Slice of Life: Metra Union Pacific conductor works to ‘make every day a good day’ on train

Gordon Bowe doesn’t become personal friends with all of his passengers.

But after more than three decades of walking the aisles as a conductor on Metra trains to and from Chicago, Bowe, known by many as “Gordo,” has come to know those who ride the trains from Elburn through La Fox and Geneva, sometimes more than they may know.

“You know where they’re going to stop, and what they’re going to do,” Bowe said. “Because they do it the same way every day.”

As proof, Bowe, standing in the center vestibule of a Metra train car on a run from Chicago’s Ogilvie Transportation Center to Elburn, points down the aisle to a woman with blond hair, seated at the end of the row, her back turned to the rest of the train.

“She sits in that same seat every day,” Bowe said. “And I know she’s getting off in Geneva, because that’s where she gets off, every day.

“I just know my regulars,” he adds, with a smile and a shrug.

And then, with a cry of “Tickets, please,” Bowe is off again, down the aisle.

Bowe, 58, of Lake in the Hills, has been working the rails since he was 21, beginning with a job maintaining diesel locomotives.

From there, Bowe trained to become a conductor and transitioned into the only career he has known since, working the rails on Union Pacific lines in Chicago and its suburbs.

“They told me early on that I better decide fast if this was really for me, because it’s going to get in your blood,” he said. “And they were right.”

Bowe worked with Union Pacific freight crews until 1986, when he transitioned entirely to UP’s passenger trains.

For the last three years, Bowe has worked as a conductor on the Union Pacific West line from Elburn to Chicago. Bowe’s day begins with a 3:30 a.m. wake-up call and a ride from McHenry to Ogilvie Transportation Center, where he boards the trains to Kane County where he will work through the morning rush.

While on the trains, Bowe collects train fares and maintains safety and order on the trains. Much of his time is spent walking the center aisle of his assigned train cars, making sure everyone aboard has paid.

“I’ve got my little tricks to remember who’s paid and who hasn’t, just like every conductor,” Bowe said. “And for those who haven’t paid, usually just a good hard stare will do the job and get them reaching for their wallet.”

But Bowe has tasked himself with an additional responsibility, as well: Helping passengers enjoy their trip, no matter the purpose of their train ride. For morning commuters, that will include a cheerful greeting and smile, and perhaps a joke or two.

“I love to get them chuckling,” he said. “That’s one of my goals each day.”

On some days, the effort could include a bit of crowd control, to quiet loud mobile phone talkers or calming those whose language may grow too vulgar or whose behavior may become a bit too aggressive.

He said such incidents have become less on his trains since he eliminated night runs from his schedule, and greatly reduced the number of drunken sports fans in his care each day.

“Taking people to their sporting events is a lot less stressful than bringing them home,” Bowe said.

Despite his desire to make the train fun, Bowe still won’t allow passengers to put their feet on seats or hold the doors too long for passengers.

“If we see someone on the platform, making a real effort to catch the train, we’ll hold the door,” Bowe said. “But if they’re just lollygagging, well, we’ve got to stay on schedule.”

But in those instances in which Bowe must deliver messages passengers don’t want to hear – such as asking them to remove their feet from the seats or to hunker down for a lengthy delay because of an incident on the tracks ahead – even then he tries to take as gentle of an approach as possible.

“I try to stay sympathetic,” Bowe said. “It makes it easier for them to digest what I’m saying.”

However, times still arise when conductors must remove passengers, and in those instances, Bowe said he firms up.

“That’s the only way to do it,” he said. “As soon as the man with the badge and the cuffs shows up, everyone promises to be nice again, but we know it’s not going to last.”

In addition to his duties on the trains, Bowe also works regularly to increase train safety by speaking with children and adults throughout the region through Operation Lifesaver, a national nonprofit program working to reduce railroad-related collisions and other incidents.

Since beginning that second phase of his career, Bowe also has earned a new nickname, originally coined by his granddaughter:

“Papa Choo-choo.”

And it is that kind of familiarity that develops with everyone he meets that has kept Bowe riding the rails each day for 37 years, despite aches in his knees and the steady increase of distant commuters distracted by electronic devices.

It also has led to regular passengers bringing him treats and even photos from their weddings.

“I really enjoy people, and I try to have a good time with them, always,” Bowe said. “I try to make every day a good day on the train.”