University of New Orleans student Carrie DeMers Donchez started working for Norfolk Southern as a conductor at the urging of her father, who worked as a mechanic for the rail company. She approached the job with a practical eye, not an arched brow intent on making her mark in the male-dominated industry.
Women make up less than 10 percent of the Class I railroad workforce, according to industry reports. Railroad companies are divided into classes, with Class I being the largest, based on the amount of revenue generated. Norfolk Southern (NS) is one of seven Class I rail companies in the U.S.
“I needed health insurance,” Donchez said, with a shrug in her voice. “They offered pretty good insurance and benefits.”
Almost 20 years later, Donchez is, nevertheless, making her mark. As a Norfolk Southern yardmaster based in New Orleans, Donchez is responsible—literally—for keeping the trains running on the tracks and helping to efficiently deliver boxcars filled with consumer and industrial goods all across the U.S.
“I manage all aspects of rail operations, so it would be very similar to that of an air traffic controller, just in the train world,” said Donchez, who is pursuing a master’s degree in transportation at the University of New Orleans. “It can be an extremely high-stress job. You learn to manage it over time.”
In addition to managing trains on NS tracks, part of Donchez’ job is collaborating with the city’s other Class I rail companies and the passenger train Amtrak to schedule access to the nation’s fourth-largest rail gateway, the New Orleans Rail Gateway.
The gateway is critical in the national freight rail system and provides access to Mexican and Canadian markets.
The other Class I railroads include Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, Canadian National, CSX, Kansas City Southern Railway and Union Pacific.
“You have to collaborate with everyone who has a different agenda than you and you have to make it all fit and work,” said Donchez, who earned a bachelor’s degree in logistics. “We all know it’s hard and for us to be able to make it work, despite the difficulties, it’s extremely self-satisfying.”
In May, Donchez was recognized as an influential leader by industry magazine Railway Age for her work at Norfolk Southern and as the union chair of the Local 1972 of the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART-TD).
In her nomination for leadership recognition, Donchez’s skills as a team builder and advocate were cited. An NS superintendent in Alabama applauded Donchez for facilitating a more efficient interchange between NS and connecting railroads on traffic originating and terminating in New Orleans.
In her union leadership roles, Donchez was praised for collaborating with others to reduce friction between labor and management on quality-of-life issues, in the handling of discipline cases and in pressing for increased yard security following a yard-trespasser attack on a conductor.
In addition to helping decide the order of trains that use NS tracks to head to the gateway, Donchez also must ensure that there’s room to house the freight trains that come into the rail yard—and take care of any mechanical issue that might arise.
“It definitely takes a certain type of personality,” Donchez said. “You have to have high emotional intelligence. You have to because you’re going to be blamed for everything. And, you’ve got to be like, ‘whatever’ and just move on. People are going to be rude to you and you have to be assertive.”
Donchez, who grew up in St. Bernard Parish and now lives in Slidell, said she’s seen improvement in the rail industry, in terms of diversity, since she started.
“It’s not as bad as it was 20 years ago; (co-workers) are more accepting,” Donchez said. “I did not break the glass ceiling by any means, but I did try to excel and, in the process, I started earning the trust of my co-workers.
“I did it because people told me I couldn’t; that’s just my personality.”
From her watchtower, which oversees the New Orleans rail yard, Donchez track trains via GPS, satellite and sensors on the rails. In a typical 12-hour shift, she creates and manages a traffic schedule that includes, on average,16 trains that are going in multiple directions, but also must keep an eye on what is headed to the rail yard.
“So you’re looking at eight hours later—what’s coming, how can I arrange traffic so I have room?” Donchez said. “You’re always working ahead of what’s happening.”
The NS network spans approximately 19,500 route miles in 22 states and Washington, D.C. Connections with rail and trucking partners enable NS to ship goods to the west coast, Canada and Mexico. Types of cargo shipped include agriculture, automobiles, clothes, coal, electronics, furniture, lumber, machinery and paper, according to the NS website.
Donchez laughs when asked if she’s ever “driven” a train. It’s an inside rail industry joke.
“We all chuckle when people say ‘drive a train,’” Donchez said. “Driving is kind of like having a wheel, and we don’t have a wheel. I have operated a train before; we call it operating or ‘running.’’’
She is not qualified to run a train; one has to be trained and certified for that. However, as part of her training, she learned the basics, particularly the art of stopping a vehicle equipped with a 4,000-horsepower engine and carrying between 12,000 to 20,000 tons of cargo.
For comparison, a typical car has a 150-horsepower engine and weighs about 2 tons.
One loaded boxcar behind a train’s engine can weigh over 150 to 200 tons, Donchez said. Some trains are hauling dozens of such boxcars.
“The whole idea of operating a train is learning to stop or reducing your speed when you need to,” Donchez said. “You’re concentrating on learning how to stop with a lot of tonnage behind you, pushing you. You have three different brakes and you learn how to use those brakes to efficiently stop.”
Donchez is not sure what her next career move will be once she graduates. She would like to explore more options in the rail industry, Donchez said.
“I want to branch out,” she said. “I enjoy writing case studies from the railroad. Maybe I’ll be an analyst or something.”