Saturday, July 14, 2007

What about a Job in the Railroad Biz?

Ever insightful commenter, and occasional blogger, sixdegrees writes:
You know, it strikes me that your interest in trains is an important part of your mental landscape. Do you have opportunities in your present life to develop this further?

While the interest in trains did play a large part of my younger mental landscape, it doesn't pack the same heft as it used to.

My interest in railroad operations and photography hit its apex in my early-to-mid high school years. It began to slide into the background as I broke out of my shell and got more involved with extracurricular activities at school.

It enjoyed a big resurgence in graduate school in the early 90s because I was living in an area that had a very high volume of rail traffic, almost 80 trains a day, between two rail lines. I also managed to connect with other railfans in the region by way of Usenet newsgroups.

After I left graduate school I spent four years over in a neighboring state to the west of us. I have some photos from trips taken during that time, too.

Several things worked to put the hobby on ice.

The first was industry consolidation. The 90s saw a large number of mergers and acquisitions that reduced the number of major railroad carriers to four. The Burlington Northern and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe merged. Union Pacific scarfed down both the Chicago & Northwestern and the Southern Pacific. Conrail got carved up into pieces by CSX and Norfolk Southern. Fewer rail lines meant less variety on the main lines. As locomotives got repainted, it got less exciting.

Second was 9/11/2001. For the first time since World War II, the idea of a bunch of guys gathered near a high traffic rail line with cameras quickly became suspect activity.

Third was the arrival of our children. Gone were those days off where one could sneak off for several hours or a whole day on end to spend some time trackside. They were replaced with daddy time.

Fourth was a realization that interest in the railroad industry is a case study in loss. Although the railroad industry is in pretty good health nowadays, it is depressing sometimes to think about just how much of it has disappeared. The mid-to-late 19th century was a period of overbuilding and corporate abuse. That left the railroad shackled with excess capacity and several decades of heavy regulation that kept them from adapting to changing market conditions.

The deregulation of the industry in the early 80s provided respite, but it also involved the massive rationalization of physical plant (read: abandonment of rail lines, shutdown of signal towers, and demolition of sometimes beautiful railroad stations). The overly aggressive downsizing proved to be shortsighted, as capacity problems started to appear in the mid 90s and overwhelm the leaner and meaner rail systems.

Not that I haven't tried to rekindle the interest. I've toyed with the idea of building a website of photos that I took over the years, but haven't been able to summon the energy to do the job well. I even got a copy of Microsoft Train Simulator when it came out a few years ago, but I've only played with the diesel locomotive simulations a few times.

This past year has been one of deep reflection on my life's story, recognizing the good and bad in the choices I've made. From a mixture of curiosity, family events, and obligations to reduce garage clutter, I have been brought into contact with several momentos that I've accumulated over the years.

The railroad photos are one portion of these artifacts, but they are perhaps the most compelling because they can be used to give meaning to events both in the past and the present.

The idea of working for a railroad or some railroad related industry has crossed my mind over the years. Had I studied mechanical or civil engineering as an undergrad, it would have been easier to get a foot in the door.

Within the software development field, there are opportunities.

The major railroads hire developers to work on back office and centralized traffic control (CTC) applications. The latter would be more appealing to me. The employment ads I've seen for these companies suggest that they rely heavily on mainframes. Being a UNIX and Win32 guy, it would require a major retooling of the skill set.

The other area is within the field of railroad equipment, such as locomotives and public transit. The bulk of these positions require embedded systems experience, which is also outside my domain.

Had I gone into mathematics and specialized in Operations Research, I could have been at the forefront of Scheduled Railroading.
blog comments powered by Disqus