Sounding the horns for essential workers across America
During his years at Norfolk Southern, Philip Towles has never really thought of his work as heroic. At 3 p.m. Thursday, though, Towles felt pretty proud to be an NS locomotive engineer.
At the designated hour, seated in a locomotive cab at our rail yard in Columbus, Georgia, Towles gave two sharp blasts of the train horn, joining engineers across NS and the country in sounding a tribute to transportation and other essential workers who are helping the nation get through the coronavirus pandemic.
“It gave me a sense of pride to be an engineer,” Towles said.
The #SoundTheHorn campaign began as a joint effort by Amtrak, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority of Greater New York, the New Jersey Transit, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and other regional train, bus, and ferry operators to recognize “heroic” essential workers providing critical services across America. In a letter to the NS Operations Division, Chief Operating Officer Mike Wheeler encouraged NS engineers to participate “in a show of solidarity.” Other Class I railroads also joined.
Working a yard job in Columbus, Towles did his part.
“It felt good to be a part of something like that, knowing that our role is very vital to keeping not just the communities but the nation moving,” Towles said. “People are depending on the products we move, whether they’re raw materials or finished, to get to their destination.”
Signing on with NS nearly 22 years ago as a conductor trainee, Towles has served his entire career working the Columbus yard. He spends his days at the flat-switching yard classifying rail cars for road trains running to Macon or Birmingham, operating trains in local service, and sometimes running road trains.
When he operates trains serving industries around Columbus, Towles might be moving frozen poultry for a local chicken processor, plastic pellets to a company that makes packaging for military meals ready-to-eat, and chemicals to a company that makes a variety of products used in everyday life, including for industrial and municipal water treatment, paint, and cosmetics. The yard also works with a short line railroad to deliver materials to a local paper mill that makes paper and cardboard packaging for food and drink products.
While businesses across the country have been closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Towles said it would be hard to imagine Norfolk Southern shutting down operations.
“If we shut down, I believe the nation would shut down,” he said. “I believe we are that vital. We are like the blood to a human body – without the blood, you’re not going to live.”
Towles said he is trying to do his part to keep safe and healthy. While NS mechanical forces have ramped up cleaning of locomotive cabs, Towles said he also uses a spray disinfectant to wipe down the engine console before he begins operating the locomotive. He also does his part to practice social distancing.
“My wife is continually in my ear about being mindful of it,” Towles said. “If everybody takes precautions and does what they can to keep healthy, I think we’ll come out all right.”
Visit NS on YouTube to see a video of Towles sounding the horn, and NS chief photographer Casey Thomason paying tribute to railroaders everywhere.