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Archive for Friday, March 13, 1992

BACK ON THE TRAIN GANG

March 13, 1992

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— A gang has invaded eastern Kansas, but it's not the kind that law enforcement is concerned about.

This gang, which numbers more than 120 members, is not known by an intimidating name such as "Crips" or "Bloods" but is designated by a number 9001.

"We're just like a football team out here a big football team," said Cecil Martinez, supervisor of Union Pacific Railroad's steel gang No. 9001.

The gang, which is living in several customized, "bunk" railroad cars just northeast of Lawrence, currently is working near Bonner Spings as part of a 54-mile rail replacement project between Kansas City, Kan., and Topeka.

THE STEEL gang, one of only two such Union Pacific teams in the United States, annually replaces old rail in different parts of the country.

The gang is equipped with 50 to 60 pieces of heavy-duty, specialized rail replacement tools, uses its own mechanics and fuel, and lives out of specialized quarters during its work season, March through November.

The team currently is replacing one of the two sets of rails between Kansas City and Topeka to allow freight trains with more weight to travel on the route.

The $13 million rail replacement project began March 2. The gang, gradually moving westward as it takes out old track and installs the new, should be working in the Lawrence area in April, said UP spokesman Alex Tice.

The project is scheduled for completion in May.

Meanwhile, the gang has set up housing quarters in several rail cars northeast of Lawrence, near U.S. Highway 24-40 at the Douglas-Leavenworth county line.

DOZENS OF railroad cars, or "bunk cars" as they are known, have been customized to serve as apartments, a dining room, a recreation room, and even a fitness room for the gang.

Up to six workers live in each of the sleeping bunk cars.

There is no charge to workers for living in the bunk cars, Tice said.

After work, members are free to stay at the bunk cars or spend time in town. However, only about half of them have brought cars or trucks to the bunk car site in Lawrence.

The bunk cars are pulled by train to each project where the gang is working. Two cooks remain at the bunk cars while the gang is out, preparing lunches and dinners.

"They cook some really good food," Martinez said. "It's much better than staying in a motel and having to go out (to eat) every day."

The gang spends its nights at the temporary living complex, and is bused or trucked to and from the work site.

ON THURSDAY in Bonner Springs, the gang was putting in a typical day.

Workers cut and removed old rail, pushing it to one side for pickup later by a rail train.

The new rail is installed by the gang in quarter-mile sections and welded together.

Specialized machines are used to cut the rail, and to remove old spikes and metal plates under the rail that hold it in place. Other machines are used to align, heat and stretch the new rail, and pound new spikes. The rail is heated and stretched before it is attached to metal plates on railroad ties so that it will not warp during the summer months.

The gang also will replace about 20 track switches in the current project.

Some members of the gang operate the machines, while others work with sledgehammers and picks in removing old rail and replacing it with new rail.

THE GANG usually works from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. A morning meeting and 30-minute lunch break are part of the average day.

Martinez, the gang's 30-year-old supervisor, said that although much of rail replacement has become automated, work on the gang still can be tough.

"We're out here in all kinds of weather, most of the year," he said. "You've got to be a good worker and be willing to make some sacrifices. Most of these guys have a lot of pride."

The gang members, who earn $12 to $18 an hour, are from all over the country.

"Working away from your family is one of the hardest things," said Gabe Garcia, Cheyenne, Wyo., an assistant foreman who has worked on the gang eight years.

"We have long, hard days out here, this group," he said. "Some days it ain't so good, but other days it's OK. I like the action out here."

Garcia said some workers go home on the weekends, while others don't see their families except during those winter months when the gang is not working.

MARTINEZ SAID that because the gang works and lives together, members develop a family-type relationship.

"We're just like a family," he said. "Everyone is pretty close, but we have our disagreements every once in a while, too."

Suzette Morris, Winslow, Ariz., is the only female on the gang. She said some workers have shown resentment toward her, but most of her co-workers accept her.

"It's got its ups and downs," she said of being the only women in the group. "But everybody helps me out as much as they possibly can."

Morris, like many of the workers, joined the gang for the work and money.

"I was down and out on the job scene, and then I heard about this job with the railroad. I just gave it a chance and it worked out," said Morris, who started work on the gang last year.

Morris said she liked living in the converted railcars.

"IT'S NICE because I wouldn't be able to stay in a motel or some other place," she said.

Many gang workers are Native Americans from the Southwest.

"The railroad has just traditionally hired them," Martinez said. "It's a way for them to find jobs off the reservations. They're real good workers."

Ray Yzzie, a multicrane operator from Pinon, Ariz., said he only sees his family about three months out of the year. But Yzzie said the work is worth it.

"I like it," he said. "You get to see a lot of places where you haven't been before."

Mario Otegon, gang foreman from Ogden, Utah, said his most important job is keeping members of the gang happy, both on and off the rails.

"To do the kind of work we do, in all kinds of weather, it takes a special kind of person," he said. "You've got to have a big heart and a lot of pride.

"One of my main roles is keeping the men happy," he said. "If we keep the men happy, they'll want to work harder for us."

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