Working on the Railroad

David Pryor, a conductor at Amtrak, talks about why his job on the train makes him optimistic about American society.

David Pryor (Rebecca Clarke)

Amtrak was created in 1971, a year after Congress passed the Rail Passenger Service Act to revive train travel in America (the name Amtrak is a portmanteau of the words America and track). Every year, over 30 million people—including, famously, Vice President Joe Biden—ride Amtrak trains. This past summer, Amtrak got a $2.5 billion federal loan from the U.S. Department of Transportation to upgrade its trains to include faster trains with better seats and WiFi.

More than 20,000 people work at Amtrak, on its trains and in its stations nationwide. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I talked to longtime Amtrak conductor David Pryor about what it’s like to work on a train, what happens during delays, and why train travel makes him optimistic. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Bourree Lam: How did you end up working for Amtrak, and how long have you been working there?

David Pryor: Before the internet age, there were classified ads. I was about 27 years old and I was working as a bank manager prior to Amtrak. I was looking in the classifieds, hoping to further my career and possibly go work at another bank. I saw that Amtrak was seeking train attendants for a job with free travel and excellent benefits. I saw the ad in October of 1989, and by January of the following year, I was hired. Since 1991, I've been a conductor for Amtrak. I've been with the company for 27 years; I might as well say half my life.

Lam: What different roles have you had at the company?

Pryor: I started as a train attendant. The attendants are the ones who make sure that the passengers are having a comfortable trip, and work the sleeping cars as well. They keep the passengers informed of delays, and make the beds—144 to be exact—on the train going cross-country. I did that for two years, and then I applied to be an assistant conductor. I worked as an assistant conductor for a year before being promoted to a lead conductor, and I've been doing this job ever since.

In addition to being a conductor, I became a safety instructor in 1997. When we had an unfortunate incident—a crash back in the 1990s—the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) made it mandatory that we have evacuation policies in place. When they made it mandatory with the FRA, I started instructing the evacuation classes, which we still use today.

I worked as a train master for a couple of years also, and was supervising 30-something conductors and engineers for the the Michigan service trains. I basically made sure that all the trains were staffed adequately, and did what we call efficiency test to make sure that all the regulations with the FRA were up to date. Sometimes, I’d be in a bush beside the tracks with a radar gun to make sure the trains were going the right speed. We also do things with the signal systems (which prevents train collisions), to make sure that the crews were complying. I did that for a couple of years before going back as a conductor, because I really missed the people.

I enjoyed my management position immensely. The best part of it was the camaraderie of all the conductors and engineers, who were very excited that I had the job. That’s why I decided to go back in uniform. No regrets. It gave me an opportunity to see how the other side of Amtrak works, but I really do enjoy working on the trains.

Lam: Have you always wanted a job that involved travel?

Pryor: Well, I've always liked to travel. I grew up in a big family, we’re very close and we tended to travel quite a bit. That was one of the things that caught my attention right away when I saw the ad for this job, it was 100 percent free travel. I was young, and had no dependents, so I just kind of jumped on it.

As an attendant, I've worked from Chicago to New Orleans, to San Antonio, New York, L.A., San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle—so I've been in each direction of the country. I'm originally from Chicago, and it's good to be with Amtrak in there because this is a connecting point and all of our trains go directly through here.

You just learn so much from people in general by working the train. The railroad is kind of like a microcosm of society. The dialogue with people on a daily basis is so refreshing. It was such a difference from my banking background, where I was dealing with people's money and you had to be serious about everything. When I started with the railroad, it was different: People are on vacation, people were traveling to a happy event, and it was very easy to play off of that.

Lam: Tell me more about the trains being a mirror of society. Has this job changed your view of American society?

Pryor: One thing I've learned is that we get so much negative information from the media, especially now with the internet. Working on board the trains, you actually see that mankind is still nice. In my 27 years, I've seen people helping complete strangers. It lets you see the world from a different perspective. There are still a lot of wonderful people in this world. Just the other day, for example, I saw a young person helping a senior who I thought was her grandmother. She was helping her get on the train and everything. I told her that we have limited seating and I didn’t want to separate them, but she said, “Oh, no. I'm just kind of helping her out. I'm going on to Portland, and I think she's getting off somewhere in Montana."

It's so refreshing to see people do this, and it happens on a daily basis. Whenever I experience that type of thing, it verifies [to me] that there are still good people. I see people helping each other, for example, giving them suggestions as on what to do [at their destinations] if it’s somewhere they’ve been before. That's true of the crewmembers too, because the conductor sets the tone for his or her train. I'm known for being a pretty uplifting, positive person. When I come on the train, and have that courteousness and professionalism about myself, it's infectious with the crewmembers and that goes right on to the passengers.

David Pryor, a train conductor in Chicago (Amtrak)

Lam: Have you seen the generosity of strangers change over the years?

Pryor: Not as much. If anything, I've seen more of empathy. I know that there are situations that are challenging, but we see everybody from the wealthy, to people who don't have money, celebrities, and regular people.

There was one gentleman who I met from Germany. I don't speak German, and he didn't speak English, but I found out where he was from and how many kids he had. We basically did it by just drawing pictures, stick people. Even though we had that language barrier, we were still able to communicate. You see little things like that aboard the train all the time, that though people might be limited with their communications, they still put the effort to try to communicate and help someone.

We talk all the time about how people get onboard the plane, right away they plug themselves in, but on a train it's more conducive to getting to know your family, just sitting back and relaxing, watching the country go by. It goes back to the basics of human communication.

Lam: What are some of the keys to doing your job well? And what are some of the challenges?

Pryor: You meet so many interesting people, and the “office” is never the same. One drawback is the non-traditional hours. Amtrak trains run all over the country, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so somebody's always working. Sometimes, we have delays because of an accident, or a freight-train derailment, and that can take several hours to reroute a train over different territory. There have been times where we had to cancel the train due to a broken bridge that we couldn't cross, and that's when a conductor really steps up and takes control in transferring crew members and passengers to alternate transportation while staying in contact with Amtrak's control center in Delaware.

Midwest winters can be pretty brutal, so that's one drawback. If the train breaks down, we have to troubleshoot the problem right there and fix it to get the train moving again. If a road is plowed poorly, the train will go right through that drift and that'll kick up all that snow and debris. We are out there in the cold plugging things back in, and resetting things so the train can go on its way.

Back in the mid-'90s, I was on the Lake Shore Limited train route going from Chicago to New York. There was ice buildup in between the trains, and the last two cars—thankfully they were baggage cars and not passenger cars—became separated while we were going 80 miles-an-hour. Of course when that happens, the train slows down. I noticed that a car that wasn't supposed to be the end of the train was actually the end of the train. We're going through Ohio in the middle of nowhere, so basically we had to stop the train, close down the railroad, and connect the train back together again. You have electrical cable, communication cables, air hoses, and stuff that you have to get out there and actually do.

In addition to doing all of this good stuff, we're on a schedule as well. You still have dispatchers and you're holding up freight trains and other passenger trains by troubleshooting issues.

You just try to do the best that you can. When this happens to me when I'm out on the road now, I'm not intimidated by it because I just go into conductor mode and do what I have to do. But the main thing is to keep that train on schedule as much as you possibly can, because people have plans and they have to get places. But even with that, it's still a rewarding career.

Lam: How has working on the trains changed in your 27 years?

Pryor: When I first started as a train attendant, the last five rows of each car was the smoking section. That'll give you an idea of how long I've been doing it for, right? Then we went down to separate smoking cars, and then down to a smoking room, and now we have smoking stops. When I first started, we used to have the old conductor punches. Each conductor can choose the shape of the hole they punch in the ticket, mine is a crescent moon. I still have my punch just for the kiddies at Christmas time. Nowadays we have the iPhones, and we can electronically scan the ticket right off of your phone. One other thing that I really do like about the trains though, is the fact that we take so many cars off the road and we're a greener mode of transportation. I really do see not just the country but also the world going in that direction.

Lam: How does your work relate to your identity?

Pryor: Well, it relates to my identity because I just appreciate when people are having a good time. All people really want is to be treated with a little bit of respect. They like to be informed when they're delayed. Even if it takes longer than anticipated, you've got to let them know. I learned early in my career.

One time I had a couple, they were celebrating their 50th anniversary and on their way up to Glacier Park in Montana. I was the sleeping-car attendant. I remember when I turned down their beds, they told me, "Well Dave, you know, we're celebrating our 50th anniversary. We want you to celebrate with us." They had a bottle of champagne; I had cider. You don't do that in average workplaces. You don't have the kind of rapport that you get with people on the train. A little bit of generosity goes a long way. It's definitely a job where you need a certain type of disposition in order to do it. It's not for everybody. I really do see rail transportation going into the next mode of transportation. I see it taking off, especially with the high-speed rail. We're going to go into another stratosphere with that. I probably won't be around, I'll be retired, but I'm certainly looking forward to it.

This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a crew chief, a waitress, and a taxi driver.