Keeping an Eye on the Rails

SEA Member is State’s Railroad Inspector and Investigator

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John Robinson, the railroad safety inspector and investigator at the NH Department of Transportation, poses for a self-portrait beside the Mount Washington Cog Railway last June.

The Granite State isn’t exactly a rail mecca, so it’s understandable that people are a little surprised when they hear SEA member John Robinson’s job title: railroad safety inspector and investigator.

“People’s reaction is usually that it must be an easy job,” Robinson said.

It might seem that way, until you realize how much territory Robinson must cover.

“What I didn’t realize when I filled out the application was that I was applying for the position, not a position,” Robinson said. “The territory is the entire state.”

Robinson’s position is part of the Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Rail and Transit. He’s been there since 2000, when his predecessor left, but he’d worked for the DOT for several years at that point.

“I worked in Turnpikes for two years and was perusing the job postings looking for a patrol foreman job when I saw this job,” he said. “I thought it was something I could do. I worked in the rail industry from just out of high school until 1997.”

The Nashua native worked for the Metro-North in New York before coming back to New Hampshire in 1997. He said he’s been around the railroads his whole life.

“My father was a railroader and my grandfather was, too,” he said.

His day-to-day job is fairly straightforward: he inspects railroad tracks for safety, mostly around roads and bridges and is federally certified to do so. He said his job also involves some work with locomotives, train cars, signals and hazardous material transport.

“I spend most of my days out on the railroad tracks, except this time of year, when we do a lot of inventory projects,” he said. “There’s not as much activity in winter.”

Occasionally, as happened last week in Nashua, there’s an accident that he must respond to. In that case, a 100-ton locomotive went off the tracks on Main Street in downtown Nashua.

“These don’t happen too often, but this time of year some of the lesser-used tracks get ice building around the roadways,” Robinson said. “It’s not completely uncommon, but fortunately most of the trains tend to run at lower speeds so when they do come off, it’s minimal damage.”

Robinson said the initial report he received was that the locomotive was blocking all of Main Street, but it turned out not to be the case. Eventually, the owner of the locomotive brought in a crane to lift it back on the tracks. Robinson said the most common type of accident he must deal with are those involving cars and trains.

“We have a real problem with complacency,” he said, because people aren’t used to seeing trains at the crossings. “My biggest challenge is to keep people educated. It just takes a second to look, and it could save your life.”

Robinson said rail has seen a bit of a resurgence here in New Hampshire with the Downeaster running out on the Seacoast, and talk about establishing a line into Boston.

“There’s been talk of development of the Capitol Corridor, with service from Boston,” he said. “That’s been rekindled and the study group has been reauthorized. It’s exciting, something different.”

Robinson said he’s been an SEA member since he came to the state, and he knows the importance of having a vital union.

“I try to be as active as time allows,” Robinson said. “I fully realize that any benefits we have are by virtue of the union’s efforts.”

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