mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmSP Railroaders' PagesmmmmSP IndexmmmmErnie Kiesel Collection

SP Engineer / Caltrain Trainmaster Bob "911" Bongiorno

The late Robert L. Bongiorno, a.k.a. "Bob" or "The Bonge", was a Southern Pacific Coast Division Engineer, Local Chairman of BLE Division 161 and later an Amtrak / Caltrain San Jose Trainmaster, who was also well-known to we troops as "911" - the guy who put out the Caltrain's spot fires every "Fleet" morning for a decade. He served for 50 years to-the-day from his firing date of July 18, 1952. He was also one of my mentors. The following conversation took place on and is edited to remove irrelevant comments. TrainOrders counts quite a few Bay Area SP and Caltrain rails within its membership. At least one of the Coast Division engineers on the board went firing before I was born, and I have been retired for six years! For me, joining TrainOrders was like participating in "Old Home Week". - E.O. Gibson (hogheaded), 2015

(text continues below photo)

Here's a photo that I took of The Bonge (standing in his office - formerly the old Cahill Depot
SP crew register room) in about 2000, with another old-timer, Gene Miramon.

Date: 12/03/14 10:16
Bob Bongiorno, SP Engineer & Amtrak Trainmaster
Author: hogheaded

The following comment from Westbound about the late SP engineer/Amtrak trainmaster originally appeared in "Track Warrant Tuesday: SP 2472" thread in History & Nostalgia.

It caused me to reflect upon an old friend and mentor, whom I think deserves his own thread. Hence this thread.

Westbound Wrote:
> Since you mentioned that Bob Bongiorno is "late",
> guess I can mention the two things I remember
> about him. Back in the late 1970s, when Bob was
> working as an engineer on SP's commute fleet, he
> told me that there was no need for a Road Foreman
> of Engines. All the guys in engine service on
> those San Francisco - San Jose runs would "police
> themselves and everything will be just fine". He
> did not say the same thing about train service
> employees. I was surprised to learn some years
> later that he had become one of those unnecessary
> RFEs!
> A couple of years later while still an engineer
> for SP, just before he boarded a locomotive to
> make a run down the peninsula, he was warned that
> his engine had a bad order cab door that was
> sticking, so be careful not to hurt himself. Well,
> Bob was not one to put up with that, so in a
> somewhat confined area braced himself and gave the
> door a good kick, forgetting that he had placed
> his hand right where the door unmercifully pinched
> his thumb when it swung free. I can't remember if
> Forest Brown was still his RFE at the time, but
> I'm sure that whomever it was gave old Bob an
> earful about that accident.

Oh, Bob definitely had his moments! I can see him doing those things that you talk about, and he actually told me about the door incident. The RFE was, cripes, the one that followed Brown, I'm pretty sure.

BUT, I will unequivocally say this, and I think the other Caltrain engineers on TO will generally back me up: Bob Bongiorno was one of several primary reasons why Amtrak was able to take over, and successfully operate the ex-SP Commute as Caltrain.

Surely the outstanding reason why Amtrak was ever able to turn a Caltrain wheel was all of the seasoned SP employees who chose to stay on the Peninsula. Without this large carryover of troops, Amtrak unequivocally would have floundered due to the operation's complexity. I should also mention two Amtrak men in the same breath, RFE "Gentleman Bob" Petersen (San Francisco), and especially Trainmaster, later Superintendent, Charley Miller (San Jose). Charlie was ex-Penn Central guy whom I tangled with during my tenure as Division President, but who, like the others was sharp, decent and extraordinarily compassionate. I should note that Charley retired rather than undeservedly "fire" an engineer under pressure from "Big Amtrak's" Joe Deely who had a decade-long grudge against the engineer. (Please, I know that bringing-up Deely's name is like waving a flag in front of an enraged bull, but please save your thoughts about him for other threads)

Bongiorno's initial title on Caltrain was "Special Duty Engineer", but we soon came to call him "911" - otherwise, he was "The Bonge". The way his position quickly evolved, it violated both the UTU and BLE agreements, but apparently the general chairmen of each looked the other way (this was several years before my direct union involvement, thus I say this with no authority). His primary role immediately came to be to correct the mistakes of Amtrak Crew Management in Philadelphia. Invariably, Crew Management would fail to note that somebody was marked off, or otherwise fail to properly staff the trains (actually, there were many crackerjack crew callers at CM, but they invariably bid-off the Caltrain desk, which soon fell to the least-senior).

One of Bob's talents was in smelling-out staffing problems before they arose. He always came in at 0-dark-thirty to scan the morning crew sheets. As a last resort, if he absolutely could not find a promoted conductor and A/C for a train, he would lock his office door, grab an A/C off of another train, and make the run to San Francisco - sometimes functioning as the as the "door-slammer", but always acting as a minder to the un-promoted A/C. He absolutely refused to perform any role other than this, hence he never ran a locomotive in an emergency to my knowledge.

By now, you good union men are rightfully screaming about that egregious violation of the agreements. I cannot represent the then BLE and UTU general chairmen, but I suspect that they chose to look the other way, because they viewed the benefits of doing so far outweighed the liabilities. The BLE's concerns were less (technical, related to his job description) than the UTU's, because Bob never ran an engine. Note that this is only speculation. Whatever the case, it was a mutually-beneficial, pragmatic arrangement, that never did cause "The Agreements" sky to fall.

What all of this meant day-to-day, beyond much-happier passengers and Joint Powers Board (Caltrain) officials, was that crew members were less likely to get themselves caught in the wringer when their car would not start, or in my case, when I forgot to lay-off for vacation. (Bob quickly found a replacement - yep, Mike and J.V.: Farmer) He did his best to cover even for some very marginal employees, because he hated to see anybody be disciplined for an unwitting human slip-up. In this he was in one accord with Charley Miller and Bob Petersen.

Accordingly, because we knew that The Bonge and the others were "not out to get us" (indeed, Charley saved my ass once), I judge that the Caltrain operation ran much more smoothly than if these men had been predatory as was so often the case elsewhere, and later. I assess that Caltrain, in the years when these veteran railroaders were working, was a model operation that Amtrak would have done well to emulate, but Big Amtrak knew better.

This is not to say that there was no labor-management contentiousness, but that lay mostly in hours/conditions/pay spectrum, something that Bob officially had nothing to do with, though he often quietly lobbied Miller in the employees' behalf.

His was a peculiar position that only a guy of Bob's talents - and ego - could fill. I occasionally called him "father" out of jest, because I think that this was how he envisioned himself in relation to younger employees. He both scolded them and acted as their father confessor. He constantly intervened with Miller on behalf of employees, as well.

Sure, Bob was as bull-headed as they come, but that bull-headedness often was used to argue-down the implementation of some cockeyed notion of officials higher-on. His ego transcended even that, but it prompted him to carve a position out of thin air that enormously benefited all involved parties. He got great satisfaction out of (rightly) being so highly regarded for his efforts. I know that some people personally did not care for him for a variety of reasons, but you can't please everybody. Heck, he personally enraged me once (a sad talent of mine back then), but I got over it.

Bob laid-off sick, so to speak, on the day of his 50th year of railroad service in 2001 [sic: 2002]. He suspicioned that he had cancer, but he could not bear to miss that anniversary. Ultimately, he had waited too long for treatment and passed away a few months later.

Bob Bongiorno was not perfect, but accomplished men never are, just like everyone else.


Date: 12/03/14 12:53
Re: Bob Bongiorno, SP Engineer & Amtrak Trainmaster
Author: sphogger

I only had a brief but memorable encounter with Bonge. Had breakfast with him one morning at the little restaurant by the 7th St engine crew building. Loved the story of the wet behind the ears RFE that nit picked his ability as an engineer one time too many. He got up out of the seat and told the RFE the commute train was not moving until the kid ran the train himself. I think he also lead a movement to withhold dues from the BLE until they addressed some pressing issues that were being ignored. A force to be reckoned with. If I remember right he had a law degree. Good guy.

Thanks for the memories EO!


Date: 12/03/14 13:58
Re: Bob Bongiorno, SP Engineer & Amtrak Trainmaster
Author: hogheaded

sphogger Wrote:
> If I remember right he had a law
> degree. Good guy.

He got close, George, but did not complete it for reasons that I don't remember.

That restaurant by 7th St. reopened for awhile in the 90's, but finally succumbed to a grease fire. Pretty appropriate for a beanery that catered to rails, eh? Need I mention the Nook?


Date: 12/03/14 15:41
Re: Bob Bongiorno, SP Engineer & Amtrak Trainmaster
Author: CPCoyote

The little restaurant was officially called Walt's Diner. Unofficially referred to as Mama's, being Walt's wife actually ran the place. It occasionally appeared in "Streets of San Francisco". Kind of appropriate that it burned down from a grease fire.

As for Bob, he was certainly one of the best. He served as Local Chairman for Division 161 for a number of years and loved using his law training to put SP officials on the spot during investigations. (So I'm told).
When he became an Amtrak official, his years as an engineer and union rep let him work easily with both sides to resolve any issues. Because of people like Bonge, Charlie Miller, and Bob Peterson, Caltrain was a good place to work. When they left, things went downhill fast.

[An off-topic conversation then ensued at-length about greasy beaneries such as Zell's, the Miramar and the Nook, as well as fleabag RR hotels like Hotel Wineman, Hotel Resetar and the Jack London Inn.]

Date: 12/04/14 13:14
Re: Bob Bongiorno, SP Engineer & Amtrak Trainmaster
Author: WP-M2051

Flush twice, it's a long ways to Zell's. Hawkeye in Oakland said Bonge had mouth cancer from chewing tobacco, true?

Date: 12/04/14 14:45
Re: Bob Bongiorno, SP Engineer & Amtrak Trainmaster
Author: hogheaded

>Hawkeye in Oakland said Bonge had mouth cancer from chewing tobacco, true?

Bob had oral cancer from smoking. He didn't chew.


Date: 12/04/14 22:39
Re: Bob Bongiorno, SP Engineer & Amtrak Trainmaster
Author: Margaret_SP_fan

hogheaded --

That's a great photo of "Bongie", as I referred to
him as.

Thanks for the very nice trip down memory lane.
Bongie was a great guy. I remember him from
back when I rode Train #23 to SF back in the 90s.
(That was the first weekday westbound plug.)
I remember him being the conductor, as a last-minute
fill-in, and him saying that all he was going to do on
that trip was the doors and the announcements. He said,
"What are they going to do -- fire me? (Said with a big
grin!) At that time he had around 50 years working for
the RR. I treasure the photo I took of him in a CalTrain

I remember learning -- from Bongie? -- that he used to
run the "Coast Daylight" back in the day, and that his
nickname was "Velvet Paw".

I remember that Shoppers' Special back in 1994.
Walt Stringer, of the JPB, was the guy who decided
to put the '72 on the point of train #74 (Dpt SF @ 7 pm)
that night. He chose that train because it would arrive
in Santa Clara during the Central Coast Chapter NRHS
regular monthly membership meeting. That was the
best thing Walt ever did, IMO.

I think I rode that Train #74 that night back then, and
remember feeling a pronounced surging from the
reciprocating motion of the '72's pistons and rods --
but I could only feel it in the first gallery car.

Somewhere I have a photo of the '72 with "74" in her
number boards -- with a tiny full moon above her!
(Gotta find that pic and try to scan it so I can share
it here.) That was up in San Francisco, before she
left at 7 pm.

Yeah, cancer got Bongie. That was very sad. His passing
was a great loss to CalTrain and everyone who loved the
SP commutes back then. I miss him.


Date: 12/05/14 00:18
Re: Bob Bongiorno, SP Engineer & Amtrak Trainmaster
Author: fjc

Bob was a good guy, glad I was able to know him some when I worked on the commutes, thanks for the story Ed.

Date: 12/05/14 12:32
Re: Bob Bongiorno, SP Engineer & Amtrak Trainmaster
Author: hogheaded

Margaret_SP_fan Wrote:

> I remember learning -- from Bongie? -- that he
> used to
> run the "Coast Daylight" back in the day, and that
> his
> nickname was "Velvet Paw".

Sounds like his best friend, Bill Farmer, told you that. Yep, he ran the Daylight occasionally as an extra engineer in the 60's, and as a steam loco fireman before that. I'm not sure that Bob ever touched a throttle during his Amtrak tenure...

Date: 12/09/14 11:18
Re: Bob Bongiorno, SP Engineer & Amtrak Trainmaster
Author: SPLoopConductor

Goes to show you... rails are a special breed of people. Seems the Southern Pacific had a very good share of folks that just wanted to get the job done, with 'real' railroading! Bob Bongiorno sounds like one of the real special guys... another piece of the SP gone, but the great memories and stories about him, live on. An excellent thread.

Take Care, Stay Safe, Have Fun!