Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Blizzard 2011- Chicago Metra Commuter Service Behind the Scenes

I just found my husband. I was so worried that I started calling hotels in the town where he was supposed to put his train to bed last night. On the first call, I found him. I didn't want to wake him up, so I asked the clerk not to ring his room. An hour later, I couldn't take it anymore- I wanted to know if he had eaten or slept recently. I called the hotel again and asked the clerk to ring his room. The clerk told me he had just checked out, but that he had told my husband that I was concerned. My husband told him that his phone had lost its charge and said he'd call me when he could plug it in.

Finally he called me from the train station employee break room. He said that he was up all night. His trains were delayed for hours because of switch malfunctions. He spent much of the night outside the train on the ground clearing switches and throwing them. He was really, really cold. When they finally finished their shift, they couldn't get from the station to the hotel- just as I had thought. They spent the night in the employee area of the train station. There were two armchairs for about 10 people. They took turns on the chairs. My husband got about 2 hours of really uncomfortable rest in. Then they found a ride with someone who had a four wheel drive truck who took them back to the hotel. My husband just ahd enough time to pack up his stuff, check out, and leave. He had to be back at the station by 1:30 to work, and wasn't sure if he could get a ride if he waited longer.

So now he and the rest of the crew are holed up at the employee area of the station. My husband brought his food from the hotel - he only has a few pieces of bread and a few slices of lunchmeat and 2 prepackaged pastries. When he starts work, he will undoubtedly work another 12 hours, and will possibly end up stranded again.

So this is my appeal to rail fans out there: If you are riding trains during blizzards or other natural disasters, please remember that railroad workers are doing their best. Many work in outlying areas where they have little or no access to places to sleep, and no access to food. There are not even any vending machines where my husband is at.

I'm hoping that the station downtown will have it's food court open so that he can refuel there.

These train crews have it tough this week- I wish I could help them.

Blizzard 2011 - Wondering How My Metra Conductor Husband Is

My husband has been working commuter service in the Chicago area. I talked to him yesterday morning shortly before lunchtime. He went on duty at 1 pm and usually ties up around 1 am, and then heads back to the hotel in the outlying suburban town near the station where he starts his day- but now the blizzard has come and I don't know how he is. The roads are closed and roads are impassable. I've seen news reports that Chicago Metra trains were a madhouse, so I'm sure he's exhausted. I'm not sure if he had to go out and unfreeze and throw switches himself last night, or if there were enough maintenance of way people out to do that. It's pretty dangerous being out there in the dark, with low visibility and howling winds, working on throwing switches- especially when all of the schedules have been changed at the last minute to help load extra passengers due to the storm. It's easy to be out there, trying to unfreeze a switch, and actually not be aware of a train coming on a parallel track- conductors get killed doing that- especially when schedules have been altered and extra trains are running. Things get confusing. Miscommunication happens and people get killed- not often- but often enough to make me a little nervous.

So I'm a little worried about him. I'm not sure if he was able to get to his hotel at the end of his shift. The hotel is in an outlying area- not downtown. Not sure if he got stranded in his car, or if he had to spend the night in the train station, or on the train. He usually doesn't carry food in his grip, because he doesn't like the chance of bits of food messing up his paperwork, and the lockers on commuter trains are too small to carry an extra bag for lunch. He doesn't have room to carry pillows or blankets either. For all I know, passengers could have gotten stranded at an outlying station as well. Power has been out for tens of thousands of people- hoping that all of the train stations have power, that all passengers got home safely once they got off the trains, and hoping my husband is safe, and that he got some rest before going back to work today. I'd call him, but he could be sleeping, and I wouldn't want to wake him up if he's resting comfortably somewhere.

There are so many people out working in this storm- people of all professions- dealing with frustrated people. I'm feeling very thankful for all of them now- policemen, firemen, paramedics, doctors, nurses, electric company linemen, communications tower repairmen, and railroad crews- just to name a few. Let's all be extra nice to them next time we see them.

Monday, November 29, 2010


So Thanksgiving on the railroad had its ups and downs-- as life on the railroad always does. First, our conductor was marked back down to student status a week before Thanksgiving. He didn't mind that at all- more training never hurt anyone. On top of that, he was told, students never work holidays! Cool! We could plan on being together for Thanksgiving. So we went ahead and made plans. He worked right up until the last minute on Wednesday.

Then he came home from work looking stressed. He said that he was taken off of student status and marked back up again, and put on the board for Thanksgiving! It wouldn't have been too bad if we had planned it that way to begin with, but to be told that for sure we'd have a family Thanksgiving and then to have it yanked right out from under us... well, that's another thing.

I was a little upset, but we have to keep things in perspective: We appreciate this job. Lots of people are losing their homes in this economy, and right now the medical insurance is much needed. It would have been nice to have known ahead of time, but this is what we signed up for. This is life on the railroad.

So just when we got all adjusted to not being together for Thanksgiving, and helping the kids to adjust to THAT, our conductor realized that in fact, the extra board was moving very slowly. Not too many people were laying off sick. He might be home after all.

Then again, things might pick up and he might have to work.

So that's what Thanksgiving was like. It's not so much the stress of the schedule, it's the constant not knowing. You have to develop a sort of zen "live in the moment" attitude about family plans.

I'm working on it.

Really, I am.

So we were together for Thanksgiving dinner, and after dinner. I left my in-laws house a little early to get my hubby's uniforms ready, just in case he would need one (in case he got called for commuter service). It's a good thing I did, because I don't know if I would have had time otherwise. The call came just after I had fallen asleep.

Two lessons learned: Never, ever count on the conductor to be there, because he just can't plan on anything. Also, always, always have a spare passenger conductor uniform clean and ready to go- because he won't always get called to freight.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Back to Work - Again!

So my husband got called back to work a couple of months ago. I don't know why I didn't update the blog. I really should have. I think the roller coaster ride has burned me out- but now I regret now not posting all the little intricacies of life in the railroad bureaucracy- because by now I've forgotten most of what's happened.

But in a nutshell: My husband got called back by the Original Class One Railroad- the one that furloughed him. It was quite a surprise, because we weren't expecting him to start work until at least January 2011. He went BACK to conductor school, which was a LOT easier for him this time, considering it was his THIRD conductor school in two years. He was always at the top of his class, but it does get to be less stressful every time.

He's been bouncing around between commuter (passenger) service and freight. As a matter of fact, they're short on work again- so they put his whole class back on the training board again, and they are training again- which my husband is quite happy about- the more training the better. Being a conductor is a lot of responsibility.

Probably the hardest thing for my husband was learning to do the radio work. There's a lot of radio verbiage to learn. You just can't say things any old way on the radio in the railroad- you have to say things pretty specifically and in a certain order. Some of the younger guys seemed to pick that up a bit quicker, my husband said. But when you are past 40 (I won't say how far past 40), it's a bit harder to learn new tricks.

For me and the kids, the hardest part is the unpredictable schedule. For some reason, we have a hard time maintaining a normal sleep schedule when the family conductor's schedule is all over the place. It doesn't help when the railroad crew caller calls us at all times of day and night and wakes us up looking to tell my husband to go to work, EVEN WHEN MY HUSBAND IS ALREADY ON A TRAIN! Alright- I exaggerated. This does not happen at all times of day and night. It only happens IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT, WHEN WE ARE ALREADY ASLEEP. And it doesn't USUALLY wake up the kids. It just WAKES ME UP.

But in this economy, we're just happy to be here. This beats unemployment. It beats odd jobs. It pays better than-- well, for us, it pays better than just about anything else.

More about railroad life later. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Back from the Trip: Furlough Board is Moving!

So we are back from our trip.  Our dear conductor was missed.  We thought of him often, and wished he could be with us- but the plans had been made before he was let go from the most recent railroad job- and we were traveling with my sister, and there was no room for him.  He kept busy by refinishing our staircase floor while we were gone.

Yesterday he checked the furlough board and found that almost 40 people have gone back to work!  This is good news.  The president of the company has said publicly that the railroad expects to bring every single furloughed person back to work eventually.  I hope that's not beaurocratic hot air.

Tomorrow is our son's birthday. He'll be ten.  We can't afford to buy him much, or have much of a party.  I am making a cake from a mix, as I always do, and I will invite his best friend for dinner and cake.  I had hoped to get him a guinea pig, but we can't afford that now.  I am hoping a white rat or a rabbit will fill the pet void for him.

Someone said yesterday that there are jobs on the Gulf Coast, cleaning up the spill.  She said that they were paying $18 to $31 per hour.  We got excited, because we spent a number of years on the Gulf Coast, and we love that area, and would be thrilled to have temporary work there, working close to old friends.  We homeschool, so I could pick up the kids and we could go down there to be near the hubby.  We could stay a few months in our camper at campgrounds, homeschooling, visiting friends, taking the kids to see the historic sites there, and providing a home away from home for the husband.  Then I found out that the jobs are paying $8 per hour, and you have to be a Gulf Coast resident to be hired.

But my husband and his furloughed friends are speculating that they might get called back by November 2010.  Gosh that would be great.

Here's to avoiding bitterness, staying positive, keeping the dream alive, and loving our kids while they are still young, and giving them a rich childhood, even though we can't presently afford gymnasitics, and camp, and all of those other things that they ask for. 

We are very blessed, however.  Our kids have NEVER ever complained about budgetary restraints.  We have wonderful, unselfish kids.   Thanks be to God.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

My Sad Getaway

Tomorrow a.m. I am going on a three day trip with the kids.  My husband would have been out of state training, so I had planned to take the kids camping with my sister.  We had wanted to get our kids together, and also wanted to share expenses, and be together for added safety.  (Two women at a campground with kids, instead of 1).  Anyway, it had been my way of distracting my son from the absence of his father- particularly because his dad was going to be away for both Father's Day AND our son's birthday.  Now we are going, and leaving him behind.  We had already made reservations, and there isn't enough room for anyone else, AND we had planned this as a mom's getaway, so I didn't feel like I could bring the hubby along just because he is now not working.  But getting ready for the trip feels like I am packing to go to a funeral.  I feel badly about leaving him behind, especially since he feels so down about his recent job loss.  I'm hoping that he'll get called for an interview while I am gone.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Back to the Furlough Board

Well, my husband's career with the new Class One Road was very short-lived.  He went out of town for three weeks of classroom training and then started on the job training at one of the most complex freight yard in the country.  He was studying the GCOR when he wasn't working, and scrounging around at work for better yard maps than he had been given.  It seems to be a tradition on the railroad that good yard maps aren't just handed out.  Apparantly, you must procure your own by whatever means possible.  Hmmm.  Anyway, he discovered pretty quickly that he really doesn't like yard work all that much, but at least was money, which is something we pretty much needed.   He got along pretty well with just about all of the crews he worked with.  At the end of every day, they filled out evaluations of my husband's work.  He always got excellent scores, which he showed to me.  Then one particular person decided he just didn't like my husband.  He started making remarks about how he had gotten other people fired in the past, so we saw it coming a couple of weeks ago.  Then last week it happened.   My husband broke no FRA regulations, no GCOR rules, no internal procedures.  He made no safety violations.  As a matter of fact, the crew members that were there the day it happened were dumbfounded.  They couldn't believe it.   This is about the most unfair thing that has ever happened to us, and it feels like  a kick in the teeth.  It's almost enough to drive a Christian wife to cuss.   It's really stupid that on this particular road there seem to be no checks and balances.  If the supervisor doesn't like the color of your hat, he can fire you before your 90 days are up.

All I can say, is that that particular railroad does not deserve my husband.  We will shake the dust from our sandals and move on to bigger and better things.

Meanwhile, we got a call last night from the first railroad that hired my husband.  The occupational health nurse is going to start following his health.  My husband is in outstanding physical condition- so we think that (hopefully) this might be part of the process of getting furloughed employees ready to go back to work. Hopefully, this is part of the procedure aimed at making sure that (furloughed employees) are fit enough to return to work.  

If you read this, remember us in your prayers.  Resources are getting thin.  Patience is getting weak.  Morale is failing.  We're all sick of driving a car with no air conditioning, and almost no muffler.  My son's best friend's mother called today from out East to say she has cancer, and her son is missing my son, and I wish I had the money to just drive my son out to visit them.  But we can't.  My husband is applying for a job with our local city in the maintenance department.  If I didn't have chronic severe migraine headaches, I would take a night job.  Fingers crossed.  Maybe he'll get called back this year.