Eleven weeks. That’s how long it takes to go from average Joe to Amtrak engineer.
The transformation takes place at Amtrak’s High-Speed Rail Training Facility, housed inside an unassuming beige building along a dead-end road just west of Wilmington, Delaware’s Riverfront section.
It’s here where hopeful engineers from around the country come to take an eleven-week classroom course. Some are former freight train engineers. Some are what Amtrak calls “off the street.”
“Which means they could be hired from any work environment, from Wal Mart to the military,” said Stephen Reaves, Amtrak’s manager of locomotive engineer training.
“There’s not an opportunity to come back”
Eight hours a day, five days a week, Amtrak bombards recruits with information. They learn how to walk safely on railroad tracks. They learn about the mechanics of modern train equipment. They learn operating and safety protocol. And they take tests–lots of tests.
“Throughout their program they actually have five exams they have to pass with a 90 percent,” said Reaves. “If you do not make a 90 percent on those exams then you are terminated from the program. And there’s not an opportunity to come back.”
And there isn’t anwhere else to go. Wilmington has the only Amtrak training facility for new engineers. Since Amtrak is the only national passenger rail network, if you want to operate an inter-city passenger train you have to complete this class.
After the 440-hour information binge, engineers return to whatever train route initially hired them. There, they spend another year-to-18 months doing on-the-job training. That phase involves actually operating a locomotive under the supervision of a veteran engineer.
Inside the locomotive
During their time in Wilmington, wannabe engineers get a virtual sense of what train travel looks like from the driver’s seat. Amtrak’s facility has three simulators, each complete with a replica dashboard, literal bells and whistles, all of the standard throttle and break levers one finds in a locomotive cab, and a wall-mounted video monitor that runs simulations based on the actual specfications of the Northeast Corridor.
“It is the exact track profile and layout that you would see in the real world,” said Reaves.
Inside these simulators, one gets a near-life sense of what real engineers do every day. The most prominent auditory feature is a small alarm the rings roughly every 30 seconds. The engineer has to flick a joystick each time it goes off. Otherwise the train assumes the engineer is incapacitated and automatically brakes.
This is different than the much-discussed positive train control feature that some believe could have prevented the derailment of Amtrak train 188. Positive train control gauges a train’s speed relative to the speed limits posted on a corresponding stretch of track.
And in an environment without technological checks and balances, much is left up to the engineer. He or she controls the throttle, the brake, and nearly every aspect of the train’s operation. There is a cruise control setting, but Reaves said engineers tend not to use it.
“It is pretty much all manual,” said Reaves.
“Not as simple as just pushing the brake”
Reaves, it should be said, was not in his current position five years ago. That’s when, according to media reports, the engineer operating Amtrak train 188 started on the job.
But when it comes to training, Amtrak does face a fundamental tension. Training costs time and money. It’s good for Amtrak’s bottom line if students complete and pass the course. But if the course isn’t rigorous enough, the wrong people can end up at the helm.
The pass rate for the training class has gone from about 70 percent to around 95 percent over the past few years, according to Reaves. He attributed the bump to more selective hiring, not a watering down of course material.
Amtrak, he said, looks for people with maturity, good work ethic, and the ability to process lots of information quickly. Engineers have to know every wrinkle and nuance of the track they travel. Reaves compared it to a highway driver memorizing every inch of asphalt.
“[You’d] have to know where each milepost is, where each exit is, and the speeds associated with every part of that interstate for over 200 miles,” Reaves said.
He added,”You’re thinking about what’s coming up three or four miles ahead because stopping a train is not as simple as just pushing the brake.”