A Day in the Life: The Railroad


Biography of Gary Emmert

Trains - a part of everyday life.  When that powerful and familiar whistle pierces the air and the protective arm comes down to block the tracks, many of us watch in awe as these massive and powerful machines roar by.  The sheer power creates pulsating vibrations that shake the ground and waiting vehicles.  For most of us, trains are intimidating and mysterious.

Not so for Gary Emmert, a retired 43-year veteran of the railroad.  I met Gary at the George L. Carter Railroad Museum at East Tennessee State University, when we collaborated on an exhibit I was curating for the Archives of Appalachia.  His love of trains and his pride in his career on the railroad are contagious!  An avid volunteer at the railroad museum, he did not hesitate to agree to an interview.  Gary's invaluable knowledge and life experience, coupled with the extensive railroad collections in the Archives of Appalachia, create a vivid and exciting inside look into a day in the life on the railroad for those of us who have only ever observed in wondrous awe.

Gary’s life on the railroad began after he completed an associate’s degree, and decided a college career was not the path for him.  His great-grandfather and his father both worked for the railroad, so the calling was in his blood.  He first began his career in 1963 as a brakeman at the Rock Island railroad in Silvis, Illinois, a city in Rock Island County.  He worked for the CRI&P - Chicago Rock Island and Pacific Railroad until 1964 when he volunteered for the Marine Corps.

A good example of being a railroader, while I was living in Dallas, I got orders to go to Vietnam. So, I got on the Texas Chief and rode to Kansas City. I had a compartment because I knew the people who were workin' it because the railroad is a close-knit society. And the fact that I was going to Vietnam, they put me back in a compartment and sent a wire ahead to the conductor and gave 'em my name, and I got on the El Capitaine, which is a fancy Santa Fe train way back in the day, and I rode it to California. And I had my own compartment back there, and I ate for free, and I drank in the club car and everybody knew I was going to Vietnam. [listen to audio clip here 19:27]

After returning from Vietnam in 1968, he went back to work on the railroad, where he would stay for the next 37 years moving up the ladder from brakeman to conductor to engineer.


In the 1960s, no formal training was required for the railroad. The training consisted of, they put you out there for a week, and they would teach you how to change out an air hose, how to change out a knuckle, which was two of the physical things you do.  They would teach you how to learn how to do signs, which I knew most of the signs already having a great-grandfather and dad both on the railroad.  Why, I knew about any kinda sign there was as far as counting and backing up and going ahead and all that."[listen to audio clip here 2:24]

What was required was a 90-day trial period of on-the-job training, then passing the 150 question rules and signals test.  There were 1676 railroad rules, of which you could miss four questions about rules, none about signals.  If one question was answered incorrectly about signals, a 90-day waiting period was enforced and the test had to be retaken.   After the first 90 days, one year from that day, you've got to take a rules test.  If you missed four questions, and none on signals, you had to take the rules test over again, but you were off duty until you took it and you couldn't take the test for 30 days.  So, you lose 30 days pay.  So we all knew those rules inside out and outside in. [listen to audio clip here 55:01]

Basic requirements were strength, stamina, agility, patience, and good common sense: strength to handle repairs such as changing a knuckle, which weighed 68 pounds, and is located between two cars that weigh between 30 to 100 tons; stamina to work 24 hours straight if required; agility to hang off the side of a train while it was still moving, jump on and off a moving train, climb over and under train cars to do repairs; patience for all the things that can and will go wrong; good common sense paired with quick thinking - the instantaneous ability to use sound judgement to prevent fatal accidents which could happen to anyone, anytime, anywhere, any day.  You've got to have good common sense or you're gonna get killed on the railroad.

Gary describes his first major mistake as a novice:

What I didn't know was - my first big mistake was, we set out some cars at Kellogg Iowa one night, and I just turned both angle cocks and cut away while on a small hill. 
Joe was the rear brakeman and he saw them [cars] rolling and he reached out and hooked the angle cock, and he come and chewed me up one side and down the other because of the fact that I hadn't. Only one angle cock should have been turned.  You learn quickly. And that was my first mistake, and I never made it again.”[
listen to audio clip here 2:47]

The railroad crew, with the exception of the switchman, had to be on call 24/7, with no set hours. A call could come at any time, and a railroad employee must report to work.  It was crucial that essential gear and supplies be packed and ready to carry each day, not only supplies for that day, but extra supplies in case the day extended past the regular shift of 12 to 16 hours.  This included tools, appropriate clothing, food, and the ever crucial thermos of black coffee.  Trains often went from starting point to destination without stopping, with any number of incidents occurring during that time.  In the case of a train derailment, the crew could be at a location for two or three days, and while food would be brought to the crew, tools and clothing must be on hand.

When asked to describe a normal day on the railroad Gary Emmert replied, There's no such thing as normal on the railroad. Normal does not exist.  You either have good days or bad days.  While there are no “normal” days on the railroad, the following timeline will allow a glimpse into a day in the life of a railroad engineer as it would have been in the 1960s.  Gary Emmert shares stories from his days on the railroad first, as a brakeman, then as a conductor, and finally as an engineer.  Several scenarios are provided, from smoking hotboxes to derailment, with shifts lasting up to 28 hours. From climbing under trains between Silvis, Illinois and Des Moines, Iowa in freezing temperatures, battling ice, frozen fingertips, ears and toes, to battling rattlesnakes with fuzees while walking the train in El Paso, Texas, there is never a dull moment on the railroad. 

Because there are several terms which may be unfamiliar to a novice, job descriptions, a glossary of terms, and photographs are provided for clarity.  The timeline will begin each day at 1:30 p.m., based on a 12 hour shift, with the same procedures being followed every day.  But at 4:00 p.m., when the train leaves the station, there are choices as to what kind of day might be experienced on the railroad.

The quotations from Gary Emmert that appear throughout this project are taken from an interview between Mr. Emmert and Sandy Laws that occurred on February 10, 2020.  The entire interview is available to stream at the link below.

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