Brian Solomon has authored numerous railroad books over the years, and is quite likely the most popular individual in that regard with titles ranging from steam and diesel locomotives to signaling systems and bridges. Another of these is Working On The Railroad, released 2006 by Voyageur Press owned by MBI Publishing (a company that has produced dozens and dozens of train-themed titles over the years). This book provides a fascinating look at those who actually allow railroads to function day in and day out such as engineers, conductors, signal maintainers, dispatchers, and every other job that requires one to work out in the field (or at least be connected to it). You will also learn about those positions that have since been eliminated over the years like the fireman and flagmen and Brian covers each quite thoroughly. If you may be considering a career in the railroad industry but are not very familiar with the work I would strongly recommend picking up a copy of Mr. Solomon's book.
While I know that not everyone reads through the opening sections of a book such as its acknowledgements, foreword, and introduction I would strongly suggest doing so in the case of Working On The Railroad. During the acknowledgements, in particular, Brian talks about all of the work involved to bring the book together notably the dozens of railroaders he spoke with from engineers to upper management. The author also mentions here the help obtained from general railfans and historians. The foreword of the book was written by John Gruber, current president of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art, and he discusses what life was like to work on the railroad. Gruber also writes two more articles for the book's opening; the first is entitled "Remembering Work On The Green Bay & Western [Railroad]" and the second is "Company Photographer".
Both are quite interesting and worth the time to read. Finally, there is the introduction, which is actually quite long spanning nearly twenty pages. In many ways this area of the book gives readers an idea of what they can expect to read through the rest of the pages as it goes into more detail about what it was like to work on the "ground." Topics covered here include "The Evolution Of Railroad Work", "By The Rules", "Tracks/Trains/Men", "Improving Productivity", "Safer/Faster/Bigger/ Railroading", "The 20th Century Metamorphosis", "New Technology", "Decline/Revival/Future". As you can see from the titles, during the intro Mr. Solomon also provides a timeline of how newer technologies have not only improved railroad operations but also eliminated some positions like those mentioned previously.
During chapter one, the book finally begins looking at individual positions beginning with the brakeman. In this section Brian gives a very good history of the brakeman position as well as what was traditionally expected of him. For myself, the history of the various positions highlighted is really fascinating. For instance, prior to the 1970s an individual could literally just walk-on to the railroad and if hired they were given very little formal training, simply handed a few tools of the trade needed and then expected to learn on the job from those in higher positions such as the engineer and conductor. Mr. Solomon also discusses the inheriant dangers of brakeman work during the 19th century before the advent of the air brake. Additionally, you can read about the development of this brake and how it revolutionized the industry.
In the second chapter Working On The Railroad moves on to cover a position with a bit more authority, the conductor. Many who are not very familiar with railroads may be quite familiar with the passenger conductor who's classic call, "All Aboard!", is nearly universally recognized. While Brian does highlight this type of conductor he also speaks of the work of the freight conductor and his responsibilities over the years. Interestingly, as the book points out, back when the private railroads operated passenger trains gaining a conductor position there required years of service in freight work usually meaning one had to hold senior level status. The chapter concludes by looking at today's conductors and their roles, noting how this has changed over the years.
During chapter three the book covers the role of the engineer from the days of steam locomotives to the transition over to diesels (which is an interesting discussion within itself). You will also read about the role of firemen, from their job requirements on steam locomotives (such as shoveling coal into the firebox) to the days of diesels and even passenger trains. The chapter also includes a sub-article written by Doug Riddell who looks at the day-to-day work of engineers and firemen. Beginning in chapter fourWorking On The Railroad moves away from various train crew positions and other aspects of the field such as signalmen, dispatchers, tower operators and so forth. Once again, Mr. Solomon gives a history of these positions (such as the classic days of hand-written train orders to today's modern computers and radios) as well as the work involved.
The book's final chapter highlights perhaps the most physically difficult area of railroading, general maintenance. The industry has come a long way from the days of hand picks and physically moving rails into place with large track gangs of men. However, while machinery has made these jobs much more efficient and less laborious it should be pointed out that hands on work is still very much a part of today's railroads. As a mentioned in the opening of this article, if you are perhaps considering a career in the railroad field or have always wanted to do so but are not very familiar with the industry I highly recommend picking up Working On The Railroad to gain a clear understanding of the requirements and general day-to-day work environment.