How to run a railroad … engine

By Gerre Joiner | Published Wednesday, May 1, 2019

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Every once in a while, someone wanders in to the outer office (Whataburger) and makes life bigger and better for us old coots who usually talk about the same things every day.

Today was a good day. Cody Bill came in. I thought I knew him but couldn’t remember why. I introduced myself to him and invited him to sit with us.

“We’ve met before,” he said. “I lived in Lubbock. Grew up in Slaton.”

Then I remembered we had met some time ago, had visited about our common West Texas roots and he had told me he was an engineer with Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad. I introduced him to Bobby Watts, who was seated across from us, and we started asking Cody questions about the railroad.

Our questions included:

How do you manage the two engines (one in front and one in the rear)? How do they communicate … one pulling and one pushing?

Answer: It’s on a radio signal. It’s possible to run them in sync or separately. In order to keep the slack at a minimum, many times the front engine is pulling, and the rear engine is braking.

Bobby asked, “How many cars can you pull?”

Answer: 120 coal train cars is the max. The number varies with weight.

He then asked, “How much slack is in the line of cars when you start from a standing stop?”

Answer: 25 to 50 feet. Very little slack on an intermodal train. (Forgot to ask, “What’s an intermodal train?”)

How many men are on the train at one time? Two guys – the engineer and the conductor. The conductor is the boss. He’s in charge of all the communications and paperwork. The engineer is responsible for making the train go “choo-choo.”

We asked Cody about his typical day at work.

He starts at Haslet and goes to Amarillo.

He’s not allowed to work more than 12 hours without a break.

His typical cargo is shipping containers.

A Haslet/Amarillo run takes between 36 to 48 hours, round-trip.

I asked, “How do you control the gates (barriers) on the streets that cross the railroad line?”

Answer: Sensors detect the presence of the train approaching an intersection and lower the gate so that traffic is blocked. It also raises the gate after the train has passed.

I could tell Cody wasn’t interested in talking about how many unfortunate people he had seen who tried to beat the train and lost.

He said, “From my seat in the engine, I can see everything. I’ve seen drivers make bad decisions (trying to sneak around the gate after it’s gone down) and get hurt. I’ve seen a lot of close calls. Even with me blowing the horn and trying to brake, bad things happen when folks don’t use their heads.”

We asked, “Who owns the rails?”

Answer: BNSF owns the rails and an easement 50 feet on either side of the rails.

I asked, “How fast do you travel with all those cars?”

Answer: 60 miles per hour is maximum. They average about 50 on long stretches.

They usually come through Decatur moving slowly. It’s uphill as you approach our fair city whether you’re headed to Amarillo or to Haslet.

I asked, “What about that long string of coal cars we see coming through town? Where are they coming from and where are they going?”

They’re coming from the Black Thunder Mine in Wyoming and are headed to Houston Power and Light. They have to change crews out several times on this long trip.

I sent my rough draft (first-try) copy to Cody so he could check everything for accuracy.

He wrote me a note after the corrections: “You didn’t say anything about my old truck, momma, prison or getting drunk! That would have made the perfect country song!” (Thanks, David Allen Coe!)

It’s not every day a person gets to interview a train engineer.

Thanks new friend, Cody!

Gerre Joiner is a semi-retired church musician and has lived in Decatur since 1999.

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