By Andy Polhamus
When he’s away, the smells are what he misses the most. In his twenty-fifth year as a railroad engineer, John knows every last inch of his line. “There’s a very distinct odor,” he says. “I feel more at home in a train yard than anywhere else.”
And it’s true—the individual smells are all familiar, but their combination belongs to the trains alone. There’s the exhaust of diesel fuel, thick and heavy in the air and a sweet, sickly scent that John identifies as the brakes. There’s the harsh smell of metal, the grease in the wheels and the hinges. There’s the dust that settles on the outside of the train and the smell of wood burning far away in someone’s fireplace on a cold October night.
It is still dark when John (whose employers asked that his last name be omitted) boards the train he’ll be driving today. It’s crisp and clear this morning, with the temperature hovering just below 50 degrees and the still-dark sky strewn with stars. At 5 a.m., most of Long Island will be sound asleep for another hour or two. The train yard in Port Jefferson Station is just about the only thing awake right now. But if John wants to make it to Penn Station with his cargo of hundreds of commuters at 7:20, he’s got to get a move on.
The cab where he’ll be spending the next two hours is a dark metal box with two seats and dozens of controls. A small computer screen and a device that looks like the analog stick from a video game controller are built directly into the dashboard in front of John’s seat, which is situated on the right side of the cab. It takes more than a year to get qualified to be a train engineer on the Long Island Rail Road. When you look at the row of switches above John’s head and the signals shining before him on the dark tracks, it’s easy to understand why.
Mike Passantino, a foreman with the Long Island Railroad, stands in the back of the cab. He was an engineer for more than a decade before becoming a foreman. Now, he spends his days supervising train crews. “I had been working nights before this,” he says sleepily in a heavy New York accent. “So this is a pretty big change.” His thinning dark hair glimmers with hints of gray.
As the train pulls out of the station in Stony Brook, the depth of Long Island’s slumber becomes more and more obvious. Soon the train will reach Smithtown, the first major hub on the trip from Port Jefferson to Manhattan. The sun will rise and the hustle and bustle of New York City will take shape as workers and residents fill the muted streets. But at the moment–for John at least–there’s only the train.
Brilliant yellow lights slice through the darkness ahead. Trees line the tracks, with rows of houses peeking through in the distance. In a flash of orange, a fox cuts across the path of the train. He’s gone almost before you can see him, scampering into the undergrowth on the other side.
As the train pulls into the Smithtown station, the mood changes. Scores of people have gathered on the concrete platforms to catch John’s train. “This is the only one without a transfer,” Mike explains.
If these Islanders want to make it to work without stopping at every local station along the way, they’ve got to be on the platform at 6:05. There are two more local stops before John’s train becomes an express from Greenlawn to New York. After that, it’s a straight run through the Western half of Long Island.
For the next hour, the sky will get progressively bluer until—just when John reaches Jamaica, Queens—the sun will officially rise at 6:59 a.m. For the riders of this train, the trip isn’t part of the sunrise—it is the sunrise.
John, a middle-aged man with kind blue eyes and graying stubble on his chin, wastes no words. As an engineer, he wears simple work clothes and boots rather than the crisp blue uniform of the conductors and brakemen taking tickets in the passenger cars. He could be going to work on a construction site, or as a plumber.
His speech is careful, well planned. So it’s a big deal when he describes what it’s like to ride into New York City at the very beginning of a sunny fall day. “The whole sky turns orange,” he says, his voice warming up. “It’s an awesome sight.”
The straightaways are the easiest. A long expanse with few curves and no stops is a good place for an engineer to make up for time lost earlier on the route. It’s also dangerous. A miscalculation could threaten the lives of the passengers and crew.
Potential LIRR engineers are trained with this in mind. “It takes a trained eye,” Mike says as the train picks up speed. John says nothing, his eyes staring straight ahead up miles of track.
In the silence that follows, there is nothing but the music of the train and the light on the tracks underneath the inky sky. Engines roar against the rushing wind. The signals in the cab beep at random intervals, demanding the engineer’s attention to curves in the tracks ahead. A radio crackles, almost lost in the din, but, as John jokes, “when they call your name, you’ll know.”
Procedure dictates that when two engineers are in a train together, they are required to call out readings of the track signals to each other. John and Mike interrupt each other and themselves on a regular basis:
The noises stay with you at night, they say. And while you might miss the smells, you don’t get a choice with the sounds. You’ll hear the beeping command to slow down as you settle down in bed whether you like it or not. You’ll hear the doors sliding open and shut in your dreams and worry about making good time as you lie in bed half-awake the night before your sister’s wedding or on your third night of vacation. You never get to stop being a train engineer.
Cars rattle as they pass over the seams between tracks at switch points. To a passenger in the middle of the train, the shaking is barely noticeable. But to John and Mike, rolling over a gap between two pieces of metal in a diesel locomotive at 40 miles an hour is exactly as dramatic as it sounds.
The landscape is similarly deceptive. The filmstrip of streetlights and suburbs that seems so serene to a passenger is a battle of constant adjustment and readjustment for the engineer. He monitors speed; he monitors the weight of the train. He decides how hard he can push the engine to make up for lost time. As the train approaches 76 miles per hour on a straightaway, the landscape zooms by, the track shaking underneath.
But Mike stands quiet and calm behind John’s seat, not holding on to anything. “It’s something you get used to,” he says. Adjustment and readjustment.
John’s train runs with a dual-mode engine, meaning that the train can run on both diesel fuel and electricity. Halfway through the trip, he switches from diesel to electric power. He’s relying now on the notorious “third rail,” which provides the engine with its charge. But on the edges of stations, the third rail runs in a broken line. John must ease the train from rail to rail. The train lags and surges as it runs low on electricity, hits the next piece of rail, and suddenly gets a new charge. On a normal day, this is one of the hardest parts of the trip. Mike falls silent to let John work.
This maneuver is equal parts skill, experience and instinct. If John accelerates incorrectly, he can stall the train between segments of rail and find himself forced to restart the train’s diesel engines, wasting valuable time in the home stretch of the journey.
But spending twenty-five years of your life on a train comes with its benefits. With deceptive ease, John navigates this section of track without incident. He’s going to be right on schedule.
The hardest part of the job is change, John says. When something changes, it’s because something else is going wrong. As an engineer, he rarely deals with the public. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem for him when something goes wrong.
“It’s a very underappreciated and thankless job,” he says. Then he smiles. “You can tell how important it is the minute you break down. When you look inside the paper and see a hundred thousand people couldn’t get home yesterday, you realize.”
That importance becomes clearer as the train gets closer and closer to its destination. Platforms overflow with people now, and John must wait longer at each station to let the hordes of commuters find a place to sit or stand.
The sprawling suburbs are gone now, their thick woods and narrow lanes traded for avenues and boulevards running in a grid through the outer reaches of Queens. Grass is replaced with asphalt. Backyards are smaller here. Houses huddle closer together against an orange backdrop. Just a few minutes later, weak yellow light illuminates the train station in Jamaica. The glass roof glimmers and the black tar and asphalt of the rooftops and streets of the neighborhood highlight the newly illuminated colors of the day. It is seven o’clock in the morning. Finally, the sun has risen.
Just as John promised, it’s beautiful. New York stands ready to greet his train as it approaches the tunnel. Skyscrapers glimmer against a brilliant blue background. The white and gray stone facades gleam next to their glass and steel cousins. All of Manhattan seems to applaud the arrival of the train.
Then, just when it looks like John will be pulling into the middle of 33rd Street, there’s a dip, and the train snakes beneath the East River. Here, it’s night again. The century-old tunnel is little more than a giant pipe with the train burrowing beneath fathoms of water and earth. John’s headlights can only show a few hundred feet of the tunnel at a time before the dirty brown expanse of cement and shining track fades back into blackness. Ladders and pipes line the curved walls. Fire extinguishers appear at regular intervals. The music of the train is as strong as ever, the radio chattering as John receives his platform assignment.
And then he’s made it. The train pulls up to a platform and slows to a stop. A conductor’s voice on the intercom tells passengers to make sure to bring all their belongings with them and New York Penn Station hums high above the train.
Mike gets off with the passengers and heads upstairs to the stationmaster’s office, which dispatches commands from the station to the railroad’s engineers. John stays on the train. He’ll be taking it to the West Side Yard, where it will be prepared for the rest of the day. It may be taken apart, its pieces fed to other trains. Or it may just be searched and turn right around to head back out to Long Island.
But it doesn’t matter which train John is on next week. When these same commuters get on the train at six in the morning, he’ll be there. And he’ll be bringing the sunrise with him.