There’s a certain way to jump off a 1,200 ton moving train, and Tori Wiese knows exactly how to do it. In fact, Wiese makes such a dismount look easy. That’s because she’s had plenty of practice.
Wiese, age 35, is a conductor and engineer at the Napa Valley Wine Train. Out of a crew of more than a dozen, Wiese is one of three female conductors and engineers. That’s a rarity in the railroad industry, where just 1 percent of such workers are women.
“I absolutely love my job,” said Wiese, who’s been with the Wine Train for two years. “I love my crew. I love being in charge of that giant machine. It’s not every day you get to be in charge of something 700 feet long and 1,200 tons.”
Joining Weise is Bernadette Gonzales, a Wine Train engineer, conductor and dispatcher, and Laura Pendergrass a Wine Train conductor and dispatcher. Wiese — the first female engineer hired by the Wine Train since it opened in 1989– is also a designated supervisor of locomotive engineers, or DSLE.
What’s the difference between a conductor and engineer? The conductor takes charge of the train. The engineer takes charge of running the locomotive. In the United States, engineers are licensed by the Federal Railroad Administration. Dispatchers direct the movement of the train over an assigned territory.
All three women said they relish the challenge of such a job – one that carries scores of visitors on trips up and down the valley daily.
Wiese started working for railroads in Williams, Arizona. Her first job was with the Grand Canyon Railway as a car cleaner. That train travels about 60 miles each way from Williams to the south rim of the Grand Canyon.
From there, she moved up to maintenance and then train operations. “I was ready to do something new,” she said.
At first, she wasn’t sure she’d made the right decision.
“It’s kind of scary” starting out. “I didn’t feel I knew the railway enough” at that point, Wiese said. Later, she’d come to know every mile from Williams to the Grand Canyon by heart.
What does Wiese most like about being a conductor and engineer? “For me, it’s always about the challenge. I like to learn new things.”
“It’s kind of euphoric” knowing that “I can control this giant machine,” she said.
Wiese said she prefers work on passenger trains instead of a freight or commuter train. “I like my ‘pokey’ little tourist train,” she said with a smile. “We have a lot of fun here.”
And it’s fun to interact with visitors. For some of those passengers, it’s a once in a lifetime trip. “They’re in awe,” she said. It’s nice to be a part of such a memory.
Before working at the Wine Train, Pendergrass, age 61, worked as a machinist for 12 years. A Napa native, she’d watch the Wine Train pass by daily.
When she first joined the Wine Train about eight years ago, Pendergrass originally worked in reservations and maintenance. When a conductor position opened up she thought “I’ll try that.”
Starting her training as a conductor, Pendergrass’ first impression was “Wow. There’s so much to remember — and it all had to be done in a specific order.”
“My first day I was really nervous.” But, “I came back in one piece. I just honed my skills every day after that.”
Like Wiese, Gonzales also got her start working for railroads at the Grand Canyon Railway, but as a chef.
Later, she and Wiese came to Napa to interview with the Wine Train.
“I thought I was coming to work as a cook,” said Gonzales, who is 39. Instead, about two years ago she was hired to train to run the trains.
“I was super intimidated” at first, Gonzales admitted. The physical work was challenging, not to mention the General Code of Operating Rules (GCOR) she had to master. The GCOR is a set of operating rules for railroads in the United States.
But once she dived in, “I got it,” said Gonzales.
Many people are surprised to see a woman conductor and engineer — especially one that’s only 5 feet, 1 inch tall, such as Gonzales.
“I think it’s cool,” Gonzales said. “I hope I inspire other women” to consider other such nontraditional jobs.
Pendergrass said she especially likes the social part of her work. She’ll wave at kids and drivers along the route. Many not only wave back but stop and watch the train roll by. One young Napan and his mom wait regularly at a rail crossing just to watch the train go by. “I have my ‘peeps’ all over the place,” she said.
“Every day is a challenge,” said Gonzales. “Every day is something new.” For example, conducting a train is quite different when it’s raining and the tracks are wet, she noted.
Her least favorite part of the job? “Paperwork,” said Gonzales. That and tipsy weekend drivers.
Conductors are constantly watching all around the train and tracks for hazards. Vehicles and pedestrians are always a concern, the conductors said. Visitors aren’t familiar with the Wine Train tracks. They will sometimes stop in the middle of a crossing, panic and freeze in place when they see the train coming. Even locals will sometimes get caught up at the tracks, stopping in the wrong spot or tangling with a crossing arm.
“It’s not abnormal to have at least one broken gate a week,” said Wiese.
The Wine Train has about 13 conductors and 12 engineers. Many of the two groups can perform both jobs, in addition to dispatch trains. “We wear multiple hats,” said Pendergrass.
The conductors wear the Wine Train uniform: a white shirt with burgundy colored tie, navy vest and navy hat. “Conductor” reads a gold-colored bar on the hat.
Their office is found inside a string of old rail cars parked at the Wine Train rail yard on 8th Street in Napa. The narrow space is full of railroad equipment and supplies including safety vests, lanterns, office supplies, computer terminals, train schedules and other gear. There even used to be bunks for workers in the back, noted Pendergrass.
A shelf of inboxes holds mail and spaces so the navy blue “conductor” caps don’t get smashed. A variety of sets of keys are stored on hooks on the wall. A radio with multiple handsets is nearby. Years of workers boots passing over the floors have worn through flooring revealing layers of different patterns of tile and linoleum.
As for being part of that 1 percent of female train engineers and conductors, “It’s nice to be able to burst into what’s typically known as a man’s world and show women can run a train,” said Wiese.
She observes when young kids notice a woman running the trains, said Wiese. “I hope they like what they see,” she said. Her message to anyone who asks is “if I can do it, you can do it.”
Pendergrass said some riders are surprised to see a female conductor greeting them and taking tickets at the Wine Train depot. “You’re the conductor?” she hears. Her reply? “Yes, I am.”
“When I was growing up, I never thought I’d be sitting in the engine and waving at people,” said Pendergrass. But once you learn, “It’s just like riding a bicycle.”
One of the best parts about working on the Wine Train is the people — especially her coworkers. “We’re like family,” said Pendergrass.
Would the women recommend that others consider becoming a train conductor, engineer or dispatcher?
It depends on the person, said the conductors.
“It’s physically demanding,” said Wiese. “Railroading is not for the lazy. It requires strength and agility. It’s mentally demanding. It’s a challenging workplace,” she said.
“But for people that thrive off challenge, it’s an amazing job,” said Wiese.
Working on a train that is built for tourists has its own special considerations. Customer service is critical. Some visitors come to Napa for a once-in-a-lifetime visit. Others come back year after year and ride the train several days in a row.
Making their day is what motivates the conductors, the women said. When everyone returns to the depot on McKinstry Street having had a great – and safe – experience on the Wine Train, “it’s satisfying,” said Wiese.