When I started with the company my wife worked evening shifts at her job, so the railroad let me start at 6am and be finished by 2:30pm so that I could get home before she left and make sure the boys were being watched. My hours haven’t changed because I never really told the railroad that my boys grew up.

Personal Information

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NAME

Steve Spangler

JOB TITLE

Manager of communications and signalling department

LOCATION

Lancaster, PA

SALARY

Undisclosed

NUMBER OF YEARS IN THE FIELD

Trains 26 years, planes 10 years before

COMPANY

Strasburg Railroad

Education

Aviation technology (private pilot’s license, airframe and powerplant mechanic license),

Career Bio

The profession

Communications and signalling has to do with two different things - from the ordinary public’s point of view, the signalling department is the people who get in your way when you’re trying to cross the tracks and there’s a train coming through. From a railroader’s perspective, the signalling department is the traffic lights for the engineer. So that means telling how far behind the train in front of them are they, and whether or not the track is clear or the gate is down. The communications aspect covers station to station and station to train communication, scheduling departures and arrivals and just generally making sure things run smoothly and safely across the whole railroad network.

My specific role here at Strasburg Rail Road involves just about everything with electrons, so I work on everything from the computer system, the phone system, and the power for all the machines and generators, to the crossing gates, control circuits, and the lights in the train cars. We also design and install the water and air systems on the property. By a certain
way of looking at it, water and electricity operate in very similar ways, so I’m involved in all of that as well. I’m also the corporate memory for where all of those systems are underground, so I make sure that other departments can dig up some ground wherever they’re working and not come up with some pipes or wires that they don’t want.

How I got here

For me personally, to understand my interest in machines you have to go way back. I started playing with my bicycle when I was 6, taking it apart and putting it back together - graduated to lawn mowers - and I had started working on cars by the time I was 14. I guess it’s my ‘bent,’ if you will, that I can understand how mechanical things work. I went to college for airplanes because I wanted to fly them, but it turned out that I couldn’t see well enough to really do well with that, so I stuck to working on them until 1990, around when the economy went south, so for about 10 years. I was in general aviation, which involves the smaller aircraft, and it’s those kind of ‘toys’ that are the first to go when there’s no money.

So at the time my wife, who worked at a retirement home, found out one of the residents had a model train set that they needed help with, and he had been the general manager here, and I asked him if they had work, which they did, and I’ve been here ever since. So there’s a bit of divine intervention, probably, that went into that. I started here as a machinist, making parts and working on the locomotives, and started doing some odd jobs on the electrical systems. As things went on, the guy that was running the department went off to become an undertaker so I got to step into that position.

A typical day

Well once I’ve consumed a fair amount of coffee, My day usually starts with the crisis dujour, you know - ‘this doesn’t work, that doesn’t work, the locomotive has an issue with it’s generator, or crossing lights are out.’ Then there’s monthly work and long term projects, the kinds of things that are federally mandated to check every month, depending on where I am in that cycle. My current big project, for example, is that some of the parts in our air compressor system aren’t working, so I have to how to most efficiently balance doing a temporary fix on the system for less money and getting things back up and running right away, with ordering some brand new parts that will get to the root of the problem but that are three weeks out and will cost a good bit more.

So my daily job sometimes consists of about 15 completely different things, depending on what needs the most immediate attention, and what I can keep moving in the background. It’s a good job if you like working on different things. If I were to work in the communications and signalling department at Norfolk Southern, on the other hand, I would be doing nothing but inspecting gates. So part of the variety that comes with the job comes from being at a tourist railroad as opposed to a commercial one. A person in a similar position to mine at a larger company like Amtrak would have a much more specialized position, and you wind up getting pigeon-holed into a specific role a lot quicker at one of those big companies. But the all-over-the-map jobs like mine are definitely scarcer than the other kinds you might find.

The hardest parts

There are parts of the steam engine that are underneath that need to be worked on, and in the winter there’s nothing colder than a cold steam engine, so I’ll avoid that in every way I can.

The best parts

One part of the job that I enjoy is that I get to spend almost all of my summers outside. I appreciate the variety of the work because it never really bores me, and it allows me to work in environments that I enjoy. It’s also very rewarding for me to come up with an unusual solution to a particular problem, particularly when I can come at it from a different angle than the typical one. So for example with the air compressor problem I thought of a way to fix the issue with parts that we had rather than having to go without air for three weeks to get the standard parts for the system. We just replaced the entire gate system here, so some of the crossings are all brand new, and I designed and built all of the circuitry
in them, and sourced all of the components to them, so that was a fun project for me.

The myths of the profession

There’s really not a lot of common knowledge about the kind of work that I do so people don’t usually have any ideas about it to be misconceived in the first place. For me specifically, everyone thinks that because I work at a railroad, that trains and machines must be everything that I do, when that’s not really the case. I like to go home and do other kinds of things in my spare time.

For example, I like to go home and work on cars in my garage. The project started from just the metal body of the car, and he had built it into a functional - not to mention great looking - vehicle adding everything from the components of the engine to the stitching on the leather seats that he installed.) but to a large extent the last twenty years have been mostly focused on raising boys. When I started with the company my wife worked evening shifts at her job, so the railroad let me start at 6am and be finished by 2:30pm so that I could get home before she left and make sure the boys were being watched. My hours haven’t changed because I never really told the railroad that my boys grew up. I have a company cell phone, which has advantages and disadvantages. I can use it to sometimes stay home and just talk workers through various jobs, but it also means that I’m on a bit of a tether wherever I go, and have to be on the phone with work sometimes when I’d rather not be.

The workplace

My office is a 1928 wooden baggage car from New York Central. It was in use until about the late 40’s and then ended up in a museum somewhere. I don’t remember how the railroad ended up with it, but we put new siding on it, painted it, and it became my office. The train car operates as a sort of base of operations, so we have a lot of tools for the jobs that we’re doing around, I have computers for the research and development I do, looking
into LED bulb systems, or various other ways to approach my projects. The other place I work out of most is just one of the company trucks running up and down the lines somewhere.

Advice for someone thinking about going into the field

My position is fairly unique in that I work for a tourist railroad that pays its employees. Most of the other tourist railroads in the country operate almost entirely off of volunteer labor, so that’s a caveat in all this. The steam locomotive engineers here, of which I used to be one though I am no longer, are some of about only 250 left in the country. So we operate
in this tiny little niche, so to get into this kind of position, it’s really all about contacts. The ability to parlay relationships with people into a little bit more than that, to find a company that you want to work for and start making connections with people in that area through Facebook or Linkedn, is important to getting a job nowadays. I really think the day of getting a job out of the newspaper is gone, for the most part. If you want to avoid the job specificity at more traditional companies you can try to avoid union shops. Unionized jobs have a tendency to be very specialized - they have their place obviously, but if you’re looking to use a broader range of skills sometimes they can be confining.

Advice to my younger self

My advice would actually be to more quickly let go of what you think you want… because what you think you want may not actually be what you really want, or what you’re meant to do. Looking back, I would have been better off going into one step below a mechanical engineer instead, because I struggle with the higher level math that that involves but I really
excel with the way things physically go together when I can look at them in person. I also thought I wanted to be a pilot but it turned out my eyesight wasn’t good enough. I would have saved myself a lot of trouble if I had more easily realized that there would be other paths for me to take.