The Freight Train Engineer

On a snowy January morning with below-zero wind chills, Wisconsin & Southern locomotive engineer Robert Hasheider (27) scans a bulletin board for updates, instructions and advisories. It is 5 a.m., and though this one-way trip from Madison to Janesville is a familiar one, the morning's extreme cold and heavy snowfall necessitate extra precautions. "The train is affected by cold weather every minute," he explains, "and everything takes longer." Air brakes, for example, must be adjusted on each car because poor conditions can seriously impair a train's ability to stop. "The number one thing, is safety," he says.

Hasheider has spent nearly 10 years with the railroad, seven as an engineer, and now has enough seniority to work a set, five-day week (rather than being on call at all hours). His engineer training included intense classroom study of rules, procedures and safety practices, on-the-job-training, serving as a conductor for over a year, getting certified as an engineer and finally passing a skills performance evaluation required by the Federal Railroad Administration.

An engineer's primary responsibility is to control the train and handle all radio communications throughout the trip. The documents Hasheider checks govern his role, and federal guidelines are so stringent that failure to comply with any rules can result in serious ramifications — including thousands of dollars in fines.

Hasheider appears unfazed by required safety checks from superiors, regular monitoring by black boxes, or surprise visits from federal regulators. Almost everything he does on the job is regulated, from keeping his Engineer's card on him at all times, to train speed, to when and how he blows the whistle. "All regulations are written in blood," he says matter-of-factly, "and we have to abide. It's not there to punish me; it helps me get better at what I do."

Operating much like an airport's air traffic control system, a regional dispatch center near Milwaukee will track Hasheider's train along the way. He will haul 65 cars powered by two engines on this trip, and must know the contents, position on the train, and final destinations of each. "I see we have no hazardous materials today," he comments, checking his list. Thirty-five cars hold corn, paper and scrap, and 30 empty cars are destined for other railroad companies. Total weight: 5,885 tons. Total length: 3,897 feet.

His pre-trip ritual complete, Hasheider heads out to the waiting iron chariot.

Jason Welch (29), who has been a conductor for three years, is in charge of the physical mechanics of the train and ensures that cars reach their intended destinations. As the workhorse, he links the cars together depending upon their destinations, from the shortest distance to the furthest. And while no customer stops are scheduled on this day, the railroad company regularly serves about 25 customers along its route, hauling coal to power plants, or lumber to lumber yards in what Hasheider describes as a "massive network" of communications and coordination.

The Wisconsin & Southern Railroad operates on 700 miles of track in Wisconsin and northern Illinois, and is the third largest railroad in the state. Its piece of the transportation pie has increased from 7,500 carloads in 1988 to about 65,000 carloads currently. As a rule, railroads are surprisingly "green," a fact Hasheider relays with pride. Each train car can carry four semi-truckloads of cargo, which in turn keeps hundreds of thousands of vehicles off the nation's highways. Even better, a train can haul one ton of freight 423 miles on just one gallon of fuel.

Hasheider climbs aboard the engine, conducts some final systems checks, and settles into his seat. He cannot proceed forward until ordered to do so by Welch. The engineer and conductor have run this route together for nearly three months, and work like pistons in their well-oiled machine. Just as Hasheider begins to lead the train slowly out of the yard, Welch jumps off to manually set the "switch," which puts the tracks in their proper position. With Welch back on board, Hasheider sounds the horn. The crossing lights and gates deploy at East Johnson Street, early morning traffic comes to a halt, and the train heaves forward.

Hasheider explains that the speed of the train depends upon the surroundings, the condition of the tracks and the weather. Today, the train will not surpass 10 mph.

With his right hand on the throttle and his left hand on the horn (no "steering" necessary), the train chugs past Marling Lumber and MG&E. Approaching Monona Terrace, Hasheider punches in a digital code that automatically switches the tracks to their required position. With a quick radio call to dispatch, the train sets off on a three-hour trek to Janesville. Later, the men will drive back to Madison in a company vehicle.

Hasheider and Welch say they're always on alert for people and drivers playing "chicken" at train crossings, or trespassers intentionally trying to damage or block the tracks. "What are we supposed to do?" asks Welch. "Swerve?"