If you've ever dreamed about taking a train across the country to explore America, you're definitely not alone. But what's really happening behind the scenes when you're on board? A former train engineer and conductor and current Amtrak volunteer did an IamA on Reddit, and he revealed some pretty interesting secrets about what it's really like on the job.
1. Is it really boring or exciting?
"Well, each day is different, so it doesn't get boring in that sense. Being on duty for 11 and a half hours on a slow-moving train can get to be a drag, but there are always slow orders to observe, crossings to go through, kids to wave at . . ."
2. What's the weirdest thing you have seen on train?
"I once watched my engineer poop into a plastic trash bag while still at the controls."
3. What would happen if you fell asleep for an hour? Would the machines make sure the trains are all right or would something bad happen?
"If a crew member falls asleep, the train will go into emergency braking and stop. We have alerters in the cab that sound an alarm every so often (more often when going faster). If you don't press a button within 30 seconds or so, the train will stop."
4. Would you recommend the job?
"If you don't mind working long hours in variable weather conditions and basically never being able to count on being at home for birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, or anything, then yes. It's good money and a good retirement system, and good benefits. But it is a career that kills marriage."
5. Do you notice pennies on the track before you squish them?
"Unless you actually see the person place a penny, nah, you don't notice them."
6. Is there a specific route you would recommend for someone to ride on Amtrak for the great experience?
"I'd say the Pacific Surfliner or Coast Starlight."
7. Do you know anything about technical differences between engineers' jobs on subway and light rail compared to larger vehicles like those on Amtrak?
"There wouldn't be a lot of fundamental differences in the skill set; running equipment on a steel track is basically the same everywhere. It'd be akin to driving a Honda versus driving a Toyota in terms of the cab layout. The big difference would be characteristics of the train. A light rail operator wouldn't need to worry about managing slack, or being unable to start the train because it's stretched, or waiting an hour to pump air into the brake pipe."
8. Do train conductors sometimes put people at risk trying to make up time?
"In today's world, no, not at all. Each section of track has a speed limit, and there are always managers out in the weeds with radar guns checking to see if the crew obeys all rules, including speed limits. The Operating Rules are taken more seriously on the railroad than any other industry I've ever seen, other than aviation and nuclear energy."
9. Why are "you" guys always parking your trains right across streets during rush hour?
"Well, one thing to bear in mind is that in 99 percent of cases, the tracks were there before the streets and neighborhoods were. Railroad lines are broken into a series of blocks, each of which is governed by signals. Some signals, called 'absolute' signals, are controlled by a dispatcher at a remote location. A train coming to a red light an an absolute signal must stop before passing it. Sometimes, it's just a matter of another train crossing the track ahead; other times, it's because of a stalled train, a derailment, or a logjam up the line. The engineer doesn't get to move until the dispatcher says so and clears that signal. Sometimes, that means blocking crossings."
10. Did you hit any vehicles at grade crossings?
"Yes. Some resulted in fatalities, while others didn't. It's a terrible feeling . . . But at the end of the day, when you get hired you're told that it's not a matter of if, but when you'll have a fatality, and most people handle it pretty well."
11. How does track maintenance work on really long lines?
"Track maintenance is broken down by subdivisions. You've got a boss in charge of about 150 miles, and he coordinates repairs and upgrades as he sees fit, or as directed by corporate."
12. Being a train engineer is a job I've always secretly wanted to do — is it fun?
"There are elements of it that are fun. But it's a job like any other. It gets to be a grind, and you hate it sometimes. But overall, I enjoyed it."