This story was written by Dave Houk for his high school Community Service requirement

Community Service
On The
San Diego & Arizona Railroad

By Dave Houk

    I did my community service with the San Diego Railroad Museum. The facility is located in Campo CA, only a few miles from Mexico. The museum is a non-profit organization and is all run by volunteers. Everyone from the trainmen who talk to the passengers and make them comfortable, to the engineers who run the train, they all volunteer their time as well as I do. I am the youngest qualified brakeman ever at the San Diego Railroad Museum.

    First I will tell you how I got started. When I was around the age of eight my Dad bought me a model train set, the one that would only go in a circle. As weeks went by my Dad added on to it and the track got larger. Eventually I was no longer allowed to play with it. As my Dad’s interest in trains grew, he did a little research and found out about the museum. We went up one weekend and rode the train. We were hooked!

    My father went through a little bit of training and became a trainman. We would go up almost every weekend, my Dad would do his duties while I helped in the gift shop dusting and cleaning. Years passed and my Dad rose through the ranks, Trainman, Brakeman, Engineer and then Conductor. I, too, changed jobs. I sold snacks on the train, and at one point I ran the gift shop. When I was fifteen a man named Mike Edwards, a brakeman, asked if I wanted to help him and my dad in the rail yard. So after that he would take me along with him and he would teach me how to be a brakeman. At seventeen, I took the classes and passed my test in only seven training runs.  The Qualification Board checked my records, and on my eighteenth birthday I became the youngest qualified brakeman.

    I know you are tired of me talking about my past and you are wondering, “What exactly does a Brakeman do?” Well, I’ll tell you. A Brakeman is in charge of all movements of the train, such as which way the train goes and how far. We also check all brake shoes (like brake pads on a car), hand brakes (like the emergency brake for a car), air hoses and gaskets. The brakemen are in charge of coupling cars together and making sure that the brakes will work by performing brake tests and air tests. When the brakemen are in the cab while the train is moving, they become the engineer’s eyes looking for anything on the tracks or anything that might run in front of the engine or get in the way. Now you may have a little more of an idea on what the Brakeman does.

    A typical day for me starts at about 7:00 am. I report to the office where I pick up my switch keys and radio. I get my orders from the yardmaster; he will tell me what engine we will run and what cars we are going to take. He will also tell me what track to get them from. After the engineer starts the engine we do a quick brake test. I check to see if he can set and release his brakes. We do it twice; once with the train brake (sets the brakes on the cars) and the independent (which sets the engine’s brake alone). Once that is done we go out and get the consist. Once I have connected all the cars together we do another brake test. This time I have to check all of the cars and see if the brakes have set on each one. The engineer does a leakage test while I inspect the"set". If there is more than 5 pounds of brakepipe leakage in 1 minute he will tell me, usually on the radio I carry. In that case I need to look to find where the air is leaking, then fix it. It's usually a gladhand gasket that leaks. I carry some spares so I can replace defective ones. When the leakage test is complete I call for a release, and the engineer then releases the train brakes. Sometimes these signals are done over the radio, and sometimes with hand signals if the engineer and I can see each other. I then check the brakes on each car to make sure that the piston on each cylinder has gone back in. This tells me that the brake shoes are not tight against the wheels so the train can now move. I then look at the air gauge on the last car to make sure that the pressure is restored back to the running value of 110 pounds. I remove the gauge and connect the conductor's hose. This hose has a whistle and a valve that allows the brakeman or conductor to stop the train when we're backing up. I also put a red flag on the coupler for daylight operation. If it's going to be dark I'll put a flashing red light there for extra visibility.

    When that is completed, we take the whole consist and bring it down to the depot where we will load the passengers. The whole crew meets and the Conductor holds a safety meeting, in which we distribute fire duties and any other instructions that they might have for us. When we have the first boarding call I climb up into the cab and wait for departure. When we leave I get to sit back and watch the tracks for anything. When we get to La Posta Rd, I get out and flag the crossing. Back in the cab I relax and enjoy the scenery. At Miller Creek, which is the turning point of the trip, I close the air and pull the pin to separate the locomotive. After that we pull away and I throw the switch to the passing track. I then bring the locomotive down the track passing the passengers. I get to hang off and wave. When we get to the end of that track, another switch is thrown and we head back to hook up to the consist. I then bring the locomotive in and hook it up. I lace in the air and we do another brake test. When it’s all passed then we head back to the depot. Again I sit back and watch. Back at the depot we unload the passengers and get the train ready to leave one more time. We go and have some lunch and we push off once again at 2:30 pm. When the second trip is over the yardmaster will tell me of other switching that I may have to do. When the switching is all done or there is none to do we put the engine back and shut her down. I check back in the keys and radio, sign out and GO HOME!

    I have been a brakeman for almost a year now and I hope that I will be able to continue my duties. I have never realized how the railroad was operated nor had much respect for it until I started to volunteer at the museum. Now it is amazing to know how much this country depends on the railroads. I wouldn’t work for one as a career due to the long hours and physical work, but it sure is fun to go up on some weekends to work on the rails with good friends. I hope you come out and support us. See you on the rails!

This page last update on 4-30-2001