Jistel was born and raised in Austin and has worked for Union Pacific Railroad for fifteen years. He lives in Austin but commutes to depots in San Antonio and Taylor, where he runs freight trains to cities across the state.
I grew up going to the depot in Giddings with my dad, who put in 39 years with Southern Pacific as a clerk. He’d take me with him when he was working the midnight shift, and I’d watch the trains roll by before I fell asleep. But aside from riding the trains at theme parks, I didn’t get on my first engine until I went to work for Southern Pacific, in 1994.
I started as a switchman, moving boxcars at a rail yard in San Antonio. I did that for about a year, until a hostler position came available, where I would service the engines. Even though I wasn’t running trains, that job was a good stepping-stone to engineering school. To become certified with the Federal Railroad Administration, I had to complete a three-part program over six months. I was young and single at the time, so I put in for a position in New Orleans.
Once I had my certification, I decided to return to San Antonio, and I started running trains to Houston, Del Rio, Eagle Pass, Laredo, and Georgetown. But because I had done all of my training in Louisiana, I didn’t know the routes. When you’re operating a train, knowing the terrain and the speed restrictions is crucial. So I basically had to do another month of training. But after I learned the territories, they sent me out on my own. I had butterflies the first time it was just me and the conductor. I wanted to do a good job and not have a derailment. Plus, at 22 years old, I was one of the company’s youngest engineers. I was working with guys who had twenty to thirty years of seniority.
This month marks my fifteenth anniversary working for Union Pacific, which bought Southern Pacific in 1998, and the nerves are long gone. On a typical day I get online and look up the train schedule, what we call a lineup, and then pack my grip, or luggage. I’m usually gone a minimum of 36 hours, so I grab a couple changes of clothes and enough food for four or five meals. I eat a lot of sandwiches, but I’ll also bring sausage or brisket and warm it up on top of the engine’s radiator. I drive out to the depot in San Antonio, where I meet the conductor. We read through the track warrants and bulletins, which let us know about speed restrictions, scheduled track maintenance, and any tracks or switches that are out of service. Then a van drops us off at our train, and I do a ground inspection, check the engines, knock off all the hand brakes, and make sure the circuit breakers are set up properly.
Once the dispatcher gives us the signal, I release the train brake and wait for the air pressure to come up on the rear of the train. Before we had digital air-pressure gauges, the conductor would ride in the caboose and let you know the pressure was up and that we were about to start moving. Back then we had five crew members; now it’s just me and the conductor. He takes care of the cars, talks to the dispatcher, and monitors the train-side detectors, which let us know if we have a hot wheel or axle. It’s my job to control the train’s speed. I have to monitor several air gauges as well as the amp meter, which increases as I change my throttle position, but the speedometer is the most important. There’s no cruise control, so you have to be focused. In fact, if I don’t make any adjustments for twenty seconds—whether it’s coming out on the throttle or blowing the whistle—a red light on the dash starts to flash and I have twenty seconds to reset the alerter. If I don’t, the train’s brakes are set automatically.
Every train handles differently. A five-car passenger train stops a lot quicker than a freight train that’s a mile and a half long and has four hundred containers. I mainly haul freight: automobiles, lumber, canned goods, hazardous materials, fruit, coal, rocks, tanks, even circus animals. A loaded train can weigh upward of 14,000 tons, and when it’s going 50 miles an hour, it’s electrifying.
Of course, I’ve had a few scary moments. Once, when I was a student engineer, two boys, probably nine or ten, were walking their bikes across a trestle. I started blowing my whistle, and the kids freaked. They threw their bikes off the edge and started running. The ties were spaced about six inches apart, so they were stutter-stepping toward the end of the bridge. They had to make a decision: Get hit by a train or jump. I gotta give them credit because they jumped thirty or forty feet down into a creek. They were okay, but that’ll get your heart going.
Luckily I haven’t killed anybody, but I have hit four vehicles. One time there was a couple in a car, and they thought they could beat me across the tracks. I was coming around this curve at 50 miles an hour, and my heart was beating. I hit him on his front tire and spun him around. They had to go for a ride in the EMS. But the thing I fear the most is that somebody will go around the crossing gates with children in the backseat. To put it in perspective, a train hitting a car is like a human crushing a Coke can.
There are other challenges too, like train hoppers. I was coming back from Laredo one time, and all of a sudden I heard the back door, which is usually latched, open up. I spun around and saw this guy asking for agua. My conductor jumped out of his seat and escorted the guy out back. We gave him some bottled water, but you just never know what people’s intentions are.
Even though the schedule can be tough—I can get a call to go in at any time, plus I’m away from home two to three nights a week—I really enjoy running trains. What’s neat is when I go through a town like Hondo, where there’s a little park that runs along the track and I see a bunch of kids waving at me. I’m pulling a big load and the engines are maxed out and this thing is just humming and they are captivated. Most kids, especially boys, want to be either a firefighter or an engineer when they grow up, so they’re excited to talk to me. My wife and I are expecting our first child, a son, this spring. The thought has crossed my mind that maybe he’ll be the third generation out on the railroad.