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Making the best of a railroad furlough


Recently, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway announced it was furloughing a number of rail crews in the system as a result of a traffic slow down. Furloughing is the railroad term for layoff. I should know. I experienced furloughs firsthand 35 years ago.       

In November of 1979, I went to work for Burlington Northern as a brakeman in Grand Forks. A native of Georgia, I had just been laid-off from International Co-Op (now JR Simplot) only two years after moving to North Dakota from Atlanta. I was excited about going to work for the railroad and looked forward to a long-lasting career.

My wife and children loved Grand Forks and especially our house in Riverside Park. Built in 1899, we had lovingly restored it and I had just finished painting the exterior that summer. I still remember the color – Appalachian Fern. We planned to stay in the neighborhood for years to come.

So when Trainmaster Billy Cobean called me into his office in March of 1980 and told me I was being “furloughed”, my first question was “what the heck is a furlough?” I’ll never forget what he told me, “A furlough is the railroad term for layoff”.

Cobean went on to tell me to apply for railroad unemployment and take some time off. But I told him I couldn’t afford to do that. I told him I was willing to work anywhere as long as I could work. He then suggested that I use the company phone system to call other divisions to see if they could use me.

That’s just what I did. I spent the next morning calling division points throughout the BN system and finally ended up with Trainmaster Cal Evans in Alliance, Nebraska. He told me that they desperately needed brakemen to work the many coal trains and other freight that was moving through Alliance. He also told me that it might be tough to find a place to stay because Alliance was booming; I asked him if I could sleep in my Chevy van on railroad property and he quickly replied that I could. I told him I would be down there as quick as I could.

The next day my wife and I outfitted our van with curtains, a bed in the back, and an icebox. The following morning I was packed and ready to go. I left at 4 AM planning to cover the almost 700 miles in about 12 hours so that I could arrive in time to meet with Evans that afternoon.

At around 4:30 PM that day, I met the trainmaster and he greeted me like a long lost friend. He introduced me to the crew callers and marked me up on the brakemen extra board. He showed me where to park the van, and told me to get a good night’s sleep because “you are going to be busy”. That was music to my ears.

Sure enough, at 4 AM, there was a knock on the van and a crew caller announced that I had a 5 AM train to work to Edgemont, South Dakota. I was working again!

I spent nearly 5 months in Alliance until I was called back to Grand Forks. During that time, I called home through the Grand Forks dispatcher in order to avoid long distance charges and managed to get home several times for quick visits. When I was called back, Evans tried to convince me to stay in Alliance, but I was ready to go home. Especially when Trainmaster Cobean told me that I should have enough seniority not to get furloughed again.

Six months after returning home to Grand Forks, I was furloughed again. This time I couldn’t find work in the BN system and I ended up going out to the Williston Oil Basin where I found work as a roughneck on a rig. It was good money, but the work was dangerous and required 12 hour shifts seven days a week. I was recalled by BN four months later and happy to get off the rig.

Several months after returning back to Grand Forks, Cobean called me back into his office again. I cringed waiting for the bad news. Instead, he told me that BN wanted to promote me. I had a choice – I could be either a locomotive engineer or a trainmaster. I leaned towards becoming an engineer, but Cobean convinced me that a trainmaster’s job was the way to go.

The promotion to trainmaster required a move to Denver and I was immediately assigned a 12 hour shift starting at 6 PM and ending at 6 AM, six days a week. I was expected, however, to arrive one hour early to be briefed, and stay up to one hour after my shift to be chewed out for whatever went wrong in the Denver terminal.

After a year as a trainmaster, I had had enough, and with the reduction of train crews because of the elimination of cabooses, I was able to negotiate a buyout of my union seniority and left the railroad.

Today I’m an attorney in Texas, but I still look back fondly at my years with the railroad, even the furloughs. It toughened me up, especially the year as a trainmaster, and makes me appreciate where I’m at today. I even wrote a book, “Burlington Northern Adventures”, after judges and jurors told me how much they enjoyed my railroad stories I told during trials. And I still drive that 76 Chevy van!

So if you’re one of the folks that was furloughed, hang in there. Who knows, it may lead to a whole new adventure!