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Discussion on: I used to be an engineer on the railroad, now I engineer software, Ask Me Anything!

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theringleman profile image
Sam Ringleman Ask Me Anything

Awesome questions thank you! I am so stoked to run into someone else who was part of the industry, it seems like most people are lifers.

Question for you, did you develop the inward facing cameras or were they the exterior ones?

As far as hours, we were on call 24/7 and we ran on a queue system. First in first out. So you never really knew when you were going to be called. We had a two hour call to get to work. Once you were at work they had you for 12 hours worth of work. You could get off early if you had a decent trip, I think I had one or two 5 hour trips but those were extremely rare. Once you hit your twelve hours, you were considered dead on the rails. We were not allowed to do anything after that. Federal law. However, they were not required to get us in a timely manner. I have had many 16 to 24 hour plus days.

I did get to travel to a lot of places, but once your seniority gets up there you typically get to stay at your home terminal. I was the youngest engineer in my entire seniority district for quite some time. They were able to force me all over the place. I one time got a call to head to Hastings Nebraska, which is about 8 hours from where I live. They gave 24 hours to get there... It was a mess.

But I have seen some of the most beautiful places I could never have imagined, from a perspective that most wont ever get the opportunity to see. It was good while it lasted.

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renegadecoder94 profile image
Jeremy Grifski

Interesting! I've gotten to see the locomotive from so many different sides, but I haven't actually seen them in use (besides for testing). So, it's interesting to hear about them in the wild.

First off, those working conditions sound terrible (being on call, working 12+ hours, etc.)! That had to be rough on you and any family or friends you had. Did you have any issues balancing your life? How did you pass the time when on a loco?

As for me, I worked at GE Transportation pretty much right up until they were acquired by Wabtec. As a part of that job, I was on a rotational program where I was exposed to two roles before I ultimately quit and moved back into academia. And yeah, it does seem like most people are lifers. I grew up like 20 minutes from GE, and a lot of my friends' parents spent their careers there.

On my first rotation, I was assigned to the team that develops LocoCAM and LocoVISION, so both the exterior and interior camera systems. Most of the time, however, I was working on a video file validator for in-house testing purposes. That said, there was a brief period where I was working on some C++ concurrency code for LocoVISION, but I don't really remember the details.

After that, I moved into Remote Monitoring and Diagnostics where I ended up developing a locomotive diagnostic toolkit from the ground up. That's where I picked up Python and learned quite a bit about fuel pumps and cleaning EGR systems.

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theringleman profile image
Sam Ringleman Ask Me Anything

That is awesome, that is always something that I wanted to see. I wanted to go to see them while they were being manufactured.

As far as the working conditions, yes, it was awful. We had a saying at BNSF, "better not start a family". There was absolutely no work life balance, there were no friends, other than my wife and fellow railroaders. You could never make reliable plans unless you took time off, and that was always difficult to achieve. As far as passing time, I read a lot. We were not supposed to, in fact in our rule book it was expressly forbidden. You were supposed to keep your eyes on the rails at all times. Which is a very unrealistic expectation.

What you said about the lifers amazes me. I expected that from the Unionized side of the rail workers. We had excellent pay and benefits, as well as the best pension in the country. I didn't know that people stayed that long building them, but I assume it is similar.

I bet that was an interesting bit of software. I know the crews and unions were fighting those inward facing cameras like crazy. Total lack of privacy. (I am in no way blaming you lol).

I always wanted to get into the software for the trains, towards the end of my tenure there, they rolled out Positive Train Control. Those computers can drive the train better than a 30 year vet. It is amazing! I bet that was a cool job!

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renegadecoder94 profile image
Jeremy Grifski

Yeah, so for a long time GE was really good to its employees. In fact, when I told my dad I got a job there, he was really excited. Of course, they've since had their issues (similar to Boeing), so the benefits aren't as good anymore. To make matters worse, a lot of people have been laid off.

As for the cameras, I heard a lot about the frustrations from both sides. From my understanding, the camera systems were another instance of federal regulation, or at least companies like BNSF wanted them. I think they wanted someone to blame any time there were issues (agree, total lack of privacy). To make matters worse, those systems were configured for up to 6 cameras. Though, I don't think a single loco has more than 4 today.

On a positive note, I think the cameras—at least the front facing ones—are now being used as a part of the control system. Before I left, they were working on broken rail detection through computer vision, so that's cool!

As for other cool tech, I know that GE was developing a lot of semi-autopilot features like Positive Train Control. Of course, most of the features were only designed to benefit the companies, not necessarily their employees. For instance, I believe there's a product called Trip Optimizer which optimizes for fuel consumption.

At any rate, it was fun chatting with you! Just gave you a follow. I'd be interesting in seeing you convert some of these discussions into an article.

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theringleman profile image
Sam Ringleman Ask Me Anything

That makes me sad to hear about GM. I had heard on NPR quite some time ago that they were selling their locomotive division. That shocked me to be honest. Warren Buffet was pouring a lot of money into the locomotives, for many obvious reasons.

I cannot completely confirm that BNSF specifically wanted them for someone to blame. What I can tell you was the culture that the railroads put in place is a very strong "Us vs Them". I agree very strongly with you in that assumption.

You totally blew my mind on the broken rail system. This is something that the company never informed the crews about. That sounds like amazing tech!

I was forced to use the trip optimizer for quite some time. And to be honest, like I said in my reply earlier, those trains can drive themselves better than an experienced engineer. It is an amazing feat of engineering. The crews are scared by it for obvious reasons, but not only is it going to save fuel, it is going to save lives.

Thank you so much for taking your time to chat with me, I have greatly enjoyed this conversation. I hope to have more soon! And that sounds good, I appreciate the endorsement of my writing. I am actively trying to improve my skillset so I will do just that.