Extra passenger

Jonathan Make
5 min readFeb 26, 2023

--

It was an interesting day on the railroad, by far the most eventful for me yet.

It started early in the morning, as many work trips do these days. We went out to our train, which had been sitting there unoccupied. We got things turned on and brakes turned off and we were on our way.

It turned out that at some point, possibly while the train was waiting overnight in Cheyenne, we got an extra passenger. Most likely, he came on board while we were waiting in Laramie for some train traffic to clear up before we continued proceeding on our journey to Rawlins.

When we were about 30 miles west of Laramie, we got a surprising tip from a passing train. They told us over our two-way radio that they saw a man walking on top of a train car just a few cars back from where we were at the head locomotive. They were able to describe him to a T, including his height, weight and what he was wearing.

I thought this was a joke at first. Given the trip already was eventful, and the vivid description of the guy, this for some reason actually made me doubt the veracity of the information.

Even before we got to Laramie, we had an unexpected event.

As we were coming down a huge hill, to the east of Laramie, our train suddenly stopped dead. We had lost our air pressure, and we were briefly concerned there might have been a derailment at the very rear of our train.

Thankfully, it was nothing like that.

I walked to the back of the train to make sure nothing was completely amiss and by the time I got there, I met the awesome train technician who works out of Laramie. Driving in his truck, we checked the other side of the train, and he expertly tied together some air hoses so that they would not have the possibility of separating later in our journey. He was able to give me a ride almost to the front of our train.

And without his help, it is possible we might’ve had another emergency later in our trip.

Although we did not have another air emergency, we did have a kind of human one. It turned out the passing train crew was 100% spot on in the information they shared about our wayward passenger.

The first thing to do in a situation like this is to let the dispatcher know what is happening and also to discuss what to do among the train crew, in this case the engineer and me. The dispatcher proposed that we continue on our trip to Rawlins, where law enforcement could try to make contact with the person and safely get him off the train.

Our concern was that, with temperatures well below zero, this person could freeze to death, get hypothermia or otherwise get injured during the several hours it would take us to reach our final destination. Just the air temperature alone was about 20 degrees below zero in Laramie.

We came up with an alternative plan. We decided that we would pull the train over in the small town of Medicine Bow. There, we happened to know that a marshal was usually around, serving as the local law enforcement officer. We assumed that the person riding with us was not violent, and we did not want him to get in trouble. We just wanted to make sure he would peacefully leave the train car.

Since there was nowhere for him to go in Medicine Bow, given it is a pretty remote and very small town, we thought that we could instead give him a safe and warm ride in one of our locomotives. That way, he could keep warm until we got to Rawlins. There, he could get off the train safely, and in a bigger town where there hopefully were other options for him.

The engineer pulled the train over right as we got into Medicine Bow.

The marshal was at the hotel, having lunch as it turned out. So it was easy to flag him down, and in fact, it seemed like the railroad might have already called him.

The marshal met me at the railroad crossing, we had a brief discussion, and I showed him where the trespasser was reported to be. It seemed like he had dealt with situations like this before.

Before the officer could climb up the rail car to order the unexpected guest to get off, I called the engineer. This is so we could get what is called a red zone. This is what you need when you will be doing certain things on the train, where you need to make sure for the sake of safety that the train will not move.

So the engineer gave us a red zone. It was definitely the most unique one I have received. The engineer said over the radio that the “conductor and marshal have the red zone on track one in Medicine Bow.” I still find this hilarious.

The hobo was 100% compliant. The marshal appropriately lectured him on the dangers of unauthorized riding on the railroad, especially with temperatures that cold and him being exposed directly to the elements.

The hobo followed me to a locomotive, where he started to settle in. With the encouragement of the engineer, I got some water from our own locomotive and went back to give it to him. The engineer himself later offered the guy food, but he said he wasn’t hungry.

Particularly at first, he seemed completely disoriented.

It seemed like he was saying he got on the train at Laramie, but his mumblings were somewhat incoherent. Possibly something about not wanting to be injected with medication, I could not be sure. The important part was, he needed a warm place, he was not dangerous, and he faced significant danger if he remained outdoors.

The marshal had said that he would alert his counterparts in Rawlins, so that they could meet the train when we arrived. Or at least, he indicated, law enforcement would hopefully be able to respond more quickly if the guy did not get off the train.

This turned out to be no problem. He followed me off the train at Rawlins and essentially disappeared into the night. I told him the direction that he could go safely, and he just walked off.

He seemed slightly more coherent, perhaps due to having warmed up. At the cold temperatures he was experiencing, anyone could experience impaired mental faculties.

I don’t know if I did the right thing in letting him walk off into the very cold night. While I am pretty sure that him getting arrested would not have helped the situation, it might have ensured that he had a warm place to stay.

More fundamentally, I wonder if I should’ve called someone to help him. Maybe someone from an advocacy or homeless group could have met him, if I would have called them early enough. I really don’t know.

What I do know is I’m glad I was with a compassionate engineer. I’m glad that we came up with a plan to perhaps do the best we could given the situation.

--

--

Jonathan Make

I work at USPTO but my views only here. Buff about good journalism, writing, art & culture. Heart my wife, son & pets.