Tina Watkins: First African American Locomotive Engineer Retires
By Dianne Anderson
Professionally speaking, a locomotive engineer is not exactly like a doctor, but the hours are kind of close, and so is the pay.
Tina Watkins retired her seat on the BNSF cab recently in a field that has served her well as a single mom, although the past three decades was not without its strong level of commitment.
When called to report to work, she had just enough time to get ready, get to the location, jump on the train, and work 12-hour shifts.
“I was on call for 25 years,” she said. “They’d say, ‘This train is ready to go in San Bernardino, I need you on it at this time.’ They give you an hour and a half to get there.”
By law, workers are required eleven and half hours rest, but she said 12-hour workdays on the train are the norm. The third shift schedule was rough, but better daytime shifts came with seniority.
The trains roll out of San Bernardino to San Diego, Los Angeles, Needles, and Barstow. At the end of the line, they got a room at designated hotels. It was a sacrifice, but she said the pay, benefits and a decent retirement package was worth it.
“You’re definitely working for it. That’s where the pride comes in at the end of the day,” she said. “It allowed me to raise my family. My kids are grown and they’re all successful. I did a lot of negotiating.”
Watkins, who had served eight years in the Air Force prior to working on the railroad, completed eight months training before starting as the first African American female locomotive engineer in 1990. The field is still wide open, she said, and like everywhere else, racism comes with the job.
But, it wasn’t blatant, and it was nothing that she couldn’t handle.
“Of course, we’re going to have racism. I believe our counterparts are given second chances that we’re not, without a doubt,” she said.
As a locomotive engineer, she ran the freight trains, operating controls for speed, and stops, and picking up cars. Back when she started, there were only three Black male engineers. Today, to her knowledge, there about five Black males, and three Black female engineers.
“There is a lot of catching up to do. They’re working on it,” she said. “Thirty years later.”
At the same time, she feels African Americans could make more of the opportunity. She has told everyone in her family and extended circle, but no one has taken her up on the offer to join the railroad.
African American conductors outnumber engineers, but engineering is more demanding. Conductors handle all the paperwork and make sure the train gets to its destination with cargo properly documented and loaded.
“It’s not rocket science, I applied and I got the position. I don’t think I did anything different from anyone else that would walk into the office,” she said.
The train rolls nonstop 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Now, with several recent retirees, there are vacancies. As a career choice, she said train engineering is a premier blue-collar job with $80,000 as a base pay, with top pay from $120,000 to $135,000 a year.
Not a bad paycheck.
“Some of them make as much as dentists do, and [dentists] go to college forever,” she said.
Women in the field also get respect. They work as hard as the men, and although it is a traditionally male-dominated field, she personally never had problems. If there were complaints from other women, issues were handled promptly.
“But I was in the military. To me, it’s how you carry yourself. I’ve never been sexually harassed, and nobody has ever been racist to my face,” she said.
Now that she’s retired, she thinks she may volunteer after she takes a break. She wouldn’t mind mentoring. She may also travel a bit by train, but says that too has its limits.
Recently, she took the Metrolink. It turns out she may be a bit of a backseat driver.
“I kept hitting my head on the window because I was trying to see what that guy [the engineer] was doing,” she laughs.