Riding in the Head End of the “Builder”

Back in the mid-90s, I was working on a book about train travel and had spent time interviewing Amtrak’s on board crews during my many cross-country train trips – conductors and train attendants and dining car staffs.

But the one crew member I hadn’t been able to learn much about was an engineer. I submitted a request to ride in an Amtrak locomotive, but that is such a rarely-approved privilege I had little hope it would ever actually happen. Imagine my delight when I was told arrangements had been made for me to ride in the “head end” of Amtrak’s daily Empire Builder during a Chicago-to-Seattle trip I had scheduled months earlier.

My instructions were to hop off the train when we reached Milwaukee and head up to the locomotive where an Amtrak employee would be expecting me.

We left Chicago on time and rolled into Milwaukee just before 4:00 p.m., right on schedule. As I left my sleeper, I told the car attendant that I would be riding in the head end for a while. “Wow,” he said, “they never let people go up there!”

When I reached the lead locomotive (there were two pulling the Builder), I found Craig Willett, an Amtrak road foreman, who was going to be my escort and guide. He gestured to the metal ladder running up the side of the locomotive and said, “OK, let’s go.” I shoved my note pad into a back pocket and clambered up the metal rungs and stepped into the cab. The engineer, Bob Kolkman, swiveled around in his chair, grinned, and said, “This must be the writer.” Then he eased the throttle forward, the noise level increased to a near-deafening roar, and we started moving.

Amtrak’s Empire Builder crosses the Medicine Creek Bridge as it skirts the southern boundary of Glacier National Park in Montana.

I was standing in the cab of an F-40 diesel-electric locomotive, since replaced with newer, more powerful engines. Nevertheless, the F-40 was a brutish workhorse capable of producing 4,000 horsepower, but with few of the creature comforts. Air conditioning in the F-40 cab, for example, was accomplished by opening the windows.

To make room for me, the assistant engineer had already gone back to ride in the second locomotive and I was directed into his vacated chair … on the left side of the cab. Railroad engineers sit on the right side because most signs and signals are on that side of the track.

An hour after leaving Milwaukee, we pulled into the little town of Columbus, Wisconsin, and there on the platform stood a father with two little boys, all waving enthusiastically … at me, the guy in the left-hand seat. Kolkman noticed and laughed. “They think you’re driving,” he said. “Better wave back or you’ll give us all a bad name.” I did and, before or since, have never felt so puffed up and so foolish at the same time.

Another hour passed and I found myself settling into the routine and reveling in the wonderful view from the locomotive cab. You’re riding quite high up, of course, and have a panoramic view to the front and both sides.
The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly and I no longer felt I was intruding. Willett steered the conversation and answered my questions, but Kolkman joined in with an occasional comment. He was clearly focused on his job, however, and I also noticed that Willett always managed to be facing forward with his eyes on the track ahead even when chatting with me.

As a safety feature, there’s a device called an alerter in every locomotive cab. If the engineer fails to adjust the speed or touch the brakes or blow the whistle for a period of 20-25 seconds, a strobe light flashes and a horn sounds. Then, if the engineer doesn’t press a button on the instrument panel within a few seconds, the train will automatically comes to a stop.

Kolkman was constantly tugging at a lever on the dash that blows the whistle and in those open air cabs the noise was deafening. I had been given ear plugs for that reason, but discarded them after 10 or 15 minutes because I had trouble hearing what Kolkman and Willett were saying.

We were traveling through a rural area with a lot of grade crossings, some paved, but mostly dirt roads crossing the tracks. Kolkman blew the whistle at each and every one even though from our elevated vantage point we could all see that there were no cars or trucks anywhere in sight. “You do it every time,” he said. “No exceptions … ever.”

Every engineer worries about hitting someone at one of those crossings. Kolkman said it hadn’t happened to him, but many engineers have had to deal with it. It’s a terrible experience, he said, and worse because there’s almost nothing an engineer can do to prevent it. It simply takes too long to stop and an automobile doesn’t stand a chance in a collision with a moving train. “It’s like running over a metal mailbox with your family car,” he said.

Another hour went by quickly – too quickly for me – and we were now rattling along through farming country, with the pungent odor of manure coming and going as we passed fields that had recently been fertilized. After one particularly fragrant moment, Kolkman grinned and said, “Around here we say that’s the smell of money.”

Leaving Wisconsin Dells, the Empire Builder swung more to the west, heading almost directly into the setting sun. Next came Tomah and then La Crosse. Soon we were in Minnesota, running along the Mississippi River in the gathering darkness.

Lakes and streams begin to appear as the train nears the Rocky Mountains

A freight train approached and Kolkman switched off the Builder’s powerful headlight until the engines passed, then flipped it on again so he could visually inspect our side of the freight, looking for any sign of dragging equipment or a wheel or bearing problem. The radio in the cab crackled and we heard the voice of the freight train’s engineer: “Looking good this side, Amtrak.” “Thank you, sir,” Kolkman responded, “Good run-by for you, too. Have a safe trip.”

Twenty minutes later, the Empire Builder eased to a stop in Winona, Minnesota, and my cab ride was over. Bob Kolkman would continue to St. Paul where the next engineer would be boarding; Craig Willett was unsure how Amtrak planned to get him back to Milwaukee, but seemed unconcerned.

We all shook hands, I extracted a promise to let me know should either of them get to Hawaii, and climbed down out of the cab. The twin locomotives had stopped well beyond the Winona station’s platform and my shoes crunched on the gravel ballast as I headed back to my sleeping car.

A magnificent steam locomotive is on display in Havre, Montana.

Later, after dinner and a hot shower, I remember lying in my berth as the black outlines of trees and lights from an occasional farmhouse flashed by outside my darkened compartment. In my mind’s eye, I was now able to visualize quite clearly the new engineer methodically performing his routine up there in the head end of Amtrak locomotive number 343.

And I remembered when I was just a youngster, probably about 10, most kids my age thought being a locomotive engineer when we grew up would be just about the best job in the world, the most glamorous and the most fun. I know I did. You know what? We were right.
There are dramatic changes in the scenery as the Empire Builder reaches Washington State, with ferry boats criss-crossing Puget Sound.