Metra conductor not a simple ticket taker

Ride along to get low-down how they keep us safe

Don't joke with Metra Assistant Conductor Don Kiesgen that all he does is “take tickets and open doors.”

It's nothing he hasn't heard from his family already.

Sure, the Metra veteran handles those two jobs.

There's also throwing switches, testing the air brakes, announcing stops, coupling cars, hoisting luggage, filling out paperwork, monitoring rowdy teens, making sure Train 2115 goes 10 mph at the Grayslake crossover, collecting trains from the yard and verifying foreman Rob McFarlin's work crew isn't on the tracks.

Kiesgen loves the job he's been at for two decades. While the engineer is responsible for the engine, conductors are responsible for the train. The lanky, genial 6-foot, 8-incher has no desire to be an engineer.

“I want to move around the train. ... I don't want to be locked up (in the cab),” Kiesgen said onboard Milwaukee District North Line Train No. 2115.

Metra salaries have come under fire in recent years. Conductors, who are members of the United Transportation Union, were paid an average of $88,000 in 2013, Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said. But officials have been quick to defend the amounts, pointing to both long hours and a long list of responsibilities.

So, what exactly do conductors do besides collect tickets?

Kiesgen gave a primer June 10 on a midday trip between Chicago and Grayslake.

First thing in the morning, he and engineer Wayne Lumpkins collect Train 2115 from the Fox Lake yard. Kiesgen gives Lumpkins signals as the engineer brings the train out.

He and conductor Dave Lorentz read railroad bulletins about change-ups involving switches, speeds and repair crews. They need to know these updates in addition to weighty tomes of existing regulations they're tested on each year in a 170-question exam.

“Every railroad has different restrictions or rules on their territory,” Chicago Union Station District Director Vic Flores said.

At Union Station for the outbound trip, Lumpkins, conductor Dave Lorentz and Kiesgen check the train's air brakes.

The pressure's correct so Lorentz and Kiesgen look for stragglers and close the doors.

The crew talks to an Amtrak dispatcher as 2115 crawls out of the terminal, threading a maze of tracks.

Kiesgen's thinking about the approaching Mayfair station.

It's a short platform, so the engineer and conductors must choreograph getting riders off a five-car train in a space that barely fits four and ensure the rear cars are a safe distance from nearby Union Pacific tracks to the west.

“Four cars fit but it fits tight, so we stay safe and go with three,” Kiesgen says.

As 2115 gathers speed, Kiesgen points to a double-yellow signal light indicating Lumpkins needs to cross over to another track soon.

Each crossover has a specific speed, and that's where the rule book comes into play.

“There's so many speed restrictions you have to know,” Kiesgen says.

For example, the CN diamond (where Canadian National and Metra tracks converge near Grayslake) used to be 50 mph, but the track is rough so it's 30 mph now.

It's those nuances that keep the conductors hopping, ensuring everyone's on the same page.

Past Mayfair, Kiesgen starts collecting tickets. He's got a flashlight, radio, ticket punch and change maker that's still in use. Some riders, such as domestic workers, can't afford a monthly or even 10-ride pass.

One passenger recently paid with pennies. “Money's money,” Kiesgen says.

On rush-hour trains, there are plenty of regulars Kiesgen knows by name.

“He's a really good conductor,” vouches Frank Valchar of Deerfield, a retired trader who used to commute daily.

But, “as much as I'm collecting tickets, I'm still thinking about McFarlin,” Kiesgen says. “The bottom line is ... we can't go to Deerfield without talking to McFarlin.”

The mysterious Scot is foreman Rob McFarlin, who's supervising track work at Milepost 24 near Deerfield.

The train crew radio back and forth with the foreman, verifying workers are off the tracks as 2115 approaches.

“So, now we know we're clear,” Kiesgen says. “Deerfield next ... Deerfield next,” he announces.

At the station, he hands down a heavy bag for a senior and reflects on passengers.

Recently, on an express train to Grayslake, Kiesgen had to break the news to a hyper young woman who demanded, “Is this going to Schaumburg?”

Sometimes he's required to intervene, as when chatty riders ignore Quiet Car rules that ban talking during rush hour.

“Hey, Don, tell him what car this is,” regulars will implore Kiesgen, who obliges.

As the train pulls into Grayslake, Kiesgen hops off to throw a switch.

“I unlock it, throw the switch, check it, lock it and check again,” he explains.

Now there's a short layover until 2115 heads back to Chicago.

“He's my eyes and ears,” Lumpkins said affectionately of Kiesgen.

“I enjoy what I do. I have no problem getting up in the morning,” said Kiesgen, who lives near Fox Lake and starts work at 6:30 a.m.

“The main thing is to get from Point A to Point B safely.”


Fox Valley riders can learn about changes to Pace bus routes at two remaining forums from 3 to 6 p.m. Monday, July 6, at Batavia City Hall, 100 N. Island Ave., and from 3 to 6 p.m. Tuesday, July 7, at the city of Aurora's Customer Service Division, 3770 McCoy Drive.

Save lives in seconds

Five children ages 18 months to 4 years died after being left in vehicles in June, reported. The deaths occurred in California, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana and South Carolina. Cases included children getting into unlocked cars on their own and being forgotten. KidsAndCars suggests parents keep car doors locked all the time and put an important item like a purse in the back seat as a reminder not to leave kids behind. The organization advises the public to intervene if you see a child alone in a car by calling 911.

Images: Metra conductor loves his job

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