Olivia Doty / Mustang News

It was the second run of the day when Stephen Hager’s emergency brakes screeched and slammed to a sudden halt. Ten minutes went by without a word from anyone. Finally, the phone rang. Something was wrong. The brake operator hadn’t pulled the emergency brakes and the engine hadn’t given out. Somehow on his first day as a train conductor, Hager’s train derailed.

It turned out that the rails were damaged in a particular spot, so when the train tried to pass over the section, it was derailed.

The accident was minor, but Hager’s mind raced. As the conductor, Hager is responsible for the safety and operation of the train and its passengers.

“I wasn’t scared because the movement stopped almost immediately,” the civil engineering senior said. “I wasn’t afraid anyone was going to get hurt. I was more worried about keeping people informed and keeping people happy.”

Hager and his crew arranged another train to rescue the stranded passengers. And with that, Hager tucked an exhilarating emergency preparedness experience under his belt, on his first day as a train conductor.

Where it all started

Hager’s enthusiasm for locomotives stems from his grandfather’s work on designing train cars for the Milwaukee Railway in 1930. Hager’s grandfather had a detailed set of model trains he shared with his grandson when he felt Hager was old enough to appreciate them. Due to this exposure, Hager now collects his own model trains that he watches over with care and precision.

Hager’s family rode the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner up the California Coast when he was a child. Hager remembers the awe and admiration he had for the consistency and efficiency of the metal beast.

“When you are going around a curve, you can look out [of] the window and see the locomotive and the front of the train,” Hager said. “I remember having my head glued to the window watching that.”

Now 21 years old, Hager still has the same excitement for trains, despite the unusual nature of his passion. 

“I think a lot of people have the reaction ‘I liked trains when I was five, but not anymore. Who is this guy? Is he alright in the head?”’ Hager said. “As I kind of explain it more to people, they start to understand.”

Now it’s official

Hager’s passion for trains only grew since the age of five. It grew so much that he became an official train conductor. However, not many know what this actually means, according to Hager.

“A lot of people mistake train conductor for train engineer,” Hager said. “Engineer is the person who runs the train. Conductor is the train’s boss, but they aren’t the ones that are operating the controls.”

Conductors are the personnel making sure passengers and freight make it safely on and off the train. They also alert the engineer when the train departs and about speed restrictions and other safety concerns along the rails. Hager is a formal train conductor and operator at Pacific Southwest Railway Museum in San Diego where he operates historic excursion trains.

In his spare time, Hager memorized San Luis Obispo’s inconsistent train schedule, learning the ins and outs of the trains that pass through the station. He often follows trains with his camera, tripod and microphone to document their arrivals and departures. Hager also volunteers at the San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum.

“My favorite part about working at the museum is passing on the information to people,” Hager said. “I think trains especially are kind of mysterious to a lot of people. People don’t always see them in their everyday lives. They don’t really understand why they are still around. It’s really cool to explain the background behind them and showing people that they are still an important part of the landscape.”

Hager finds beauty in the nostalgic connection trains have to American history.

“I really like how timeless they are; they have been a part of the American landscape [since] before the civil war,” Hager said. “They really haven’t changed that much and that’s what I think is so cool. They are old technology, but they still work.”

Because of his love for trains, Hager decided to pursue civil engineering due to its value in railway engineering.

Last summer, Hager interned for civil engineering company Railpros Inc. in San Diego. He looks forward to taking a full time job in San Diego this summer with the same duties. A career without trains just wasn’t an option for Hager.

“After all this time, I couldn’t imagine doing anything without them,” Hager said.

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