More than just a glorified truck driver

Written by Doug Riddell
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Doug Riddell

The late Louis W. Menk once said that locomotive engineers were “nothing more than glorified truck drivers.” Those words stuck in my head throughout my 35-year railroad career—mostly spent as a locomotive engineer. To be quite honest, the thought of them angered me every time I climbed into the cab of my locomotive. I was determined to prove him wrong—to be the best damn engineer in the world.

To be placed in proper context, Menk spoke those words as chief executive of Burlington Northern, at a time when labor and management had locked horns in contentious national contract negotiations. Yet even in today’s technologically advanced world of railroading, I sense the same regard for the men and women who place their hands on the throttles of the machines that move America’s railroads: 
“Aw, come on. How hard can it be?”

I’ve always thought Menk was merely reflecting a defiant position meant to justify management’s bargaining position. However, after absorbing the results of reaction to testimony given in recent National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) hearings, I’m not so sure that we’re still not attempting to lessen the importance of the position of locomotive engineer, especially with predictions that someday soon, trains will safely race across the country void of any human touch.

The two key findings so far in the Dec. 18, 2017 deadly Amtrak Cascades crash seem to focus on the 30 MPH curves on an otherwise mostly 79 MPH route, and the training—or more aptly, the lack of it—afforded the locomotive engineers who were to operate over the newer passenger-train-only section of track. One headline claimed that the engineer was given only a minute or so seconds to familiarize himself with the controls of the new Charger locomotive picked to lead the inaugural train.

I’m not technologically trained to the degree to which I feel qualified to comment on the engineering wisdom of designing a route with a 30 MPH speed restriction in the middle of a 79 MPH stretch of track. I don’t know the grade or other factors that should have been taken into consideration. Neither am I in a position to comment on the specific incident itself. I’ve never run a train of any description in that area of the country. I’m retired and I live on the East Coast, although I’ve been in the Pacific Northwest, where I rode and took pictures of operations there as an Amtrak company photographer.

I can draw on my personal experiences, though.

I took advantage of Amtrak’s offer of employment to operate trains for them in 1986 when they ceased to run their off-Northeast Corridor trains by contract with freight-only host railroad employees. In addition to the more than 600 miles of Seaboard Coast Line trackage, over which I’d run both passenger and freight trains, I was place in a geographical work zone additionally comprised of routes fanning out from Washington to Pittsburgh and Atlanta and Savannah, as well as Hamlet and Charlotte, N.C., and Newport News, Va.

I no longer carried in my pocket a small compact SCL rulebook and traditional division timetable. Instead, I toted an encyclopedia-size case filled with the materials I would refer to in order to be instantaneously knowledgeable of the signal systems and rules of eight different railroads—the RF&P, B&O, C&O, Southern, Washington Terminal, NORAC, Conrail and Pittsburgh & Lake Erie, in addition to Amtrak’s own requirements. I also had to have in my possession, and had to be totally familiar with, up-to-the-minute documentation, that allowed me to be ready for service on any run, at any time, given only a two-hour telephone call.

Suffice to say, most of my first year was spent in intense learning mode. My teachers were tenured locomotive engineer pilots, supplied by the host railroads, who patiently rode in the cab with me. A few were bitter that I’d taken jobs to which they had previously been entitled. Most, however, were senior employees, proud men who would retire once I was deemed qualified to operate on my own. I then began tutoring junior engineers over the various routes.

Each host railroad had its own parameters for qualification. The 110-mile, cab signaled, train controlled RF&P required that I knew the name of every road crossing and body of water between Richmond and Washington, as well as interlocking and defect detectors. Comparatively flat, it had few curves, and within a month, road foreman Larry Hudson pronounced me ready to solo. Conversely, I spent a full six months of twice-weekly round trips between Washington and Pittsburgh on the Capitol Limited, before I received Chessie’s blessing.

In addition to being rules qualified on the Washington Terminal, NORAC, the [former] B&O, Pittsburgh & Lake Erie and Conrail, I had to know all of the speeds and braking points—331 speed changes in 330 miles. When you consider I had to run in both directions, that was 662 braking points to commit to memory over a territory that ranged from the 79 MPH commuter-heavy Metropolitan Subdivision, to winding 30 MPH curves cresting and descending Sand Patch grade. At the time, there were also 22 open train order towers along the way where, at the sight of a yellow or red light, I had to be ready to hoop up orders issued subsequent to my train having left the terminal—any of which could possibly involve life threatening conditions, should I err in compliance.

My qualification test consisted of road foreman Jim Hogan sitting down with me and saying, “Take me from Pittsburgh to Washington, naming every signal, interlocking, tower, tunnel and speed.” And I did.

Amtrak management, at the time, realized what a daunting task I and my coworkers faced. Even though the cost was enormous, they were more concerned with safety. As time wore on and expenses became critical, there was more pressure to “learn faster.” I prided myself in being able to answer the phone to go just about anywhere. Even when my seniority permitted me to hold a regular run, I made the required trips to remain qualified on each run every six months. Amtrak was glad to pay for me to do so, even though I might only make a trip to Pittsburgh or Charlotte in an emergency. Losing my qualifications meant I had to go back and start from scratch.

Each year, I spent an entire week in “block training.” There, I was not only recertified in territorial qualifications, but kept abreast of such things as CPR and company policy. I had a comprehensive physical, classes on the operating rules of each of the shrinking number of railroads (due to mergers), idiosyncrasies of each class and make of motive power and type of our varying roster of equipment. My operating license was renewed while in class. It was the cost of doing business, and doing it safely.

Sometimes, especially toward the end of my career, when Amtrak was facing severe budget cuts, it was obvious that there were areas where the bean counters were eyeing every penny that was spent, and training actives were compressed and abbreviated in order to save money. The first General Electric diesel-electric P40 locomotives that arrived on the property were clearly different from anything most of us had ever seen. Gone were the duplex mechanical air gauges that had been on the universal AAR control stand, replaced with a desktop that featured computer screens with constantly changing numbers. There were all kinds of knobs and buttons that were totally foreign.

When I signed up for my daily run from Washington to Richmond one morning, as I parked my car, I saw this rakish silver nose with red and blue strips staring at me. Engine No. 823 was a brand new GE P40. No one had informed me that I was to get one on Amtrak Regional train No. 86 that day, so I called the trainmaster and explained that he’d have to find someone else to operate it, or provide me with a qualified pilot. I wasn’t going to attempt to haul eight passenger-filled coaches over the RF&P into Washington Union Station otherwise. No way. Nada. Cancel the train if you must. Call buses. Take me out of service. I don’t care. This isn’t safe, and as Operating Rule 108 says, “When in doubt, take the safe course.”

I worked for one of the best young men Amtrak ever had the insight to hire and place in their management training program, so he quickly appeared at the crew room door. “I’ll be your teacher this morning. I wouldn’t ask you to do anything I wouldn’t do myself, or demand you perform your job when safety is in question.” Since No. 86 originated in Richmond, we had a lengthy sign-up—a half hour to go through the P40, examining everything from the air compressor to the air brakes. As I watched my manager, I felt more relaxed. It was like acquainting myself with a rental car at the airport. The fundamentals were the same; it was mostly a matter of finding out where the buttons and knobs were.

We left Richmond with my supervisor at the controls. I watched and learned. Our first stop was Ashland, Va. (where I now reside in retirement), only ten minutes out of the terminal.

“So what so you think. Not really that much to learn, right?” he asked.

“I don’t think it’ll take me long to get used to it,” I replied.

“Good, because I’m going to jump off here and catch No. 67 back to Richmond. I’ll have an operator’s manual waiting for you at the ticket office when you get back tonight,” he assured me, as he opened the door and headed down the side of the locomotive.

“I’m not totally comfortable,” I said.

“Look, you’ve been a locomotive engineer for years. You know what you’re doing. Believe me, I wouldn’t hand it over to you if I had any doubts about your ability,” he smiled. “My job’s on the line too. If you have any doubts, stop the train and don’t move until you’re satisfied.”

So I did. We had no problems. True to his word, the operator’s manual was waiting for me when I got back to Richmond on No. 81, the southbound Silver Star—powered by two trusty, familiar EMD F40s, thank goodness. I ran some of the last F40s and even GE P30CHs Amtrak rostered before they were sold off or scrapped. I retired running GE P42s—the same ones my son now operates, and does so expertly.

Looking back on that day I ran my first GE P40 though, I have to wonder what Louis Menk would have thought. Would he have felt comfortable with his business car hitched to the rear of my train, knowing I’d received just a few minutes briefing, or would he have admitted to himself that the man at the throttle was indeed more than just a glorified truck driver?

When I read that one of the suggestions from the Cascades hearing was that no engineer should be allowed to operate over a territory without at least four round trips, I simply shook my head in disbelief. Louis Menk must have been grinning from ear to ear, too.

The grandson of a C&O Railroad conductor, Richmond native, and Virginia Commonwealth University mass communications graduate, Doug Riddell is a retired locomotive engineer and Amtrak company photographer, hired initially as a switchman by the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad in 1977. Riddell was a radio and television broadcaster who still does public speaking and commercial voiceover work, and is occasionally called upon to comment on railroad-related topics for network and cable television news. His exploits have served as the nexus for decades of anecdotal glimpses into the life of working railroaders that have found their way into books, magazines and documentaries. A published author, Doug’s first 1999 volume, “From The Cab: Stories From A Locomotive Engineer,” was an outgrowth of his monthly “From The Cab” column in Passenger Train Journal and RailNews. He recently completed a poignant yet comical look at the late Eugene Garfield’s original auto-train, and work is progressing on the history of its successor, Amtrak’s Auto Train. Residing in Ashland, Va., where Amtrak and CSX trains ply the main line through the center of the picturesque southern college town, Doug and his wife, Sandy, a retired educator, are first-time grandparents of twin boys, whose father, Ryan, follows in his father’s footsteps at the throttle of the Auto Train and other Amtrak runs.


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