Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The First Week of Commuter Service

So my husband has been working his first week of commuter service. He's been staying at a hotel, even though his run isn't too far from home. We had thought it would be a motel, but it turned out to be a real hotel. It's better than taking chances with the weather. It's been icy and snowy and roads have frequently been closed this month. His peer trainer told him that he could bring his family to the hotel, so we are here with him. While he's been at work we've been swimming and watching cable. It has been a wonderful week for me and the kids, but a pretty rough week for my husband.

His first day of work was trial by fire. The weather really warmed up, the snow melted, and the City was hosting a bunch of festivals and free promotional events. The trains were full well beyond capacity. With 200 people per car, there was standing room only. It was a struggle for him just to work his way through the aisles to punch tickets. Add to that the fact that people were not thrilled to be standing the whole way, and the fact that my husband doesn't yet have the zones or special fares and discounts memorized, and you have a recipe for stress. He was supposed to work half a car under the supervision of another conductor, but that went out the window when they were swamped with riders. Usually that run is a sleepy run and not overly crowded. His trainer had to abandon him because they had to open the last car on the train that is usually vacant. Because the spike in riders was uncharacteristic for that run, they didn't have enough conductors to have a conductor in each car, unless they gave my husband his own car. My husband is the kind of guy with who has an amazing work ethic. He does not cheat or cut corners. He goes out of his way to be productive, usually not taking any breaks or lunches. He doesn't like to miss anything or make any mistakes. So it was very stressful for him trying to collect fares, because he just couldn't get to everyone, causing some people to ride for free. He felt terrible about that. As a new conductor it takes him much longer to calculate fares and punch tickets than the other guys who have works this line for years and years. In addition to collecting fares and punching tickets, he also has to open the door and assist passengers in safe boarding. Since he didn't know the run he didn't always know when a stop was coming up, so he would have to stop working on a fare to open doors and help with boarding. Some of the people deliberately try to avoid paying fares by ignoring the conductors when they come by. They pretend to be asleep or they bury themselves in their newspapers. Other people put their tickets away as soon as they are punched-- not problem for experienced conductors who know the regulars, but my husband couldn't remember who had paid and who hadn't. His trainer told him not to worry about it, that the RR didn't expect perfection. It's hard for my husband to take that advice. He wants to do a perfect job.

In the middle of the day he has a several hour layover in the City. The station has a crew area with a large break room, workout room, and sleeping area. He described the sleeping area as a darkened, quiet room having reclining chairs. I was hoping he would get some rest during the layovers, but no such luck. He was too nervous to sleep in the sleeping area. The lunchroom was extremely overheated and he was really uncomfortable there. Part of the problem was that conductors are not allowed to wear their uniform coats inside the trains. But it can be cold on the loading platforms. Since they have to get out at every stop to ensure passenger safety, it's too much of a hassle to put the coat on and off every few minutes-- especially when the car is overloaded. SO he wore long underwear to deal with the cold. Inside the crew rest area he was just too overheated to relax. Regular employees have lockers and change into street clothes to lounge in. Some of them tootle around the City, running errands, shopping, socializing. Trainees don't get lockers. Since 911 there are no lockers for rent to the public in the station, and he has to carry his grip (bag with railroad manuals and tools) everywhere he goes (per RR regulations). So he felt stuck, unable to rest, for 7 hours. That was really hard for him because he has not been sleeping well at night, because he's been nervous about this week of commuter service. He was much more at ease with freight work.

When he got back to the hotel he mentioned that his uniform shirt was too tight. I believed him when I saw the bruises covering the circumference of his collar line. That's tight! So while he was at work yesterday I drove around with the kids for 30 minutes looking for a store that sold sewing kits. We're not in the City, so it was a harder search than you'd expect. My son was feeling quesy and thought he was getting the stomach flu, so I felt guilty about making him drive around with me in search of needle and thread, but it proved to be worth it. His stomach ailment cleared up and I managed to fix one of my husband's shirts. It seemed to fit much better today.

Today might go better for him. He had known that they have easy chairs for crew to rest in. He didn't know that they actually have a dormitory room with rows and rows of BEDS-- complete with linens and blankets. Apparently that room is a better temperature. Maybe he'll be able to sleep a while since he'll be in a more restful position.

Monday, December 29, 2008

If You're 30 Minutes Early, You're a Half Hour Late

On my husband's first day of training he planned to show up 30 minutes early. He figured that if he showed up much earlier than that, he'd look like a nerd. So he walked into the classroom, fully expecting to have his pick of the seats. It turned out he was the LAST ONE there. They actually had run out of training packets for him. Since then, I've heard a railroad maxim, "If you're thiry minutes early, you're a half an hour late." That certainly seems to be true. I guess that's how they keep the trains running on time.

So even when the commuter train that he is working is only a half an hour away, he still has the option of staying in a motel. For right now, that's what he's doing. It seems like the best thing to do, especially in the winter.

If he ends up on commuter service regularly, I think even during warm months he should either stay in the motel that is close to the station, or get a GPS with traffic updates. I'd hate for him to miss a train due to a traffic accident. Two or three times in my life I have been more than an hour late to an event, even when I started out leaving an hour ahead of schedule, due to a traffic accident that completely stopped traffic. I'm afraid he could lose his job if that happened to him on the way to work. I'd love to know how other train crew deal with that possibility. It's especially important in passenger service. With freight service the time is not so sensitive.

My Hubby's First Day on the Commuter Line

Last night I helped my husband get ready for his passenger service training. I ironed his uniforms and packed them. I packed his lunch for today. He's spending the week at a motel near the station where the conductors board for his line. It's really only about 30 minutes away, but because it is a certain distance from the railroad regional headquarters, they offered to put him up in a motel. He decided to take them up on it for two reasons: First, he'll get to sleep in a little longer if he is right next to the station. He has to be there at 4:30 am.; Second, his trainer said that family members are welcome to stay with him at the motel.

This particular motel has a pool and cable t.v. We don't subscribe to any television service, and our antenna doesn't work very well, so watching t.v. is a treat for us. We really like Discovery Channel and History Channel. My daughter loves TLC. My son loves those channels too. We don't get to stay at motels very often so we are going to stay with him for one or two nights this week. I think the kids would get cabin fever if we stayed too long.

The room has a microwave and a fridge so I am bringing a spiral ham and potato salad and some microwaveable meals. The motel provides a continental breakfast. This will be a nice getaway for me and the kids.

So hopefully things are going well for him today. He has a seven hour layover in the middle of his day at a station at the opposite end of the line where he starts. He says there's a break room there and a t.v.-- but no one watches it because there's always someone sleeping in that room. They have recliners for train crew to sleep in when they are in between runs, working extra long shifts. They also have a workout room, but you have to pay an initiation fee to fund purchase of more equipment and maintenance for the room. My husband won't bother to join that until he is back from furlough, which is projected to start mid-January2009.

I am really glad that my husband chose to stay at the motel, because, according to the traffic report, the roads were super messy this a.m., with lots of ice, lots of wrecks littering the roads. He might have been late if he wouldn't have stayed in the motel. I think it would
not be good to miss the train when you're the conductor. Not good at all. What do you say to your boss-- "Sorry I'm late, I missed the train?"

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Commuter / Passenger Conductors Should Have First Aid Training

My husband just finished commuter school yesterday. The week of training covered the Americans with Disabilities Act, calculating fares, record keeping, an operating various systems in the cars such as the GPS system that announces the stations (which has to be programmed at the beginning of the day), operating the wheel chair lifts, operating the doors, and dealing with the climate control systems. They got their coin belts, ticket punches, two books of tickets (which they had to sign for). Next week they'll be riding the trains for a week, punching tickets.

I was surprised that they had no first aid training. I think that passenger conductors should definitely have first aid and CPR training. They are dealing with large numbers of people, some of whom are commuting after stressful days at work. I'm surprised that each car isn't equipped with automatic defibrillators. After all, flight attendants are trained in first aid, CPR and using automatic defibrillators. I did a Google search and quickly found a case of a man who dropped dead of a heart attack on a commuter train-- he didn't have time for a train to pull into a station where he could be met by paramedics.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Brace for Impact?

Since my husband hired on with the railroad, I have become fascinated with railroad operations-- possibly because one day the railroad will hopefully start paying for things like braces for my daughter, or emergency room visits for my son; possibly because the railroad is now in charge of our waking, sleeping, working and recreation schedules, and after my husband gets marked up we won't even be able to leave a two hour radius of our home as a family, lest my husband get called to go to work. Add to that the fact that even though we are facing a furlough because of the recession, we are so grateful that he will have a job to go back to when the economy picks up. After the recession we will be GLAD to live on call 24/7 365. So many people don't have hope for a better future.

So this new fascination for the railroad could be chalked up to Stockholm Syndrome-- that psychological state that describes people who fall in love with their captors. Or maybe I am fascinated because it's amazing that any large organization can move so many people, things, and machines around the country with such predictable efficiency and a remarkable degree of safety.

My husband has asked me to quiz him from time to time when he's preparing for railroad training tests, so I've read a good share of the GCOR. I've helped him practice radio verbiage for track warrants and Form B's. I've seen train orders and track bulletins. And somehow it's drawing me in, fascinating me.

Maybe it's because I can hardly get my kids from point a to point b without losing something or falling behind. Maybe it's because I wish I could run my family and my home as well as the railroad runs their operations.

What has really started to fascinate me lately is how media portrayal of railroad life compares to the real thing. I think it's really cool to find some video clips from feature films that portray railroad operations and then to show them to my husband and ask him, "Is that what it's really like?"

So yesterday I was checking out some train videos online and I found a link to a trailer for a Kevin Bacon movie, "Rails and Ties." It's about an engineer whose train strikes a suicidal mother who parked on the tracks, and how this event affects his life and his marriage.

The premise for the movie is so extremely contrived that I probably couldn't bear to watch the whole thing-- the child of the woman who killed herself hunts the engineer down and confronts him, screaming "You killed my mother!" -- far too contrived and melodramatic for my taste. Throw in the subplot about the engineer's failing marriage and his wife's cancer, and the movie seems greedy in its pursuit of control over the audience's emotions. I haven't seen the whole movie-- just a few clips-- so you make up your own mind.

Anyway, in the trailer, which shows the suicide scene, the engineer sees the woman on the tracks in front of him. The conductor yells, "Stop the train!" (They were way too close to stop and any conductor would have known that.) But it gets worse. The engineer looks at the conductor and, lamenting that he can't stop the train on time says, "Brace for impact!"

Brace for impact? Did the engineer forget he was in a train locomotive? Did he think he was in a 747 falling from the sky? Brace for impact? What impact? Didn't the screenwriter bother to interview engineers and conductors to find out what it's like for crews when their trains hit cars?

I told my husband about the scene, and he verified for me that his peer trainers have told him that people in the crew cab feel next to nothing when their trains hit cars. Locomotives are far too big, heavy and powerful to feel any kind of noteworthy impact.

Of course, what I really want to know is why the engineer didn't even bother to veer away from the car to avoid hitting her, but we'll take that up in another post. ;-)

Friday, December 26, 2008

Man Stuck on the Tracks in Front of My Hubby's Train

Last week my husband's train encountered a car stuck on the tracks. It was along a stretch of tracks where they crawl along at restricted speed, and they had enough warning to stop on time. It was an elderly man who had gotten confused and had driven off of the passenger loading platform onto the tracks, thinking it was a road. My husband said it was especially understandable because it was the middle of the night during a blizzard. Then later than night, when they were on their return trip, they saw a woman with an INFANT crossing the tracks in the same place! She was walking in the snowstorm with the baby, crossing the tracks right in front of them. Thank the Lord she was not struck by the train. She apparently was not trying to commit suicide. Who knows what she was doing there. It's a chilling image.

Sometimes my husband talks about the fact that most railroad crew members whose trains do hit people multiple times during their careers. He's dreading that, but knows it is not the crew's fault, and that there is nothing that can be done to prevent it, except for the railroads to continue to educate the public.

I'm not sure what it will be like for him, and for us, when the terrible day comes that he comes home from work and tells me that they hit someone.

A whole family was killed on tracks near our home last year, when a single mother went around the gates as she rushed her child to the ER. It was an emergency and she was afraid the train would tie up the crossing for too long.

I can't imagine the horror of seeing not just one person, but a mom and several small children meet their deaths.

May God bless all railroad workers with peace of mind and heart. May all people learn to be careful around railroad crossings.


The Railroad Has Got Me Trained

The RR has got me trained. I now wake up each and every morning at 3 am. My husband's only been in the railroad business since October, but I've had so many middle-of-the-night phone calls (even when he's out of town, working for the railroad) that my body clock is set. I can't seem to break the habit. This has left me drained.

Of course I am not complaining. I'm not the one going out to scrape ice off the windshield at 3 am to face a 12 hour day. My husband's got it worse for sure. But I DO feel like I am earning every cent my railroad spouse pension.

It's a good thing I was up early this a.m. I turned on the news radio just as my hubby headed out the door, only to hear that the road he was going to take was completely blocked. He would have gotten stuck for an hour or more (at least) on his way to his training. I called him on the cellphone to let him know to not take that route. He could have been SO LATE. And that could have meant that he could have gotten canned.

Also interesting is that today is one of the rarer days when it was feasible to head to work via commuter train. He was actually going to ride the line that he will eventually be assigned to- in order to check out the parking situation, etc. Anyway, that train struck and killed a person today. If the road he was going to drive to the station to board the commuter train had not been blocked due to a serious accident, my husband would have been on that train. A couple of my husband's RR classmates were on that train and saw the a severed leg sticking out from under the train. (I think they were boarding at the station where it occurred. As of this writing, no one has figured out the sex of the victim. It is not yet known if it was an accident or a suicide. It was very icy and windy yesterday, however, and it happened at a commuter station, so it could be that the person was running to catch the train and slipped on the ice. May that person rest in peace.

As for my husband, I am glad that I checked the traffic report before he headed out the door. He was able to change his route, avoid the traffic jam, and take a different route into the city, arriving on time. So I guess checking the traffic report will be a part of the daily routine.

Great Blog Entry From Another Railroad Wife

This blog entry is very descriptive about railroading and family life. The author describes how she and her husband make it work. Great reading for new railroad families.

Everyone Likes a Man in Uniform

Okay, so I HAD to do it. I made my husband model his passenger service uniform for the family during our Christmas gift exchange. I can't put my finger on it, but there's just something about a man in uniform. I don't generally see him with a tie and a coordinated outfit. My mom took all sorts of pictures of him with the kids. I'd post a picture, but he wants to keep his anonymity. The kids had great fun wearing his hat around and posing for pictures with him. It was fun.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Irony of Ironies: My Conductor Husband Can't Take the Commuter Train to Work

So my husband is training to be a commuter train conductor. He's also being trained for freight service. He's not sure what he'll be assigned to do. Originally it seemed like he would do a mixture of freight and passenger service. Now it appears he may be called up to do passenger only for quite some time.

Anyway, the ironic thing is this: He just figured out that he probably won't be able to take the commuter train to work! While all the commuter passengers take the train to the city to get to their jobs, my husband won't have time. The reason is that he won't have more than two hours notice that he needs to be at work, and the commuter trains don't run out to our house frequently enough for him to get to the city in that time period. It's actually faster for him to drive! The only reason why it is financially feasible to do this is that he has a free parking spot.

It's Christmas Eve-- he's at school right now. I've gotta run and pick up a few more things for Christmas dinner. This year he'll be home. We'll savor that, because next year (if the economy picks up) he'll be on the road.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas Week in Commuter School

My husband is in commuter school this week. He got his coin belt and two books of tickets and his ticket punch. Very cool. He's learning how to deal with unruly passengers, and how to calculate the fares. It's more complicated than it looks, he says, because of all of the discounts, zones, lay overs, and various passes. It's not rocket science, but it's a lot to memorize.

At first we had thought he would work his first passenger train on Christmas Day. How poetic! I was planning on buying tickets and taking the kids on the train to see their Dad at work. (Although I was a little nervous about that. I didn't want him to feel embarrassed and I didn't want to draw too much attention to him, or get him in trouble. He didn't seem to mind the plan, though.) The way things have worked out, however, he is in the classroom all week and will do a week of passenger train service next week. They have Christmas off so he'll be in school over the weekend.

We still want to buy tickets and ride his train. I think I'll try to do it on his last day of training-- although I have no idea how we would know WHICH train he would be on-- or which car, for that matter.

Now that my husband has got the uniform our son is starting to get really excited. He read The Polar Express several times last week. It seems that now he finally has a firm idea of what his Dad is going to be doing. Let's face it, freight service is just not as cool for kids as passenger service. My husband doesn't really care WHAT he will be doing. With the recession getting worse, he just wants to be working.

Very Cool Video

I came across this video on a RR blog called DogCaught. It is very cool. I am going to show it to my husband.

Fall Out From the Recession

My husband has been training with the railroad since early October. We had expected our insurance to kick in in early February. But now that the recession has hit, there isn't as much to ship, so the railroad is furloughing a lot of people. At first it seemed that we would make it through the recession without a furlough- he works for a busy subdivision at a major hub- that hasn't furloughed anyone in years and years. So around the time that his passenger conductor's uniform arrived (he was expecting to work some commuter lines as well as freight), we found out that he won't be using it much. He tried it on for us. It made him look ... OLDER.

We're expecting this to last about a year, and unfortunately, we won't have benefits during that time.

The up side is that during the furlough a lot of other guys might leave the railroad to seek other work, and some of those people might not come back. That would give my husband higher seniority when he does get back to work- and in the railroad business, seniority is everything.

The plan right now is to have a virtual spending moratorium while we wait for him get back to work. For the first few months he is going to get caught up on repairs around the house. We need to gut our bathroom, which is hideous. We need to paint the exterior of the house. And there is a myriad of minor repairs that are needed. It will be nice to get all that done.

Hopefully the recession won't last too long. In the meantime the uniforms hang in the closet as a sign of hope- that the railroad has invested enough in his training by now that they will eventually call him back when things pick up.