Rolling toward Los Angeles at deep dusk, Amtrak engineer Ken Galusha strains to spot signs of life on the track ahead of him. "It's almost dark and all I can see is a white T-shirt," he says, recalling one image that sticks with him. A burst from the whistle persuades the vague figure to abandon the track to the onrushing train.
Such brief scares are typical of the railroad engineer's workday, in which long stretches of routine are occasionally punctuated by random unpleasant surprises.
Monotony, excitement and stress go hand in hand in the engineer's cab. The romantic notion of the engineer's life gets lost in a clutter of regulations, signals and schedules, all intended to deliver passengers as quickly and safely as possible, and without threatening the lives of anyone in the vicinity of the tracks.
About 30 trains a day rumble over the Santa Fe tracks between Los Angeles and San Diego, and some residents treat them casually.
Galusha has learned to assume that surfers will be crossing the long trestle in San Clemente as he approaches, and he cuts loose early with the whistle to encourage them to scramble to safety. "They'll get down between the girders," he says. "I know I've saved a lot of lives with the whistle."
Most of the time the whistle does the trick.
Sometimes it doesn't.
The latest complete figures from the Federal Railroad Administration report 103 deaths in California in 1988 resulting from trespassing, grade crossings, collisions and derailments. Since the beginning of this year, one man has been killed and another seriously injured by trains in Orange County.
When someone doesn't budge from the track, Galusha's only other option is to hit the full emergency stop and hope for the best. There's no dodging to the left or right, or stopping on a dime.
"I'm totally helpless if I'm going 90 miles an hour," the 41-year-old engineer says. "It tears at you because you know you can't do much."
At 90 m.p.h., the train would take half a mile to stop. "It's like a roller coaster. There's no friction on those steel wheels. Not like rubber tires," says Louis Pescevic, an engineer who lives in Mira Loma.
A grisly evaluation determines whether the train can proceed after someone is killed. If the body is still in one piece, the train doesn't have to wait for the coroner to arrive. Otherwise, it waits, and that can take as long as three hours in the more deserted reaches along the coast, says engineer Ernie Hull of El Cajon.
Too many drivers stuck on the tracks freeze and don't abandon their cars as a train approaches.
Pescevic recalls hitting a truck that got "high-centered" trying to drive around the gates at the crossing. "He was smart enough to get out of the truck," he says "Don't try to save your car; save your life."
If a train is a threat to the unwary, it is also a king-size target for youngsters. Children will throw rocks at the trains. "I'm rocked probably once or twice a month," Galusha says. From time to time he has had his windshield shattered. "It sounds like an M-80 or a shotgun going off. At night they come out of nowhere."
Children also like to pile junk on the track to see what impact the train will have. Pescevic has hit ladders, rubber tires, shopping carts, couches and even a refrigerator. "You hit a refrigerator at 90 miles an hour and it does tend to fly," Pescevic says.
Marines at Camp Pendleton and youngsters have been known to play chicken with passing trains. Most will jump out of the way before the train gets too close, but others will wait too long.
"The worst part is the kids along the railroad tracks," Galusha says. "I've been real lucky I haven't hit anybody. I've had close calls." With three children of his own, the sight of youngsters meandering too close to the tracks makes him nervous.
Galusha, who is from Riverside, has been an engineer for 10 years. Because of his seniority, he usually gets his first choice when schedules are changed every six months. On Thursdays and Fridays he runs the San Diegan from Los Angeles to San Diego at 4:45 p.m. After a 80-minute layover in San Diego, he returns to Los Angeles, arriving at 11:25 p.m.
On Saturday nights, Galusha leaves Los Angeles at 8:30 p.m., in charge of the first leg of the Amtrak's train to Chicago. After arriving in Kingman, Ariz. at 4:30 a.m., his crew has a 19-hour layover before joining the westbound 12:16 a.m. train, which arrives in Los Angeles at 7:47 a.m. He particularly enjoys the run to Kingman, Galusha says. "The desert has its own kind of serenity."
Serenity is a scarce commodity for engineers. The engines are loud, and engineers must wear earplugs. They are in continual quest of 100% on-time performance, but delays of two or three minutes at a couple of stations can put the train so far behind schedule that it will miss its "meet" with an oncoming train and wind up routed to a siding to wait.
The engineers are constantly being tested.