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Building trains - and opportunity

Winter 2015

Conductors Laurie Montgomery, left, and Brandi Oney work second-shift jobs pulling cars from the classification yard and building outbound trains.


Brandi Oney considers herself a beneficiary of the Bellevue yard expansion. She hired on last year as a conductor trainee, leaving a job as a tow motor operator at an Ohio plastics company.

“I heard the railroad here was a good career – good pay, good benefits,” said Oney, who grew up less than an hour from Bellevue and now lives in Freemont – a 25-minute drive from the yard. “It’s been a great opportunity for people around here. I’m making more money now, and I don’t have to worry about all the day-to-day things like I did before.”

Since promoted to conductor, Oney has been working a second-shift “pullback” crew – a yard job that involves coupling and pulling blocks of rail cars out of the yard’s classification tracks to build outbound trains.

Trainmaster Willie Mullens, right, and
conductor Laurie Montgomery, center,
watch as conductor Brandi Oney couples
cars using a remote control locomotive

On an early December day, Willie Mullens, a Bellevue trainmaster, accompanied Oney at the start of a shift to evaluate her readiness to be certified as a remote control operator, or RCO. This would allow her to operate a remote control locomotive unassisted. They began in the cab of an SD40-2 yard locomotive, where she ran engine tests and inspected equipment before powering it up to couple and pull out a block of rail cars that would form the rear of an outbound train.

With a remote control device strapped over her chest, Oney, joined by Mullens and veteran conductor Laurie Montgomery, dismounted the locomotive and set out on foot to “tie a track.” That is yard speak for a task that involves walking a classification track to ensure that rail cars on it are coupled securely.

As the three railroaders walked down a narrow space between two class tracks and towering rail cars, they encountered several multilevel auto cars that had failed to couple after rolling down the hump onto the track. The cars’ drawbars – 70- to 80-pound metal bars that extend from each end of the cars and house the couplers – had skewed to one side after hitting and failing to latch.

Conductor Brandi Oney positions the draw bar of a multilevel auto car.


To couple them, Oney moved the cars apart with the locomotive RC unit to give herself a safe space to work. Then, stepping onto the track, she positioned her back against one of the car’s drawbar, planted her feet, and pushed back. If the drawbars are greased properly, moving them with her legs and back, as trained, is no issue, Oney said. Carmen equipped with drawbar straps are called in to move stubborn ones.

After realigning the drawbars and moving off the track, she brought the cars together using the RC unit. After coupling them, she used the RC to “stretch the track,” taking slack out of the line of cars to ensure the coupling was locked in place.

 “You get your exercise in this job,” Oney said after completing the task. After hiring on, she signed up for Virgin HealthMiles, a company wellness program that enables employees to earn up to $500 a year for walking and other healthy behaviors. During an eight-hour shift walking the class tracks, Oney said she averages 8,000 to 10,000 steps – about 3.5 to 5 miles.

“I put on my WellNS pedometer and make money,” Oney said, grinning. “You can’t beat getting money for walking, right?”

After successfully tying the track, Oney met briefly with Mullens to discuss her performance. Mullens, an 18-year NS veteran, had positive things to say, pointing out specific actions she had taken to do her job safely and efficiently.

“Keep up the good work,” he said. Then he added, “I’m going to recommend you for promotion to RCO.”

“Awesome!” Oney said.