Running at Speed

Locomotive Engineer Sarah Schmidt is unstoppable

Growing up in South St. Paul, Sarah Schmidt, a graduate of the DCTC Railroad Conductor Technology program, took on trouble at every turn. She jumped track in the ninth grade and left school behind with her world apparently highballing out of control.

“I was 18 years old when I turned my life around,” Schmidt remembered. “I got my GED and landed a job at Northwest Airlines as a customer service agent.”Sarah Schmidt | Railroad Conductor Technology grad | Union Pacific locomotive engineer & conductor

Schmidt, now 37, found a home at Northwest for 13 years, loading aircraft and working her way up the seniority list. The 9/11 terrorist attacks upended everything, destabilizing the airline industry and eventually persuading Schmidt to search out a career path with the job security she needed to help support a family with three children.

In 2005, she checked out the newly launched RRCT program (she’s one of the first graduates) and liked what she saw. Working for a railroad had never crossed her mind, but she soon learned that conductors make great money and she was, after all, used to working with big machines—a Boeing 747 has a max takeoff weight topping 900,000 pounds.

“I never knew you had to acquire so much knowledge to work for a railroad,” she said. “The DCTC program gives you the foundation you need to survive the hiring process and get a well-paying job in a growing industry.”

“Union Pacific Railroad has been a fantastic partner. Not only do they hire a significant number of DCTC grads, they also donate thousands of dollars in scholarships for women, minorities and veterans in our Railroad Conductor Technology program. Furthermore, UP schedules training and hiring sessions at DCTC.” — Larry Raddatz, DCTC Customized Training Director of Manufacturing and Railroad

After seven weeks of instructional training and field exercises using the college’s on-campus operational rail yard, Schmidt was ready for an eight-week off-campus internship with a railroad. She quickly found a job as a conductor with Union Pacific, the largest railroad in North America, fielding more than 43,500 employees with annual payroll of  $3.6 billion. Union Pacific operates 8,200 locomotives and maintains more than 32,000 route miles in 23 states in the western two thirds of the U.S. Capital spending from 2006 (the year Schmidt started at UP) through 2009 was a whopping $11.3 billion.

Sarah Schmidt | Railroad Conductor Technology grad | Union Pacific locomotive engineer & conductorToday, Schmidt is not only a conductor with Union Pacific, but she has also been promoted to locomotive engineer with a Class 1 license. Moreover, she’s pursuing a business management degree online at Minnesota State University Moorhead with her sights set on a UP management role focused on safety.

“Safety is so important,” she said. “Everything you do has to be done one hundred and ten percent with your full attention. You are always listening and observing. Your situational awareness has to be three hundred and sixty degrees. You need to know what’s moving all the time.”

Union Pacific Railroad made Fortune magazine’s 2011 World’s Most Admired list as the most admired company among trucking, transportation and logistics companies. Fortune ranked Union Pacific number one in seven out of nine key reputation attributes:

  • People management
  • Use of corporate assets
  • Social responsibility
  • Quality of management
  • Financial soundness
  • Long-term investment
  • Quality of products/service

Besides the camaraderie she shares with her mostly male coworkers, what makes Schmidt most happy about her job is the chance to work outdoors in all weather conditions. She loves that fact that her job is packed each and every day with variety and lots of exercise.

“I like to get out and physically do things like buckling hoses, tying brakes and putting my cars together—and doing it the right way so you don’t get hurt,” said Schmidt, who works the round-trip run from Itasca to South St. Paul as well as the Itasca to Wisconsin Rapids run. “Every day is different. I really like to leave the yard and get out on the road. You’re always alert, always on the lookout for any change, always watching out for your coworkers. Things can change in a minute.”

Sarah Schmidt | Railroad Conductor Technology grad | Union Pacific locomotive engineer & conductor

Don Spano, an RRCT instructor at DCTC, is proud of Schmidt’s performance on the job. “Sarah took what she learned in our program and made the absolute most of it,” Spano said. “Like Sarah, students will be amazed by how much they’ll learn in a short period of time. As a graduate of our program, you will be equipped with skills and knowledge that are in high demand. Employers make sure that the résumés of our graduates end up at the top of the applicant pile.”

Eric Schwendeman, manager of road operations at the UP Itasca terminal and Schmidt’s direct supervisor, considers Schmidt one of his top employees. “We think the world of Sarah at Union Pacific,” Schwendeman said. “She’s smart, dependable and a great role model for other women looking to work in the railroad industry.”

As a locomotive engineer, Sarah Schmidt is most fond of the General Electric AC4400CW, the same 4,400 horsepower diesel-electric locomotive that was used in the movie Unstoppable. Fifteen feet tall, 73 feet long and weighing in at 445,000 pounds, the AC4400 is praised throughout the industry as a monster freight hauler, especially in heavy-haul applications.

Joe Caffin, the director of train operations, or DTO, at the UP St. Paul terminal, welcomes graduates from the RRCT program. “The railroad business in St. Paul is growing,” Caffin said. “We are anticipating hiring more conductors. The DCTC program is a benefit to Union Pacific. The program gives students a head start in the training process by teaching them their role on the railroad. Our partnership with DCTC is a great example of how community and Union Pacific work together.”

Sarah Schmidt | Railroad Conductor Technology grad | Union Pacific locomotive engineer & conductorSarah Schmidt lives on Forest Lake in Forest Lake, Minn., with her husband, Scott, along with two of the couple’s three children, Austin, 13, and Anthony, 10, plus a 2-year-old chocolate lab named Indy. Daughter, Ashley, 21, is pursuing a career in the veterinary field. The family also has a home on Lake Magmore in Clayton, Wis. They like outdoor activities, including snowmobiling, boating and riding on Jet Skis.

“My mother always said, ‘Sarah, you surprised me,’” Schmidt said with a smile. “But I’m determined and willing to try anything and I knew I could do it. The Railroad Conductor Technology program at DCTC allowed me to find a career I love.”

For more information about the Railroad Conductor Technology program, contact:

Sarah Schmidt | Railroad Conductor Technology grad | Union Pacific locomotive engineer & conductor

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