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Hop aboard a 130-ton 'hog'

Arthur fontes never rode on trains as a child, never had a toy train set, and never, ever thought he'd end up driving one.

"It wasn't something I wanted [to do] but I grew to really like it." And he's enjoyed it for 31 years. It's fun to ride in a big locomotive, or "hog," as the drivers call them.

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But engineers like Mr. Fontes don't just start and stop the train (after all, you don't have to steer). They must have the organizational skills of a tax accountant and the memory of a Jeopardy! champion.

Before they leave the station, engineers must check the brakes - all four sets of them. They also check on the engine, which runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for nine months straight. Then the engineer reviews track conditions, checks speed and track restrictions, and looks at any special instructions.

The locomotive's diesel-electric power plant is 3,000 horsepower (a typical automobile is about 130 horsepower). The train's power plant is as big as a school bus. It growls like a den of hungry grizzly bears. And those bears are thirsty, too - for diesel fuel.

The locomotive holds about 1,400 gallons of diesel. It burns about 100 gallons an hour. And, speaking of burning, when I walked through the engine compartment on my way to the cab, where the engineer sits, the huge diesel was as hot as an iron frying pan and just as black. The diesel motor actually runs electric generators. The electricity powers electric motors that propel the train. (An electric motor is easier to control and doesn't need a transmission.)

When I climbed up the ladder into the pale-green cab of the locomotive, it was nice and cool. That's something new. Engineer Tom Ree says that until 10 years ago, locomotive cabs were not air-conditioned. Engineers liked to work nights during hot weather, when it was cooler.

A refrigerator and, yes, even a bathroom

Today's cabs even have a small refrigerator. And in the nose of the train, where you'd expect more engine to be, surprise! That's where the engineer's bathroom is.

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The nose also contains two large "sandboxes." If the train tracks are icy or slippery, the engineer pushes a button that sprays sand on the tracks to give the steel wheels extra traction. Trains need traction when the weather is bad. Once, Fontes had to drive through the aftermath of a hurricane. A team of workers with chain saws rode along to remove trees that had fallen on the tracks.

Engineers have to remember a lot. Everything from wayside signals and the correct way to sound the whistle, to rules and regulations for different sections of track. They must memorize 18 different wayside signals (stoplight-like signals on the side of the tracks), 36 different signs, and more than 20 combinations of signals. (And that's only for one section of track!)

Different railroad companies own different sections of track. Each company may have its own signaling system. Engineers learn the signals in an intensive eight-week course. They are drilled on rules, signals, and speed limits, as well as such things as diesel and electrical theory. They take mechanical-aptitude tests, too.

After a series of exams that you must pass with at least a B average, the real fun starts: more tests. For a year, students are tested every week on the job.

Engineers have to be alert to their surroundings, too.

When a photographer and I rode in the cab of an Amtrak passenger train traveling through Massachusetts, we spotted a dog and a deer sniffing around the tracks. Once the animals saw a locomotive speeding toward them and blowing its whistle, though, they promptly moved. (Various engineers have seen such animals as moose, mountain lions, black bears, turkeys - even an escaped llama.)

They have to be alert for humans, too. You know that horn-pulling gesture so familiar to everyone from fourth-graders in tree forts to grandmas kneeling in daisies? Whenever a train driver sees someone waving, he or she is obliged to wave back (and maybe honk the horn). It's good public relations, engineers say.

A locomotive hauling six cars with 72 passengers going between 60 and 100 miles per hour must be constantly monitored. Embedded between the tracks every so often are sensors. When the locomotive passes over them, they count the number of axles of the train and record the outside temperature and speed of the train.

If you don't push the yellow button - watch out!

While car drivers may grow bored, train engineers don't have much of a chance to. That's because of the small yellow button called the "alertor pulse." The engineer must push the alertor pulse button once every 30 seconds or so. And if he doesn't? A siren like that of a fire engine goes off and a flashing light comes on.

If the engineer still doesn't press the button, train dispatchers located miles and miles away can bring the train to a halt. the dispatch center, which controls the tracks the trains run on, will stop the train. Dispatchers control the signals and switches. They can communicate with the engineer via a phone in the cab.

You might be surprised to know that driving a train is a solo job. On longer trips, engineers trade off driving so they can rest, but on shorter rides it's a one-man (or one-woman) show.

Locomotives, like airplanes, have "black boxes" that record everything the train did, second-by-second, for the last three days.

"If I were to print everything out," says Joe Arcuri, division road foreman at Amtrak, "it would take more than 3,000 pieces of paper."

Working as an engineer means you get to travel every day. An average day for Fontes means looking at golden beaches in Connecticut, tiny towns in tiny Rhode Island, and the big-city Boston skyline. But with all this travel, vacation takes on a different meaning.

"When you travel every day," says Mr. Ree, "sometimes staying home is a vacation."

Railroad lingo

Deadhead A railroad employee traveling on a free pass. This riverboating term (it meant submerged logs floating on end) is an air-travel and trucking term, too. It can mean to travel without cargo or passengers.

Foamers Spectators who gather along the railroad tracks to watch or take pictures of the train.

Frog The X-shaped plate where a train switches tracks. The metal flange guides the wheels from one track to another.

Hog The locomotive.

Piglet An engineer trainee.

Rails Railroad track workers. Crews used to be called 'gandy dancers' when they used shovels made by the Gandy Manufacturing Co. Crews had to work in unison to realign sections of track.

Shoofly Temporary tracks laid around an obstacle blocking a train's usual route -a mudslide, perhaps.

Sun kink A section of rail that has expanded and bent out of alignment because of hot weather.

Weedburner A flame-throwing vehicle that is towed along the rails to eliminate weeds on the tracks.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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