Train Teaser

Third-generation railroader spends his nights completing a never-ending puzzle

Story by Justin Franz

You can feel the vibrations as 15,000 tons of Wyoming coal slowly glide by the rattling windows. Pulling that coal are two massive General Electric diesel locomotives on their way from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming to the power plants on the Pacific Coast. Hundreds of working people spur it onwards; people like Jacob Galiher.

From a three-story building underneath the Scott Street overpass, Galiher, 37, has a 180-degree view of the maze of track and switches that make up Montana Rail Link’s Missoula yard. Before him are computer monitors with digital versions of the maze outside his window and stacks of paper listing each and every freight car that will pass his window during his shift that lasts from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Galiher’s job title is “yard master,” but “puzzle master” would be just as appropriate. He’s the one who makes sure that every freight car brought to Missoula will continue on another train.

“Moving freight is our job, not having it sit in the yard,” he said. “It’s always kind of like a puzzle, strategy, or whatever. I like puzzles, I actually do enjoy it.”

On the south side of the Clark Fork River stands the Milwaukee Road depot and an old signal that has sat unused since March 1980, when the Milwaukee Road abandoned its "Lines West." (Photo by Justin Franz)

Galiher’s job is necessary because it takes more then one move to get a freight car to its destination. For example, the car full of wood chips that passes his window tonight started its journey near Superior, Montana, at Mountain West Bark Products. From there, a Montana Rail Link freight train that serves smaller industries in western Montana took it west 40 miles to Paradise, Montana. Then, a bigger freight train tugged it 70 miles east to Missoula where it was placed in the yard. Now, as Galiher shuffles paper work around his desk, it is moved by a Montana Rail Link switch engine, so it can be quickly picked up by the next passing freight train.

The freight car full of wood chips is one of hundreds that will pass Galiher’s window tonight. He will look at the paperwork that goes with each car and make sure that the switch crew, consisting of two or three people and a locomotive, gets each car on the correct track.

It’s a lot of paperwork. He grabs a stapled stack of 50 or so sheets of paper from a few nights ago, each sheet listing dozens of cars and what they were carrying, anything from grain to coal, from logs to gasoline.

“Hundreds,” he said, as he flipped through the stack with his index finger. Keeping track of each car and where it needs to go can be hectic. It gets more stressful when there aren’t enough tracks for all the freight cars and trains that come in.

“You’ll have days when you’re pulling your hair out, and you’ll have days where you’re like ‘Wow, four trains,’” Galiher said.

So far, the night is looking pretty straightforward, and he likes that. To him, the game consists of figuring out a way to make everything go smoothly and quickly. At the end of the night, if cars and trains made their way through town in a timely manner, he wins.

Tonight, the evening switch crew finished up their work early, before the 11 p.m. quitting time. Thus far, each train that has come into Missoula has found a spot to stop in the yard, while car men inspect each car to ensure it’s safe to continue rolling the hundreds or thousands of miles to its destination. Even the trains that haven’t arrived yet have a spot in the yard. All of this clockwork-like precision is a good thing, because every train has to get out of town before 3 a.m. If it leaves after that time, it won’t make it past “work windows” west or east of Missoula. These “work windows” are places where the mainline track is taken out of service, to allow work crews to maintain or fix it.

“There’s usually something going on 24-7,” Galliher said. “It’ll pause for a little bit, but train traffic keeps coming; we just have to figure out what to do with it for a little while.”

Until that pause, things will be fine.

“Smooth,” he said, as he leaned back in his chair, looking like he wanted to pop his feet on the desk. “Right now it’s looking kind of clockwork-ish, if I can keep this moving with no hiccups…”

Then the phone rings. It is the dispatcher located a few blocks away in a building on Reserve Street. He controls the movements on the tracks beyond the Missoula yard. In the case of Montana Rail Link, that’s any place between Billings, Montana, and Sandpoint, Idaho.

The dispatcher is calling about three trains coming to town that will need a spot in the yard; one from the east making its way over Mullan Pass near Helena and two coming from the west.

Space is tight in the yard, but Galiher has a plan and it looks like it’ll work.

He has been on the job for more than five years now. Trains run in his genes. His father, uncles and grandfather all worked for Milwaukee Road, a now-defunct railroad company. In Missoula alone, Montana Rail Link employs at least four members of the same family, two or three father-and-son pairs among them.

When Galiher hired on, the person who interviewed him asked, “What took you so long?”

The Milwaukee Road was the third and final transcontinental railroad to arrive in Montana. Formally known as the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, the line west across the northern Rockies to the Pacific was the attempt of a small company from the Midwest to extend beyond its meager existence of hauling grain across the heartland. It was a shot to get into the “big leagues,” to compete with railroads owned by people with names like Hill or Harriman.

But the late 1800s and early 1900s were a different time in the American West, a time when it was still the frontier and full of endless opportunity.

By the 1970s, the Milwaukee, always in third place, could no longer compete with railroad companies that had much more capital and could invest more to create a faster network of rail lines.

On March 15, 1980, the last Milwaukee Road freight train left Tacoma, Wash. Its orange-and-black locomotives took the company’s cars back across the country to where it all began. Within a few months, the tracks were pulled up. In some places, the right-of-way was converted to bike paths.

What remained was the Milwaukee family of people like Galiher’s father, John, and his brothers. Some would find jobs with other railroads, including Montana Rail Link, which quickly gained the nickname of “Milwaukee Road Leftovers.” Others would leave railroading. The Galiher brothers retired and picked up golf.

But 30 years after the last Milwaukee Road freight train left Missoula, there remains a Galiher who can still call himself a railroader.

He is now taking a quick break from his job and running downstairs to grab a cup of tea.

“No such thing as decaf here,” he said.

He stops and talks to crews of engineers and conductors who will be swinging aboard various trains out of town in the next hour or so. Conversation hits a wide variety of topics, anything from the work at hand to life in general.

Back upstairs, Galiher waits on those three trains to come in as he sips his tea.

“It’s a waiting game,” he said.

These days, he sees fewer cars. Traffic isn’t as heavy as it once was.

In 2006, more than 82,000 freight cars originated from industries along Montana Rail Link, according to a company press release. In 2010, that number was projected to be around 53,000.

Stimson Lumber in Bonner shut down in 2007, and a significant percentage of the railroad’s traffic went with it. Then Smurfit-Stone in Frenchtown, one of Montana Rail Link’s largest costumers, closed in January of 2010. The railroad laid off 46 employees.

“I know that these reductions are difficult and stressful on the individuals affected,” Montana Rail Link president Tom Walsh said in the press release. “However, I also know the brutal facts before us make these changes necessary to remain competitive in our ever-changing business environment.”

“Those closures affect everyone in town,” Galiher said. “Hopefully the economy is on the rebound, but you never know.”

He’s grateful to have a job. The fact that he enjoys it and that the benefits are good enough to take care of his family is the icing on the cake.

While Galiher is still sipping his tea, the radio comes to life. It’s one of the car men, asking about a grain train that has been sitting west of town for a day or two. Galiher agrees that before it can continue west, it’ll have to be refueled — a process that will, annoyingly, require it to be backed into the yard. Galiher decides to check it out with the dispatcher.

“Dispatcher,” he radios.

“Missoula yard,” is the response.

“What’s going on with that golden egg out at DeSmet?” Galiher wants to know.

“It’ll be leaving 1300 tomorrow, at the best.”

Galiher’s face begins to drop. He realizes that they’ll have to back the train into the already congested yard tonight. This will complicate each and every move for the rest of his shift.

“It was all looking good,” he said, as he forcefully dropped a stack of paperwork into its place. That’s the game. Some nights you win, some nights you lose.

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