Coronavirus vs. railroading: Cleaning those locomotive cabs

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Friday, March 20, 2020

A railroader’s workspace is never his own. A locomotive cab, if you’re on a Class I railroad or a regional railroad, passes from one user to another. That happens sometimes with only a matter of minutes between the time when one crew alights after a long stint and the next one boards for another lengthy trip. Think about it if you are an office worker: Railroaders basically share cubicles, one shift to another. They operate the throttle, brakes, and other controls in the space the size of a small closet. They watch the signals, they deal with the gadgets added to extend fuel economy and make for the most efficient trip possible, and they talk with conductors, track inspectors, and dispatchers. But they’re not machines. They’re real people doing a physically and mentally demanding job. They sweat (and if you’re in a locomotive cab and not sweating, you’re not human), they cough, they sneeze, they curse, they tell jokes, they compliment and complain about their co-workers, the company, and fans. They eat and drink meals. A few feet away, they use the toilet in the nose of their units. It’s a difficult personal work environment in normal times.


So how, in this emergency time of social distancing and hyper attention to sanitation, are crews managing? I checked in with a few friends in the industry who pay careful attention to their workspace. They work safely, and part of creating that type of environment is cleaning the cabs they enter. Long before anyone ever heard of the coronavirus, they were spraying Lysol, using Clorox wipes, and disinfecting the surfaces of the place they’ll be for 8, 10, or 12 hours at a time. I tease them and call them Mr. Clean. But they’re smart people.


Now, they’re working harder than ever to keep those cabs clean so they can stay well and keep the freight we need moving. The cleaning supplies are being used in every space that’s touched with regularity and then some that are never touched. When they can’t find commercially available cleaning supplies, they’re making their own bleach water and carrying it in resealable plastic containers in their grips so they can use the paper towels in the crew packs.


Railroads are doing their part, buying pallets of wipes and hand sanitizers and trying to sanitize crew offices and common areas where there are computer terminals for paperwork that takes place before and after duty. I won’t even get into crew vans whose cleanliness varies (one friend calls them “rolling Petri dishes”) after carrying as many as 20 different crews to work in a day. Another issue is food. In small towns away from home terminals they are scarce to start with. Those using drive throughs usually turn away walk up customers. Has anyone checked the Penny’s Diners in Milford, Utah, or Bill, Wyo., lately?


Our railroaders are doing a difficult task well in a trying time and keeping their workspaces sanitary is job No 1 while the coronavirus is rampant. In good times, when I’ve been out train watching, I’ve offered pictures I’ve taken or shared a Coke from a six pack with train crews stopped on sidings. I think I’ll pick up some disinfectant wipes or an extra sandwich at the Quick Trip the next time to thank my railroad friends.



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