TH Intern Samantha Hyde visits with Roger Graham, Chief Mechanical Officer at the Texas State Railroad. Check out the TSRR story in the May issue of Texas Highways.
When did you start your career with the Texas State Railroad?
I’ve been here 34 years. I got out of the Air Force in 1974, where I was an air traffic controller for four years. I came to the area because my brother owned some land here. The first job that became available was with the Texas State Railroad. They were starting up the railroad because the land was about to revert back to the landholders because it hadn’t been used for so long. And Parks & Wildlife didn’t want to lose their land. Emmett Whitehead, who was a state representative back then, came in and said, “Well, let’s just run a railroad.” I started out with the convicts cleaning the right-of-way and trying to get it to where we could run a train.
So, did you have an interest in trains before you got the job?
Not really, but I had an interest in mechanical things. I’ve always been good working with my hands, whether it’s on planes, trains, or tractors. Then I grew to like trains after I got used to working on them. It was and is real interesting.
Currently, you have worked your way up to Chief Mechanical Officer. What is your day-to-day work life like?
Right now, I have multiple duties. I started training the locomotive engineers, firemen, hostlers, and all the crews as the Designated Supervisor of Locomotive Engineers. Now, they need me in the shop, so they brought me in as Chief Mechanical Officer to oversee the cars, engines, and everything.
Part of your job is to oversee the restoration of the old engines. What is it like working with such antiques?
The engines and cars were built in the early 1900s. Some of the parts aren’t made anymore, so it is sometimes really hard to find the parts you need to prepare the engines. Some springs broke in one of the engines and it took about six days just to locate some replacements. We had to go to Tennessee. It’s a complicated chess game trying to keep everything running. Our engines are big. Our No. 7 engine [diesel] weighs 120 tons. Our steam engines vary in weight, but they are still heavy and big!
Because you have been around trains for so long now, can you tell by the way a train sounds what the problem is?
Absolutely! These engines are like people. They are all different and they all make different sounds when there is something wrong. People look at me kind of funny, but an engine will actually talk to you and tell you what is wrong. Going down the tracks, I can just listen to the different sounds and usually tell what’s wrong. Every once in a while, something will go wrong that I’m not familiar with, but that doesn’t happen very often.
What is your favorite part of your job?
When I was running [as engineer on the train excursions], seeing the smiling kids and people after the ride and seeing how well they enjoyed the ride was a joy for me because we did something to make them happy. Also, I always like to teach. It has always been fun sharing that information.
Working on trains, I am assuming that you have been on a fair share of train rides.
More than I can even count! I couldn’t even tell you how many runs I’ve made. I lost count years ago.
Is there any one of those trips that really stands out in your memory?
When I first started running, I was on a trip to Palestine, and a guy was sitting there waiting for me. He said, “Would you do me a favor?” And I said, “Sure, what is it?” He said, “When you go back, would you blow the whistle again at mile post 21? My dad started crying when he heard that whistle because it reminded him of the steam engines back when he use to ride them.”
What about passengers? Have you ever had any famous faces aboard?
Back in the 1980s, we were over in Palestine, and they were going to let Governor White drive the engine a little way down the track for publicity. In front of the train was a cameraman on a ladder taking a picture of the engine and the governor. I wasn’t really crazy about him moving the engine, but they wanted him to do it, so we let him. I told him what everything did—“These are your brakes, this is what makes it go, etc.” And I said when you want to stop it just push this handle back. Well, he got so excited he pulled the throttle out and away he goes! If I hadn’t reached over and grabbed the brakes he would have run right over the cameraman. He never knew what happened. He thought he did it all.
From the June 2012 issue.
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