RAILROADS   I was just as interested in railroads as airplanes as a boy.  My father would take my twin brother and I to the L&N yards in Louisville, KY at least once a month.    One time when we were about 8 or 9 we rode in a 0-8-0 switcher that was spotting cars in industrial leads near the water works in Louisville.  But somehow, college and the Air Force set my career path for many years.

  When the chance to real railroading I took the leap.

First was the experience of exploring an real steam locomotive in 2003Click here to see that story!

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WORKING ON THE RAILROAD  or my short lived adventure of a lifetime.

In January 2004, I was laid off after nineteen years in the computer industry.  I spent the spring looking for work.  In June I heard that the Union Pacific Railroad in the Twin Cities was hiring "train service" crews.  So I applied and was accepted!    

Train Service is the crews that run a train:  the Conductor and the Engineer.  Most freight trains today run with just a crew of two.  The Engineer never leaves the cab, so the Conductor does all the work involved with moving trains from here to there including throwing switches, uncoupling cars and coupling cars when setting out or picking up cars at customers sites, doing the required brake tests, setting the hand brakes on cars set out or releasing the hand brakes on cars picked up, stretching the slack, lacing the air hoses, and keeping all the paper work.  Generally you have to be a conductor for at least two years before becoming an engineer.  While the engineer believes he or she runs the train, the conductor is in charge of the train. 

First was a three week, six days a week, "academic" training program.  The Union Pacific program was excellent, as were the materials.   The emphasis was safety over and over again.  We learned the rules - lots of rules.  It was all about a 146 page book of rules called the GCOR or General Code of Operating Rules.  There were quizzes every other day and a final for each of the six major sections to pass to get through the program.  The studying was every bit as intense as it was in college - I had less then five hours sleep each day just trying to keep up with the studying.   And a number of other things like hazardous material handling. 

To make a long story short, the job was great, the work interesting and fascinating.   It was not difficult nor hard.   All the people I met and worked with at the South St. Paul Section House with were great and very helpful.   It was a great experience. 

But my sixty-three year old body just could not adjust to the schedules and I could just could not get enough rest between each work period, even with weekends off, to 'recover' between work calls.  The eight hour work periods were not as draining but the twelve hours periods would have put me in the hospital in a week.   They were scheduled for eight hours but always ran twelve and there was one and a half to two hours lag time at the beginning or end of the period.   I was in the house just over nine hours and could not get into a sleep pattern that gave me satisfactory rest.  I felt I was becoming a safety issue to myself and the railroad.  So I elected to withdraw from the program after six weeks.  


Here I am, waiting in a cab for another train to come through the yard.  August 2004

I did all the things we learned in the classroom:  I set hand brakes on cars and released hand brakes on cars.  I walked the train and bled the air brakes and then rode hanging on the last car as the train was pulled forward another mile. 

I lined switches in the classification yards to send cars being "kicked" down the correct tracks to make up trains in accordance with the switching plan put out by the yard master.

I brought the power back to a joint on a cut of cars, then stretched the slack, called the "red zone", laced the air hoses and opened the angle cock, and cleared for the move.

I always had my “grip” with me - a large gym bag with my lunch, rain suit, extra gloves, books of rules and regulations, lantern, extra battery for the lantern, etc.  If you are going on the road, you may also carry a spare air hose and hose hangers.

First thing you have to do is get on the engine.  The first step may be 16 to 20 inches up so you always use two hands.  If you are carrying something, like the grip or a water cooler, you toss those up on the top platform first, then climb on board.  Always use two hands - it is one of the rules and is for your safety.

The 16 cylinder diesel engine may already be running - idling - imparting a light pulsating vibration to the cab like rumm, rumm, rumm two or three times a second.  The engine is in the center of the locomotive, with the generator on the front and the air compressor on the rear.  The generator is DC - 600 volts to drive the traction motors on the axles. 

This is looking out the door on my right.  Our two engines have pulled a cut of about 70 cars as far forward on the track as we could without "fouling" any other track, and are waiting for a train to come through, then we will take the first 23 cars and pull them forward to start shoving and kicking then onto the yard tracks to put them on the right tracks to make up trains that will be leaving latter on in the day or night.  After the first 23 cars are done, we will come back against the remaining cars and get the next 20 to 25, depending on weight and/or length, and so on until they are all spotted.  Then we will get the next big cut of cars left from another inbound train.

When you first get to the section house, you collect three things: current track warrants, the track plan and the switching plan.  The track warrants detail any restrictions on the tracks in the area.  These restrictions might be to go slow between certain mile posts or they might detail where maintenance crews are working in the track.  The track plan shows what each track in the yard is being used for and how many cars are on each track.  The switching plan shows what cut of cars we will work with today and where (on which track) each and every car will go.  The switch plan also shows what is in each car and what each car weights. 

And this is looking out the window on my left.  The train on the right has three SD90MAC engines on it - the biggest available, and about 114 cars.  It is waiting for the crew to take it to Iowa.

These are many rules, which like all rules, all designed to keep you from getting injured, a sample:
Always expect there will be a car or engine moving at any time, on any track in either direction.
Never step backward (you could trip and fall, possibility bruising yourself or falling under a moving car.)
Never step on a rail. (you could slip and fall, or trip and fall, possibility bruising yourself or falling under a moving car.)
Never walk between the rails of a track and always cross tracks at ninety degrees.
Never get on a moving car - except for three special occasions.
If boarding a moving car always get on the leading end and never ride on the end, always the side, and always face the direction of movement to watch for things that might smack you.
When riding on cars, always hang on with that least three points - two feet and a hand, two hands an a foot, etc.
Always keep one foot outside the rail when lacing air hoses.
Never cross a track within 20 feet of the end of a car
Whenever working on the end of a car, like changing an air hose or knuckle, always have 50 feet clear between cars.
Only cross between coupled cars on the crossover platform and only on cars with platforms.
Never leave a cut of cars (or engines) without setting hand brakes sufficient to prevent movement.
Never “bottle the air”.
Always anchor the air hose at the glad hand on your thigh if opening the angle cock on a charged airline.
When walking between tracks and a train is moving on one of the tracks, always face the movement to watch for things that might smack you.

In the pictures below, of the classification yards, how do you know which track to put which car?  Every fright car has a ID or a number consisting of the railroad abbreviation, like UP or BNSF and a unique number. For example UP0345.  Each car also had a radio frequency transponder on it call the AEI (Automatic Equipment Inventory) device.  These have been in use since 1994.  There are AEI detectors at each end of the yard leads that can "read" the ID of the car as the train passes.  This is sent to the railroads big computer and then to the computer terminal in the yard masters office.  So the yard master can get a list of every car that has been parked on the inbound lead.  The the computer will also show details about the car, like what kind and how long it is, etc.  And the computer will also show what is in the car, where it came from, who the shipper is and where it is to go and who should receive the shipment.  From the information, the yard master can make up a "switch list" what shows what car or cars go on what tracks. 

This is the south end of the yard, looking south.  The track on the left is the "main track" or main line.  There are eleven tracks in the yard with a 'ladder' or 'yard lead' on each end.  The nearest switch seen here is for track 9 and the lead continues and turns into track 13.  The two farthest tracks on the right, track 1 and 2, are the switching leads - trains coming in from other locations tie the cars down on these tracks.  Track 3 runs from the yard all the way past the section house and joins to the main line about a mile further south.  Track 1 joins track 2 then track 2 joins track three. 

The yard master will designate tracks for making up certain trains.  For example, tracks 4 and 5 may hold the cars for a train going to Kansas City.  The terminal switching crews, using a power consist of two engines, will move each the cars from the inbound tracks onto each of the assigned tracks until each train is made up. 

When a train is ready, the crew will pick up their power consist and come against the cars and pick them up.  In this case of the Kansas City train, they may pick up the cars on track 5 and pull them out to where then can shove them back onto track 4 to pick up the rest of the assigned cars.  This is called 'doubling' or "you will have to double 5 to 4."

Once the train is all put together, the conductor will do a brake test by walking the length of the train (which might be between 4,000 and 6,000 feet depending on how many cars and the type of cars) and inspecting each set of brakes of the train.  First the brakes are 'set' and the conductor walks one side of the train, the at the end of the train, he will have the engineer release the brakes and walk the other side inspecting to see that each brake is released.  He will also verify the EOT device or End of Train Marker is installed and working.  The EOT device replaces the caboose and is a battery powered thing attached to the last coupler and connected to the trains air brake line.  It used radio telemetry to display in the cab at the engineers station that the trains brakes are working correctly - or not.

So there are terminal crews that do the switching making up trains, and road crews that take the train from city to city.  Some intercity trains may roll straight through, while others may have to stop along the way at customers locations and either set out cars or pick up cars that are ready.  The cars in any case may be 'loads' or 'empties'. 

This is the north end of the yard.  The main track is still on the left.  The long cut of cars on the right is on track two, with track one to the right of it.

The yard track just to the right of the main track is track thirteen of the yard. (See the later pictures of the yard below)  The yard lead (with the engine on it with its light on) runs into track three.

One track will always be kept clear of any cars and this track is called the "runner" to allow thru trains to "run through the yard" if the main track is fouled or blocked, as it is in this picture. 

The "main track" is always controlled.  You must always have clearance to move or occupy the main from the controlling railroad dispatcher. 


This is the Minnesota Commercial "Midway" yard  in northeast Minneapolis, usually called "The Commercial".  This is an "interchange" yard, where cars and trains from the different railroads are dropped off and remade into trains going to other destinations. 

For example, the train may come in from Glencoe MN (TCWRR) with mixed freight.  It will set the cars out on a designated track, then the Commercial will rearrange them onto different tracks for the BNSF, etc.  These railroads will come in and pick up the cars designated for them from one or more tracks and take them to their yards where they will be made into to trains going to outbound cities. 

The white paint marks on the rails are clearance point markers - where no part of a car or locomotive can be beyond that point toward the switch because that would "foul" the adjoining track and block movement at best and cause a collision at worse.

                                                                            When I was working in this yard, it was in the dark of night and pouring rain!

This is looking west from the location of the above picture looking toward the Union Pacific 'East Minneapolis" on the right or the BNSF 'intermodal' yard on the left.  One BNSF main track is on the far right and one on the far left.

So to get from the UP yard to the 'Commercial' the train has to cross an interlocking of several controlled tacks and make calls to the appropriate dispatchers for clearance to "make the move". 

Even when collecting cars from two tracks at the "Commercial", the train may be required to pull up and into the interlocking before it can shove back to the double, so it may have to wait for clearance again just to do the double.  The wail may be to allow a thru train, like Amtrak, or a 'zipper' pass through on the main track.

Once the double is made, another clearance is required to pull across back to the UP yard, and maybe another wait


This is the far east end of the UP East Minneapolis yard on the left (with the UP locomotives and cars sitting on it) and the BNSF intermodal yard on the right with the BNSF main track in the middle.


This is the south end of the South St Paul yard shown above, looking north so the main track is on the right. 

The white spots on the tracks are sand from where the engineer used sand to get better traction.


This shows that the switch for track 12 is lined for track13 - that is straight though.  It it was lined for track 12 it would be yellow.  (But always verify the switch is lined as you want, do not trust the target (the green or orange flag on the switch.  If the switch was "run through" the target may be 90 degrees off..)


Also note the car on the right has a 'cross-over' platform but the car on the left does not.  You can only between cars with a cross-over platform.   

This shows two hopper cars that are coupled, but before they are made up into a train (or a block of cars) they will first have to be "stretched".  That is a power consist will pull the whole cut of cars forward to see if any couplers are not locked and thus pull open.  Out of 50 to 70 cars, there may be three unlocked knuckles, but you have to fix them one at a time. Fix and stretch again.  Once all the couplers are verified locked, the conductor will walk the length of the cut and lace any air hoses that are found open, as they are here. 

Note the car 'number': DME47235

The small gray rectangle on the car on the left, on the lower sill, between the two bushes, is the AEI device mentioned earlier.