Railroads & Locomotives History An engineer’s life: My first conductor trip

An engineer’s life: My first conductor trip

By Michael Sawyer | February 14, 2024

A work day gone awry with Mr. Helpful by my side

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green train on track with city in background
Burlington Northern No. 2083 North is a typical consist of my days on 675/676. This photograph from October 1983 shows the old coach yard between the train and Union Station (NP) at 21st Street in downtown Tacoma. That area is now the home of Interstate I-705, connecting I-5 with the Tacoma’s Waterfront. Michael Sawyer

I was promoted to conductor on May 19, 1981. This was rare at my age — I had just turned 21 at the end of 1980.

In those days you had to have two years on the road as a brakeman to even qualify to get a promotion. The test I had to take had 519 questions altogether with the first 250 being essay questions on train orders. I ended up with an overall score of 96%.

In the fall of 1981, I worked as the head brakeman on local 675/676 the Seattle (Balmer Yard) road local to Centralia Yard doing work at select stations. I had been on the job for about two months when the regular conductor went on vacation, so I marked up as the conductor to try it out.

We had an engineer off the Seattle (Interbay) extra board who I will call “Mr. Helpful.” The trip was uneventful from Seattle to Auburn. Approaching the south end of Auburn Yard, I called the yardmaster about our work. I then called the Auburn telegraph to relay information to the dispatcher, to perform work in yard limits. This was in the days before the installation of Centralized Traffic Control (CTC).

We made a cut on the train, pulled past the crossover, and waited for a northbound Amtrak train to pass. The crew lined across into the yard to make the set-out and pick up. While my crew was doing the work, I made the call for permission to go to beans (lunch).

At this point, Mr. Helpful was directly across from my caboose a couple of tracks over. I could see from my vantage point that he was a little upset about going to beans, at least that is what his hand signs indicated.

We finished the work, returned to the southbound track, got everything together and crossed back over to the northbound track, shoving to clear the crossover. Mr. Helpful was still giving me an ear full of “help” on the way over to Cool’s Café for the best cube steak sandwich in town.

Lunchtime allowed a southbound Amtrak train to pass without us being in the way. Mr. Helpful was still visibly upset that a conductor on his first trip didn’t ask him if he wanted to stop to eat. I turned and looked at Kenny, my rear brakeman, and asked, “Didn’t you tell me you were hungry?” He replied that he did in fact tell me this. I looked over to Mr. Helpful and said, “Well, there you have it.”

I told Mr. Helpful that Kenny and I had been on the job together for two months and this was what the regular conductor did. Mr. Helpful then asked how much we made on the job. I said we were a 100-mile NP Local. Mr. Helpful said, “Is that all?” I replied, “Yes, that is why we work 12 hours, and why we make the moves out at the crossover like we do — we need the overtime to make anything.”

After lunch, we headed south with work at Tacoma, West Tacoma, East Oly, and then into Centralia. The real fun started when I called Centralia Yard and announced we had 54 cars, Mr. Helpful looked back and said, “They must really be short cars.” Somewhere along the way I had forgotten to subtract the set out after one of the pick-ups. This was when the conductor still physically managed the waybills.

I tied the crew up and sent them back to the hotel while I tried to figure it out off the clock. I was getting my paperwork out when a vehicle hit the power pole across the street outside the depot and knocking out the power. So, there I was using my lantern when I had a light-bulb moment — the missing paperwork was in the caboose. I walked from the depot to the other end of the yard to my caboose. Well, in all the excitement I had forgotten my caboose key in the depot.

Ah, that’s no problem I thought, I will climb up and crawl into the cupula. While I was inside, I noticed a bright light approaching. Oh, no it was the switch crew to grab the train and switch it out. Boy, the last thing I needed was the switch crew having to unlock the caboose so I could get out. I would never hear the end of it.

Somehow, I managed to squeeze out of the caboose door window. They never saw me. If I tried that now, I’d probably still be stuck in the door window.

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