South Shore conductor has seen it all

2013-09-01T19:00:00Z 2013-09-03T00:02:08Z South Shore conductor has seen it allChristine Bryant Times Correspondent
September 01, 2013 7:00 pm  • 

As a young child, Greg Wiseman had the world in his view.

Sitting on the lap of his grandfather — a train engineer — Wiseman was given an up-close look of life on the tracks.

Nearly 50 years later, walking down the aisle of the South Shore Line commuter train headed from Michigan City to Chicago, Wiseman knows every stop, every sway of the train and just about every face he sees.

The conductor of 31 years says his job with the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District is one of the most unique out there.

On average, the South Shore Line carries 12,100 passengers to and from Chicago on a daily basis and more than 4,700 passengers per day on weekends and holidays, said NICTD's John Parsons.

Though many regular commuters know Wiseman as the man in the navy blue conductor hat who takes tickets each morning and evening, Wiseman's roles as a conductor are much more extensive.

His day begins every morning at 6, when he prepares for his daily route.

"I check my watch every morning to make sure it's on time," he said.

In charge of the back three cars of the eight-car train, Wiseman runs break tests, collects baggage and runs other safety checks before departing the Michigan City station at 6:46 a.m.

At each stop along the way, he welcomes new passengers — assisting them with any questions they may have, advising visitors from throughout the world on hot spots in Chicago and continuing conversations from the previous day with his regulars — some of whom he's known for decades.

"There's been people who have been riding on this train just as long as me," he said.

Wiseman knows where to stand and when to brace with every movement and sway of the train cars. Traveling the same route thousands of times will do that to you, Wiseman said. With a simple glimpse out the window, he knows precisely how to brace himself for a sudden switch in tracks or when the train is about to screech to a halt.

"I've been there long enough to know which way I should be leaning," he said. "It can take a day or two, though, to get my legs back after being on vacation for a week."

Another thing that hasn't changed — the job's turnover rate.

“We turnover roughly 5 percent of our onboard personnel annually, and they are highly sought-after positions,” Parsons said. “We typically accept 5 percent of applicants who apply.”

Some aspects of the job have changed over the years.

From the look of the cars — what used to be wood is now shiny metal — to the technology onboard, plenty has evolved in the commuter industry.

"I used to have to walk through the train cars and yell out to passengers the approaching stops," Wiseman said.

High-level platforms at many of the stations now makes loading and unloading passengers faster, and newer safety mechanisms provide a safer journey for riders, he said.

Like any job, a train conductor has its pros and cons.

Not-so-friendly customers and long days on your feet can dampen anyone's mood, but Wiseman said it's the pros that have kept him waking up each morning, looking forward to his job.

"When you're on the same train with people, you gain relationships with a lot of people," he said. "It's amazing how many people you do know."

For Wiseman, it's a career that almost wasn't. Although both his grandfather and father made their living working for the rail industry, Wiseman began his adulthood working in construction.

Three years in, the recession of 1982 hit and work dried up. Wiseman's father encouraged him to come work with him at NICTD, and the rest is history, Wiseman said.

"It didn't start out that way, but I'm glad it ended that way," he said.

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