Because train robbers aren't really a thing anymore, while pirates and terrorists are, railroads are still a popular way of transporting stuff from point A to point B. Driving a freight train is the type of job that doesn't seem like much of a challenge (they don't even have to shovel the coal anymore!), but every time we say that about a job, we turn out to be laughably wrong.
Our streak remains unbroken after talking to "Rick" who's a conductor for one of the biggest freight railroads in North America. He says ...
Most consumer goods today are transported via planes and/or trucks rather than trains, because this isn't the Old West anymore. But where modern freight trains excel is in toting around the scariest shit you could ever imagine. "We haul goods and commodities that are too dangerous to be transported by road," Rick explains. "Things like bombs for the government, nuclear fuel rods, tanks and military equipment, and liquid chlorine, which if it were released into the air could kill people nearly instantly ... If that chlorine tank ruptures, people are going to die." Hold up, chlorine? The stuff they put in pools? What's so scary about that?
Well, let's put it this way: In 2005, a freight train derailed in Graniteville, South Carolina, causing one of its chlorine tanks to burst. Five thousand people had to be evacuated from the area, with hundreds requiring medical assistance, and nine died from exposure to the gas. That's the stuff Rick has to haul during some of his runs. It's almost like having to carry a shipment of Rathtars.
But for all Rick knows, he actually might have hauled the occasional alien every now and then because of his dealings with men in black. "I remember a time when I got to work and was greeted by a nice gentleman in a black suit and sunglasses. I was given a manifest that was entirely blank and was told to get everything together and head for Indianapolis, and to not stop under any circumstances. A helicopter followed us the entire way. Never found out what was in that one."
Here's a math problem for you: If a freight train travels at 60 mph and the conductor sees an animal on the tracks, how much time does he have to hit the brakes and stop before turning the critter into a flesh firework? The answer: not enough. (WARNING: Not for the squeamish.)
"A 6,000-10,000-ton train moving at 60 mph takes nearly a mile to stop," Rick told us. "We kill animals all the time. It's unfortunate too, because I value animal lives. Most of the time, its birds or raccoons or opossums, but sometimes it's bigger animals."
For example, in January this year, a freight train smashed straight into a herd of deer in Montana, exploding 23 of them on the spot. Why did they (or other animal victims of trainicular manslaughter) just stand there like some ... horned mammals ... in the headlights until they were hit? Rick has a theory about that:
"Cows and horses and the like kind of wander onto the tracks and wait around because they're morons. Dogs I think get scared in the center of the track because as we get closer, it starts vibrating and the sound of the train rolling on the rail reverberates through it for quite some distance. They stay there, paralyzed, and there isn't anything that we can do."
You can't truly grasp the sheer mass of a freight train if you've only observed them whipping past at a railroad crossing. "The usual size that I haul is around 8,000-9,000 feet [just shy of two miles] and 6,000-7,000 tons [14 million pounds] ... it could easily take an hour and a half, if not more, to walk the entire length of it." And trains are actually getting longer all the time: ""In the last year the train lengths and weights have increased. They're doing this thing called 'distributed power' that they ripped off from Union Pacific, where there is a random locomotive(s) stuck somewhere in the ass end of the train that is remote controlled by the head ones. In turn our trains can be up to 16,000 feet long, and on excess of 20,000 tons."
There are people who've lived their entire lives in areas smaller than the square footage of a freight train. This technically qualifies Rick's rides as small towns (their generators can actually POWER a small town) capable of doing 60 mph, and also makes us wonder why mobile municipalities aren't a thing.
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They even bring their own legal system with them. "Any illegal activity on the railroad falls under federal crime, not local or state. Because of this, local police don't have the authority to enter a train or detain a crew. FRA [Federal Railroad Administration] and STB [Surface Transportation Board] agents are the only ones allowed to do so." The lesson here is that if you're going to murder someone and want a lot of time to escape, do it inside the last car of a freight train.
If you thought "hobos" went away with the 1930s, you're wrong. People living on the margins of society still need to be able to get around without a car. So they'll hop on and presumably take a nap right next to some nuclear bomb components. "Most of the time, hobos don't want anything to do with the cargo we have," says Rick, trying to reassure us. "They just want a free ride some place. Generally they're all good-natured, and we keep our distance and go about our business."
And yes, train-hopping is dangerous. In 2014, 451 people were killed due to "trespassing" on railroad tracks, though the stats don't note how many of those were train-hopping versus suicides and slow-footed pedestrians. "Some of these career hobos have their own network of information. They'll wait around outside of the terminal for the train to slow enough or come to a stop, and hop on and ride it 'til they get where they're going. The non-career ones are the ones who are a danger to themselves. They face being exposed, or worse, slipping between a car and getting crushed."
And while there may be a "live and let live" attitude toward homeless train-hikers who stay back with the cargo, conductors aren't so thrilled by riders who want to sleep up around where they're trying to drive. "It becomes a problem when they try to hitch a ride on the locomotives. I get that they're looking for a dry warm place to sit down, but when I'm walking back to one of our other locomotives at three in the morning dog-tired and Hobo Steve is sitting in the chair in his underwear picking shit out from between his toes, no thanks. I have enough crap to worry about." Hey, why not take a break and let that guy drive for a while? Everyone's happy!
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The more important a job is, the more important it is for the people doing the work to be relaxed and stress-free. We assume that's why all our pizza delivery guys are stoned all the time. Well, there are few jobs more important than carrying nuclear material and murder fluid, so what does the railroad do to help Rick relax on the job?
Um ... well, they don't sneak up behind him and suddenly yell in his ear, but that's about it.
"Excessive fatigue is something we're all very familiar with," Rick told/scared us. "You're usually not home for more than 12 hours at a time [the minimum time allowed by federal law], and I only get one day off a week ... We aren't treated well by the management, and that's a universal thing. We are used and abused. When I'm working, my rest is only 10 hours long. In theory, I could be going to work every 10 hours perpetually 'til I hit my maximum hours of service. I worked all morning, and as of this moment, I have been awake for 31 hours. Tell me how that's safe."
We can't, because that seriously does make it sound like small cities full of action movie plot devices are being operated by angry zombies. We're also starting to think that all those run-over animals might not have been accidents. Rick continues, "Because of this job, I've missed out on every first with my daughter as she's grown up. I get to tuck her into bed and read her a story one night a week. I make good money, but I don't have a good family life."
The bottom line is that Rick often feels overworked, tired, and (justifiably) pissed off while transporting WMDs. So, out of curiosity: Where is the geographically farthest point from any major freight train lines?
We kid, but it is true that it doesn't take that much to derail a train. "In February 2014, there was this kid (they never found him) who put a broken knuckle from a coupler on the tracks." That is, some stranger placed a piece of scrap metal on the train tracks because they were, and presumably still are, a piece of shit. Normally, the cow catcher on the front (which, given everything we now know about freight trains, is a huge misnomer) would push debris off the rail, or at the very least the wheel would push it off. But for some reason, this big hunk of steel went under the catcher and the wheels.
"Eventually," Rick says, "the train came upon a switch and the wheel drove the chunk of metal into a piece of the switch where rails connect and diverge. When the chunk of steel got stuck and became an immovable object, the locomotives derailed and rolled on their sides down an embankment. The crew suffered some broken bones, and the cost of the loss of the locomotives, cleanup, and track damage was around $10 million."
Thankfully, Rick wasn't aboard that train, but he did see the aftermath of the derailment. And yet he's still a conductor. This is hopefully due to his enduring confidence in the railroads' safety features, rather than from being so tired that he doesn't care anymore whether he lives or dies.
Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a Cracked columnist, interviewer, and editor. Contact him at email@example.com.
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