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On the Rails

Independence resident is one of a small minority of woman train engineers

Cynthia Jaramillo says she always wanted to follow in her father's footsteps working on a railroad. He was a Santa Fe Railroad engineer for 30 years, and her uncle, for 45. Jaramillo has worked for the Portland & Western Railroad, which runs through Independence, since 2004.

Photo by Pete Strong

Cynthia Jaramillo says she always wanted to follow in her father's footsteps working on a railroad. He was a Santa Fe Railroad engineer for 30 years, and her uncle, for 45. Jaramillo has worked for the Portland & Western Railroad, which runs through Independence, since 2004.

December 26, 2012

INDEPENDENCE -- Portland & Western Railroad (PNWR) engine No. 2305 rumbles along Second Street in downtown Independence almost every morning, its arrival heralded by a whistle blast 15 seconds before each crossing.

If you live in town -- or outside it -- you can hear it. Just don't blame engineer Cynthia Jaramillo for awakening you.

"It's not always me, I don't run this way all the time," Jaramillo said with a laugh. "But friends think every train whistle is me ... it becomes a joke."

You were bound to have noticed a big orange locomotive parked alongside the library on Dec. 1. That was Santa Claus' ride for the day and drew hundreds of kids and families for pictures.

It was Jaramillo who helped orchestrate that event; the Independence resident has worked for the railroad for more than eight years.

"My job's awesome," Jaramillo, 43, said. "I see beautiful country from my locomotive. I see backwoods ... places people don't see in their cars.

"You just get to see a bigger picture than people running street cars."

That she would end up in a career related to trains was fate, she said. A New Mexico native, Jaramillo's father was a Santa Fe Railroad engineer for 30 years, and her uncle, for 45. She has cousins working for the company, as well.

"I always wanted to follow in dad's footsteps," she said.

Jaramillo applied with Santa Fe right out of high school and was promptly turned down. She worked a multitude of jobs afterward -- ranging from hair dresser to rock station disc jockey.

The interior of a locomotive

Photo by Pete Strong

The interior of a locomotive's cab is spartan -- a seat surround by levers, switches and displays that control the train's operation. A tiny bathroom -- "the head" -- is located just forward of the cab.

Every six months, however, she would send in an application to work on a railroad. She would end up moving to California and later Oregon. She had been wiring dashboards in motorboats in Roseburg just before being accepted by PNWR in 2004.

The training regimen is thorough, Jaramillo said. Would-be engineers go through weeks of classes and three months of field training to work as conductors -- those are the employees responsible for "building" the combination of locomotives and cars that make up a train.

After a few years as a conductor, they'll receive what's essentially a learner's permit to operate a locomotive, said John Cyrus, PNWR vice president of transportation.

Students will ride with experienced engineers for a requisite number of hours -- about 240, Jaramillo said -- and take more classes before they can be at the throttle by themselves.

According to national labor statistics, less than 3 percent of train engineers are women. Cyrus said PNWR has about 70 engineers; Jaramillo is one of three who are women.

Portland & Western Railroad

Portland & Western Railroad

"Historically it's been a male dominated field, but you're starting to see that change," Cyrus said. "Take Burlington Northern Railroad in Vancouver, B.C. -- they have a number of female engineers and conductors."

And there's no special treatment for the fairer sex.

"There are no exceptions for women on the railroad," Jaramillo said. "It's your job and you get it done."

Jaramillo's office is a locomotive cab, a space maybe 7 or 8 feet across from front to back and a tiny bathroom -- "the head."

The engineer's seat faces a control panel with the throttle, various brakes, switches for the engines, air and amperage gauges and an end-of-train device called FRED that monitors brake line pressure and accidental separation of cars.

"It's not too imposing, you end up comfortable with it," she said. "But there's a lot to think about when you're hauling freight.

"It takes skill and there's a lot of weight behind you," she continued. "Stopping, it's metal on metal, almost like ice ... if we were going 25 miles per hour, it would take 1.5 miles to stop."

Jaramillo doesn't give specifics about the trips or what she's hauling for security reasons, but is candid about the experience of the ride itself. She's on a train for about 12 hours a day. The interior is mostly metal, which makes winters chilly and summers hot.

The Portland & Western Railroad is a 520-mile freight railroad that runs throughout the Willamette Valley and the coast range.

GWRR.com

The Portland & Western Railroad is a 520-mile freight railroad that runs throughout the Willamette Valley and the coast range.

"It's loud and rattley," she said. "But not as bad as you would think ... you get used to it."

Donna Jaramillo, Cynthia's wife, said Cynthia talks trains often -- "like when we're driving or watching TV." Cynthia refers to her locomotive as her second car.

Donna doesn't blame her, though. She noted when Cynthia was young and her engineer father was on long trips, he would tell Cynthia to listen for the whistle when he rolled through town.

Cynthia said she's joked with those friends in Independence who wonder on given days if it's her inside No. 2305 that she'll do the same.

"I'll blow the whistle a little louder, to make sure you can really hear me," she said with a laugh.

Did You Know?

* The Portland & Western Railroad (PNWR) is a 520-mile short line freight railroad that runs throughout the Willamette Valley, with connections to the central coast and northwestern corner of the state. The PNWR locomotive that runs through Independence has a normal route between Albany and McMinnville, and out to the Hampton Lumber Mill in Willamina. Cargo includes lumber, newsprint and steel products.

* Engine No. 2305 is a GP39-2 model locomotive built in the 1970s. On its own, the 2,300-horsepower vehicle can pull between 30 and 40 cars.

* According to a 2011 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, 6.5 percent of the 58,000 railroad conductors and yardmasters in the United States in 2010 were women; only 2.6 percent of the nation's 57,000 engineers and operators are women.