thing that Jeff Kurtz said to me that really sticks out, as I’m listening to you talk right now, is rail workers at BNSF have been saying, the policy went into effect, our strike was blocked. And lo and behold, the supply chain has been irreparably damaged because this policy is running workers into the ground. You heard Jay talk earlier about how you could end up working 30 days straight without a goddamn break with the way that this thing shakes out. We don’t have time to get into all of that right now, but it’s really running workers into the ground.
People who have been working on the freight rails for years are giving up all of that accrued seniority or benefits or what have you just to go be refugees on passenger service or to leave the industry all together. So we’re hearing all these stories of folks quitting, trains lying idle, workers being exhausted. And that has done a huge amount of damage to the supply chain. And what Jeff Kurtz said to me was, if any conductor or engineer or dispatcher caused a fraction of the damage that this corporate policy has caused, not only would they be fired, but they would be facing, probably, criminal charges. And yet, the corporate executives, they’re not facing any repercussions. They’re getting goddamn bonuses, and no one is holding them accountable.
Jay: I sat down a couple of months ago face-to-face with our CEO, which was shocking. I couldn’t believe I actually got to sit down and talk with him. And I told him some of these things. I said, we are in trouble. Our company is failing. We have a toxic middle layer of management that is literally strangling the life out of our workforce, and you guys don’t want to pay us. Meanwhile, you report quarter after quarter, year after year, record profits.
Max, some of these railroads are making $16 billion, that’s billion with a B, dollars in revenue per year. And they can’t afford to give us a pay raise and pay for our health insurance. We’re asking for them to basically throw $23 million our way for our craft, $23 million, and they won’t do it. Instead, they’ll spend hundreds of millions on technology like Movement Planner, which BNSF has, NS has, Canadian National now has.
It’s the biggest piece of shit you’ve ever seen. We could do another whole podcast on the technology aspects and how it’s failing and what it’s doing to the industry. But this program is an absolute joke of a program. And every time there’s a problem with it, if you say anything to them, hey, you need to fix this. You’re immediately labeled an asshole or a disgruntled employee. I’m not disgruntled at all. I’m passionate about what I do.
And let’s be honest, Max. For all of our listeners out there that are hearing this right now, who do you want behind the desk in the dispatcher’s office? Do you want me, a 20 years, almost 20 years seasoned veteran that knows more about the railroad than I could possibly tell you about in hours on a podcast, or do you want somebody new that’s being provided the worst training the industry’s ever seen that’s not even in compliance with the federal guidelines, and then the Federal Railroad Administration does nothing about it. Do you want that new person sitting behind the desk that doesn’t even know what a wheel report looks like?
We don’t even have rules classes anymore. Rules classes used to be held annually. You had to take a test every single year to make sure you were qualified on hazmat and all of this other stuff. It’s gone. I haven’t had a rules class in almost three years. They threw it out the window.
Maximillian Alvarez: Geez.
Jay: It used to be required. And let me just say one more thing, Max. Well, let me expand upon this. So again, for all of our people that are listening, the railroad used to make good money. And we’re asking at this point for roughly $140,000 a year, is what we’re asking for. Now. That sounds great on paper, $140,000 sounds good. But you have to sit down, you have to look at what we have to pay. So right now they’re making us pay over $200 a month for health insurance. They’re making us pay what we call screw-up insurance. So the company will fire you for anything. If you show up to work and you transposed a number on a track authority, some simple little stupid mistake that other rules will prevent from causing an issue, they’ll fire you for it, put you on the street for 30 days, no pay. So we have this screw-up insurance, as we call it, that we pay for to make sure we can keep our bills paid while we’re out of service.
The railroads, historically, have been extremely brutal with their employees, almost Nazi-like, with their employees. And that’s why the Federal Railroad Labor Safety Act has written such that if an allegation of abuse is brought by an employee, the rail carrier has to prove its innocence, not the standard American way of your innocent until proven guilty, but rather you have to prove your innocence because of what you’ve done, the reputation that you have.
So let’s think about wages for a minute. And it doesn’t matter whether you work at Chipotle, or Subway, or Longhorn Steakhouse, or Starbucks, or anything, Amazon, it doesn’t matter. We all need each other. When I sit down and I put an order in on Amazon for whatever I want, I don’t know what it is, a box of cornstarch, or I don’t know, pick anything.
I want it to be here, I want it quickly. I want it, preferably, the next day. But there are hundreds and hundreds of people behind that click. As soon as I hit “place order”, it’s out of my hands, and now I’m relying on dozens and dozens of other Americans in good, labor-oriented jobs to make sure that I get that corn starch that I want so I can make my chicken nuggets.
As simple as that may sound, but this is American life. This is what we do. And who are the people in the companies, what do they talk about? Climate change, global warming. Oh my God. Yes. It’s so bad. The world’s going to burn up. And that’s the end of that. Okay. Listen, 10,000 years ago, we were in an ice age. That was long before the industrial revolution. Today, we’re not. So the climate clearly changed. That wasn’t man made.
Now, you can have your opinion, everybody can have their opinion. But we’re going to use this one as a good and solid example. So the companies get on their bandwagons behind all these organizations that are talking about global warming all the time, get on the electric car bandwagon. You need to have a more efficient home. You need a tiny home. But do they want to pay us enough to be able to afford to build a green home, a zero net energy certified home with solar panels, and spray foam insulation, and variable speed communicating HVAC, and electric cars, and all that? No. They don’t share the wealth.
So while they preach about what we need to do, they’re building their mega mansions in Florida that are 4,000 square feet with 10 air conditioners on the damn thing that are base models that use the most power they could possibly use. They’ve got an infinity edge swimming pool with a hot tub built into it that’s heated 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even when it’s 50 degrees outside. And a corporate jet that they fly in while they drive a V12 Bentley. And they’re telling you about how you need to fix climate change and global warming, but they won’t pay you for it. So how the hell are you supposed to afford it? That’s what I want to know. Where’s my slice of the pie?
Maximillian Alvarez: Right. It’s really what it comes down to, is just this whole fucking shadow game where the oligarchy that is basically running our society into the ground and looting as much of our collective wealth and resources as possible while putting all of the burden for the disaster on our shoulders, they’re making off like goddamn bandits. And like you said, man, we’re going to have to do a follow-up because I could talk to you for days about this, but I know I’ve got to let you go.
Again, going back to the example that I just gave about how so much responsibility is put on the shoulders of railroad workers. And these are the folks, like you said, we don’t think about it, but so much of the products that end up on our shelves, so much of the things that we rely on to live our daily lives, are dependent on folks like yourself keeping the supply chain running while you are dealing with all of the bullshit that we’ve been talking about over the course of the past hour and a half.
And again, we haven’t touched on all of it. Hopefully we’ve given you guys listening at least a solid understanding of why we’re shouting that this is a real crisis, and how stacked the deck is against the workers making the supply chain run, and the corporate execs who are raking in billions and causing all this damage and blaming COVID and the war in Ukraine and yada, yada, yada.
All of this is coming to a head right now. Like I said, a lot of folks have not ever really thought about the things that we’ve been talking about. But now they are because, like I said, we’ve gotten closer. It still may not happen, but we’ve gotten closer to a national rail shutdown than we’ve been in many, many years, because labor relations on the railroads are not governed by the National Labor Relations Act, they’re governed by the Railway Labor Act. There are a lot of hoops that have to be jumped through to actually clear the way for either railroad workers to strike or rail carriers to initiate lockouts.
So we are in the midst of that right now. By the time you guys hear this, maybe the Presidential Emergency Board that Biden has appointed to try to mediate between the rail workers and rail carriers, maybe by the time this episode is out, that board will have offered its recommendations for basically a settlement between the two sides. But both sides have the ability to reject whatever those recommendations are. And then if they do that, then there will be another 30 day cooling off period. And then we could see rail strikes or we could see lockout. So we still have steps to go. But I think what hopefully has come through in this conversation is that these problems that are coming to a head, the reason rail workers and rail carriers are at such an impasse, this didn’t happen overnight. This has been building for years and years. And we are now at this really critical point.
And hopefully this conversation has given you some context. And we’re going to keep following up on it. Like I said, we’re going to have to have Jay back. We’re going to try to get more folks on to keep you guys informed. But first, Jay, I just wanted to again, thank you for taking this time out of your busy schedule to lay all this stuff out and share your experience with us. I think it’s been super helpful and super rich to discuss this with you.
And I just wanted to ask if you had any final framing thoughts for folks who are watching what’s going on between the rail unions and rail carriers, any synthesizing thoughts about how bad things are or what we need to do to address the crisis that has been building on the railroads right now?
Jay: Yeah. So there’s a couple things, actually. First and foremost, people, we have to organize. We have to put down our differences. When we think about it, we’re not that different at all. We’re not divided by merely human things, Black or white, or straight or gay, or married or not married, or left or right. We allow that division to be part of our lives by what we let into our homes. We turn these major news media sources on that are all the time that are beating that drum. And if you look at…
There was a book written some years ago by a man named Saul Alinsky, called Rules for Radicals. If you look at that and you look at what he talks about, how you overthrow a society. This man is a toxic human being, and this is what these people are doing. They just keep pumping lies into your head over and over and over again because if they tell you enough, eventually the lie will become truth. You won’t even know what you are anymore.
So right now the Federal Railroad Administration has an open comment period, for about the next 50 to 55 days on the crew sizing issues. It’s public comment. You can, if you want to, get on there on that forum and you can put your $0.02 in. You could say, hey, I live in Roanoke. Or, hey, the train tracks go through my backyard and I absolutely do not support a single-man crew. I demand that you do what you’re supposed to do.
And if you don’t, remember that when you go to the voting booth, it’s not as simple as checking a check mark next to a Republican or next to a Democrat name. You need to know who the hell you’re voting for. Don’t just go in there and wander in there aimlessly and do something. Do yourself some research and make sure that the people you’re voting for align with your values. And if they don’t, we have to get them out. Look what’s happening, we’re literally… The corporate elite are waging a single-handed war against the working man and against America as we know it. And honestly, Max, something going forward, if we’re fortunate enough to be able to do another interview, I want to talk about the decimation of our towns, the decimation of our economies, what it’s done to people, to their families, their homes, their livelihoods.
The closing of facilities left and right. The travesties and the maintenance of [inaudible] department, the lack of investment in the infrastructure. We’ve got another several hours worth of things we can talk about that culminate all of this into this giant cluster that it is now. And we are literally watching our country and our supply chain melt down around us at the hands of a bunch of criminals, is what they are.
They’re criminals, they are sociopaths. And when you look at that and you really think about it, they don’t feel guilty at night when they go home and look their kids in the eye. And know full well that they’re making $22 million a year, and they’re lying to their children. Their children don’t know that their parents lie for a living. And how unfortunate is that? They’re going to raise monsters just like they are.
And unless we stop it, this tyranny will continue and eventually America will cease to exist. We may be the shortest lived society to ever occupy the face of the earth if we continue down this path. We have to unify behind a common cause, and that’s people, period. Doesn’t matter what you do. Chipotle, Ingles, Publix, Walmart, Home Depot, I don’t care what you do. We have to get on board with each other.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Maximillian Alvarez is editor-in-chief at the Real News Network and host of the podcast Working People, available at InTheseTimes.com. He is also the author of The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke.