Workin’ – and volunteering – on the railroad

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Dec 07, 2023

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4 mins.

Workin’ – and volunteering – on the railroad

The “chug chug” of the steam locomotive is music to the ears of John Mobley, who is one of fewer than 100 people in the U.S. qualified to operate a steam locomotive.  

“Not many people do this," Mobley said of his and others’ volunteer work with the Southern California Railway Museum in Perris, California. "Inside the steam engine, it’s noisy and hot, but all you have to do is put someone’s hand on the throttle, and it’ll stick with them for life."

Mobley, a conductor/engineer and safety leader for BNSF in San Bernardino, California, got hooked on steaming when the museum needed a pilot for the engine’s dedication ceremony in 2016. Because he’s qualified as a locomotive engineer, he knows what to expect from the right-hand side of the cab. But mastering a steam locomotive takes additional skills -- and being in charge of a boiler is no easy task.  

“There are a lot of hoops to go through to know how to safely operate these," he explained. "They have older-style airbrakes, and you’ve got to constantly watch the steam pressure and temperature. It’s different from running a diesel [locomotive], where a computer will tell you about any anomalies. Steam is manual, with lots of valves to control.” Mobley noted there’s a “feel” for how the engine’s operating.

As an engineer, he has to have a partnership with the fireman to make sure everything runs smoothly, and as a safety leader, he underscores why communication in the cab is so important. “The fireman and engineer work in tandem. I worked the fireman job to understand what it takes. Too much fire and smoke are not a good thing,” he said of the oil-fired engine the museum owns.   

The museum offers visitors a chance to take excursions and climb aboard a steam locomotive, which came from the Ventura County Railway. “No. 2” was built in 1922 and spent its early years hauling timber and lumber in Washington. In 1943, it came to California, where it moved freight, supplies for World War II, and agricultural goods. Currently the locomotive is out of service as it undergoes a period of inspections, overhaul and repairs to ready it for its second century in operation.

As a board member for the museum, Mobley, who is a former local chairman for his union, encourages coworkers to get involved with the museum to share the history of railroading with the next generations. 

“Any time I have the chance to let someone ride in the cab or pull the throttle, I do it. Why waste an opportunity to learn?” Mobley said. “Being a railroader is something to be proud of. I can share a little bit of my history with the railroad with others.”

His devotion to railroading goes back long before his career, which began in 1997 following his time in the Air Force. Mobley is a third-generation railroader after his father and grandfather, so he grew up immersed in railroading. 

“My dad would bring model trainsets and a big brass bell to the school and talked to us about railroad safety,” Mobley recalled. “There were trains everywhere at our house.” 

Mobley’s grandfather, Byron Knight Mobley, began his railroading career in 1938 with BNSF predecessor the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (ATSF or Santa Fe), eventually retiring in 1975. Mobley’s father James Louis Mobley hired on in 1966 and retired in 2007. Together, the three generations of Mobleys have more than 100 years of combined service with BNSF and its predecessors.

From left to right: Byron Kenneth Mobley,  James Louis Mobley, Mike L. Mallory, John Byron Mobley, Byron Knight Mobley
From left to right: Byron Kenneth Mobley, James Louis Mobley, Mike L. Mallory, John Byron Mobley, Byron Knight Mobley

Both on and off the clock, Mobley loves what he does. His enthusiasm inspires the museum’s visitors interested in railroad history and makes their experiences memorable. Mobley says it’s fulfilling to see children and parents alike with smiles on their faces.  

An annual event that the museum offers is the Polar Express, a train ride using the museum’s passenger rail cars and diesel locomotive. On board the train, decked in sights and sounds of the motion picture, guests are immersed in theatrical onboard entertainment, served hot chocolate and cookies by dancing chefs and read along with the children’s book that the movie is based. Then Santa and his helpers board the train to greet passengers.

The Polar Express runs through Dec. 30 at the museum, with Mobley on call to operate the train’s diesel locomotive if needed. 

“I was born into this. It’s a lifeblood,” Mobley reflected of his work with the museum. “I always encourage that interest. Sometimes you think a moment can be insignificant, since you do it every day, but seeing the twinkle in a kid’s eye is like nothing else. The excitement is palpable.”

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