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Training: One size doesn’t fit all

Written by Doug Riddell
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Doug Riddell

Until I draw my last breath, I’ll remember that the speed on the curve at Dry Wall is 55 MPH. There were 331 speed restrictions on the 330 miles of the former B&O between Washington, D.C. and Pittsburgh, Pa. (as well as 22 open train order towers) I had to know to qualify as the engineer of Amtrak’s Capitol Limited in 1986, but I’ll never forget that one.

My qualified pilot engineer, the senior man on the division, intentionally allowed me to creep up to the last point at which I could safely apply the brakes. There, I saw the yellow sign reminding me I had to be at that reduced speed. “Bob, you almost let me get into that curve too hot!” I shouted.

“Oh, I wasn’t going to let you do that, but I wasn’t going to keep reminding you either. You’ve got to learn, and I’ll guarantee you that you’ll remember that speed restriction long after you’ve forgotten everything else I’ve tried to teach you,” he chuckled. And he was right. Some of us learn more quickly than others, some much slower, and others simply never catch on.

The problem is, to do the job I did for most of my railroad career, you had to learn, or you didn’t qualify. And if you didn’t qualify, you didn’t work. It took me six months to qualify between Washington and Pittsburgh. Considering that you must learn the territory coming and going, that’s roughly 660 miles of twisting, rugged mountain railroad to conquer.

I was lucky. Most of the old heads I fired for, and studied under, were steam engine hoggers. They quizzed me from the time I went to work until I got into my car to go home. Did you know that the main air reservoir for an Atlantic Coast Line 1800-series 4-8-4 was cast into the frame? I do. Steam was long gone when I was hired by the railroad in 1977, but most of my teachers thought it was their duty to make sure I was prepared for anything and everything, just in case.

My indoctrination on the Amtrak GE P-40 lasted less than 20 minutes, however. When I refused to make my daylight run from Richmond, Va., to Washington Union Station, at the controls of a new locomotive I’d never seen before, my trainmaster gave me a quick, pre-departure tour of the cab, and agreed to ride with me. Good enough. “After all,” he argued, “it’s like driving a rental car: The controls are all the same. You simply have to get used to where the knobs are. You’ve been running locomotives for 20 years. This should be old hat to you.”

At Ashland, Va., our first stop, ten minutes up the road, he bailed on me. “You did fine. I’m going to drop off and catch 67 back to Richmond. I’ll have an instruction manual waiting for you tonight.” I did fine, luckily, and that manual was waiting, just as he promised.

The complaints about the lack of adequate training voiced by some employees in the wake of the December 2017 Amtrak Cascades tragedy in Oregon are certainly going to factor into the final report by the National Transportation Safety Board. The quiet, confident professionalism and communication skills of NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt are very reassuring. Both there, and in the more recent Amtrak collision into a standing CSX freight on a siding with an improperly aligned main line turnout near Cayce, S.C, it’s clear that under his leadership, the board’s exhaustive investigation will leave no stone unturned.

But how much training is enough, and who decides what is too little? After the fatal January 1987 Chase, Md., wreck on the Northeast Corridor, where an Amtrak train rammed into a set of Conrail locomotives that had run a stop signal, the FRA prescribed a framework for locomotive engineer training and licensing, leaving the specific details up to the individual carriers, recognizing that what was applicable for one railroad wouldn’t necessarily work on another. If the issue of training does figure significantly, will the FRA set the same tone for territorial qualification training as it did for licensing? It hopefully will. One size won’t fit all.

Because Amtrak employees’ assigned runs are lengthy, and in many cases involve multiple railroads and starkly different types of terrain, it may even be necessary for training and qualification practices to vary within a single region or operating division. For example, at the same time I operated the Capitol Limited along the winding Potomac River Valley and over the steep Allegheny summit, one weekly assignment I occupied also had me making a round trip over the former Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad, and CSX’s straight, flat former Atlantic Coast Line main, 400 miles to Florence, S.C., where the speedometer pegged 79 MPH for seemingly endless stretches. Extra-board engineers and conductors are subject to being called to run either route, as well as the dark, foggy path shared by the nocturnal Crescent, as well as regional trains to Lynchburg and Roanoke, Va.

In preparation for extension of the Lynchburg service to Roanoke, Amtrak deserves an “A.” It awarded employee assignments weeks in advance of the startup, sent a locomotive and coaches to the Star City, and had engineers and train crews making twice daily round trips over the new territory—day and night, so that they were familiar with just about any condition they might encounter. Additionally, since the crews were to run from Washington to Roanoke, Amtrak stipulated only those who already were qualified to Lynchburg were permitted to occupy the assignments. Everything went off without a hitch.

As far as training goes, it’s not the number of days you spend qualifying. It’s the quality of the days you spend training. Simply checking off a box on a form to satisfy some arbitrary minimum requirement indicates only that you were present. There is no guarantee that you gained any knowledge whatsoever. There’s no comparison between standing behind the engineer, looking over his shoulder and watching the scenery fly past, along with a half dozen other people, and having your hand on the throttle, feeling your locomotive accelerate or noticing how effectively your train slows down when you apply the brake. Learning to run a simulator makes you proficient at running a simulator. It aids in the process, but it doesn’t make you qualified to operate a train.

My first five days as a switchman trainee were spent at the side of a tenured yard conductor—for free, before I was permitted to “mark up” to be called to work for pay purposes. Two years were required before a brakeman could be promoted to freight conductor, and an additional two years passed before a freight conductor was given the hat badge and gold buttons to affix to a passenger conductor’s uniform. The year I hosteled locomotives around the terminal and fired freight and passenger trains at the tutelage of a veteran locomotive engineer, before I entered the classroom, helped make sense of what I was to be taught by instructors from their books and lectures. Both were invaluable. Today, it’s done the opposite way.

An individual’s success as a railroader depends on ability as well. Applications flood human resources departments. Most have diplomas from high school or college. Some folks have even completed their Master’s degree. It doesn’t necessarily make them a good railroader. Technology can’t produce a locomotive engineer out of an applicant who can’t understand how trains stay on the rail, or why it’s possible to go from one track to the other without a steering wheel.

At the end of my first day of cubbing in 1977, my conductor received his paycheck, and with another employee, went to a bank to cash it. “Why two people?” I asked. He needed someone to witness his “mark” on the back of his check, it was explained to me: One of the best conductors I ever worked with could neither read nor write. It reminded me of someone else whose limited education and poor penmanship embarrassed him—so much so that he dictated the answers to his conductor’s promotion to his wife, who, in turn, wrote them in his examination booklet. He was John Everett Beazley, my grandfather, who was adamant that his grandson would go to college—which I did. When the confirmation of his promotion was received, the superintendent included a nice side note, addressed to my grandmother, expressing his belief that she too, would likely make a fine conductor.

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