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12 Things Your Train Conductor Won’t Tell You

From bustling cities to mountains' majesty to shining seas—not to mention ghosts—train conductors have seen it all. These insider secrets will reveal how conductors live.

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Don’t count on train conductors making up time

Let’s face it: If your train is running late, you will more than likely arrive late to your destination. Each section of a track has its own speed limit, and just like on the road with cars, there are patrollers with radar guns to make sure the crew is obeying all the rules. If you want the train to go faster because you caught the late one, catch up on your work while you’re commuting. Here are 6 signs your commute is making you sick.

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The track maintenance schedule is air tight

A rail boss is put in charge of about 150 miles of track, and it’s his/her responsibility to coordinate the appropriate repairs and upgrades—and they run a tight ship (so to speak). This makes train travel very safe: It’s at least 12 times safer than driving, though it’s not quite as safe as air travel, believe it or not. As far as air travel goes, find out the 40 things pilots don’t want you to know.

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Being a conductor takes over your life

While being a conductor provides a good living and a great retirement plan, it’s incredibly demanding. Conductors work long days (anywhere from 11 to 13 hours, typically), they have to maneuver heavy machinery in sometimes terrible weather conditions, and they can’t really plan time off for birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries. A former conductor told Reddit: “It is a career that kills marriage.”

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If a conductor falls asleep, don’t worry

Trains are programmed so that if a crew member falls asleep, it will go into an emergency-braking mode. Alarms in the conductor’s cab go off periodically—if the train is going faster than it should, for example. If the conductor doesn’t slow the train and turn off the alarm within 30 seconds, the train will start braking and come to a stop on its own. Here are 13 things you’re doing in your car that you shouldn’t.

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Pick the right route for the best trip

There are great trip choices all over the country, but the most famous might be the the Adirondack which runs from New York to Montreal, the Coast Starlight which travels along the Pacific Ocean from Los Angeles to Seattle, and the Sunset Limited, from New Orleans to Los Angeles. And, depending on when you book the trip, tickets for the whole route can go for less than $100. Here are the most scenic train rides across America.

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Sooner or later, a conductor will witness a death

When hired, a lot of conductors are told that it’s not a matter of if they’ll see someone get hit by a train, but when. Crashes, accidents, and suicides are an unfortunate part of the job.

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If you can conduct a subway, you can handle Amtrak

Fundamentally, both conductor jobs require the same skill set; running equipment on a track is essentially the same anywhere. The biggest difference is the train itself: A subway train operator doesn’t need worry about starting the train or waiting to pump air into the brake pipe.

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Conductors have seen it all

Every conductor has a strange story to tell. They work extra long shifts, which gives them a lot of time to see some unbelievable things. According to the website Ranker.com, one conductor arriving at the scene of a derailment saw a man walking away. It was the middle of nowhere so he didn’t think too much about it until he saw the truck that was the cause of the train crash: He looked exactly like the man walking away from the crash. These are 15 of the most luxurious train rides in the world.

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Make sure you get on the right train

If you’re taking Amtrak or one of the major commuter lines around big cities, listen carefully when you’re boarding your train. Get on the wrong one, and you will be paying the fare, even if you’re going miles out of your way. You might get lucky enough to get an understanding conductor, but it’s more likely that you’ll have to pony up some extra cash.

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Some muscle is needed

Conductors don’t have to be ripped or constantly in the gym on their off days, but muscle is needed. Passengers often need help loading and unloading their suitcases into the overhead bins. Not to mention, conductors are constantly opening and closing heavy train doors, either when switching cars or coupling/uncoupling cars—which is essentially disassembling a train to move things around.

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Half the job is paperwork

Being a conductor isn’t as simple as jumping behind the wheel and hitting the throttle. Surprisingly, a lot of paperwork is involved in the job description. Conductors fill out paperwork for each car, keep logs of their journeys, and record any shipments passengers carry on. It’s a lot of duties to juggle, but seasoned conductors have a good handle on things.

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The job isn’t as lonely as you think

A strong connection between the conductor and engineer is necessary. The locomotive engineer is responsible for keeping the train moving down the track, and communication between this train whisperer and the conductor is key to making the overall trip a smooth ride. Trust is essential to any relationship, including work ones. If you prefer taking a plane, check out these 22 things your flight attendant won’t tell you.

Amari D. Pollard
Amari D. Pollard is a writer and audience development strategist. She is currently a Roy H. Park Fellow at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media and previously worked as the Head of Audience Development at The Week. Her writing focuses on politics, culture, relationships, and health. In addition to Reader’s Digest she has been published at The Week, Bustle, PopSugar, Inside Lacrosse, and more. She has a B.A. in Communications from Le Moyne College.