I Wanted to Be A Train Engineer--and Here's Why
Updated: Jun 7
What I Said I Wanted
When I was growing up, I knew what I would be when I grew up. While other kids wanted to be astronauts or police officers or firefighters, I had only one goal: to become a train engineer. After all, who wouldn't want to control a massive machine and carry thousands of tons of valuable cargo and passengers safely to their destination across the country? Well, I didn't. That's not why I wanted to be a train engineer.
What I Didn't Know
Looking back, I'll admit that I totally had the wrong idea about what a train engineer does. To begin with, I mistakenly assumed that the train engineer was the most important person on board a train. After all, he "drove" the train, right? How wrong I was. A train engineer doesn't "drive" a train, because the tracks do all the steering. He simply sits in a chair and speeds the train up or slows it down. Of course, it's slightly more complicated than that, as indicated by an old railroad saying: "Anyone can run an engine, but not everyone can run a train."
The conductor is the true "captain" of any train, and he tells the engineer where to go, radios ahead to make sure the tracks have been properly switched, and deals with any timetable problems during the trip. Therefore, if some kind-hearted soul had corrected my misguided ideas about the roles of various railroad employees, I probably would have said that I wanted to be a train conductor. But it still wasn't because I wanted to be in charge.
What I Actually Wanted
If you were to look at my Christmas toy wish-lists during most of my childhood, you might have noticed a pattern:
The pattern, of course, was that I wanted building sets. It didn't matter whether they were K'nex, Lincoln Logs, LEGO, Brio, Magnetix or Geotrax. I just wanted to build things: big, complicated things. I was so desperate to satisfy my inner builder, that I would even play with my sisters' Ello and Playmobil playsets, if they would let me:
Logically, it would seem that I should have wanted to be a construction worker when I grew up. After all, it seemed that all I wanted to do was build things, right? Wrong again. I definitely wanted to build things, but they didn't stay that way for very long. First, I would follow the instructions for something simple, like the following log cabin:
Then, I would expand it into something more complicated:
Then I would expand it again into something much, much bigger:
Then, I would expand it in a different direction:
Then, I would combine that with unconventional building components (like paperclips and string) to make something that pushed the boundaries of what the building system could be used to construct:
Then, I would try to make that same thing out of a different construction medium:
Then, I would combine all of the different building systems into something that was more elegant and refined:
Inevitably, however, the wooden train set would get involved, and the layout ended up sprawling out:
To be fair, it wasn't entirely my fault for letting my imagination run wild with a giant wooden train set. My parents supplied the building components, while my uncle gave our family a wooden chest to hold all of the wooden track pieces. But soon the collection filled two other entire storage bins. I regularly built setups that started like the image below:
And ended up covering the entire floor of my bedroom, much like the image below:
In other words, not typical construction behavior. I was so busy demolishing my previous creation to build something better that I rarely ever actually played with my creations. I didn't want to be a builder. Even though I didn't know it yet, I wanted to be an improver.
What Made Me Realize It
When I watched the 1950 version of Cheaper by the Dozen many years later, I was fascinated by the father figure, Mr. Gilbreth, because he made a living simply by optimizing existing processes.
Like Mr. Gilbreth, I wasn't interested in creating things from scratch; I simply wanted to take things that already existed and make those things better. As a result of watching this film, it finally occurred to me that I didn't build things in order to use them, but in order to improve them. In short, I was a kid who wanted to be an efficiency expert. I just didn't have the right vocabulary to express my aspirations.
What Trains Had To Do With It
To a kid who wants to be an efficiency expert, railroads are truly fascinating. The placement of tracks, the printing of timetables, and the routing of trains are all activities driven by a ruthless drive to optimize efficiency. I wanted to be a train engineer because I thought they got to decide when and where the train went. I thought I could help decide and design the best routes, just like I did every day with my wooden train sets. But train engineers simply maintain the efficiency of railroads. The person who actually improves the efficiency of railroads today is a very different type of engineer: a computer engineer.
Electric vs. Everything Else
With a decaying infrastructure and stiff competition from other modes of transportation, railroads are facing an existential crisis worldwide. Yet all is not lost. Computer engineers are stepping in to cut costs and improve efficiency, making railroads a viable option once again. To begin with, this new breed of engineers are replacing train crews with computer programs. According to this helpful article on Trains.com, steam trains used to have a minimum crew size of five, compared to just two on diesel-electric trains today. With a roll-out of GPS, proximity sensors, radar, and wireless communication, railroads may soon be able to eliminate freight train crews altogether.
When it comes to passenger trains, computers are the only way forward for high-speed travel. When Japan built its first bullet train, it designed an all-electric propulsion system that was entirely controlled by computer. You can watch a fascinating video all about it at this link. Now, other modes of transportation like Tesla's self-driving electric cars are following suit.
However, all-electric infrastructure is expensive, and would be entirely impractical to install on America's vast, aging system of freight-only lines. That's why computer engineers are designing wireless systems that can be retrofitted to existing diesel-electric engines, helping them avoid obstacles and stay on schedule without human error.
But if it's better to just retrofit diesel-electric engines with modern equipment rather than going full-electric, why didn't we simply retrofit steam engines with modern equipment? The answer, unsurprisingly, is all about efficiency.
Diesel-Electric vs. Steam
According to efficiency experts (as well as this helpful article on railway-technical.com), the best kind of train locomotive is the kind that can pull the most weight at the highest speed without wasting energy. In other words, the most efficient locomotive is the one that can do the most work for the least cost. Work is measured in Horsepower (HP). Horsepower is the product of force (pulling-power) and speed.
Diesel-electric engines have a constant horsepower, because their internal-combustion engine is continually generating a constant electric force at a constant speed, regardless of whether that horsepower is being put to use at the electric motors driving the wheels. Therefore, diesel-electric locomotives are constant-horsepower machines. They can provide a lot of force (pulling power) at a low speed, or a little force at high speed. Diesel-electric locomotives are efficient at any combination of force and speed that equals their horsepower. Steam engines, however, are different. Because the pressure of the steam generated in a boiler is a constant force, steam locomotives are constant-force machines (to a point). Consider our horsepower equation. Since force x speed = horsepower, the faster the locomotive goes, the greater the horsepower. This means steam engines will apply the same amount of force at almost any speed. Therefore, they are more efficient at higher speeds. Similarly, steam locomotives are extremely inefficient at low speeds, which translates into a longer time to get up to speed when pulling heavy loads. This is why steam locomotives still pulled lightweight passenger trains long after diesel trains began pulling slow, heavy freight trains. But steam locomotives are only constant-force machines up to a point. Once steam trains reach high enough speeds (which are determined by their weight distribution, boiler capacity, and piston size), they become constant-force machines, just like diesel-electric engines. So steam trains perform just like diesel-electric locomotives at high speeds, but perform worse than diesel-locomotives at low speeds. When other factors like slope gradients and drag resistance are factored in, steam engines actually perform worse than diesel-electrics at both high and low speeds, simply because they can't maintain high speeds with heavy loads. Diesel-electric locomotives can.
Steam locomotives didn't get eliminated because they were polluting the environment or because they were too noisy. No, the real reason steam engines fell out of favor with the railroad companies was the most common reason of all: engineers determined that they weren't efficient enough. With all of this efficiency comes a downside, however.
The Dangers Diesel-Electric Locomotives Pose
Diesel-locomotives have replaced steam locomotives in pulling freight throughout the world, but the railroad infrastructure they continue to run on is still highly inefficient. Built in the days of slower, noisier trains, at-grade crossings pose serious risks to both pedestrians and motorists alike. Japan's high-speed all-electric bullet trains have been specially built tracks that pass over or under traffic. Yet in America, railroads are unwilling to make such massive capital investments. Therefore, they rely on a much simpler, though less successful strategy to promote safety: public service announcements.
What's Wrong With Public Service Announcements
Have you ever seen a billboard that looked something like the one depicted above? They're remarkably common, yet surprisingly ineffective. Despite ads and coloring-book campaigns from organizations like See Track Think Train and Operation Lifesaver, tragedies still happen, like this or this. Ultimately, the same thing that spells the demise of hapless humans on railroad crossings every year is the exact same thing that spelled the demise of the steam locomotive: inefficiency.
These public service announcements are ineffective, because they don't catch people's attention. The billboard above literally depicts a person staring at their phone, yet they expect someone to look at the billboard? Metro Trains Melbourne called upon creative animators and computer engineers to develop a far more efficient approach to convincing people that straying near train tracks is no joke.
What Caught the Public's Attention
Adopting a humorous, sarcastic tone, Metro Trains Melbourne launched a campaign called "Dumb Ways to Die," composed of a short animated film and several mobile games. The campaign quickly went viral, becoming a world-wide cultural phenomenon and convincing a new generation to stay away from railroad tracks. You can watch the video and find out more about the campaign at this link.
What You Can Do
Have I learned anything valuable from all of this? Well, for one thing, I've learned that I shouldn't be a train engineer. But it was important for me to go through that phase, because it taught me more about who God has made me to be. I am here to fix problems by improving existing processes. I may need to become a computer engineer in order to achieve that goal. Or I might be able to use my existing education and experience to improve things right where I am.
Either way, you and I have the same important responsibility: no matter where you and I go, and no matter who we become, we are responsible for leaving things better than we found them. And that's something we'll never grow out of.