Snoqualmie Valley Railway Museum volunteer achieves lifetime train dream

After months of hard work and study, 19-year-old Jack McManus achieved his dream of becoming a railroad employee. He recently was hired as a conductor with Burlington Northern Santa Fe.

  • Thursday, October 2, 2008 7:30pm
  • News

After months of hard work and study, 19-year-old Jack McManus achieved his dream of becoming a railroad employee. He recently was hired as a conductor with Burlington Northern Santa Fe.

When McManus was 3 years old, he saw his first freight train and told his parents, “I want to drive trains.”

He’s never deviated from that goal.

When McManus was 9 years old, he saw the Southern Pacific Railroad (SP), which he admired, be taken over by the Union Pacific Railroad. McManus was disappointed that he would never be able to work for the SP, but decided that it didn’t matter which railroad he worked for, he just wanted to be an engineer.

When McManus was 16, his mother introduced him to Vern Scott, a former employee of the Great Northern who volunteers as an engineer at the Snoqualmie Valley Railroad. McManus, of Monroe, decided to volunteer with the museum, too.

First he flagged the King Street crossing. Then he studied the rule book and took and passed rules, safety and skill tests to be a switchman, then a fireman.

In July, McManus helped tow a Thomas the Tank Engine car from North Bend to Snoqualmie on the Snoqualmie Valley Railroad. He worked as a fireman that day on the Railroad’s diesel electric RS-4TC (4024) locomotive. He opened doors, checked oil and water levels in the locomotive and inspected axels before firing up the engine.

After two years of volunteering, McManus applied to work for BNSF as a mechanical shop laborer. He passed the written test, but not the strength test. McManus asked the medical examiner for a second chance and told him, “This is what I’ve wanted to do my whole life.” He was granted a second chance – 90 days to lose weight and gain muscle.

During those 90 days, McManus did construction work for his father. He lost 30 pounds and two pant sizes. He told the examiner the news. The examiner said that there were no current openings for a shop laborer, and asked if he was he interested in anything else? McManus said that he would like to be a conductor. He was given a conductor strength test and passed it.

Next he needed to take the written conductor test. He contacted human resources to schedule the test. He called twice a week and sent several e-mails, but received no response.

Days and weeks went by. Finally he got through. “This test is very important to me,” McManus told human resources. “I know that I’m qualified for this position because I have two years experience working with trains.”

They scheduled the test. After taking it, McManus said he worried. He said, “I fretted at home for three to four days, then called. ‘Did I pass?’ I asked.” The answer was yes.

Of that time, he said, “I was always polite, but inside I felt like I was pushing, shoving and screaming.” A week later, an e-mail arrived telling him when to start his training in Seattle. “I jumped for joy,” McManus said.

There were 12 people in his class. Everyone else was in their 20s to 40s. “I was the baby in the class,” said McManus. But at 6 feet, 4 inches tall, and with two years of hands-on train experience, classmates couldn’t dismiss him.

The first part of the 15-week training was spent studying rules. “The rule book is about the size of the Holy Bible,” McManus said. “Back in what some people call ‘the good old days,’ the rule book would fit in your back pocket.”

In the third week he began on-the-job training. At Balmer Yard at Interbay in Seattle, McManus put together train cars to build a train set. During the fifth week, he had his first experience being on the Burlington mainline. “I was sitting-in conductor, cruising through Marysville at 60 mph, breezing through, going faster than the downtown traffic,” he said.

McManus trained to be a switchman, brakeman and conductor. He learned how to communicate by citizens band (CB) radio. Conductors radio dispatchers in Forth Worth, Texas, to coordinate movement of BNSF trains.

He took tests. When he took an intermediate test, he answered more than 200 multiple choice questions and scored 100 percent. The conductors were impressed. They told McManus that the final was not as difficult and that he should do fine.

On July 21, McManus took the final test and passed. His reward? A BNSF cap and a raise from $130 per day for student pay to $300 to $500 per day based on what his job is.

McManus currently works as a switchman at BNSF and is applying to get into their engineering training program. He has advice for people who want to pursue their dream. “Stay with it. Don’t think of your dream as something that only happens in stories, it can happen in real life,” he said. “Your life is your own story. You’re the author, you have to write it.”

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