Transporting Railroad Crews – A Fun Job!

Westbound Union Pacific Train Entering SW Cedar Rapids.

One of the subjects that frequently comes up among full time RVers and vandwellers is employment.  Most of us have to work in some fashion… at least until retirement time.  Some of the work camping jobs (where you camp and work at the same place for a season) might be a good fit for someone with a large RV but there are some of us who want to remain in the same city all year, making a modest income, and enjoying a low stress, minimalistic lifestyle.  The latter is my plan for the future.

Recently a person in the CheapRVLivingForum.com group discussed employment where you transport rail crews.  I haven’t read much information on what these jobs are like so I thought it would be helpful to pass along some first hand experience.  Like any business, there are proprietary things I cannot discuss so much of what is written here is pretty generic.

This post will describe the types of duties I perform each day, the hours involved, and a pros – cons list at the end.

A train passing under Edgewood Road in Cedar Rapids near Prarie Creek.

To get hired for a crew driving position with the company I work for, you must have a valid driver’s license (no CDL required).  A clean driving record is mandatory and they do pull a motor vehicle report.  There is a background and homeland security check. You also have to pass a drug test.  If you can make it through all of that, then a person must be willing to be on call during the day, night, etc.  I get two days off per week – and the rest of the time am subject to getting called in.  Veteran drivers advised me to jealously guard those days off.

Looking at Cedar Rapids from a parking lot near the north yard.

For a typical run, I tend to get called in the mid-evening and work an overnight shift that can vary up to a dozen or so hours.  The company dispatcher tells me the starting time and length of the shift and then I accept it.  As soon as I arrive to work the pay starts… even if the rail crew doesn’t need assistance right away.  There is no pay while you are on call.

The most common kind of assignment is working within the railroad yard.  After the call comes in, there is about an hour before I am expected to arrive.  Each night the lunch box is packed, clean clothes are set out, and all the necessities (wallet, van keys, small notebook, etc.) are readied.  Then it’s just a matter of hitting the road.  It helps to be organized.  Once I arrive, I do a quick vehicle inspection of their van and the shift begins.

Once inside the van, often the action is slow.  A two-way radio lets the driver know when help is needed.  During the night, rail cars are moved back and forth between tracks and assembled together into a train.  Once the train is put together, it is “shoved” (pushed from the rear by one or more engines) to another track where a crew will take it out at a later time. 

During the process of building the train, various required checks are made.  I transport people back and forth along the length of the train to make those checks.  One of the tasks is to help with getting the train backed up.  One rail employee said he’s seen various kinds of things blocking the tracks including a porta-potty, a porcelain toilet, deer, trees, junk cars, etc… As he said “You name it and I’ve seen it on the tracks.”

End of Train (EOT) aka “F.R.E.D.” during a flash.

I had to use video to catch it!

If you can imagine a 100 car long train that is being pushed backwards (and fairly quietly) through a neighborhood, the dark cars might move steathfully through the area without people knowing it.  On the back of the train is an end-of-train device (E.O.T.) also known as a “F.R.E.D.” (flashing rear end device… some told timers will substitute a different, more colorful word for the first initial).  In addition to flashing, F.R.E.D. monitors air pressure.  If the air pressure fails, the brakes would come on (for safety reasons).  FRED keeps the engine crew informed of the air pressure level.  When communications are established between the front and back, you might hear the crew say “Fred’s talking!”

Flashing Rear End Device (F.R.E.D.)

So here I am, carefully driving along a dark access road while we keep any eye on the train.  Once the train is stored, handbrakes are set to keep the cars from rolling away.  When the crew is ready to move the train, I pick them up at the hotel, bring them to the train, and watch them depart.

The potential is there for accidents, particularly at night.  Rail yards have some light but they are not that well lit.  There are crew members here and there but they do carry brilliant flashlights and have reflective vests.  The biggest worry for me is backing up the van and damaging a rail track switch.  Worse yet, you might run over a “grip” (a railroad worker’s dufflebag).  The rail crew are some of the nicest folks you’ll ever meet but I’ve been told DO NOT run over their personal items!

There are often long periods where no action is needed.  I use one of those “circle a word” puzzle books.  Some drivers snooze a bit (during the overnight shift).  One girl knits.  I’m a fan of those late night radio shows such as “Coast to Coast”.  I’ll admit to catching a few winks of sleep as well.

Since this type of work is a lot different than many other positions, there are a number of pros and cons.  For me it is a good fit and I can do it easily.  But for many it might not be a wise choice.

PROS

  • Low physical impact – After a 12 hour shift, I’m not at all sore (unlike cashier jobs!) 
  • Plentiful hours – Depending on your location, you may get full-time and overtime hours. 
  • Little supervision – My manager is in another city. 
  • No vehicle costs – It is their van and their gasoline.  The vans are newer and well maintained. 
  • A regular paycheck – You get a standard paycheck with the usual deductions. 
  • If the van breaks down there is an 800 number to call for help.
  • Fun – The railroad guys are a fun group of colorful characters.  They are thankful you are there to help them out. 
  • Working overnight, I can sleep any time, any place during the day.  That makes it pretty easy for a person if he/she lives in a van or other vehicle.
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CONS

  • The wages are fairly low but a bit above minimum wage.
  • Few or not benefits.
  • It is expected that you carry a personal cell phone.  I have unlimited minutes, thankfully!
  • The hours can be unpredictable.  It is not the best for “paycheck to paycheck” living.
  • Some companies install cameras to constantly monitor your activities inside the van.
  • The long hours can be fatiguing and sleep issues can adversely impact blood pressure problems.
  • Single parents and young families might not like the high amount of “on call” time.
  • Railroad yards do have some safety risks.  As one buddy put it… “Trains always win.”
  • The access roads can be dusty and the vans get grimy inside.
  • It is not always easy to get to a toilet in a timely fashion.  (Not as much a problem for guys)
  • Still a very male dominated environment but that is changing.

There you have it… Driving a van for a railroad crew gives you a first hand appreciation for the hard work and dedication to safety exhibited by railroad workers.   As a driver, you make the crew’s job easier and they are pretty darned nice guys.  The position might just be a good fit if you are a city dwelling vandweller type.  Why occupy your van for free when you can be in someone else’s and get paid for it?

Thanks for stopping by.  Have a great week!

Bradford the “Van Trekker”
Your Friendly Rail Crew Driver

About VanTrekker

I am a former vandweller in Eastern Iowa who, for several years (off and on), lived in a 2007 Chevy cargo van. I still travel around Iowa with my tortoise shell cat, Jennifer Stefanie. Our favorite place to explore is the Country Heritage Community, the four far northeastern counties of Iowa (Clayton, Winneshiek, Allamakee, and Fayette). Ride along as we fish in pristine trout streams, enjoy fine home cooked camping meals, and meet new people. It's all possible on a shoestring budget. Happy travels always! --- Brad, the "Van Trekker"
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10 Responses to Transporting Railroad Crews – A Fun Job!

  1. Dan says:

    Sounds like the job is a good fit! I really like the fact that you don’t have to worry about parking to sleep ’til daytime when the shift is up.

    I worked a night job for a year or two when I was younger. The freedom (no bosses,just keeping an eye on things in the late hours) was awesome. Took a while to get used to the sleep cycle, though. I used to wake up not knowing whether it was dawn or dusk.

    • Brad says:

      I hear ya there… The body is responding. Staying awake at night is easier now but it’s still a little confusing how to sleep during the day.

  2. Brad

    There is always a 50% – 50% chance you could end up on the wrong side of the tracks :-))

    I could not resist that one :-))

    • Brad says:

      LOL. In this area, both sides of the tracks are safe… In other parts of Cedar Rapids, it’s a different story. 🙂

  3. gabevarga says:

    Sounds like the almost perfect job for a vehicle dweller, except for the pay; but you can’t have everything.
    I tend to like the male dominated jobs, since I’ve worked with mostly females (I’m a nurse), and let me tell you, they are not very pleasant. Even women will admit that they prefer to work with men.

  4. Brad says:

    I’ve worked with and for some ladies and had pretty good luck. But I agree – many women prefer not to work with other women. Guys are different… I think we tend to blow up and then when the sun comes up the next day, it’s a clean slate… well, at least most of the time.

  5. gabevarga says:

    Exactly, if you get into an unpleasant situation with a male coworker and then decide that the situation has been settled, you pretty much know that it’s the end of the story. WIth women, things can come back to bite you in the butt weeks, months and even years later.
    With that said, I’ve also had some great female coworkers as well, but I still feel more at ease and secure in knowing where I stand when I work with males.

  6. Don says:

    I’m always amazed to hear of a new job title that I could never even imagine. Sounds like a pretty cool job though as long as you don’t try fighting with the train. LOL Thanks for the insight.

    • Brad says:

      It’s a fun job. I’ve been two it for two weeks and have been making some pretty decent money. The hours are very long right now, but the veterans told me it will slow down soon. It’s sure nice to have an income stream that doesn’t wear the body out!

  7. Don says:

    Thanks for the insight into a job I never imagined existed. Cool!