A Conductor's Love Affair With Ribbons of Rail

The most fun I've ever had with trains was when my friend Leah and I balanced pennies carefully on the railroad track near her house in Florida and waited for the local to come rushing by and squash them into hot, shiny bits of copper.

Aside from that, for me trains are just a way to get from one place to another. But when I listen to train conductor Paul Ventor talk about the sense of history that draws him to trains, I remember the feeling of awe I had the first time I walked into Grand Central Station in New York and looked up. And when he mentions the ribbon of rail stretching across America, I can feel the poetry of it.

Paul is an Amtrak conductor on the Harrisburg, Pa., to Pittsburgh run. Harrisburg, he says, is a beautiful run. The train goes through the Allegheny Mountains in a horseshoe curve, and if you look, you can see the back end of your train snaking behind you. At one point the train seems to be traveling in two directions at once.

Paul stands about 6-foot-4, with broad shoulders and a white-brown beard. He fills the aisle, and you almost expect him to have to duck when he comes to take your ticket. He's been a conductor for nigh on 10 years now, and he's traveled thousands of miles. He's ridden the rails from St. Cloud, Minn., to Chicago, and from Chicago down to Grenada, Miss., and on out to Harrisburg. He's traveled all the way from Washington, D.C., clear down to Miami, Fla. Getting to see the United States is one of the best parts of his job, Paul will tell you, if you ask.

The conductor is the boss of the train. He's in charge of every employee - from the guy in the club car who sells you potato chips to the engineer. The conductor runs the show from the back of the train. When he's not taking people's tickets, hollering "All abooaard!" and helping people on and off, he's busy behind the scenes. A conductor has to keep order among the passengers, fix anything on the train that breaks, and most important, keep it operating safely.

WHEN you ask Paul what it takes to be a conductor, he will say patience, patience - and patience. You have to like people and love to travel. But there is a sacrifice. You lose a lot of your personal life being gone all the time.

There's no formal training to learn how to be a conductor. You learn from experience. Paul says when he became a conductor in 1987, you pretty much just decided that was what you wanted to do, and then you became one. Now, he says, you start as a car attendant or a cook on a train and work your way up to conductor or engineer.

Being an engineer is a lot like driving a truck - only more complicated. Instead of a steering wheel, you have a throttle to control how fast the train is moving. You have to maintain a constant speed, because if you go too fast, a signal will shut the train down.

Every six or seven seconds, an alerter goes off. It is a flashing light and beeping sound that gets brighter and louder the longer you wait. If you don't push the button in time to let the alerter know you're alive and well, it will send a signal and stop the train. It takes six months of schooling and six months as an assistant engineer to be able to drive a train.

Every train has its own personality, Paul says. For instance, the New Orleans line is nicknamed the "Chicken Bone," because everyone brings fried chicken dinners to eat on the train. The Florida trains are the only ones in the country that have TV sets. You can choose three movies to watch while you ride. Or you can listen to the radio. Paul says to tell you to bring your own headphones. Amtrak sells them in the club car, but they often run out of them. And unlike airplanes, Paul says Amtrak's food is great. All their chefs graduate from New York's Culinary Institute of America.

Paul says he's always been fascinated by trains. He grew up during the tail end of the golden age of railroading in the 1950s, and there were trains everywhere. That was how people got from one place to another - whether they were commuting to work or traveling to a different state. His dad worked as a railway postal clerk, and his best friend's granddad worked in a rail yard as a switchman. He pretty much grew up around trains.

When Paul started working for the railroad in 1968, he was the youngest railway postal person in the country. He had that job for one year, and then the railroad did away with the position. Paul also worked as a tower operator, a road clerk, and he doesn't know what-all before he became a conductor. He isn't sure what draws him to the railroad. Maybe it's the sense of history, or the powerful machinery, he says. Or maybe it's the ribbon of rail stretching across America.

Whatever it is, he makes me want to hop a rail for points unknown.

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