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D.L. Brown - One Cool Conductor!

The following is a story of an incident in with a rather miraculous outcome. It features a real pro, an old-head Southern Pacific / Caltrain conductor named D.L. Brown, and originally appeared at in 2014.
-E.O. Gibson

We engineers who were not too crabby to actually like conductors had our favorites, and D.L was one of mine. He always was quick with a smile, generally imperturbable and as competent a rail that has ever come down the pike. I don't recall working with him during our SP days, but later I often lined up with him on Caltrain, SP's Commute successor.

One morning maybe fifteen or twenty years ago, on our return trip to San Jose from San Francisco during the morning rush ('fleet') hours, Conductor Brown and I were on an express train that had just passed Burlingame at 79mph, and were beginning to round a curve that led to a stop at San Mateo. Just before I hit the air for the stop, what I can only describe as an explosion took place. It sounded like a flash-over inside of the electrical cabinet that formed the backhead of the locomotive, but at the same time, the train went into emergency. I was totally nonplussed as to what was going-on as we shuddered to a stop.

I subsequently had a hard time recovering the air, and after performing a leakage check, confirmed that we had a big hole somewhere. After a bit, the F40 did manage to pump up enough air to enable us to safely limp into San Mateo depot at "walking speed". When we stopped there, I noticed D.L. calmly get off, walk up to the vicinity of the coupling between the second and third cars, then study the train for awhile. In the meantime I radioed a mayday. D.L. finally sauntered up to platform next to my cab window, looked up with a shrug, and gave the slow, graceful pounding of two closed fists together that is the "bad order" sign.

Now, for a seasoned veteran like D.L., this is the worst thing you wanted to "hear". If it was something easily repairable, he would have radioed the situation to me and attended to the problem. As it was, about all that I could do was to inform San Jose Control that were weren't going anywhere soon. At the same time, all that D.L. could do was to go back to the cars and assist his AC with offloading the passengers. Without passengers, we could creep out of San Mateo far enough to allow a couple of following trains onto the platform, thereby releasing their passengers from "stopped-train-jail", as well.

This, we did by pulling-up to a parking spot a few hundred yards away. Before D.L. could hit the turf again, I got a call, seemingly from God, but actually from Mark Hennessy, a Caltrain-proper (operating employees like me worked for Amtrak) big-shot who had once been my SP track foreman. Mark always traveled in a truck with an assortment of tools for use in unanticipated situations such as this.

D.L., in post-retirement checkered shirt attire, at the UP 2003 Newhall Yard Office (San Jose) Xmas party, the last such affair before the yard was closed. The gal is Caltrain Conductor Jan Freitas, Don'd sister-in-law, and the fellow next to Don is SP/UP Conductor J.J. Murphy. The ugly guy stuffing his face is me.

When he arrived a few minutes later, D.L. calmly pointed out the problem and the needed remedy, the latter which turned out to be a wooden plug to stop-up the hole (more-or-less), fashioned by Mark. Don then suggested that we then proceed down to the Hayward Park middle siding, and put ourselves away, thereby clearing the line. As we did this, I radioed San Jose, telling them that we would soon be in the clear, and that they could proceed with unraveling the railroad behind us.

The dispatcher did not immediately respond, but finally said something like, "Uh, OK Ed, let us know when you're safely in the siding." Amtrak dispatchers and managers were used to micromanaging every hiccup and fart that transpired, and I guess that they were nonplussed that Don and (in a much lesser sense) I had taken the bull by the tail and faced the situation without mommy's help. We, with the timely help of Mark (whom Amtrak did not dare criticize) had remedied the problem and cleared the line fully within the rules, so there was nothing management could say except "thank you", which, in the grand railroad manner, was never forthcoming. Well hell, we did it for the passengers, not Amtrak, anyway.

Neither Don nor I had a clue about what had happened until a some upset passengers told him, and a following train engineer radioed me, that an automobile had hit us. That's right, the car hit us, not the other way around! It seems that a Burlingame High School student was running late to school, and elected to zoom around a standing line of cars, as well as the crossing gates that were "protecting" our train. He had struck the rear of the second car just a few inches from the end, and had pierced the train line in so doing. Had he smashed into the train three feet further back towards the rear, he would have gone between the cars (laden with several hundred passengers), which in turn would have derailed over his auto and plunged down a steep 25+- foot bank!

The following engineer (Bill Farmer, I think) had radioed me that the kid's car looked like a crumpled ball of tin foil, and I later learned that he was medivac-ed to Stanford hospital, where it was discovered that he only had cuts and bruises! Somehow, or another, it was arranged (probably by Operation Lifesaver folks) that the young guy would meet our train the next day at Burlingame for a photo-op, but that fell through when an opposing train broke down and scrambled the railroad yet again. We had to make a quick stop-and-go without meeting him.

Incredibly fortuitous ending, eh?

And D.L.! All the way through the situation, he never varied from his usual steady demeanor. He certainly had a calming effect on me, thus enabling me to better do my job. They don't make 'em like him anymore, for sure!