Railroads & Locomotives History From the Cab: Even if the shoe doesn’t fit, wear it!

From the Cab: Even if the shoe doesn’t fit, wear it!

By Doug Riddell | November 12, 2023

Proper safety boots are a must on railroads, even if they don't fit

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A railroad worker, dressed in blue jeans and a blue windbreaker, climbs the ladder to reach the cab of a passenger locomotive
My good friend, the late Ernie Alston, took pride in keeping his work shoes looking good. Here he is, at the end of his trip, detraining from the cab of Amtrak’s Auto Train at Lorton, Va. Doug Riddell

Even if the shoe doesn’t fit, wear it! This is the sort of story that often leads to the most frequently asked question posed to me after speaking publicly, or having written a humorous story: “Did that really happen?” Yes, it did. To quote my favorite locomotive engineer school instructor, “If you tell me that a steam generator started pumping out ice cream, I won’t doubt you, but I will ask what flavor it produced.”

My son, Ryan, reminded me of this incident, which occurred some years ago when I served as a local union official. Initially, I’d forgotten all about it, but as he quizzed me, it all came back into focus.

A fellow Amtrak engineer appeared at the crew room where I was reporting for duty and explained that he would be operating my train in order to satisfy the host railroad’s road foreman of engines. He had been suspended for more than 90 days for a rule infraction and needed to demonstrate to the road foreman that he had both learned his lesson and remained proficient over the territory over which he wished to operate our train. As his union rep, I immediately sat down with him and counseled the anxious engineer to make sure that he’d crossed each “t” and dotted every “i.” This particular official was one of the most despised managers on any railroad. I’d been told that he vowed to settle the score with the doctor who delivered him, for spanking him on the rump to get him breathing.

I’d have to “ride the cushions,” back in the train, so as not to interfere with the examination, so before leaving the locker room,  I satisfied myself that the engineer had all current rule books, documentation, and safety equipment. Then, I glanced at his feet. “You’re wearing loafers! Ol’ Jerkmeyer won’t even let you get on the engine, much less re-certify you.” The fellow lived an hour away and had left his shoes at home. I quickly retrieved a spare pair of boots from my locker.

The road foreman walked into the room just as we realized that the engineer’s feet were fully three sizes larger than mine. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Mr. Jerkmeyer paid no attention. He was busy scrutinizing the engineer’s paperwork. “Everything seems in order. I see you’ve got your work shoes and safety glasses. Let’s go.”

I met my inbound conductor on the platform and explained why I’d be riding with him in the coaches. We both looked toward the engine and noticed the engineer limping painfully toward the head end and burst out laughing. “Can’t wait ’til we get to the end of the line tonight to find out how things went,” the conductor grinned.

The trip was successful. The engineer was reinstated, and ol’ Jerkmeyer was apparently none the wiser. “I guess you’re through with my shoes now, aren’t you?” I asked the engineer. What he suggested I could do with those shoes, we won’t discuss!

Check out another “From the Cab” adventure from Doug Riddell here.

Clad in work boots and a overalls, a railroad worker works on paperwork at a table.
Well-fitting, work shoes with proper ankle and arch support, are not only important for a railroader’s safety, they are a rule requirement for anyone on or about the railroad property. Doug Riddell

4 thoughts on “From the Cab: Even if the shoe doesn’t fit, wear it!

  1. James and John,
    Things are so different now. When I first hired on in 1977, employees in passenger service usually wore street shoes–especially uniformed trainmen and conductors. I had a conductor who arrived in Raleigh with me in my Amtrak years, who was met by the NS train master and road foreman of engines. Each stood on one side of my conductor and said, “Now, what’s different about OUR shoes and YOUR shoes? On, WE’RE wearing approved safety shoes, and YOU’RE wearing Wingtips–which, while they are stylish, are NOT safety approved. Bottom line, the conductor got ten days in the street without pay.

    1. Once I was called to work, and nearly at the yard office realized I had my street shoes on….make an 11 mile dash to Wal Mart to score the cheapest size 13 boots they had….they were horrible, but they got me through a round trip…and I did get into the office to sign up on time!

  2. Back in the late ’60’s, first few weeks of USAF flight training, O’dark thirty report formation: One student was asked why he had one BROWN shoe and one BLACK. “It was so dark when I got up!” Thankfully, this lad ‘washed out’ a month or two later!

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