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June 24, 2019

"Getting There" - Confessions of a Metro-North Engineer


“Bobby” has every kid’s dream job:  he’s an engineer for Metro-North.  But “Bobby” isn’t his real name because he’s asked for anonymity so he can speak candidly about his work.

“I used to love this job,” he says.  “But I still take pride in it.  Not just anybody can drive a train safely and smoothly.”

Bobby has worked for the railroad for over 20 years.  Engineers start at $32 an hour, climbing to $46 after eight years. He says Metro-North receives thousands of applications each month for a handful of job openings.  After randomizing applicants’ resumes the railroad puts candidates through extensive background checks and, if finally hired, they enter a 15 to 18 month training program.

The “rule book” for being an engineer is daunting, requiring them to know every aspect of the railroad’s locomotives and rail cars’ systems to memorizing hundreds of miles of tracks and signals on all three lines.

Right now the railroad has something like 500 engineers (the folks who run the trains) and 900 conductors and assistant-conductors (trainmen).  Before every run the crew meets for a safety briefing and review of train order bulletins:  where the speed restrictions are, which stations operate with bridge plates, etc.

In a typical day the engineer and conductor work as a team all day with assistant-conductors rotating through.  They’re all paid by the hour and can do maybe 4 or 5 runs a day if their assignment is New Haven to Grand Central.  If they have a layover between runs they get three-quarters pay.  Anything over 8 hours is time-and-a-half overtime.  So are worked holidays.

Twice a year, when the timetables change, all the assignments are rearranged based on seniority.  First pick goes to the engineer with the most seniority (33 years on the job) which means the last-hired pick up the crumbs… nights and weekends.

If he volunteers to be on the “Extra-Board” Bobby can be called in on as little as two hours’ notice to work, challenging his family life.

“The benefits are excellent,” he says, including medical and dental coverage, 12 paid holidays, a dozen sick days and up to five weeks paid vacation per year.  Spouses also get a free railroad pass, but not employees’ kids.

Safety is always Bobby’s top priority but he does feel pressure to keep running on-time.  Even when he’s ordered to run slower for safety reasons, he risks being called into the office on arrival at Grand Central if he’s really late.  And he’s also not a fan of the new TV cameras in his cab monitoring his every move.

“But I get it.  As engineer I’m responsible for up to a thousand passengers, entrusted by the railroad with millions of dollars of equipment,” he says.

When an eight-car train is taken out of service and he has to run a six-car replacement, he knows conditions will be standing-room-only and passengers will be upset.  “We’re just told (by our bosses) to do the best we can.”  But he doesn’t enjoy seeing the angry gestures (and one finger salutes) from passengers on the platform when he pulls into a station 15 minutes late.

“I just wish that the passengers knew how much is involved in running a railroad,” instead of taking out their anger on the crew.


Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

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