I was riding a Southern Pacific General-Motors Electromotive 1954 E-9A diesel engine. It wasn’t one of those gigantic freighters that tear through downtown with scores of cars behind it, but rather it was something built to impress.
The engine had a streamlined look, with orange and red stripes and shiny chrome plating on top. It was a thing of the future, or at least the future imagined by a society that watched shows like “Tales of Tomorrow.”
Once it was an actual passenger train, but now it spends most of its time either on display or making runs for the Railroad Museum down in Old Sacramento every Saturday and Sunday.
If I could synthesize one thing from my train riding experience, it’s that there are three types of people who ride Southern Pacific General-Motors Electromotive 1954 E-9A diesel engines: kids, the elderly and parents.
The kids, not to be sexist, are mostly boys who are fresh out of their “dinosaur phase” and have recently discovered a love for both train engines and train whistles, which they blow almost unceasingly. The engine’s horn is usually their signal to strike up the band, but it’s not always a necessary prerequisite.
Unlike their children, the parents don’t seem to care much about the trains. They usually just sit in their seats, the smiles on their faces a faint echo of the beaming faces of their children. Riding a train is a good test of patience for them. The parents try to ignore the whistles, but most eventually break down and stow them away in a purse or backpack where they can never, ever be found again.
The elderly are the most interesting group by far, mostly because they seem to be the ones running the show. Brakemen, engineers, car attendants, conductors… all appear to be so old that their progeny have themselves most likely progenated. Surely, they should be at home waiting for the Social Security checks rather than operating a 168-ton piece of machinery? Not that they’re not doing a fine job, because they are. The real question, though, is why?
And then there was me, the teenaged extreme who had seriously overestimated the duration of the train ride and the amount of time I would have to talk to the good people of the No. 6051.
I opted to get into the covered car rather than the open-air. I would swap as soon as we stopped to turn around at the halfway point of our journey.
Outside, the platform was deserted, save for a few straggling volunteers and a man in engineer’s dress, who passed my window every few seconds, clipboard in hand and walkie-talkie buzzing with incoherent, garbled messages.
He stood out from the usual stock of volunteers in that he was quite young. He was still older than my father, but not quite the average volunteer age of 77.
He largely ignored any passengers, which differed radically from the usual smiling greetings received from car attendants. It wasn’t as if he didn’t care, because he does. His job just requires him to look like he doesn’t.
This man was Jeremy Levish, Designated Supervisor of Locomotive Engineers, and he loves trains.
Levish’s love affair with trains began at a very young age, when he would drag his father down to the train tracks any time he could spare a moment.
Many years later (25 of which have been occupied by his career on the railroad) Levish loves trains so much that he does his job for a hobby. He isn’t even retired yet.
On the weekends, Levish spends about 22 hours doing his duties as a volunteer for the train museum, but on the other five days, he works a 40-hour-a-week job as an engineer for Sierra Northern, a freighter and passenger short line that presides over 75 miles of Northern California rail.
Levish calls everything that he does that’s not running a train “evaluating,” which in layman’s terms means ensuring that a train completely run by retirees with no professional experience doesn’t run off the rails.
“I’ll be here until I die,” Levish said. “I’ll probably have to give up pulling the pin someday, but I’d rather be a car attendant or conductor before I quit working with trains.”
It’s still worth it for Levish, though. Even after all these years jam-packed with locomotives of every size and shape, he still enjoys what he does.
According to Levish, one of the best things about running (the verb for driving a train, apparently) for the museum is all the joy he gets from watching children on the train. However, Levish’s favorite aspect about running trains isn’t the passengers, but rather the sensation of controlling the vehicle.
“The real awesomeness is when you realize you’re totally in control of this huge thing, and you have to get things like weight, length and speed just right or bad things will happen” Levish said.
The 6051 wakes up creakily from its night of rest for the first run of the day. It can reach a speed of 88 mph (a theory that was tested when no passengers were aboard), but we didn’t reach more than 10 the entire ride.
“You folks picked the best car. It’s cooler in here and it has comfy seats. You’ll get a good view of I-5,” my car attendant announced.
It seemed a funny thing to announce, as most of us got a good view of I-5 on our morning commute, but I guess he had to have something to put in his spiel.
The attendant went down the car and greeted everybody except for me and the man across the row, who was unshaven and dressed in a pair of New Balance sneakers, khaki cargo shorts and a Hawaiian shirt.
“Doesn’t he do a good job?” said the man.
Seeing as how he was alone and therefore a giant red flag to every parent in the car, I figured he must have had a good reason to be doing this on his Saturday morning. I asked him about it.
Reaching under the seat in front of him, he expertly flipped its back around so that his row became a double-seater and motioned for me to sit down.
This man’s name was Dale Kuenne (pronounced “keeney, as in peachy, but with an ‘e’”), and he was training to be a car attendant. He was there watching the man he was going to replace the following run.
Kuenne isn’t really interested in trains at all. In fact, the only reason he’s doing this is because he loves his grandkids.
One day while at the train museum with his grandkids, Kuenne found out that docents get first dibs at tickets for the popular Polar Express event. The local re-enactment of the children’s book by the same name is so popular that they don’t even bother advertising.
“My grandkids love it more than anything in the world, but I can never get any tickets,” Kuenne said, his arms raised in exasperation. “I thought to myself, ‘Hey! I’ve done Boy Scouts for 30 years. This’ll be a piece of cake.’”
And it was a piece of cake.
Kuenne said he considered his training an adult field trip, as all trainees are treated as museum guests by their trainers. He even got to bring out his harmonica to play some of his famous (within his former troop, at least) Western tunes when all the volunteers had to make an impromptu speech.
The train slowed and stopped, which was my cue to leave the car for greener pastures.
I liked the open-air car much better. At least the attendant it came with gave me the time of day during the second half of our ride.
His name was Dan Dean, and, like most other volunteers (save for the manic Mr. Levish), he was a retiree.
He explained to me that his situation is common amongst the many volunteers at the Railroad Museum. The perfect volunteer, I learned, is a combination of the following: a love of history, a love of trains (although as I learned with Kuenne, that’s not necessary), and boredom with life after retirement.
“Some of us just aren’t ready to quit life yet,” Dean said with a smile.
Dean, simply speaking, is not ready to be a retiree.
He used to be a professor of transportation engineering at University of California, Davis, and Sacramento State University, as well as a civil engineer for the state, which gave him a love of trains, technology, history and, most importantly, people.
Dean figured that all the time he had freed up by quitting his job would be best occupied with, well, getting another job.
“The way I see it, my wife had gotten used to me being out of the house during business hours for 30 years. If I stayed home all the time, she’d be constantly tripping over me.”
But working for the museum gives Dean a chance to do something he could not while working as a teacher. Now he is free to pursue a job whose attractiveness to seniors is unsurprising, given the flexible hours and enjoyable work.
As I expected, my interview with Dean was cut short by the squeaking of the brakes as we pulled up to the platform.
Dean and the rest of the car attendants broke from the normal routine of amiable information giving and led their respective cars to the train’s exit. The conductor walked to the line of waiting people and started punching tickets. Levish emerged from the volunteer office, doughnut in one hand, clipboard in the other, his walkie-talkie once again spouting the same incoherent garble that only he can decode.
Mine was just one of many runs that morning. For all of that day and the next, the retired train and the retired people who run it departed from the retired platform in a retired part of town to once again be, in the words of words of Sir Topham Hatt, “really useful.”
And that’s all they ever really asked for.