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Railroad workers fix problems along W.Va. tracks

Dec. 02, 2012 @ 09:05 AM

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — When Connie Burchett is in an unfamiliar place, her first instinct is to find railroad tracks. Then she follows them.

"If I do that, I know I'll find camp," she said.

The Norfolk Southern Railway operates 36,302 miles of railroad tracks. Every day, those tracks bear trains carrying coal and industrial supplies across the Eastern United States. They're heavy, and the wear on the railroad tracks is tremendous.

So the trains are followed by groups of railroad workers — they call themselves "gangs" — who work on the railroad, repairing and replacing parts as they wear out. They travel with a caravan of people, vehicles and mobile homes that sit atop the train tracks.

Burchett, 53, is a part of one of those caravans. She's been a cook for railroad gangs for 14 years.

She, along with the Norfolk Southern gang she's working with now, have been moored in Charleston for the last six weeks and expect to be here another month. The men in the gang are working to replace worn railroad ties on the tracks in and around Charleston. Burchett is feeding those 45 men "three square meals a day."

"These boys are plain old meat-and-potato boys," she said. "They're just like my brothers, and I like to cook for them."

It's not seasonal work — they're employed year round — but they travel constantly. They work through cycles that depend on the lifespan of the parts they're replacing and the tonnage of the weight they bear, but there's always work to be done.

When they're close enough to home, most of the workers drive there on the weekends. But that's not always possible, and the long drive cuts into the time they can spend with their families. Burchett spends far more time cooking in the gang's kitchen camper on the railroad than she does in her kitchen back home, with her two daughters and four grandchildren.

"If you don't want to miss anything at home, you better not get a job out here," Burchett said.

Still, many of the crew members have worked in the gang for years, alternating weeks of manual labor in far-off places with weekends at home with family.

Rodney Bonvillian, 44, has worked in railroad gangs for nearly 25 years. His father put in more than 47 years with gangs, and an uncle did 50. He met his wife on a gang where she was working as a cook.

"I don't even hear the trains anymore," he said.

He figures this is the only kind of work he'll ever do and was incredulous when asked why he chose to work on the railroad.

"Where I come from, the only things to do for work are this or with coal mines or with coal trucks," Bonvillian said. "Everyone tells their wives if they could find a different job that was just as good but close to home, they'd take it — but you can't find it."

Chris Warren, 43, is the gang's supervisor. He has a wife and seven kids at home in Virginia and has been working on the railroad for 20 years. The job seemed like a natural fit, he said, after he left the military.

On the gang he found another schedule that demands separation from his family but also a similar sense of companionship with his team.

"You go home and as soon as you mow your grass, wash your clothes, it's time to come back," he said. "We spend more time together than we do with our families, but we're kind of like family, too."

And for many members of the crew, working on the gang is a way to see more of the world than they could if they worked jobs at home.

Burchett, for her part, has met her favorite football player — Troy Aikman of the Dallas Cowboys. And she managed to visit Kansas, where she was born but hadn't visited since she moved back east as a child.

"We've got all the comforts of home here," she said. "And I get to see so much stuff, and see so many places," she said.