The story of the railroad is the story of America. The men who built and worked the railroad made America happen. Fortunes were made and lost by ability to freight materials and they still are today. Tracks must be well maintained and effectively managed not just because federal regulations demand it, but because delays, crashes, derailments and even a bumpy ride waste time and so cost money. CSX is the largest of two freight railroads which run east of the Mississippi. Yesterday, I visited their training facility for train drivers (locomotive engineers), conductors, signal workers and carmen. Back in the early 1900s, thousands of conductors were killed falling from railcars every year. “Hump-jumping”–the practice of running from the front to the back of a train along the roof of the cars– has been outlawed, but conductors still have to hang off the back of the final car giving hand signals to the driver when the train must back up into a yard.
Some of the trains can be 2 miles long. It is dangerous work but thanks to the training offered by CSX in Atlanta, much safer today. Watching apprentice welders mending broken tracks with clay molds, thermite and flux I was struck by how little has changed in the last 150 years–the process is much the same today as in the industrial revolution. The same is true of signal maintenance (we got to check the points) and track repair.
Of course, signal changing is now completely electronic but in all other areas the men (99 per cent of them are men) who do the work of the railroads today are working with tools. materials and processes that would have been very familiar to their forebears. Railroads run in families and many of CSX’s new hires are from families who have worked on trains and tracks for generations. CSX takes care to cultivate a sense of pride, heritage and legacy in the professional railroad workers it creates today.
We were all rather more wimpy than the usual intake at the training center –and I was the wimpiest of all–but by the end of our day we had a clear understanding of why railroads and their maintenance matter to us all (“if it’s in your life, its on our railroad”one of the instructors told us). . We learned why it is a mistake to mix moisture with molten steel, and the importance of safety on a job site. “If you’re not on a ladder, you can’t fall off it” said one of the instructors, steering me to safe and solid ground.
We developed new respect for the hard, hot and heavy work that goes into keeping America on the right track. It will hardly surprise you to know that I am not mechanical workshop or engineering material but I came home and helped Hansel with a job application for track utility work with CSX at Curtis Bay in Baltimore.There is romance on a railroad and real beauty in steel–a great job for anyone strong, skilled with his hands, mechanically minded and happy to work hard outdoors.
Thermite weld track repair (not CSX)