Fond Memories - My First Real Attempt at a Railroad Career

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Reprinted from the December 2004 Blue Ridge Dispather

   It is probably sate to say that everyone reading this publication whom considers his or herself a railroad enthusiast has at least thought about working for the railroad. Even non-railfans have entertained the vision of being in the engineer’s seat of a long freight or first class varnish. When most people discover my intense enthusiasm for railroading, they often ask “With your knowledge and enthusiasm for railroading, why aren’t you working for a railroad?” When I completed college back in the seventies, putting forth an effort to achieve railroad employment was a priority. Resume’s were mailed, contacts were contacted and a positive gungho attitude prevailed. All I received in the mail were those typical corporate “Thanks for your interest in our company we will contact you if we need you.” I never landed a job with a railroad but I did with the federal government many years later.


    My first REAL attempt at trying to get on a railroad payroll started in my church on a Sunday morning. Just about everybody in church knew about my fascination for trains. When the horn of a freight train from the nearby Carolina & Northwestern on its way to Eden or Spray N.C. would briefly interrupt the sermon of The Reverend Howard Ferguson, Sr. on a Sunday morning in summer when the church windows would be open prior to air conditioning, numerous faces in the congregation would look in my direction.
    One Sunday morning shortly after Sunday School and just before the main service I was tapped on the shoulder by the late Mr. Alfred Lanier. Mr. Lanier was a foreman for Southern Railway’s maintenance of way crews based out of Danville. He informed me that Southern would be taking applications and giving test on the upcoming Tuesday for five brakeman positions. He encouraged me to apply and discouraged me from expressing my interest in railroading as a hobby. I didn’t understand why but I took his advice to be on the safe side.
    The application and testing process were to take place at the Danville office of The Virginia Employment Commission starting at 8:00 a.m. sharp. Taking Mr. Lainer’s advice, I arrived shortly before 7:30 a.m. I was glad I did. A long line awaited me and was growing by the minute. I knew every one was not going to get in. The V.E.C. building door was unlocked and opened at 8:00 a.m. and we were directed to a large room that needed to be larger. Tables and chairs filled the room. The first order of business was filling out a basic employment application. The person in charge was a young African-American gentleman whom was a personnel official for Southern Railway based out of Washington D.C. He was very businesslike and professional in his double vested brown suit. After the applications were filled, there was a lecture on what we could expect from Southern Railway and what Southern Railway would expect from us. He counted 253 applications and held them high above his head. Folks came from as far away as Fredericksburg to the north, Raleigh to the south, Martinsville to the west. The gentleman firmly stated the number of applications within the room would probably diminish by two thirds by the time he went thru all the requirements and expectations.
    There were some things he said that etched in my mind like The Ten Commandments etched in stone. “The Southern Railway is the Marine Corps of the railroad industry. If you can work for us. you can work for anybody. On the Southern Railway it is always sunny and seventy degrees. We move freight 24 hours a day, 365 days a year." As he spoke, the silence from the audience was immaculate. With each requirement, a number of people would exit the room. I was surprised at the huge number that left when he mentioned that we would be expected to work in all kinds of weather. Having a criminal record subtracted another large group from the room. Having human body shortcomings such as being color blind or missing part of an entire finger dismissed a number of applicants too.
    After the lecture and a 15 minute break, we took a series of test. I called them “head test” just to see where your mental state of mind was or wasn’t. One thing I should mention is that the five people selected for employment would be on what the railroad refers to as “the extra hoard,” Basically you would fill in for workers whom marked off for illness, vacation, etc. If more brakemen were needed simply for more work to be done, you’d be called.
    After the testing, we were free to leave which was after 2:00 p.m. We were told that if we’re to be hired, we would be contacted by phone before Thursday. Those whom wanted their test results could receive their results via U.S. Mail. I passed with flying colors but was not called. Mr. Lanier informed me a few weeks later that he had learned that five guys whom had been laid off from the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway had been hired. I was not pissed at Southern for choosing people already trained as railroaders. The experience of experiencing first hand of what you can expect working for a major carrier was worthwhile and there would be other chances for possible railroad employment down the road.
    I still enjoy railroading as a bobby and things have changed so much on the railroad that I wonder if I would enjoy it as a career now as I would have back in the seventies as new hire. Most railroaders I know encourage me to stay with my federal job and just enjoy railroading from a hobbyist position. I don't have to compete with 253 applicants or laid off railroaders to be a hobbyist.