Train ride on Union Pacific: Safety, stories, photo slide show and video

Trains are fascinating – so fascinating, in fact, some people insist on crossing the tracks directly in front of an oncoming one to get a closer look.

Union Pacific locomotive we got to ride inside/Ryn Gargulinski

Union Pacific locomotive we got to ride inside/Ryn Gargulinski

Enter Operation Lifesaver. This longstanding public education campaign was the reason Union Pacific invited media types to come for a ride in a locomotive last week. You bet I was on board.

As part of the operation, Union Pacific runs select locomotives back and forth through railroad crossings around the greater Tucson area while motorcycled police officers monitor the crossings – and hand out tickets.

Some folks may not know that crossing the tracks when the lights start to flash, even before the security gates come down, is a violation.

Would you believe even a bicyclist tried to go around the gates?

While safety was the main aim of the train ride-along, the experience also provided plenty of fun facts, stories and tidbits that I just had to pass along.

Union Pacific A to Z

All Aboard – Famous and fun phrase that Union Pacific conductors don’t really get to utter. Unless, of course, they want to talk to a bunch of freight cars.

Don't say you didn't see the signs/Ryn Gargulinski

Don't say you didn't see the signs/Ryn Gargulinski

Alerter, hot box detector, and other safety devices – Union Pacific trains feature all kinds of doodads that help keep them safe. One such gadget is the alerter, a flashing red light and tone that activates if an engineer doesn’t make any moves in 45 seconds. This assures he’s still alive or, if he did keel over, he’s only been dead for 45 seconds before the train shuts itself down.

The hot box detector is attached to the track and counts the number and temperature of the axles that ride over it. A woman’s voice comes over the computer to tell conductors and engineers the results. “The voice started out male,” explained 35-year Union Pacific veteran Chris Moore, who worked her way from secretary to manager of operation practices. “They found out guys pay more attention to a female voice.”

Other train safety devices include a front-mounted video camera, outside microphone (which I heard gets some pretty darn interesting conversations since people forget it’s there), drag detectors in case a cargo strap comes loose or you’re pulling along a cat, and a little black box that records all movements, just like in airplanes.

Bells, whistles, buzzers – Three main noises a train makes. Bells ring when trains are passing other trains. Whistles blow when they are going through a railroad crossing. Buzzers buzz when a train is about to go into automatic shut down after sitting idle for 10 minutes to conserve fuel. Union Pacific is one of, if not THE biggest fuel consuming entity in the nation. At last check, U.P. consumed more fuel than the U.S. Navy.

Folks have long been fond of putting coins on the train tracks/Ryn Gargulinski

Folks have long been fond of putting coins on the train tracks/Ryn Gargulinski

Coins – One of the favorite things for people of all ages to put on the tracks. The best coin story was three little boys who were hiding in the bushes to see what would happen to their nickel and two pennies as the train ran over them. The engineer and conductor saw the boys and, instead of continuing down the track, they stopped the train before they hit the coins and the conductor got out and pocketed the money.

Drunks – Folks more apt to be hit by train than sober people. Best story concerning a drunk was one in the Midland/Odessa, Texas, area who was hit by a train and didn’t even know it. The train kept going and the drunk guy went back to the bar. “Someone had to go to the bar and tell him he was hit by a train,” said Mary Gulley, Union Pacific manager of administration. The guy had three broken ribs and one broken arm – but was still merrily guzzling his grog.

Engineer – Person who drives the train. As you’d guess, most are men but there are about five or six women engineers with Union Pacific in the Tucson area. The engineer is different than the conductor – the former drives the train while the latter is responsible for the train, freight and crew. Many are certified to do both jobs so they can switch off during longer hauls. Our pal Randy Fitch does both jobs and he doesn’t even get mad when people don’t realize the difference between the two.

Engineer Mark Reed (whose arms also star in video)/Ryn Gargulinski

Engineer Mark Reed (whose arms also star in video)/Ryn Gargulinski

Freight – “Everything, everything, everything.” Train loads range from automobiles to chemicals, lumber to pharmaceuticals. Fitch said he’s even seen a medical load of something radioactive and, although he doesn’t recall exactly what it was, he said it wasn’t too horribly hazardous. “Nothing that would make you glow in the dark,” he remarked.

Gear – Employees need to at least wear earplugs and closed-toed shoes. Leave your flip flops at home. And don’t wear lots of white, either. “It’s really a dirty job,” Moore said. “Trust me.” You’ll also want a florescent safety vest if you’re apt to be hanging around the tracks. The blinding neon yellow is much snazzier than the ho-hum orange, if you ask me.

Hobos – While hobos on, in and around trains are not as rampant as they used to be – especially in the Union Pacific train yard where its own police force is constantly on patrol – hobos still exist. They are especially common on trains coming north from Nogales for some reason. A few sweet little camps are set up not far from the tracks along Speedway and we did see another encampment between the downtown Tucson train depot and Ruthrauff Road.

Heed the signs/Ryn Gargulinski

Heed the signs/Ryn Gargulinski

Injuries – Of course most folks who are actually hit by a train are going to suffer some injuries. But engineers and conductors are at risk, too. One big no-no is getting off the train on the wrong side. Each engine has a ladder on either side, with employees expected to use the one that leads to the side of the tracks rather than another set of tracks. Some have erred and stepped out into the path of an oncoming train. Another potential injury are those bullets that come flying through the train windshields. Thankfully only one such instance was recalled and neither the conductor nor engineer was hurt. But one is still too many.

Junkies – Evidence of their existence is found on the tracks in the form of needles, one of which stuck an employee some time back. He had to be tested for AIDs for two years following the incident. Tests came back negative. Other needles – big, giant needles – were found on tracks around Pima Mound Road where there’s a horse run. We’re guessing steroids rather than equine heroin on those.

Killing time
– Union Pacific employees know about this all too well. One of the lengthiest trips recalled was a jaunt from Tucson to Phoenix that took 16 hours. Engineers, of course, are busy driving. But even during the slowest of waiting periods, conductors are not allowed to read, do crossword puzzles or play games that involve wadding up toilet paper and throwing it at the engineer.

Reminders in locomotive interior/Ryn Gargulinski

Reminders in locomotive interior/Ryn Gargulinski

Love – Romance on the rails is not uncommon. Employees are often together for long stretches of time, a condition that could result in rabid fights – or marriage. While no one could produce an exact number of employees who met, fell and love and married while working at Union Pacific, they did rattle off at least seven different couples in about three minutes. The farthest-reaching local love story was a guy from Yuma who married an L.A. woman.

Maximum speed – Union Pacific engines can trek up to a maximum of 70 mph, although their speedometer does reach to 80 mph. You’re looking at about 35 mph as the maximum speed through town, down to 20 mph or so over the crossings.

Nine hundred – Number of Union Pacific employees in the greater Tucson region known as TE&Y, or train, engine and yard employees. While 900 is an impressive number, that’s down from about 1,200 TE&Y employees before this recession that people still insist is not a recession.

Operation Lifesaver
– Longstanding public education program aimed to reduce collisions, injuries and deaths at railroad crossings and trains right of ways. Union Pacific consistently participates in these mini-missions with the Tucson Police Department and other local police forces. One week-long Operation Lifesaver between Tucson and Phoenix resulted in 262 tickets for motorist traffic violations and trespassing as well as a criminal arrest.

Busted/Ryn Gargulinski

Busted/Ryn Gargulinski

Prize bull – The livestock that is always hit when livestock is hit. Trains never hit limping pigs or lame, dying cattle. They only hit the prize bulls worth thousands of dollars. Livestock owners get reimbursed as it is the train company’s responsibility to fence the livestock out rather than the owner’s responsibility to fence the livestock in. For real.

Quote – Best one I got was from Christ Moore regarding the thick manual full of train safety rules and regulations:

“Every rule is written in blood,” Moore said. And she meant it literally. “Somebody either got injured or hurt that caused the rule to develop or to change as time goes on.”

Robberies – No, outlaws on horseback no longer run after a train to hijack it. But there were rampant robberies near El Paso several years back. Bad enough the FBI had to get involved. Rather than trying to hijack the train, the conniving thieves would rig something on the track to activate a red signal. Once the train stopped for the red signal, the thieves would unhook the pins that connected the cars to the engine. The engine would pull out and the unhooked cars would be history.

No shopping carts on track today/Ryn Gargulinski

No shopping carts on track today/Ryn Gargulinski

Shopping carts – One of the fine pieces of debris commonly placed on the tracks. People like to see what a train can run over. They think it’s fun.

Toilet – The most unusual debris engineer/conductor Fitch recalls on the tracks on a trek between Tucson and Phoenix. New houses were going up nearby, so the toilet was unused at least. As one would guess, the ceramic toilet shattered into a zillion pieces when the train smashed through it. No, it did not break the windshield. No, nothing hit the fan, either.

Underwear, folding chairs, milk crates, mattresses, bicycle parts, graffiti, garbage, snack wrappers, steering wheels, tires, totes and toads – just some of the things probably found on and around the railroad tracks across the nation.

Violations – One of the most common safety violations for which motorists – and even bicyclists – get a ticket is crossing the tracks when a train is coming. Another way to get a violation is to crash right through the gate, like one semi driver did while the crew was running an Operation Lifesavers between Tucson and Phoenix.

Wave – Hand movement that train conductors and engineers actually return. Yaay. Fellow motorists tend to never wave back, but rather look at you strangely, while semi drivers have a wave-back percentage around 58 percent. Train employees are generally happy to return the wave and they get plenty to return as many folks remain fascinated with trains (count me as one of them).

Magic yellow line/Ryn Gargulinski

Magic yellow line/Ryn Gargulinski

Xanax – See freight.

Yellow line – Prominent thing you must stand behind when a train pulls into a station. Failure to do so can result in serious injury, death or getting yelled at by a train employee.

Zero tolerance – What a train has for something in its path. Some trains are more than 2 miles long and can take up to a mile and one-half to come to a complete stop. When asked what he does when an animal runs in the train’s path, Fitch was quick to respond, “Feel bad for them.”

Thankfully most animals – and people – have enough sense to get out of the way when they either see or hear a train coming. Those that aren’t well, we can probably find them at the bar in Midland/Odessa.

Check out the VIDEO:

[tnivideo caption=”Train ride on Tucson Union Pacific” credit=”Ryn Gargulinski”][/tnivideo]

Background music courtesy of Heithaus Productions. Train noises courtesy Union Pacific.

Enjoy the slide show:

[tnislideshow] [tnipoll]

logoWhat do you think?

Are you enamored by trains?

Do you try to beat the train if you’re driving near the tracks?

What’s the last train ride you took?


About Rynski

Writer, artist, performer who specializes in the weird, wacky and sometimes creepy. Learn more at
This entry was posted in danger, life, notable folks, Police/fire/law and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Train ride on Union Pacific: Safety, stories, photo slide show and video

  1. andrew says:

    I was hoping to see your mug on there riding the train,Ryn, how fun was that? Ryn. “grassed previous”

    • Rynski says:

      dear grassed previous,
      the ride was incredibly fun, andrew – thanks!
      i’ve long been fascinated with trains – even did my master’s thesis on subway folklore – don’t know why i am so enamored with them, but i am.
      i especially enjoy the stories and the noise. train sounds are warm and cozy (although i’m sure folks who live next to the tracks have a different take on this – haha).
      sorry i did not appear in any of the photos – but maybe the enticing tucson landscape or extreme close-ups of the locomotive makes up for it? hahahhaha.

    • radmax says:

      I agree with Farley, where’s Rynski with her engineer’s hat ridin’ the rails? 😉
      Did they let you drive (operate) the locomotive?
      Did they make you shovel coal? 🙂
      These are questions Rynski’s loyal readers need to know!
      🙂 …Seems you had the chance of a lifetime Rynski, musta been a blast!
      Great vids and article.( although I would have been scared out of my wits as a kid waiting for my penny to get smashed and having the train come to a complete stop!)

      • Rynski says:

        hahahha – i LOVED the coin story, too.
        i was thinking the kids would be most upset that their money was taken, tho – hahha.
        sorry to say – no engineer’s hat, no chance at operating the train, and no shoveling coal. i’m OK with the coal deal, but would have been thrilled with the other two!
        it was fun – and thanks for compliments! so glad you enjoyed the video especially as I recall you being tough on videos….hahahah

  2. azmouse says:

    WOW!!I can feel your passion in your writing for this particular subject. Great writing, great video, great slideshow!
    Really informative.

    • Rynski says:

      thank you, azmouse!
      i LOVE when that happens – when the passion seeps out through the reporting – hahhaha.
      topics that entice me are so easy to write about. so glad the enthusiasm came through. also glad you enjoyed all package components. yaay!

      • azmouse says:

        It definitely made me more fascinated about trains just reading this. Very good work.

      • Rynski says:

        o, i’m so glad to hear it! thanks again! now if i could just get everyone as enthused about sawyer (hahahahhahahah).
        maybe you’ll consider amtrak on your next vacay?

      • azmouse says:

        Actually, as a child my Mom would not fly (she still has NEVER been on a plane) so we either went by bus or train. Later, we all did the car trips. Mom’s family is all in Ohio, so we went by train many times back in the day. My daughter Sara has even taken the train here from Yuma, before she got her fabulous and dependable new car.

      • Rynski says:

        you’ve prob. been on more train trips than i have – as long as you don’t count daily subway grind.
        once took amtrak from nyc up to albany. the hudson was frozen. that’s about it.
        greyhound buses – ugh. they do serve their purpose as being very cheap, but what a loooooooong ride they provide.
        glad to hear a new fabulous and dependable car has joined the family!

  3. Ferraribubba says:

    Nah Rynski, I’ve got your ‘Best Drunk hit by a Train Story’ beat by a mile!
    In Anaheim, we had this old drunk that used to pass out on or near the tracks on a regular basis. We’d usually pick him up, take him in to sober him up, give him a shower, wash his clothes, feed him, and then send him on his merry way.
    Well, one night the poor old guy’s luck ran out. Yea, he fell asleep on the tracks just before a big freight train came through town doing about 55 mph, ending the drunk’s drinking problem forever.
    The coroner came out with the van and a couple of techs with shovels, large dust pans and plastic bags to pick up the remains, which were scattered for about half a mile down the tracks. That done, the proper reports were made, and life, as we knew it, went on. Case closed.
    Not Quite!
    A couple days later, while on routine patrol along those same railroad tracks, I spotted a rather large dog (a collie mix, I think) trotting along with something sticking out of it’s mouth.
    Upon further inverstigation, I discovered that the dog had a human hand sticking out of it’s mouth. Evidently the cleanup crew from the Coroner’s office didn’t try to put all the pieces of the puzzle back together again before leaving the scene of the accident. Shame on them.
    Ever try to catch a wild dog that doesn’t want to be caught? After a few minutes, I just said, “What the hell, the body has already been cremated, the reports have been written, and the case is closed.”
    What could I really do anyway but let the poor dog enjoy it’s meal.
    Say what you will about me, but I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for stray animals.
    Yer pal, Ferrari Bubba

    • Rynski says:

      that IS good, ferraribubba!
      love it –
      i am MOST pleased with your big-hearted gesture of allowing the canine to enjoy his meal. you ARE most kind beneath that gruff exterior, aren’t you? hahahah.

      • Ferraribubba says:

        Hey Rynski: Kinda brings a tear to your eye, don’t it?  But let’s face it, what could I have done . . . shoot the dog to get the hand back? The X-Large APD issued butterfly nets were only to be used on weirdos like the Tipster and his nephew, Dion (Many mini Gods) of World Class Education fame. 
        If it would have been swome rich dude, with a diamond pinkie ring on, I might have considered it, but that damn dog was fast as a jack-rabbit and had more sneaky moves than Chris Angel. Now you see him, now you don’t. All on a 95* summer day.
        What would you have done differently?
        Yer pal, Ferrari Bubba

      • Rynski says:

        even though i gave jokey response, i really don’t see what else you COULD do? i’m with ya on that one…only thing i may have done differently is to get a photo of the situation – kidding!
        love you stories – and yes, a diamond pinkie ring is a great motivator for getting the hand back…or you could always just wait for the dog to digest it out….

  4. Jennatoolz says:

    Super cool story Ryn! I enjoyed it! I’ve never been on a train, but I’ve always wanted to. I agree that they’re fascinating…just not when you’re running late for work…haha.

    P.S. — I saw the picture of good ol’ Smokey Bear…I’m going to be paying his hometown (and mine) a visit sometime during the first week of June. Capitan, NM watch out!! Jenna’s comin’ to town!! 😀

    • Rynski says:

      thanks, jenna, glad you enjoyed!
      i am soooo glad i never had a regular tucson route to work that included train tracks – but i remember getting stuck by one all the time when i used to live in clovis, new mexico, and trek to nearby farwell, texas.
      speaking of new mexico – yaaaaaay! on your upcoming hometown trip. please get his autograph – and a photo of you and him – while you’re there so we can all live vicariously – hahah.
      oh! and if you want to ride a mini-train in tucson – i know it’s not the real thing but it’s still silly and fun – check out the little train ride thing at pinnacle peak. it’s a hoot. just make sure you sit in the front for the best vantage point through the graveyard cave.

      • Jennatoolz says:

        I used to live and work over on the NW side of Tucson…I’d get stuck at the train crossing on Ina right before the freeway all the time while trying to make it to work which was on the other side of the freeway. I hated it when the train went superrrr slowwww. These days, I don’t have to worry about trains making me late, hahah.

        I’ll try to pay a visit to the Smokey Bear museum while I’m in NM, haha. I haven’t been there since I was a kid and I hear they’ve changed it up a bit. I’ll take lots of pics! I’m sure they’ll all end up on facebook at some point, lol.

        Never knew about the mini-train in Tucson!! I’ll have to go check it out sometime! Thanks for the heads up! 😀

      • azmouse says:

        Hi Jenna,
        The mini-train in Trail Dust Town is a must!

  5. Thomas D. says:

    Well done!! A great article.

  6. JoeS says:

    Cool article

    “Many are certified to do both jobs so they can switch off during longer hauls. ”

    Actually the FRA just ruled that a “cut-back” engineer working as a conductor cannot “run” if he was called for duty as a conductor…

    • Rynski says:

      thanks, JoeS, for compliment – and update on “cut-back” restrictions. how do you know all these things? hahah.
      i am very curious about your own profession as you have a wealth of knowledge on different topics.

  7. Ferraribubba says:

    Hey Rynski: If you want the ultimate in train travel, try the Eurorail ICE (Inter City Express). Der Frau and I travelled pretty much all over Europa on it. No need to rent a hotel room, just get a 14-day unlimited travel pass, good anywhere in Europe. Sleep in your seat. Or rent a semi-private compartment.
    No clickity-clack either. Most European rails are seamless. just one long continuous rail all the way from the Med to the North Sea.
    Alother thing. Don’t use the toilets in the stations. When you flush . . . all you see are cement rail ties whizzing by down there. No holding tanks. As the old song goes, “When the train is in the station, we encourage constipation, moonlight always makes me think of you . . .”
    Last Add ICE Trains: If your schedule says the train is due at 10.03 am, it WILL arrive at 10.03. Not 10:02 or 10:04. It will be in the station for aprox 3 minutes and leave, with or without you. I kid you not!
    No later than 9:50 be ready to board with your bags in front of you. The second that the train stops, trow your bags aboard and follow asap. The Stationmaster will help you locate where your car will stop beforehand.
    For all you Old Pueblo hopheads out there, the Hauptbannhoffs (main train stations) are usually located in the more seedy parts of town so you should feel right at home and be able to score your dope around the fountain areas where the town junkies usually hang out and bathe. Just think of it as the Redington area in a downtown setting.
    Next installment: Getting kicked off the Orient Express in Vienna!
    No thanks needed here, I’m just doing my job.
    Yer pal, Ferrari Bubba

  8. Ferraribubba says:

    Last, Last Add – Trains: When I was a kid, we lived about 2 blocks from the railroad tracks. In those days all the locomotives were steam, driven by coal, shovelled into the furnace by a fireman. The engineer ran the train. Since trains are powered by diesel fuel now, the fireman position has been elininated, and the engineer operates the train alone using a ‘dead man’s throttle.’ If he takes his hand off it, the train slows to a stop.
    There was a train switching yard near downtown and I used to hang out there and ride back and forth in the cabs of the locomotives just to watch the crews at work. It was great fun for a kid.
    Another interesting train tidbit was that there was a German POW camp located about a quarter-mile, right by the tracks from my house during the war, and the POWs were used to pick oranges out in the groves under armed military guard.
    They were hauled out on these flat cars to the groves and we kids would hide by the tracks and throw rocks at them and shout insults at them as they passed by, screaming at the guards to “SHOOT THE BASTARDS!”
    So much for my German/American heritage during the war. <g>
    Yer pal, Ferrari Bubba

  9. goldengreek says:


  10. Chris says:
    Was given a warning to stay away from train tracks today =(
    Live and learn.

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