“What drives me every day is working with the people, putting time into the people, and getting to understand how they work and how we can benefit from it.”
A gentle snow is falling as Aisha Jackson job-briefs two crews for departing trains on the CP depot platform at Portage, Wis. At this point in January, the winter has been mild, but forecasters are calling for up to a foot of snow in parts of southern Wisconsin that night, and Jackson wants to talk about slip hazards. Within minutes, the crews she’s speaking with will board trains 286 and 199 to advance them to Bensenville, Ill., and St. Paul, Minn., respectively. Jackson’s hope is that they’ll carry the safety discussion with them across their tours of duty.
“Everyone will tell you here, my last words to everybody are always: Be safe,” Jackson said. “I worked in the construction field before this, so I have seen where people can get complacent and things can happen.”
CP is Jackson’s third railway. In her home town of Chicago, she worked in CSX’s engineering office and as a dispatcher for Amtrak. Her move to CP, originally as an assistant trainmaster at Bensenville, came after some research.
“I wanted more of a challenge,” she recalls. “So I Googled a couple of Class 1 railroads, and CP caught my eye because there was more opportunity to move up.” It took her just six months to do that, accepting the promotion to trainmaster in February 2016.
Bensenville is a key point on the network, where unit trains and blocks of manifest cars connect to and from foreign railways, and manifest trains originate for U.S. and Canadian destinations, all while Metra commuter trains zip by. At any time, six or seven trainmasters work in shifts at the Bensenville office choreographing it all. Their successes and failures on any day can have ripple effects across the CP network.
“When I came to Bensenville, I had to be face-to-face with the employees. In order to understand them, I had to be relatable,” said Jackson. “That was something new for me, because I didn’t have a lot of interaction with people in my other jobs.”
The move to Portage, which Jackson made in December 2017, brought with it many additional changes. Jackson is the only Portage-based trainmaster, so she supervises nearly 200 operations personnel. Portage is the lone base for road crews between the critical Bensenville and St. Paul terminals, a busy corridor that features Centralized Traffic Control, some stretches of double track and Amtrak passenger trains. Portage may not be as complex an operation as Bensenville, but there’s no opportunity to pass the mantle off to another trainmaster at the end of a shift. Jackson is always by her phone, ready to tackle emerging issues.
“What drives me every day is working with the people, putting time into the people and getting to understand how they work and how we can benefit from it,” said Jackson. “The guys think very highly of me. That means a lot to me, because I’ve invested a lot of time in them.” She notes the respect she’s earned from her employees matter-of-factly. It isn’t a boast, simply the reality at Portage.
“She is very nice and fair,” said Bill Becker, a Portage-based locomotive engineer. “She’s never too busy to talk and hear your concerns. Her primary focus is bringing you home safely.” Michael Strahlman, CP’s Portage-based superintendent of operations, has noticed as well. “Aisha is such an asset to our team,” said Strahlman. “Her employees respect her for the way she handles her business. Her professionalism, sense of pride and energy go a long way in getting her employees to exhibit the discretionary effort that we hope to inspire.”
While looking out for the men and women who serve the railway, Jackson also goes over and above to accommodate those serving double duty. Earlier this year, she received a Patriot Award from the National Guard after a nomination from Chris Danula, a Guardsman and Portage-based engineer. The Patriot Award reflects an individual’s efforts to support employees serving in the National Guard or Reserve through a wide-range of measures including supporting flexible schedules, time off prior to and after deployment, caring for families and granting a leave of absence if needed.
“Aisha has been extremely supportive and accommodating while I was deployed for nine months and when I have drill weekends,“ said Danula. ”She has assisted me with employee services and return to work so everything went smoothly to transition back to the railroad.”. To what does Jackson credit her success in building trust with the crews at Portage? No special recipe, she says; just an open door and a culture of accountability.
“First of all, I’ve got to hold myself accountable. Being responsible for my actions and knowing how they affect other people,” she says. “I have a very open line of communication with my employees. I encourage them to talk, especially when there may be something that I don’t see; that I might overlook. I open up the door for them to come and talk to me.”
Does she have any advice for someone starting out in the trainmaster’s role? Jackson pauses for a moment, then advises: “Be flexible. Be open with your family and have them understand that this job demands your time, and there are going to be some days where you may miss holidays, you may miss weekends, but you’re going to benefit from it in the end.”