11 July, 2008

"ALL ABOARD JACKSONVILLE," THE CALL OF THE TRANSIT CONDUCTOR


Top Photo: Streetcar Conductor, Bottom Photo: Commuter Rail Conductor
Same job, Same Uniform, Different Address

Among weary commuters, conductor keeps smiling
Originally published July 10, 2008
By Adam Behsusi News-Post Staff

Conductor Russell M. Bly checks tickets as passengers board the train for Frederick in Rockville, Maryland.

If you choose to doze off on Russell M. Bly's train, let him know and he'll come wake you when you arrive at your stop.

The long-time conductor's enthusiasm and care for passengers may seem misplaced on a train full of bleary-eyed commuters making the daily haul between Frederick and Washington's Union Station.

But that's the way Bly likes it, and he's not ashamed to admit he can turn the grind of the daily commute into a pleasant experience for most of his passengers, making even the most stone-faced crack a smile.

"If somebody sees me coming, they're glad to see me," he said.

A third-generation railroad man and the third to carry his grandfather's name, Bly has been working the rails for 40 years in freight and passenger service.

He started his career at NASA repairing computers but got laid off the night astronauts landed on the moon. The loss of his job made him eligible for the draft.

After a stint in the Navy, which included five tours in Vietnam, a cruise of the world on a nuclear warship, exotic ports of call throughout Asia, the retrieval of two astronauts from capsules that landed in the ocean, and afternoon tea and crumpets with the Queen of England during a stop in Australia, Bly decided to return home to Mount Airy and take a job with the railroad.

He married during his second tour in Vietnam. Regrets were few when he came back and began a career with the B&O Railroad, hauling freight.

"There wasn't anything better out there that I already didn't have," he said.

Four decades later and Bly seems to have never lost any of his youthful bounce.

On a recent ride from Washington to Frederick, the 60-year-old conductor exchanged conversation with his regular passengers, asking about their grandchildren or what local fishing hole yielded the most bites.

"Most of them have my cell phone," he said.

Sometimes he'll get a call to hold the train for a minute as a late passenger pulls up to the station. If they're ahead of schedule he'll do it but said it doesn't always happen.

What makes Bly even more of a fixture during the morning and afternoon commute is his unique "all aboard" call he bellows at each stop.

The end, an adamant "yeehaw!", makes the call his own. Giggles grew louder from a group of children riding the train Tuesday afternoon with each call and stop.

"When I came out here on passenger service, nobody did it," Bly said.

Riding his grandfather's train to Virginia gave Bly the inspiration to revive the ear-piercing yell.
Radios, intercoms and other technology have eliminated the call from a bygone era, he said. Surely a wake-up call for drowsy commuters in the morning, Bly said he is the only MARC conductor to holler out a final boarding notice.

"My wife doesn't even know him and she loves him," said a suit-and-tie clad passenger boarding in Washington.

Having worked MARC trains for 15 years, including the first one to leave from Frederick eight years ago, Bly said he's seen changes and his share of danger.

He earned a nickname, The Bouncing Ball, when he fell from a train moving 55 mph. He was spotted as he bounced to the level of the train car windows.

Despite a bruised lung, Bly showed up to work the next day to save a $5,000 bonus promised for the crews having gone so long without an accident. Reporting the injury would have eliminated the reward, he said.

In the next few years, Bly said he plans to retire and spend more time with his nine grandchildren. For now, he said he will continue working the line and trying to make passengers smile at the end of a long day.

"I can't tell you how generous they are to me," he said.
BLOGGER COMMENT:
This is a program who's time has come again. Jacksonville, JTA, Buses, Skyway and future Streetcars need to seriously consider the quality's of the old style Conductor. Understand if you will, that the Conductor NEVER operates the train, bus, monorail, or streetcar, but in a transportation world he can move mountains. He is the absolute authority on his vehicle, even to the point of having Federal, and State Law authority. It is he, and he alone, that says when the vehicle moves, or when it stops. He decides who rides and who doesn't. He or she receives the orders from on high and passes them down to the train engineer or streetcar motorman.
But he or she is much, much, more then some stoic authority figure, the Conductor is the friend to the vehicle, and it's passengers. A friendly face, a helping hand. Never too busy to see to a passengers comfort or convenience. He spends his days split between doing many transportation chores and making sure that everyone who steps off his grand conveyance will yearn to come back. To engage him or her in conversation, he is pastor, confident, day labor, friend, authority, tour guide, helping hand, and most of all, family, to all who know him. A program of roving REAL Conductorson Jacksonville's growing Transportation System, married to the City Ambassador program, and the Jacksonville Historical Society, would provide dozens, perhaps hundreds of volunteers to add a touch of Victorian era service, to a 21St century transit network. Add to that an apprentice program for youth - (always under the guidance of adult operators), and we create an entire generation that respect their fellow man, cherish their city's roots, and will never have to be asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up..." You see, handled properly, such a program could qualify and licence them in time for High School graduation. What greater gift could we give our youth, and our transit riding community?

TAKE A FREE TOUR OF THE JACKSONVILLE SKYWAY

The arguments rage to this date, "Should have never been built," "waste of taxpayer money," "Doesn't go anywhere," "Nobody rides it..." etc. Bottom line is we have it, and it is finally showing signs of life. Simple extensions to the Stadium, San Marco, and the area of Blue Cross in North Riverside would turn this little train around. Addition of Park and Ride garages and multimodal transit terminals at the end points would bring on the crowds. The video must have been shot on a Sunday Morning, as downtown is certainly as packed with life as any other major City on weekdays. Jacksonville is a city of Bikes, joggers, walkers, buses and cars, one almost wonders how the photographer managed to find this quiet moment.

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