Train Crews & Caffeine

Written By: Jeff Anderson 

Train Crews & Caffeine “I know who it is, everything in the letter points to the same guy. It would really be a shame if he mysteriously slipped off the train while passing over the Shinnecock Canal tonight.” I had no idea what the Brakeman was talking about. Once we left Jamaica I usually had no contact with the crew until Speonk. For me, solitude was one of the joys of being a Locomotive Engineer on the LIRR. There were times when I honestly preferred the company of my locomotive over the crew, but in this instance, that wasn’t the case. It wasn’t unusual for the Brakeman to be in such a crappy mood back then. Like many of us who worked those hours, sleep depravation was a part of life. Once I got Kenny calmed down he told me what happened. While we were sitting in Jamaica waiting for our connection to arrive, a Transportation Manager questioned the Conductor and him about a complaint filed against us by a passenger. We were being accused of delaying our train in Hampton Bays every night. Kenny was furious, lacing his remarks against the suspected letter writer with a few well chosen adjectives. The supervisor gave him a copy of the letter, which described how the complainant had more than enough time to step off the train and have a cigarette while observing the crews misconduct. Kenny’s fury was justified. Our train’s on-time performance was amongst the best in the entire system, not an easy feat considering the miles of rail we covered. We also entered dark territory east of Patchogue, tracks devoid of any electronic safety net. Train control east of Patchogue was essentially still the same as when coal was being shoveled into steam engines. It was a system of train movement that required well qualified crews, sharp on rules and procedures that were all but extinct on the remainder of the railroad. One of the primary rules in dark territory was that a train must never leave a scheduled stop early. Timetable adherence was critical so as not to permit two trains on the same section of track at the same time. There was no mention however, as to whether a train could arrive early. Our timing was crucial at West Hampton. At precisely departure time, the Conductor gave the signal to proceed, and we were immediately at full throttle. With a two thousand horsepower engine spinning a massive generator at maximum rpm, amperage developed comparable to that of a lightning strike. I’d power brake the train through the first 50mph curve, keeping power applied in an effort to recover speed as quickly as possible beyond the speed restriction. With the throttle pinned, we’d be running hot up the hill into Hampton Bays. At the last possible moment I’d lean into the brakes hard, bringing the train down to around twelve miles per hour. Kenny, who would already be hanging off the nose of the engine at that point, leaped off with arms and legs flailing, literally hitting the ground running. We were all younger then, quicker, stronger and far more flexible. Once the train came to a complete stop and passengers began to exit, hot coffee would be pouring across the street. Our train usually arrived in Hampton Bays about four minutes early. Looking back now, the act of getting that coffee probably did more to wake us up than the caffeine we ingested afterward. “I know this guy has no idea what we do out here… but come on!” Kenny continued to fill my cab with banter. “We report at five thirty and don’t get a break until we get out to Montauk after nine o’clock. There’s no place out there to get coffee, and then we turn around to finish up in Queens around 2:00am. Is a hot cup of coffee really too much to ask for?” I talked him out of going back and playing any games with the guy, reminding him of how often that tactic usually backfired. Using the tone of a professional negotiator, I made a suggestion. “How’s this sound? Let’s keep it standard operating procedure tonight. You jump off and grab the coffee as usual, and when this guy steps off to light up, I’ll have a little chat with him. Ok?” A mischievous smile slowly formed on Kenny’s face. “Alright,” he said, “Promise me you won’t do anything stupid though.” After a reassuring nod, I leaned hard into the brake handle. Compressed air escaped the brake valve, emitting too much noise for a verbal reply. He opened the door leading out to the nose of the engine, letting in a swirling rush of cool evening air. After a confident thumbs-up, he moved into position for his flying leap. I positioned the train into Hampton Bays Station as usual, set the brake and exited the engine. I rolled my shoulders and stretched my back, inhaling the air that always seemed cleaner beyond city limits. I noticed a well dressed gentleman on the platform who could have been on the cover of GQ magazine. He lit up a cigarette. He seemed agitated, shifting his feet, taking quick, short puffs on his cigarette. His eyes were fixed on the 7-11 across the street. He didn’t notice me walking up to him. I had to speak up over the engines rumble to be heard. “Nice night huh?” He glanced at me quickly, startled for a moment. I continued to calmly stretch, looking upward at a perfect star filled sky. “Names Jeff,” I said, “Any idea of what the hold up is?” Without a uniform, it was always easy for an Engineer to blend in. He pulled a pack of Marlboros from the inside pocket of his designer jacket and offered me one. I declined his offer. “Joe.” he answered, giving me a weak handshake. “Can you believe these guys? They hold this train up every damn night and I constantly loose a good five or ten minutes getting home.” Something told me he wouldn’t have appreciated hearing that we were still two minutes ahead of schedule. Instead, I threw out the best lighthearted response I could think of. “I get home so late at night the only one that’s up to greet me is my dog, and frankly I still don’t think she knows how to tell time.” I smiled. He never changed his expression. “Look at that.” He was pointing the tip of his cigarette toward Kenny who was awkwardly backing out of a doorway. Joe shook his head from side to side as he flicked his just lit cigarette into the street. “Here he comes” Joe said condescendingly, “Mr. Coffee.” “Say Joe… after you get off the train, how far of a drive do you have?” I changed the topic. He didn’t seem to care why. “I don’t know…I guess about fifteen minutes on a good night.” His focus began to shift away from Kenny juggling coffee across the 7-11 parking lot, and began to pay a little more attention to me. “I would think a nice hot cup of coffee for the drive home would be really nice right about now huh?” He looked past me down the platform. An idling locomotive stared back at him. “If you’d like, tomorrow night I could have the Brakeman bring you back a cup of java too?” He was staring at me, stumbling for a response as the Brakeman approached. Kenny didn’t say a word as he pulled my coffee from the cardboard tray, silently trying to gauge how things were going. “Hey Kenny, this is Joe. I was just telling him how it would be fine if he wanted to get in on our little coffee club.” Kenny lifted an eyebrow as I pealed my plastic lid back and gently blew on the steamy surface below it. He was looking for a hint as to how to respond. Joe seemed just as uncertain about things. Kenny took a deep breath, wiped his sweaty forehead with his sleeve and sighed. “Yea sure” he said with some resignation, “why not.” From that night forward, it was four coffees to go. The newest member of the Hampton Bays Coffee Club would even spring for a box of Entenmann’s from time to time. It all worked out quite nicely. The company never received another letter of complaint, we were still able to get our coffee, and the on-time performance remained stellar. As with all good things though, it eventually come to an end. Our job was revised and overtime had been added to it. It wasn’t long before the entire crew got knocked off. Guys with far more seniority, and much less tolerance, took the job. About a month after that, I remember hearing that the new crew had been relieved from service, pending an investigation. Rumor had it, someone mysteriously slipped off their train while passing over the Shinnecock Canal.