These are good economic times. You just have to be in the railroad industry to experience them.

Railroads, unlike almost every other industry, are not only weathering the recession, they are actually growing. Light, commuter, and freight lines are popping up all over the country; and some freight companies, like CSX and Union Pacific, are doing so well that they are able to spend billions from their own profits to renovate, expand, and increase the lines they run.

What this means for the overall employment picture is a respite among the gloom. While corporations downsize and retirement funds fritter away, jobs for locomotive engineers and conductors are everywhere. They require only a high school diploma, have a killer retirement package, and start out around $60,000 a year.

The catch is this: “You can’t just pick somebody off the street,” says Mark Mattis, a 22-year veteran of NJ Transit who has been a locomotive trainer since 1999. “This job isn’t for everybody.” It is a dramatic understatement. While operating a locomotive is one of the most lucrative jobs not requiring any college experience, it requires more training than it takes to become a commercial airline pilot.

If you want to fly a plane, you need a college degree and 250 flight hours to attain commercial certification. To attain national certification, you need 800 hours behind the controls of an actual train (not a simulator), under the watch of an instructor. It is a grueling year-and-a-half-long process, about which Mattis advises his students to “just put a big X” over the ensuing 19 calendar pages.

Much of the job’s hardcore learning process lies in the memorization. Engineer training demands memorizing 40 pounds worth of textbooks, a task that itself generally demands three to six hours of study per night, every night, through possibly your next two birthdays.

It might be unsurprising to learn that retired and otherwise-former airline pilots are drawn to the field. Mattis, who has developed and twice taught an engineer and conductor prep course at Bucks County Community College and will be leading Mercer County Community College’s first such course beginning on Saturday, November 15, says more of his students are coming from the troubled airline industry. After all, operating trains is a lot like flying an airplane, he says. “You’re just on the ground.”

Mattis’ course is designed as a preamble to all you would have to learn upon entering a locomotive training program. For 60 hours over eight weeks, he teaches everything you would encounter in any railroad training program — railroad infrastructure, airbrake theory, equipment and handling, operating rules, the math you need to figure timing and money.

The course itself is not a prerequisite to training, and taking it does not mean you’re ready to roll after two months, nor are guaranteed a spot in a professional locomotive training program. But, Mattis says, taking it makes those 40 pounds of textbooks a lot easier to digest. Once you become an engineer, you only carry around about 10 pounds of books, which is the upside. The downside is that you can’t read them while you’re driving a train.

Ultimately, earning a locomotive certification requires passing more than 200 exams and quizzes, both oral and written, and Mattis says he designed the program to make all these overwhelming numbers more palatable.

The popularity of the idea is already paying off. The 25 seats that Mercer County College set aside (at $350 each) for the course’s maiden run are all full, according to Nancy Nicholson, coordinator for Mercer’s Center for Continuing Studies. Nicholson says, however, that the program is scheduled to return in February and is already drawing interest among people who didn’t get in this time around.

Mattis himself has been leading hopefuls through the system for more than a decade. And he has been on the move since boyhood. Growing up in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York (he now lives in Bucks County with his wife and children) he started working for NJ Transit as a sheet metal worker at age 23 and hasworked as a maintenance supervisor.

When the engineering bug bit, NJ Transit accepted him in its engineer program and he’s been behind the wheel ever since, getting paid handsomely for what he calls “the lifestyle.” His parents were hard workers too — his mother was a volunteer social worker, his father a paper mill worker.

Since he started teaching aspiring engineers in 1999, Mattis says he has come to see many similarities between operating a locomotive and flying a plane — chiefly in understanding the acres of navigational facts that both require.

Of primary concern, however, is speed. The engineer’s mantra, “Safety, safety, safety,” says Mattis, is usually most critical here. For one thing, there are 900 miles of track in New Jersey and not a single speed limit sign. And while it might sound easy enough to just open the throttle and let ‘er rip, trains do not all run on isolated lines. Many trains pass through busy towns, cross intersections, and zip through neighborhoods. You can’t just hit 90 mph and go.

Even when you are in areas in which a 90-mph train is safely removed from cars, pedestrians, and other trains, the fact is that train tracks don’t all run on a straight line. Hit a sharp enough curve in a speeding train and it will at best derail, damage a few trees, and destroy a couple million dollars worth of merchandise. At worst it will kill or injure hundreds of people on their way home from work.

Speed control is especially important when it comes to freight rail. While fewer lives are at stake on a cargo train than a passenger train, the sheer scale of freight rail easily dwarfs all things commuter. The largest commuter trains are about a dozen cars. Freight trains can sport up to 140, and 10 times the size and weight adds a vast amount of danger.

To put it into perspective, consider the results of a relatively minor train accident in Ontario, Canada, in 2004. A 96-car train weighing 10,755 tons — not at all an atypical size — struck an automobile at 28 mph near Castleford that October. After hitting the brakes, the engineer brought the train to a stop 1,300 feet later. Had the car — which weighs about 3,000 pounds — been traveling at 28 mph it could be brought to a stop in less than 33 feet, nearly 40 times shorter than the train.

Another major aspect of an engineer’s or conductor’s life is security. In recent years, the Federal Railroad Administration, the ultimate oversight agency for the railroad industry, has in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security and the Transit Services Authority devoted much time to promoting and refining safety and security issues. Day to day, such matters fall upon the engineer and conductor, who must not only calculate the necessary measures surrounding their cargo and operations, but also must be aware of potentially threatening or disruptive passengers.

Much of Mattis’ course, designed because he has seen an increasing need for qualified, serious engineers, conductors, dispatchers, operators, and management trainees, touches on some of these finer details. And if there is a misconception it is that a lot of people think the job of an engineer is a simple one, he says. Just follow the rails.

But a sizable portion of hopefuls wash out of engineer and conductor training because they can’t keep up. Typically, Mattis says, only about 65 to 70 percent of people who begin formal training make it through. “I’ve had guys who’ve been through Marine Corps boot camp who say this was tougher,” he says.

Eager to stem the heavy fall-off, Mattis took a year and a half to develop a course that prepares engineer and conductor hopefuls for formal training. “Railroad industry employers need to find qualified candidates for these highly skilled crafts, hence my program, which trains people to be prepared for the intensive training at whatever railroad they might get hired,” he says.

Nationally there is a demand for rail workers, particularly in the flush field of freight transit. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, while employment in most railroad occupations is expected to grow by only 1 percent through 2016, opportunities are expected to be good, largely due to the number of workers expected to retire.

“Demand for railroad freight service will grow as the economy and the intermodal transportation of goods continue to expand,” the DOL reports, and rail companies are capitalizing on the growth.

International businesses load cargo ships with as many as 15,000 containers; and those containers need to be shipped across land. Freight companies are making huge sums of money and are, in some cases, spending billions to be able to take two stacked shipping containers where they used to be able to take just one. They are also spending billions to lay miles of new track and to blow open long-established rail tunnels through mountains.

And there is a strong environmental angle to all this. “One train takes 280 trucks off the highway,” Mattis says.

As for passenger trains, the cost of laying new tracks is often a tenth the cost to build or expand highways, and the reduction of congestion is the holy grail of residential planning now. Passenger rail service, according to the DOL, is expected to grow on pace with the population. And jobs for engineers and conductors, especially those willing to go long distances, are expected to be plentiful.

With preliminary training there is a greater chance to land one of these jobs, and Mattis’ course can be a significant boost. Unlike standard hiring, which thrusts the uninitiated into the complex world of engineer training, Mattis’ course so far has had a 90-percent completion rate. Most of his students have gone to formal training and cope with what by and large is a foreign language.

The course deals primarily with rules and regulations, but Mattis says he offers a bigger perspective to his students. Beyond the rule books, there are factors qualified candidates need to both possess and understand. It’s not enough to know what the textbook offers, Mattis says, it helps to know what to do when a textbook situation melts down.

NJ Transit runs approximately 700 trains a day at its busiest, and during rush hour these trains run on an extremely tight schedule. Once a train pulls into a stop, it has about one minute to exchange its passengers and get going.

“If you break down at rush hour in New York you’ll have 15 people calling on your radio asking what’s wrong,” Mattis says. “A minute’s an eternity. If you break down you could be backing up trains all the way to D.C. You’re making thousands of people late.”

Dealing with a breakdown requires not just a head for dealing with the phone calls, it also requires a head for technical problems. After all, whatever has gone wrong is almost always going to be mechanical, and if you are the one operating the train, you are the one who needs to fix it.

If it’s a computer problem, you need to know how to troubleshoot a complex network with as many as 37 onboard systems. You can’t just pull off to the shoulder and throw open the hood, Mattis says. You have to remedy any number of things and get back on track. All amid the pressures of the cackling radio.

Typically, says Mattis, train engineers and conductors don’t see their supervisors very often, unless there’s a problem or a scheduled inspection. Locomotive engineers and conductors have to be able to work independently, with minimal supervision under sometimes demanding conditions, but even when things go right, there is a lot to keep in your head. Before each run, engineers check the mechanical condition of their locomotives, make adjustments, and document issues. While trains are in motion, engineers control throttles and airbrakes and monitor instruments that measure speed, amperage, battery charge, and air pressure. They have to know the condition and makeup of their train, because trains react differently to the grade and condition of the rail, the number of cars, the ratio of empty cars to loaded cars, and the amount of slack in the train.

Life as a conductor is scarcely easier. While most people think a conductor only collects tickets, the truth is that the safety of everyone and everything on that train is largely in his or her hands. Conductors assigned to freight trains review schedules, switching orders, waybills, and shipping records. They are responsible for the distribution of tonnage in the train and the operation of freight cars that use remote control locomotive technology.

While engineers interpret and comply with orders, signals, speed limits, and railroad rules and regulations, conductors relay information about equipment problems on the train or the rails. They also arrange for the removal of defective cars and alternative routes if there is a defect in on the rails.

But what exactly is the work environment like? Well, frankly it’s a lot of work. Rail employees work nights, weekends, and holidays to operate trains that run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Many work more than 40 hours a week, and sometimes more than 60. There are no early days and no way to work ahead because you’re on a schedule. And if you’re new to the industry, you have to pay your dues by way of the “extras list.”

An extras list is an on-call roster to cover the shifts of those who are out of work for whatever reason. And if you’re a newbie, your name is almost certain to be on it soon, and often. At NJ Transit, there is a three-hour call, meaning that if you’re on the list, you can be called for work as early as three hours before you’re expected. Some freight lines have a one-hour call, though tight federal regulations mandate minimum rest periods.

Rail work offers one of the last powerful unions and is, Mattis says, a lifestyle akin to the military. “If you’re at the beach and you get called, you’ve got to go,” he says. Unlike the military you could always quit, but here’s the thing — there aren’t many jobs in which you can earn $60,00 to $100,000 a yearwith a high school diploma.

Also, if you get through your dues-paying years, advance in the company, and hang around long enough, you build toward a retirement pension that pays more than most entry-level jobs. According to the FRA, conductors and engineers with 30 years of service retiring now (minimum age 60) will get more than $3,000 a month pension.

On top of that, spouses of those vested in Railroad Retirement Pension plan get half that money in addition to the pension, and will continue to get half even if they outlive their mates. It is a demanding job that takes much of your energy and time, Mattis says, but the rewards are tremendous. And once you’re in, you tend to stay.

“It takes dynamite to get some of these guys out of here,” he says.

Mercer County Community College: Continuing Education, 1200 Old Trenton Road, West Windsor 08550; 609-570-3311; fax, 609-570-3883. Mark Mattis, instructor, “Locomotive Engineer & Conductor Basic Training Certificate Course.” Eightsession course runs Saturdays, November 15 through January 24 and costs $350. Next session begins in February, 2009. Home page: www.mccc.edu/ccs.

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