A day on the rails with a conductor-in-training
The smell of burning diesel hangs in the air at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum as the red-and-black 1824 locomotive positions itself on the track, the sound throbbing across the rail yard.
A few minutes after 8:30 a.m., Grant Harris walks up to TVRM's shop at 2202 N. Chamberlain Avenue. His work boots crunch on the bits of eastern coal mixed with gravel. His black vest is unbuttoned and he wears no tie. Already, his white shirt is rolled up in the morning heat. It's the beginning of his shift for the conductor-in-training.
Every day, five times a day, TVRM takes passengers on the three-mile trip in historic rail cars pulled by historic locomotives, over the Chickamauga Creek, through the Missionary Ridge Tunnel, and down to the East Chattanooga station where the museum restores its stock. On weekends, it drives trains to Chickamauga and the Hiwassee River Gorge.
TVRM was created in the ’60s, as volunteers came together to preserve what once was America's "way of life," according to TVRM's Operations Coordinator Steve Freer.
"Railroads built our country, especially during the industrial revolution," he wrote in an email. "Rail passenger service was the most reliable form of transportation and thrived through the years. Until automobile travel became widespread, that is."
Grant Harris is one of the newest members to the crew at the Tennessee Valley Railroad, a recent hire who is working toward his certification as a conductor.
Five months ago, Harris was "semi out of work." Previously, he managed a machine shop and did some surveying. A friend of his, a steam engineer at TVRM, told Harris the railroad was looking for conductors and got him an interview. So Harris came in, with little knowledge of trains and a year's growth of a red mustache. He got the job.
Then came the difficult part: becoming a conductor and learning the duties and rules of the rail. The Federal Rail Administration has strict regulations for the operation of a rail, and certifying conductors is no exception.
For conductor certification, Harris needs about 100 to 150 hours of on-the-job training with a conductor and 40 hours of classroom training. So far, he's logged over 150 hours on the job. But he still needs to sit down with an instructor. After that, it's a test, then he can stand by the train and yell, ”BOAAARD!”
Mark Ray, president of the Association of Tourist Railroads and Railway Museums, who also sits on the board of the TVRM, said one of the greatest challenges for historical and tourist railroads is complying with "increased regulation of a result of recent 'Rail Safety Improvement Acts.'" Other challenges include finding funding, preserving their collections and getting the next generation interested in rail preservation.
For Harris, complying with the regulation begins as soon as he clocks in. First, he fills out his weekly time sheet and then his monthly time sheet—FRA rules to ensure he's getting rest. He buttons up his vest, puts on a black tie and he's out the door to the train.
Unlike the sign near the gate that advises passengers "keep off tracks…Do not go under, between, or climb on equipment," Harris is certified in how to walk around and between the trains. He gives a quick rundown: Make sure the locomotive isn't moving. The engineer should know you're back there. Look both ways before crossing the tracks. Try to cross as perpendicularly as possible. Don't step on the rails. Give every train a 10-foot berth. "Basically, give everything a wide berth," he said.
Walking down the train and punching tickets may be the most visible thing a conductor does on a train trip. The conductors at TVRM also speak about the history of the place, anything from talking about the 4501 Mikado Locomotive, the steam engine listed in the National Register of Historic Places, to the significance of the area around the train tracks during the Civil War.
However, the primary duty of the conductor is to be responsible for the train. The engineer may have been going too fast, but that's the conductor's problem, Harris said.
Before setting off, Harris and the conductor, Bo Ellis, conduct a class-one terminal brake test, walking the line of cars, checking every brake. First, the two release the handbrakes—essentially the equivalent of the emergency brake in a car. The engineer deploys the brakes and checks for air leakage while the conductor walks the train, checking each brake pad.
"This is the major, major inspection of the day," Harris said.
By 10:15 a.m., the train starts at the East Chattanooga station, a glide, and it's off to pick up passengers.
"There's always something that the conductor can do," Harris said. Say the air hose keeping the brakes off bursts in the tunnel, a worst-case scenario. Sand would drop on the rails to provide extra friction. The train's brakes will snap on and the train will stop. The locomotive, still running, would still be emitting carbon dioxide and fresh air would be hundreds of feet away. It's a scenario the crew is certified to handle. While the engineer unhooks the locomotive and drives it out the tunnel, the conductor would move the passengers in the open car into an air-conditioned one. With the situation stabilized, the crew would walk the train to find the ripped hose. And all that should happen in just a minute or two.
"It's not particularly hard work," Harris said, "but there's a lot to it."
The crew pulls into Grand Junction Station, picks up passengers. As the train sets off, it turns around, executing a Y-turn. Harris stands on the back of the train to serve as the crew's eyes as the train backs up, ready to stop the train should, say, a child run in front of it. No one is allowed to stand with him at the back of the train: more FRA rules.
He speaks in shorthand into his microphone, telling the engineer the distance he can see, and the engineer replies by sounding the horn. With the train facing the right way down the track, Harris returns to the middle of the train as it rolls toward East Chattanooga.
Jonathan Shields, the historical interpreter for the day, stands in the middle of the train cars explaining the history of the area, the war and the trains into a microphone.
Three miles later, the train pulls into the East Chattanooga station. Passengers disembark to watch the crew turn the locomotive on TVRM's turntable. While Shields explains the physics of it all, Harris operates the mechanism. After Shields takes the passengers to check out the 4501 Locomotive, Harris points out some equipment he finds interesting.
He stops before a hulking, black beast: the 610 locomotive. It's the newest steam engine in the TVRM's collection, Harris explained. It was built in the 1950s, just as the nation made its switch from steam to diesel. This was during the height of McCarthyism, Harris said, and the Soviet Union still used steam engines.
The 610 was a replica of the trains there and was used to train U.S. soldiers how to use Soviet equipment—just in case. Ironic, given the fact that the TVRM operates on a historical track a short drive away from where the Unionist Andrew's Raiders commandeered a train in 1862 in Kennesaw, Georgia, leading the Confederate South in what is now known as “The Great Locomotive Chase.”
But what are Harris' favorite cars? They are at the other train yard, and include the Pullman car 98, a private car used for business trips, mahogany paneled, with a kitchen, three sleeper rooms and a sitting room.
Also, there is the Clover Colony, a Pullman sleeper car. Marilyn Monroe was filmed in it for the classic movie "Some Like it Hot."
Shields is done with his talk. It's time to go. Harris does another quick check of the brakes, the class-three test, standing at the end of the train to make sure the brake pads make contact as the engineer engages them. "Good application. Release,” he says into his radio, then it's all aboard and back to Grand Junction station.
"I was never big into trains," Harris had said earlier in the day, with the implication of,”before now.” Among the volunteers, the crew and people walking up buying the ticket and taking the ride, "There're a lot of people here that really know what they are doing," he said.
For him, the most fulfilling part of the day is when he meets some of the 110,000 passengers that ride the rail every year. "One on one…that’s my forte," he said. Many tourists come on board; Germans, some coming from Volkswagen, and tour groups of French.
Having studied in Germany and visited both Eastern and Central Europe, Harris can say hello in French, and speak a bit of German.
And for any group, "I want them to feel like a passenger on the Southern rails line in the 19-teens,” he said.
After a 15-minute lunch, the crew is back on the train, returning back to East Chattanooga. The train stops. There's Harris. He's standing by one of the rail cars, hands behind his back, talking to passengers as they disembark. But soon, it will be “All aboard!” again.