How Train Conductor Coordinate the Tracks

Features

By Rachel Studebaker

Whether it’s welcoming tourists aboard a historic train ride or coordinating freight shipments as they travel across the region, train conductors are key to keeping this mode of transportation on track. Read on to learn more about their important role and hear from local conductors about what it takes to help the railroad stay running smoothly.

train conductors in tennessee valley railroad

Photo Courtesy of Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum

WORKING ON THE RAILROAD

Chattanooga has played a prominent role in the rail industry since it welcomed its first rail line in 1850, and today, boasts both a rich rail history and growing acclaim as a hub for freight. Thanks to hardworking individuals across the city, an active network of local railways continues to move full steam ahead.

At the helm of these crews is the conductor, who is responsible for overseeing every step of the transportation process, from departure to arrival. Conductors coordinate rail cars, direct their train’s movements on the tracks, and ensure that the products or passengers being transported enjoy safe passage to their destination.

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norfolk southern trains

FOCUSING ON FREIGHT

Major freight carriers including Norfolk Southern and CSX pass through local rail yards for daily loading and unloading as they deliver cargo across the country. With plenty of product to move along, the rail yard is a spot bustling with activity.

Tom Foden is no stranger to this fast-paced environment, having worked as a conductor for 27 years. He oversees operations for trains on the Chattooga & Chickamauga Railway (CCKY) which comprises 38 miles of track that stretch from Chattanooga to Summerville, Georgia.

As a freight conductor, Foden coordinates the movement of materials – primarily plastic resin – to factories across the Southeast. When he’s not helping shuttle crews to and fro, his role in the rail yard involves switching out the rail cars needed by different carriers. Rain or shine, work in the freight yard keeps chugging along, and every day holds something new.

“Not every switch is going to be the same,” notes Foden. “You have to take into consideration that it might be an easy switch but the cars that we need may not all be together. You might have to pull a track of 20 train cars out just to dig out the one you need and then put them all back.”

Foden welcomes everyday challenges such as these and collaborates with his crew to keep things moving as efficiently as possible, saying, “We keep on trucking.”

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tom foden

Tom Foden

Freight Conductor, Chattooga & Chickamauga Railway

“I was fascinated with trains growing up. Every kid kind of has an idea of what they would like to do, and I thought it would be a neat job.”

A DAY ON THE JOB

“I start the morning with a safety brief and then get a work list of the product that’s needed and what the day holds. The majority of time in the morning is spent getting product prepared and going to switch up the cars. We then go up to the industries and swap out what they’ve got, loading product in and pulling empty rail cars out to the particular areas they’re needed. Then, at the end of the day, we secure the equipment.”

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train in chattanooga

Photo Courtesy of Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum

A PASSION FOR PASSENGERS

Though the last passenger train left Chattanooga’s Terminal Station, now the Chattanooga Choo Choo, in 1970, the city’s rail history – and train rides – live on at the Tennessee Railroad Valley Museum (TVRM). Here, visitors can hop aboard diesel and steam engines for a ride around the city’s scenic surroundings.

Passenger conductors at TVRM play a central part in ensuring visitors enjoy their trip, in addition to managing the logistics of their locomotive.

“The conductor is in charge on the train. Full responsibility of the train, including its movement and the safety of the crew and passengers, falls on the conductor. You can think of the conductor as a captain – every other crew member on the train answers to the conductor,” explains Zachary Langley, who has worked as a conductor at TVRM since 2021.

Zach Gilmore, conductor at TVRM for 20 years, adds that great customer service is an essential skill for passenger conductors as they welcome guests aboard, check tickets, and answer any questions during the train ride. “As the conductor, you are the person passengers interact with the most,” he says.

Having both grown up captivated by trains, Langley and Gilmore now get to nurture this same curiosity in children who remind them of their younger selves. “I enjoy seeing the wonder and excitement on the kids’ faces if they have never ridden a train before,” shares Langley. Gilmore echoes this sentiment: “I love seeing their excitement; it reminds me of how excited I was as a kid.”

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zachary langley

Zachary Langley

Conductor, Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum

“I have always been interested in trains. Trains were my favorite thing as a kid. I can’t remember ever not being interested in them.”

A DAY ON THE JOB

“The first thing you do as a conductor is conduct a job brief with your crew to ensure everyone is on the same page. This includes going over the schedule, special instruction, and speed restrictions, to name a few. We then proceed with getting the train ready for the day. We conduct a terminal brake test to ensure the brakes on the train are functioning and to check for any air leakage. We also inspect the train for any defects or dragging equipment. After everything has been given the green light, we can run the passenger train for the day. Things we do during the day include coupling and uncoupling the locomotive from the train, operating handbrakes, operating the turn table, punching tickets, and ensuring passengers have a good time. After the day is done, we put the train away for the night, and complete our paperwork for the day.”

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tennessee valley railroad station

Photo Courtesy of Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum

COMMUNICATION IS KEY

Conductors constantly communicate with their crew, including the engineer behind the wheel. “The conductor is the one in charge of the train, even though the engineer is the one driving it,” shares Gilmore. “The conductor makes the decisions and ensures everything is safe and on schedule.”

Foden describes conductors as “the foreman of the job,” saying, “You’re in charge of the rest of the crew. You tell the engineer when to go forward and when to back up. You guide them back and make sure everything is under control when coupling train cars together.”

SAFETY FIRST

Coordinating road crossings, watching the weather, and working in a busy rail yard all require conductors to take precautions so that they and their crew remain safe on the job. “The No. 1 skill to be a successful conductor is a sense of safety,” says Langley, advising anyone new to the job to always go into it with a safety-first mindset.

“Being alert and attentive are vital skills,” adds Gilmore. “At times, multiple things are going on, and it’s important that the conductor keeps track of where everyone is and what is going on to ensure that everyone is safe.”

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zach gilmore

Zach Gilmore

Conductor, Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum

“When I was about 3 years old, my parents took me to the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, and I was immediately hooked!”

A DAY ON THE JOB

“The morning starts with getting the train ready, ensuring it is clean and ready for passengers. The train is inspected, and a brake test is done to ensure everything works correctly. Then, we are prepared to board passengers. We provide narration, punch tickets, and answer questions during the trip. Once we arrive at our destination, we must go to work to turn the locomotive around for the return trip.”

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WEARING MANY HATS

Many experienced railroad workers have served different roles in a train crew, these local conductors included. When they’re not managing train movements, all three men also spend time in the driver’s seat as qualified engineers. Plus, having helped operate historic trains for decades, Langley and Gilmore are both experienced firemen, responsible for stoking the fire of coal-burning steam engines.

THE HEART BEHIND IT ALL

For these three and many others serving their railways as conductors, each day’s work is fueled by a love for the livelihood. “I was fortunate to find something I love early in life; it makes a huge difference to be able to go to work doing something you genuinely love,” says Gilmore, adding, “My best advice for anyone invested in becoming a train conductor is to have a passion for it. The same advice I’d give to anyone about a job is to love what you do.”

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