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The Weird and Isolating Life of a Young Railway Engineer

We talked to a railway engineer about about endless miles of track, plowing through wildlife, and how most people don't even think that job exists anymore.
August 23, 2016, 6:18pm
All photos courtesy of Adam Landry

Adam Landry has worked the rails for over a decade, and logged enough miles to circle the earth 10 times. Currently a locomotive engineer with a national rail carrier, the 33-year-old has been a brakeman, conductor and locomotive engineer on both freight and passenger trains across Canada. VICE found out what it was like to be in charge of 20,000 tonnes of freight in a speeding locomotive, and work a job that's almost as old as the country itself.

VICE: Why did you want to work on trains?
Adam Landry: I liked the idea of going on a trip. It was a family thing—my grandfather worked on them. I knew the money was good too.

What does a conductor do?
Technically he's in charge of the train. He will be on the ground putting cars together, throwing switches, hanging off the side of a boxcar and basically giving directions—he's basically guiding [the engineer]. Because as an engineer, you can't see—you've got 50 cars behind you and you're going around curves.

Like the guy who helps you park your car?

Almost like a ramp marshall—the guys with the orange sticks—it's almost like that.

What's a big misconception about being a locomotive engineer?
They think it doesn't exist anymore. "I didn't even think that was a thing"—I hear that a lot. They just have no idea what the job entails. So you take the tickets? No, I drive the train. People also ask if you have to steer the train. Uhh, no, it's on fucking rails.

So in a train it's the conductor and the engineer. Do you talk the whole time?
Depends on the person. Sometimes you can have the best conversation the whole way. Sometimes it's like two words are spoken. That guy's trying to get a conversation going you're just not into it. But I've had some pretty heavy conversations on the engine about life and things that you're going through, or whatever that guy is going through.

What's the culture like?
It used to be, when vets came back from the war, they worked on the railroad. It was a looser culture. They worked hard. But booze was a part of the job. Then in '86 there was a head on collision with a freight train and passenger train, 23 people died. Things have changed a lot since.

Who tends to be attracted to railroading?
The sons of railroaders. For freight, there's very few women. Where I worked, it was very white male. There's your token female here and there.

Who is attracted to railroaders?
Some women like it! Your husband is not around but he makes good money, so whatever. It's OK if you have an understanding partner. Though one time, one of the guys went in to work, they cancelled his job (you're usually guaranteed to be away for 24 hours or more for a shift). So he said, OK, I'm goin' home. He goes home and he sees a truck in his driveway. He walks into his own bedroom and his wife is there with like, half the fire department. So it is hard on marriages. High divorce rate. Some guys are afraid to retire because now they're going to spend 24 hours a day with their wives and they've never done that. Their lives are so consumed by the railway.

Are the rails dicey at times?
For sure. Some parts are very rough. Our average top speed is 95 miles per hour on passenger trains, but a lot of time—at these known spots, we have paperwork that says "OK you've got to slow down at these areas because there is bad track." There are bad tracks that are neglected. The government doesn't maintain the tracks—the railway has to take care of things. Our taxes pay for roads, and all these trucks beat the shit out of them, the pavement is all rutted and cracked. But it's our taxes that pay for them. Whereas a railway has to pay for all of its maintenance. There are some rough spots that are pretty scary—on some sections you'll have to slow down to 70 mph.

Have you ever derailed?
Not on a passenger train because of rough track. But I've seen derailments happen and been there to clean up derailments. One particular one—I was a brakeman, which is like an assistant conductor. The conductor had sworn there was something wrong with the switch. The switch opened up, and one set of wheels went straight and the other set went down the other track. And it sideswiped us. The cars that got ran into were filled sulphuric acid. I was on the ground and I heard the crash. A couple cars came off the rails and damaged some other cars. No one was injured though.

Does carrying hazardous materials freak you out?
I tried not to think too much about it.If you're carrying certain types of freight - its called 'special dangerous' which is like, sulphuric acid, chlorine, ammonia, anything poisonous for inhalation—you're reduced to 35 mph through communities.

What about since Lac-Mégantic**?** That was before. But they might have added some more stuff to that list since. I don't know, I'm not in freight anymore. But you're reduced to 35 mph in certain populated areas. All through Toronto, if you have special dangerous, you're reduced to 35 mph. Other than that, you're regular track speed. But you can go through Parry Sound, over that huge giant bridge, with the town below you, doing 45 mph. Because it's under a certain population. I always thought that was fuckin' weird.

So you don't brake for animals?
You just plow through. I've probably killed hundreds. You'd be surprised how many birds we hit. I clipped a moose. I hope he was fine. I've hit bears. And deer. When you're going through the bush, railway track is the easiest place to run. They'll run in the opposite direction. You blow the whistle and it confuses them because it's bouncing off all the trees. They think it's coming from the forest. So they keep on running. What I do is shut off the headlight completely. If they're stopped, they'll realize something is coming at them. That whole deer in the headlights thing is true. As soon as you shut off the headlights they're like, Oh fuck...I gotta go!

How do trains start forest fires?
Guys throw cigarette butts out the window. You're not allowed to smoke, but guys do. Sometimes the brakes on the train will create sparks. If you see a train at night, you'll see sparks coming off it. If it's dry, it'll just spark up.

What was your most memorable trip?
I was working with this one guy who shall remain nameless. We were the first train out of Ottawa in the morning. You're on duty at 4:30 so you're up at 3 in the morning. Your body is not ready for anything. We got the train ready, the train leaves at 5:30. We got going and I realized I had to poop.

On most locomotives, the toilet is in the nose of the engine. But you're not going to do it there—you just don't want to do that to your mate. I wouldn't be surprised if most railroaders develop some sort of bowel condition later in life, just from trying to hold it in. You're there with someone else in tight quarters, and the scent will linger for the rest of the trip. You don't shit in your own nest, right?

Anyways, we pull into Brockville a little early, with time to spare. I grab my gloves and radio to get off the engine, and say to the other engineer: "Look, I'm going in to take a shit." I went into the station. I do my business. Start hearing a locomotive bell. Then a whistle. I figure I guess there's a freight train pulling in. I don't hear the engine outside anymore. I think no fuckin' way—did he just fuckin' leave? I go outside, the train is gone.

I look down the track, I can't even see it in the distance. I get on the radio and say "41 where are you?" Then he finally says: "I'm just around the corner." I say, "you better stop because you left me at the station." I hear nothing then; "OK. What do you want me to do?" and I say "just stop." It was January. It was cold. I was so mad. I was walking so close to the train so the passengers couldn't see me out their windows. I keep walking and as soon as I get to the train the onboard staff are like "what's going on?" Well, he left me at the fuckin' station.

I just fuckin' yelled at him: "How the fuck did you not know I got off the engine?" The rest of the trip, not a word was said except anything that pertained to railway matters. If there's an emergency and we can't stop the train, we say to the onboard staff "code blue." So my new nickname is '"code brown."

What's the worst part of the job?
Getting up at two in the morning!

Best part?
The freedom. I mean, we're being watched. We have all this telemetry and data that gets sent so they know what we're doing. But it's not like in an office where you have someone bugging you about sales figures and checking to see if you're on Facebook. There's a sense of pride I take in the job. My "office window" view always changes. Sometimes I'll just sit back and think, fuck, it's cool that I get to drive this thing.

Update: This article has been updated from an earlier version.

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