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Trains are fascinating – so fascinating, in fact, some people insist on crossing the tracks directly in front of an oncoming one to get a closer look.
Enter Operation Lifesaver. This longstanding public education campaign was the reason Union Pacific invited media types to come for a ride in a locomotive last week. You bet I was on board.
As part of the operation, Union Pacific runs select locomotives back and forth through railroad crossings around the greater Tucson area while motorcycled police officers monitor the crossings – and hand out tickets.
Some folks may not know that crossing the tracks when the lights start to flash, even before the security gates come down, is a violation.
Would you believe even a bicyclist tried to go around the gates?
While safety was the main aim of the train ride-along, the experience also provided plenty of fun facts, stories and tidbits that I just had to pass along.
Union Pacific A to Z
All Aboard – Famous and fun phrase that Union Pacific conductors don’t really get to utter. Unless, of course, they want to talk to a bunch of freight cars.
Alerter, hot box detector, and other safety devices – Union Pacific trains feature all kinds of doodads that help keep them safe. One such gadget is the alerter, a flashing red light and tone that activates if an engineer doesn’t make any moves in 45 seconds. This assures he’s still alive or, if he did keel over, he’s only been dead for 45 seconds before the train shuts itself down.
The hot box detector is attached to the track and counts the number and temperature of the axles that ride over it. A woman’s voice comes over the computer to tell conductors and engineers the results. “The voice started out male,” explained 35-year Union Pacific veteran Chris Moore, who worked her way from secretary to manager of operation practices. “They found out guys pay more attention to a female voice.”
Other train safety devices include a front-mounted video camera, outside microphone (which I heard gets some pretty darn interesting conversations since people forget it’s there), drag detectors in case a cargo strap comes loose or you’re pulling along a cat, and a little black box that records all movements, just like in airplanes.
Bells, whistles, buzzers – Three main noises a train makes. Bells ring when trains are passing other trains. Whistles blow when they are going through a railroad crossing. Buzzers buzz when a train is about to go into automatic shut down after sitting idle for 10 minutes to conserve fuel. Union Pacific is one of, if not THE biggest fuel consuming entity in the nation. At last check, U.P. consumed more fuel than the U.S. Navy.
Coins – One of the favorite things for people of all ages to put on the tracks. The best coin story was three little boys who were hiding in the bushes to see what would happen to their nickel and two pennies as the train ran over them. The engineer and conductor saw the boys and, instead of continuing down the track, they stopped the train before they hit the coins and the conductor got out and pocketed the money.
Drunks – Folks more apt to be hit by train than sober people. Best story concerning a drunk was one in the Midland/Odessa, Texas, area who was hit by a train and didn’t even know it. The train kept going and the drunk guy went back to the bar. “Someone had to go to the bar and tell him he was hit by a train,” said Mary Gulley, Union Pacific manager of administration. The guy had three broken ribs and one broken arm – but was still merrily guzzling his grog.
Engineer – Person who drives the train. As you’d guess, most are men but there are about five or six women engineers with Union Pacific in the Tucson area. The engineer is different than the conductor – the former drives the train while the latter is responsible for the train, freight and crew. Many are certified to do both jobs so they can switch off during longer hauls. Our pal Randy Fitch does both jobs and he doesn’t even get mad when people don’t realize the difference between the two.
Freight – “Everything, everything, everything.” Train loads range from automobiles to chemicals, lumber to pharmaceuticals. Fitch said he’s even seen a medical load of something radioactive and, although he doesn’t recall exactly what it was, he said it wasn’t too horribly hazardous. “Nothing that would make you glow in the dark,” he remarked.
Gear – Employees need to at least wear earplugs and closed-toed shoes. Leave your flip flops at home. And don’t wear lots of white, either. “It’s really a dirty job,” Moore said. “Trust me.” You’ll also want a florescent safety vest if you’re apt to be hanging around the tracks. The blinding neon yellow is much snazzier than the ho-hum orange, if you ask me.
Hobos – While hobos on, in and around trains are not as rampant as they used to be – especially in the Union Pacific train yard where its own police force is constantly on patrol – hobos still exist. They are especially common on trains coming north from Nogales for some reason. A few sweet little camps are set up not far from the tracks along Speedway and we did see another encampment between the downtown Tucson train depot and Ruthrauff Road.
Injuries – Of course most folks who are actually hit by a train are going to suffer some injuries. But engineers and conductors are at risk, too. One big no-no is getting off the train on the wrong side. Each engine has a ladder on either side, with employees expected to use the one that leads to the side of the tracks rather than another set of tracks. Some have erred and stepped out into the path of an oncoming train. Another potential injury are those bullets that come flying through the train windshields. Thankfully only one such instance was recalled and neither the conductor nor engineer was hurt. But one is still too many.
Junkies – Evidence of their existence is found on the tracks in the form of needles, one of which stuck an employee some time back. He had to be tested for AIDs for two years following the incident. Tests came back negative. Other needles – big, giant needles – were found on tracks around Pima Mound Road where there’s a horse run. We’re guessing steroids rather than equine heroin on those.
Killing time – Union Pacific employees know about this all too well. One of the lengthiest trips recalled was a jaunt from Tucson to Phoenix that took 16 hours. Engineers, of course, are busy driving. But even during the slowest of waiting periods, conductors are not allowed to read, do crossword puzzles or play games that involve wadding up toilet paper and throwing it at the engineer.
Love – Romance on the rails is not uncommon. Employees are often together for long stretches of time, a condition that could result in rabid fights – or marriage. While no one could produce an exact number of employees who met, fell and love and married while working at Union Pacific, they did rattle off at least seven different couples in about three minutes. The farthest-reaching local love story was a guy from Yuma who married an L.A. woman.
Maximum speed – Union Pacific engines can trek up to a maximum of 70 mph, although their speedometer does reach to 80 mph. You’re looking at about 35 mph as the maximum speed through town, down to 20 mph or so over the crossings.
Nine hundred – Number of Union Pacific employees in the greater Tucson region known as TE&Y, or train, engine and yard employees. While 900 is an impressive number, that’s down from about 1,200 TE&Y employees before this recession that people still insist is not a recession.
Operation Lifesaver – Longstanding public education program aimed to reduce collisions, injuries and deaths at railroad crossings and trains right of ways. Union Pacific consistently participates in these mini-missions with the Tucson Police Department and other local police forces. One week-long Operation Lifesaver between Tucson and Phoenix resulted in 262 tickets for motorist traffic violations and trespassing as well as a criminal arrest.
Prize bull – The livestock that is always hit when livestock is hit. Trains never hit limping pigs or lame, dying cattle. They only hit the prize bulls worth thousands of dollars. Livestock owners get reimbursed as it is the train company’s responsibility to fence the livestock out rather than the owner’s responsibility to fence the livestock in. For real.
Quote – Best one I got was from Christ Moore regarding the thick manual full of train safety rules and regulations:
“Every rule is written in blood,” Moore said. And she meant it literally. “Somebody either got injured or hurt that caused the rule to develop or to change as time goes on.”
Robberies – No, outlaws on horseback no longer run after a train to hijack it. But there were rampant robberies near El Paso several years back. Bad enough the FBI had to get involved. Rather than trying to hijack the train, the conniving thieves would rig something on the track to activate a red signal. Once the train stopped for the red signal, the thieves would unhook the pins that connected the cars to the engine. The engine would pull out and the unhooked cars would be history.
Shopping carts – One of the fine pieces of debris commonly placed on the tracks. People like to see what a train can run over. They think it’s fun.
Toilet – The most unusual debris engineer/conductor Fitch recalls on the tracks on a trek between Tucson and Phoenix. New houses were going up nearby, so the toilet was unused at least. As one would guess, the ceramic toilet shattered into a zillion pieces when the train smashed through it. No, it did not break the windshield. No, nothing hit the fan, either.
Underwear, folding chairs, milk crates, mattresses, bicycle parts, graffiti, garbage, snack wrappers, steering wheels, tires, totes and toads – just some of the things probably found on and around the railroad tracks across the nation.
Violations – One of the most common safety violations for which motorists – and even bicyclists – get a ticket is crossing the tracks when a train is coming. Another way to get a violation is to crash right through the gate, like one semi driver did while the crew was running an Operation Lifesavers between Tucson and Phoenix.
Wave – Hand movement that train conductors and engineers actually return. Yaay. Fellow motorists tend to never wave back, but rather look at you strangely, while semi drivers have a wave-back percentage around 58 percent. Train employees are generally happy to return the wave and they get plenty to return as many folks remain fascinated with trains (count me as one of them).
Xanax – See freight.
Yellow line – Prominent thing you must stand behind when a train pulls into a station. Failure to do so can result in serious injury, death or getting yelled at by a train employee.
Zero tolerance – What a train has for something in its path. Some trains are more than 2 miles long and can take up to a mile and one-half to come to a complete stop. When asked what he does when an animal runs in the train’s path, Fitch was quick to respond, “Feel bad for them.”
Thankfully most animals – and people – have enough sense to get out of the way when they either see or hear a train coming. Those that aren’t well, we can probably find them at the bar in Midland/Odessa.
Are you enamored by trains?
Do you try to beat the train if you’re driving near the tracks?
What’s the last train ride you took?