Volunteering for Railroad Museums

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Beverlyhelper

beverlyhelper
I started this spring in Portland ME going through a 12-week historic docent training program which is sponsored by five historic organizations collaboratively. I chose the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum as the group I would like to volunteer with. I went through 21 student trips to become a certified conductor, and this past weekend, started in on my locomotive engineer training. I serve one - sometimes two days a week. It is incredibly rewarding. I meet people from all over the US who have come to Maine - many for the first time. We have a 22-ton GE (have of a 44 tonner!) locomotive, and we run on 1-1/2 miles of track. The people at the Museum are fabulous to work with, and after a week of being qualified as conductor, I am now training other volunteers in the same pathway.

I post this to encourage everyone reading to look for a local railroad historical group and offer your volunteer services. It is incredibly rewarding, the people are great, and actually working with real railroad equipment (albeit 2' gauge), is exciting and a pure pleasure. Not to mention the bikinis appearing along our run alongside Casco Bay! ;-)

Railroad museums need our volunteer labor. They wouldn't survive without it. Now's a great time to check out what's around your 'turf, and get in there to help out.
 

p51

Marty, it runs on steam!
Railroad museums need our volunteer labor. They wouldn't survive without it. Now's a great time to check out what's around your 'turf, and get in there to help out.
I get your point, but in many cases, your experience is hardly what awaits. I looked into it once with a operation (won't say where or when), and was told in no uncertain terms that what awaited me was scraping paint, sanding out rust and replacing ties, and to "not get into this with dreams of becoming an engineer," and also that even being around moving equipment was not in the cards because they had enough people for that. I told that person that in that case, they could also do the other dirty jobs they wanted to pawn off on others, then walked out. I've heard the same thing from far too many others in different parts of the country. I don't expect these operations to kiss my feet and push me into the cab on the first day, but they're insane if they think they're going to get people to help out with a sales pitch like that. And then the same people cry about how nobody wants to help. Go figure.
I looked at the websites for the operations near me and saw pretty much the same thing as above:
http://www.steamtrainride.com/members.php
Emphasis is mine below in color, but the text is verbatim:
Volunteers are what keep the Museum operating, and are an invaluable part of our organization. If you are a member and would like to volunteer, there are a number of ways you can help out:
  • Car cleaning
  • Landscape maintenance
  • Events help
  • Equipment maintenance and repairs
  • Light maintenance-of-way work
  • Other tasks as needed
Please note that train crew opportunities are very rare and require significant training. Car host and on-board concessions opportunities, however, do arise on occasion.
I know a few people who actually got into a cab at museums. They all practically had to live there. After hearing their experiences and knowing the receptions I got, you'll never see me volunteering for anything.
 

NM_RailNut

Member
So? At least they were being up front and honest, instead of feeding you a line. Like it or not, those "dirty jobs" are what keep most museums going, those same museums would come to a screeching halt without them, and the railroads are no different.
 

ccootsona

New Member
I think people's experiences really depend on the place they volunteer and the people who work there. Volunteer railroads attract all kinds, from people who make you feel right at home to those who are so insecure with newcomers that they will try to drive you away.

My experience as a volunteer has been very rewarding. I began from knowing nothing about how real trains operate but within about 6 years I had worked through brakeman, conductor, fireman, and finally engineer. This can certainly vary depending largely on how many hours you put in per week and how often your particular museum runs excursions.

While it's true that you are not likely to get your engineer's card in the first year at many places, it is certainly possible to get it after a few years with dedication and willingness to learn. It makes sense that an organization is not likely to let just any person behind the throttle of a half million dollar locomotive and a consist full of passengers (and spillable coffee!) without ensuring that they can operate safely, and that takes some time.

I've found that a little sweat equity time in the locomotive shop can give you the opportunity to lean about how the equipment works, and it shows the shop crew that you care about the equipment. There's more incentive for a fireman to be attentive when you make them change their own broken staybolts!

That's not to say it's all grunt work until you get behind the throttle. Once people know you are a serious volunteer, it is likely that they will warm up, and sometimes one of the engine crew might ask you to take their seat in the cab, provided you have completed your assigned duties first. However, those who demand to have a spot in the cab because they feel entitled, will likely be turned down. As a brakeman, I used to offer to assist in greasing the locomotive for the fireman in exchange for some time in the fireman's seat on the return trip to the shop. That usually worked out well because then I knew how to maintain the locomotive when I became fireman, and they appreciated the help.

Best of luck to those considering volunteering. It's a great opportunity to keep these things running, you meet lifelong friends, and have the opportunity to network with volunteers at other museums.

Craig
 

foxheadlocal

The New Steve McQueen(tm)
The purpose of a museum operation is first to keep the equipment and line functional and intact, second to raise money to support it. Third is to provide an educational opportunity for the most people at the best cost. Playing with trains is the last priority. Yes, it is fun to play with equipment, but thats not the point of a museum railroad.

There are more people who want to play with equipment than to keep it running.

As for P51, I'm sorry you felt you didn't get the kind of red carpet you expected, but you can knock that attitude off right now. Those people in the cab or on board? 95% of them are out there busting their *** doing all those regular, boring, and sometimes downright nasty jobs that you feel you shouldn't have to do. Including things like dumping a toilet tank into a septic, vacuuming cars, fetching furniture, cleaning windows, track maintenance, brushing, etc.... There might be some operations where theres an attitude problem and an elite/peon attitude, and there are bad apples in every organization, but the vast majority of regular museum and tourist railroaders do all that stuff every day they are there.
 

litz

Trainman
Bear in mind, also ... the public face might say "Train crew opportunities are very rare" ...

But trust me - the train crews are watching. They're looking for that younger guy they can bring into the fold, since at most museums the crews are folder folks.

But they're gonna pick the younger guy they figure will stick around for a while - doesn't do to invest the time and training if the guy runs 5 trips and flakes.

- litz
 

Beverlyhelper

beverlyhelper
Glad to see this sparked a little discussion! Yes, I know there are some rail museums around that don't have the best protocol for welcoming volunteers, but on the other hand, if you don't ask, they can't say "no!";) Go check 'em out yourself...
 

Tacoma Tom

New Member
I volunteer at the Colorado railroad museum and usually work restoring locomotives and cars which involves lots of paint sanding,fabrication,and rust removal. I have been a mechanic since high school and it is what I love doing. I frankly could care less about train operations including Engineer or Conductor. If going around in circles all day at 5 MPH is your thing have a good time. I get more satisfaction knowing I took a rusty piece of junk that had been sitting for 30 and restored it to a shining diamond.

If driving locomotives is your thing you can rent steam locomotives and diesel locomotives for a hour in many states. I would rather do that and skip the couple of years of labor and waiting as a volunteer at a tourist museum.
 

RickB

New Member
I'm afraid I'll have to agree with Mr. Bishop, at least concerning the specific "museum" that he referred to. Having been a member for many years, and having dumped the toilets, scraped the paint, and picked up the trash, he's pretty much spot on. This particular group has lost a LOT of talented, helpful people due to the attitude of the ruling elite. You have to let the volunteers "play" at least a little, or there's very little incentive to go back and do the grunt work. And Mr. Bishop's comment about living there is pretty much correct, also. Unfortunately, not all of us are un-employed, on welfare, or retired. If you are one of those, and you're there every day, you'll move up fast, otherwise, good luck. A good example of this is shown in the photo that Mr. Bishop posted the link to. We (I'm in the yellow rainsuit) put up all these federally mandated crossing signs. The powers that be didn't think we needed to follow what the Fed's said, and pretty much ignored any work we did. Even just a "Thank you" would have been nice.

-Rick Beaber
 

Beverlyhelper

beverlyhelper
Where to Volunteer

I'm afraid I'll have to agree with Mr. Bishop, at least concerning the specific "museum" that he referred to.

-Rick Beaber
Ya, I've heard that too regarding that "specific" museum. Go up to Mt. Rainier Scenic or NW Railway Museum in Snoqualmie, and I think folks will get a much different reception. I KNOW you will if you volunteer for Cascade Rail Foundation in South Cle Elum! ;-) Of course, they're not operating equipment, but it's a fun group, nonetheless.
 

p51

Marty, it runs on steam!
As for P51, I'm sorry you felt you didn't get the kind of red carpet you expected, but you can knock that attitude off right now. Those people in the cab or on board? 95% of them are out there busting their *** doing all those regular, boring, and sometimes downright nasty jobs that you feel you shouldn't have to do. Including things like dumping a toilet tank into a septic, vacuuming cars, fetching furniture, cleaning windows, track maintenance, brushing, etc.... There might be some operations where theres an attitude problem and an elite/peon attitude, and there are bad apples in every organization, but the vast majority of regular museum and tourist railroaders do all that stuff every day they are there.
You really should have taken the time to READ my post before making your juvenile comment.
I don't expect these operations to kiss my feet and push me into the cab on the first day, but they're insane if they think they're going to get people to help out with a sales pitch like that.
If people like working on track or sanding paint down, then they’ll be happy almost everywhere they go because most (if not all) museums would be happy for the help. Being in the cab isn’t for everyone and I hardly look down upon those who don’t aspire to that, but to think track work is the majority dream for volunteers is very short sighted. Most people I’m certain have dreams of being in the cab. Sure, they should work their way there, but when in cases when it’s made clear that isn’t going to happen under any circumstances, the museums shouldn’t gripe when they never get any new volunteers.
My issue is about when an operation has an entrenched set of people who tell you in no uncertain terms that you WILL NOT ever be handling or even around moving equipment at any point in the future no matter how hard you work (which happened to me on two occasions). I’m sorry that comes across as an “attitude” to the more infantile here, if I decided to go do something else. I’m surprised that nobody brought up the article in Trains about a year ago (sorry, don’t recall the specific issue but I have it around here somewhere) where it talked about volunteers and how making people scrape paint or pull ties until they’re fed up simply isn’t the way for a tourist operation or museum to handle things anymore. There were a lot of good thoughts in that article if you can find it.
 

Youngwarrior

Youngwarrior
I don't know what they are like now, but the Yakima Trolley Association people weren't elitist. I volunteered there the summer of 1992. I flagged for the trolleys, checked tickets, and even operated as a trainee motorman.
 

firebox

New Member
I volunteer at a local RR museum and yes I have done most of the dirty jobs. Before I retired, I was a manufacturing engineer. At the museum, I don't have to worry about budgets, processes, tool design and application, planning, etc, etc, etc. I just go there to help the museum meet planned goals by prviding my labor in the shop. The increment that I add is small, but satisfying. I used to work track, but I am older now, however can always find a job that fits my physical abilities. Years ago I trained for car movment and perhaps it would have worked into train crew, but I couldn't commit the time so never ventured behind the throttle. If I wanted to do mental gymnastics I would stay home and study string theory.
 

DE&G05

New Member
My first post.

This is my first post on RailroadForums.com and I want to thank those who started this forum and those who contribute to it for all the valuable information shared through this channel. I'm especially interested in small railroad museums and the challenges they face. In response to P51, I'd like to share these two thoughts. First, in my own experience volunteering with several of these organizations, museums run by "the elite" aren't museums at all - they're more like country clubs. They exist more to serve the members than their communities. In particular, museums founded by one person or a small group of individuals can easily view the museum as "theirs" and will seldom care about the contributions of volunteers except as they are needed to make sure the doors to "their museum" stay open. I recently had the misfortune of trying to help such a museum see the need for strategic planning, only to be told in no uncertain terms my help wasn't wanted or appreciated. Needless to say, I shook the dust off my feet and went on down the road. It's very unfortunate when such a museum fails to value its volunteers and it usually means that museum is doomed to eventual failure. Second, and more to the point, museum leadership that wants to control its membership in order to make sure the favored few remain in authority usually have no idea how to effectively use or reward their volunteers; hence they end up having a critical lack of help even though they are constantly pleading for it. There is no easy answer to helping that museum's leadership see the correct solution. Nor is there any way the average volunteer can bring about a change in the leadership's attitude and practices. The best choice for the volunteer may be to find a museum that has its act together, that values volunteer labor and is able to match the volunteer with the type of work best suited to his or her talents and availability. Bottom line - Don't give up until you find such a place to make your much needed contribution!
 




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