By Todd DeFeo
The GP40 locomotive let off a distinctive hissing sound - the air breaks had just been released.
The train's engineer began pulling the throttle, causing the engine to rev up. The train, with freight cars in tow, began to move, and within a few moments it approached a grade crossing and the engineer sounded the horn: two long whistles, followed by a short one and another long blow.
Similar scenarios play out everyday along the nation's rail network. But on this particular day, there was no train; the engineer was operating a simulator located at the Norfolk Southern Training Center in McDonough, a vital facility for the railroad.
All craft employees working at the railroad spend some time at the center, said Bill Faulhaber, manager of training with Norfolk Southern. In essence, all roads lead to McDonough for Norfolk Southern, which boasts a 21,500-route system that operates in 22 states, the District of Columbia and Ontario, Canada.
"At the McDonough Training Center, Norfolk Southern instructors teach men and women to become train conductors. Conductors are later promoted to be train engineers," Norfolk Southern spokeswoman Susan Terpay said. "We also train people to weld, maintain train signals and other crafts. In addition, we teach management skills classes to employees whom we employ across (the system)."
Conductors rank among the most in-demand craft employee. But on freight trains, the duties don't fit the traditional stereotype - the person responsible for taking tickets. A conductor's responsibilities include operating track switches, coupling cars and working in yard operations.
"The conductor is the person in charge of the train. He doesn't operate the train - the engineer does," Faulhaber said.
Each year, about 3,900 employees in training - including would-be car repairmen, engineers and conductors - pass through the facility. But, it's not all fun and games for the Norfolk Southern employees, all of whom are required to attend classes and pass rigorous tests before the second phase of their training.
"From here, we send them out to do on-the-job training," Faulhaber said. "...Every one of our crafts has on-the-job training. That follows the classroom training."
In January 1975, the first classes for electricians, carmen, machinists, signal maintainers and locomotive engineers began with about 25 students in attendance. The students were taught by a staff of 12 instructors.
Today, Norfolk Southern offers its employees an opportunity to train in a hands-on environment. Students now benefit from computers and simulators, which offer aid - and life-like training - to students as they progress through their training.
The facility is set on 18 acres, just south of downtown McDonough. The location, railroad officials say, is ideal because it is close to Atlanta, where the company maintains a regional headquarters.
"McDonough is a perfect location for training because of good transportation in and out of Atlanta and the availability of lodging and eating establishments," Faulhaber said. "And, its proximity to our own railroad makes it ideal for training."
The center operates off an industrial railroad spur.
How long employees spend in McDonough depends on the craft. "Each craft has its own class," Faulhaber said.
Conductor trainees, for example, spend three or four weeks training in the McDonough facility before "on the job" training which can last between eight and 12 months, according to a job posting on the company Web site.
By contrast, a carman, responsible for the inspection of railway freight cars, periodic maintenance and other repair duties, might spend eight to 10 weeks at the McDonough facility before heading to "on the job" training.
And while attending the McDonough facility, employees are put up in area hotels and the railroad also disperses meal coupons. That, Norfolk Southern officials contend, has a positive impact on the area.
"We pump about $1 million a year into the local economy," Faulhaber said.
The railroad profession is a very demanding one. And students attending the McDonough Training Center learn that lesson quickly.
"The lifestyle can be challenging, regardless of the craft," Faulhaber said. "That's because railroads operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. We have to have employees out there working during those periods."