“When you tell people you’re a locomotive engineer, they’re intrigued. It’s really different than anything else”-Bill Bivins
Bill Bivins was born on September 24th, 1966 in Anchorage Alaska. Born into a railroad family, his grandfather was a conductor for the Alaska Railroad and his father was a heavy equipment shop supervisor for the same railroad. As a child, Bill got lots of exposure to the railroad. His father would take him to the locomotive shops after hours to have a look around, and his grandfather often brought home attention grabbing stories, which Bill always listened to with open ears. Coming from a railroad family had a great impact on Bill’s young life, but through high school Bill seldom wished to work for the railroad. It wasn’t until college Bill realized his true place in the world was in the cab of a locomotive. Upon arriving home from Christmas break in his freshman year of college at the University of Arizona, Bill confided in his father about his dislike of school, to which his father informed him that the railroad was hiring for a brakeman at the time. Bill told me, “My dad had a lot of influence on getting my in the right direction”, and that he owes his career to him. In 1989 Bill hired out as a brakeman, where he worked alongside many railroaders and travelled thousands of miles of high iron throughout the Alaskan wilderness. Two years later, in 1991, Bill was promoted to an engineer and took the seat behind the throttle for the first time.
Bill has now been working on the railroad for over 30 years, and he is yet to get tired of it. He shared some stories of his time onboard the trains with me, and told me about what makes being a hogger in Alaska different than anywhere else. Bill explained to me that the lines are seldom flat, and situational awareness is more important than ever working in the last frontier: “There’s moose, bears, ice, snow, and just the crazy terrain you need to be aware of, on top of all the normal things”.
Bill also told me of his time working the “Snow Fleet”, or the plow trains that work to clear the line of snow following large storms: “It’s a lot of fun. Challenging, but fun”. Working to maintain the rail lines and keep four to five feet of snow off the tracks is a struggle, especially with the steep grades along the lines. Working on the railroad is a challenge, but Bill enjoys just about every second of it.
Bill’s “Fifteen minutes of fame” was his work on Railroad Alaska, a TV show about the namesake railroad. In 2013, the Discovery Channel announced a new series featuring the Alaska Railroad where Bill starred as the engineer of the freight crew. This new role was out of Bill’s comfort zone, but he now credits the show for curing his fear of public speaking. At the time of the show’s release there were several concurrent shows about Alaska coming out on the network, and with these other shows in mind, Bill stepped forth to be the star of this one featuring his railroad. Bill had hoped to learn about the production of these shows and how true they were, and to share the wonders of the Alaska Railroad with the rest of the world. “Besides,” Bill added with a chuckle, “who wouldn’t want to be a movie star?”. He also remarked that lots of these shows seemed fictional at times, so he attempted to keep it as real as possible. However, since it is a TV show, there had to be a conflict and drama to keep the viewer’s attention. Bill assured me that not every train he has run was on a tight schedule, and that not every train gets delayed by some snowfall or moose crossing. Since working on the show, Bill has been recognized by several of his passengers when working on passenger trains, and genuinely enjoys conversing with them. Bill has been able to meet people from all over the world who travel to Alaska just to ride the train that they saw on TV, and hearing their stories brings him both pleasure and pride in his work.
Over his thirty years working at the railroad, Bill has been offered several promotions off train service and in an office, but he declines every invitation. Bill has found a home in the engineer’s seat, and has no intention of trading it for anything: “I like the challenges, I like being out of the office, being in charge of a mile long freight train”. Bill also commented on the scenery the job provides, which is hard to deny considering the views Alaska has to offer. Bill takes pride in his profession, and never gets bored of it. While not much of a foamer, so to speak, Bill is a man of the railroad from a family of railroaders.
Thank you for reading Behind the Throttle’s first post! Stay tuned for the next article which will featuring Dean Hanson, a former Systems Manager for the Penn Central and Conrail. For now, I’m Max Harris, and I’ll see you on the next edition of Behind the Throttle.