Then, there will be the times you'll coast past glistening streams, back roads and intricate bridges.
Mostly, the life of a freight train conductor is not glamorous, said Norfolk Southern employment officer Susan Sloane, lecturing to 10 men in Secaucus on a recent Saturday morning. Norfolk Southern, one of the country's four remaining freight rail companies, is recruiting workers for the Croxton Yards, the greatly-expanding freight train locus in Jersey City near the Secaucus border. The company itself is expanding, having acquired a little more than half of Conrail last year (CSX bought the rest).
That means recruiting local workers, but the process of getting hired to work on the railroad isn't easy. There's a drug test - electrospectography, which the FBI and CIA use, and which can detect a few puffs of marijuana inhaled three months ago. (If you take this test and fail, Norfolk Southern will never consider your application again.) There's a personality evaluation. There's a criminal background check. "Don't think because I'm a woman I don't know what I'm talking about," Sloane said in a 90-minute talk at the Meadowlands Plaza Hotel on a sunny June morning. "This company is honest. I'll give it to you straight. This is a lifestyle change. I'm going to give you a break after my talk. I won't be insulted if you leave. Afterwards, there will be applications, interviews, and an evaluation."
Typically, Sloane said later, 30 percent of applicants don't come back after the talk. At the Secaucus session, it turned out to be 60 percent.
On the extra board
The drug tests scare the most people off, and the hours scare more.
"A train can weigh 14,000 tons," Sloane told the applicants. "You want to be near that if you have drugs in your system? You could kill yourself or someone else." An applicant who fails the drug test never gets a second chance, so t
hose who've used drugs recently were advised to leave, get clean and wait three months before applying. At the lecture, a young man raised his hand.
"I was at school," the prospective applicant told Sloane. "In the room, people were smoking. I didn't smoke myself. Will it show up?"
Sloane said she could make no guarantees.
Workers can't drink either, even in their off-hours - because there are no off-hours during the first few years of employment. Rail workers can work for up to 12 hours, and their names are listed on the "extra board." When their name moves to the top of the list, they are called, and they have an hour and a half to get to work.
Norfolk Southern trains run through Croxton to Binghamton, Buffalo, and sometimes Harrisburg. The company itself runs trains from Florida to Canada and west to the Mississippi, where other railroads pick up the load. Conductors hired locally will spend time at Croxton moving parts or rearranging train cars for their next trip, and they also will be riding the rails. If a train stops en route for some reason, even in the middle of the night, the conductor must take his flashlight, hop out and walk the length of the train, looking for the source of the trouble. Once the train completes its route, the crew is put up in a hotel for the night and then brought home.
The workers get few holidays. They may think they're not going to be working on a particular day and then get called.
Perhaps this is why the rail industry has the highest divorce rate of any industry.
"Have you ever seen the Hallmark postcard they have around Christmas, where there's a family going to grandma's house, and there's a train in the background?" Sloane asked. "Well, there is a conductor on that train. There's an engineer on that train. There's a clerk on that train. There's a police officer protecting the safety of that train."
But then, there's ...
So if the hours are bad, you can't drink and you might spend your holidays treading gravel, why do people do it?
Norfolk Southern is a great company to work for, employees said. The benefits are good, and rail workers have an extra social security system that they pay into (but they lose the dough if they don't stay for at least 10 years). After several years, applicants can train to become engineers and earn $60,000 per year or more, depending on how much they work.
"They're good at taking care of people," said Mike Moringiello of Staten Island, who was at the Secaucus lecture and who was hired as a conductor last year. "It's good money. It's like a lifetime job. There's a sense of security."
Moringiello and his colleague, Nazareth Garabedian of Emerson, in Bergen County, said they enjoyed the scenery.
"It's gorgeous to look down and see the valleys," Moringiello said. "It's beautiful."
"Going to Harrisburg, you see the green," Garabedian said. "The clean air."
"The nicest thing is," Moringiello said, "there's a children's hospital in Bergen County. Every time I go by, there are millions of kids. Every time we go by, we wave."
No rail fans
But people should not join the company if they just want to gawk at the trains.
"This is not glamorous," Sloane told the group. "If you're a rail fan and a model railroader, it's not glamorous. It's real work. It's rewarding - you'll see parts of the country no one ever gets to see - but it's hard work."
"There are people," Sloane explained later, "who sit along the railroad tracks and watch the trains, and listen to our radios. They think they want to work for us. But they just want to watch the cars. That's dangerous. If a classic car comes by, and you're looking up, you could get killed. We try to find out if they're here because it's cool or they're here because they want to work. Well, you can think it's cool. But there's a middle ground."
Several of the men lured to the Meadowlands Plaza by the newspaper ads said before the talk that they were drawn more by the need for a good, steady job than by the allure of the railroads.
"I worked in the steel industry and the hotel industry," said a Queens man who emigrated from Romania two years ago and currently has a construction job with no benefits. "I need a good job. I've got to support my family."
The man, whose only daughter is in college, did not return after the break.
Another man, Jimmy Thomas, 49, of Brooklyn, said he wasn't a model railroader but that the prospect of working on the railroad intrigued him.
"I've thought about it," Thomas said, "but I never thought it was possible."
The company will be hiring for months to come, Sloane said. Those who get hired will train in McDonough, Ga., a town Norfolk Southern "practically owns," an employee said. The company pays for the training, although not all freight companies do (see sidebar).
For hiring, there's a website: www.nscorp.com, and an 800 number, (800) 214-3609.
Job applicants who are hired as railroad conductors by Norfolk Southern will get free training down South. But those seeking a job with the other railroad company that bought Conrail, CSX, which is also hiring locally, will have to pay several thousand dollars for a college course.
There are seven colleges around the country that provide the training for CSX. One of them, Mohawk Valley Community College, located in Rome, N.Y., held an informational meeting in Newark Aug. 30 for prospective students. That college runs a five-week training program using materials provided by CSX, and those who complete the $3,950 course will be interviewed by the company.
"Both men an women may apply for the positions," announced a Mohawk Valley press release, "which may have starting salaries as high as $30,000. Applicants should be aware that the positions also involve strenuous physical labor and occasionally hazardous situations, frequent absences from home, irregular shifts, two-hour notification on work schedules, and around-the-clock outdoor work in all weather conditions. A probation period is also required before permanent hire."
There are job openings for CSX at their freight yards in South Kearny, N.J. as well as Cleveland, Ohio; Buffalo, Rochester, Dewitt and Selkirk, N.Y.; and Boston, Framingham and Worcester, Mass. Aside from the tuition, there is a $25 application and testing fee for the course.
For more information, call the college at (877) MV-TRACK or call CSX's employment hotline at (800) 521-1658. The CSX jobs website is: www.csxt.com/jobs.