Jim Melone gazes down the railroad track beside the Essex Junction depot, his eyes peeled for the shimmering headlight of the 8:58 a.m. Amtrak train out of St. Albans. Though Melone isn’t going anywhere himself, he rocks anxiously on the balls of his feet like an expectant father. The southbound Vermonter is only running four minutes late. Still, as the Essex Junction station master, Melone apologizes profusely to the 50 or so waiting passengers as though he personally caused the delay.
“When I spoke to the previous station master, the reason he gave was ‘Issues with the train,’” Melone explains. “That can cover a multitude of sins.”
Melone has been the Essex Junction station master for about five years. Several days each week, he opens the booth for two hours in the morning and two hours at night, mops the floors, answers the phones, collects lost items and calls in the arrival and departure times to a dispatcher in Boston. Though Amtrak ridership is increasing in Vermont, Melone doesn’t even sell tickets here — that’s all done online or over the phone.
Melone describes himself self-deprecatingly as “a glorified janitor,” but it’s clear he loves his job. He’s that rare breed of civil servant who works out of a sense of vocation — in Melone’s case, a passion for railroading.
In fact, Melone spent much of his life as a public servant. He’s worked for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the IRS and the U.S. Mail. But his love of riding the rails blossomed during his stint in the service.
“When I was in the military, my ‘rich uncle’ — Uncle Sam, that is — would ship me everywhere,” he says, dropping his Rs like a native New Englander. Melone has traveled by rail through much of the United States — across Georgia, Texas and Arizona, along the Great Lakes on the old New York Central, and up the West Coast on the California Zephyr en route to Vietnam in the 1960s.
Melone doesn’t wear a uniform anymore — technically, he’s an independent contractor for Amtrak — but he still dresses the part. On the day we meet, he sports an Amtrak cap with a crossing gate pin on it, a white button-down shirt and a maroon tie with a locomotive motif. The only thing missing is a pocket watch.
At 9:10, the train whistle sounds at a nearby crossing, the gates come down and the passengers gather their things. Melone tells them exactly where they’ll board — and sure enough, the train hits its mark.
After the train departs, Melone phones in the passenger figures and departure times to the next station down the line. Next, he patrols the area for lost items. Occasionally, Melone says, he’ll find personal items such as jackets, purses and cellphones, which he endeavors to return to their rightful owners.
“So, you look through a cellphone and all you find is ‘Mom and Dad’ in there,” he explains. “So you call up and say, ‘Hi, Mom. You don’t know me, but I’m the Amtrak agent in Essex Junction, Vermont. Do you have a son or daughter traveling the area?’ That’s a rewarding day.”
SEVEN DAYS: Has your job changed much over time?
JIM MELONE: It’s stayed pretty much constant. The only thing that’s changed is that we’ve all become more experienced in handling problems that come up. The first major crisis I had was when a person got off here and . . . she was from Europe. Over there, the trains all run on time. So, when the train says it’ll be in Stuttgart, Germany, at 8:44 p.m., the conductor doesn’t tell you when to get off. If it’s 8:44 p.m. and the train stops, you get off.
So, when the train stopped at 8:44, it was supposed to be in St. Albans, so this woman got off in Essex Junction. How do we handle it? She had a connection to make in Montréal. Now we’ve got to find a taxi to take her there. Who’s going to pay for it? Can we hold the connecting bus up there? Once you get through that crisis the first time, the second time is easy.
SD: What’s the most common problem you encounter?
JM: In the morning, people who miss the train. Fortunately, no one did this morning. I have four different back-up plans: Wait until tomorrow; send them down to Vermont Transit, which has a later bus. We can also send them across the lake on the Champlain Ferry and catch the Adirondack out of Fort Henry. Or they can rent a car.
SD: Besides taking care of the station and passengers, what else do you do?
JM: I always do the roll-by inspection. It goes back to the antiquity of railroading, when all the employees were expected to watch the train as it went by looking for anything unusual, like dragging equipment, something projecting or bearings overheating. Today, modern detectors look for all that, but I still do it.
SD: Have there been many accidents here?
JM: About a year and a half ago, someone lost a leg out there. They got run over by a freight train. For the longest time, you could still see the blood stain on the rails . . . ’Course, the one nobody ever forgets was the wreck of the Montréaler. I think it was in 1984. I wasn’t even in the state at the time. That’s the one where the beavers caused the flood and washed out the track.
SD: What’s the hardest part of your job?
JM: When somebody comes in here and doesn’t know where they’re going. Basically, they will leave a message on an answering machine, and they’ll never talk to a real person and say, “Will you meet me?” Then they get up here and the person isn’t here. Then things can go downhill real fast. The question becomes, do you know where they live? Surprisingly enough, they’ll often say no. “Do you have money to stay in a hotel tonight?” — and the answer is no. Then it gets really, really difficult.
SD: Sounds like you feel personally responsible for making sure everyone is accounted for.
JM: It gets a little tricky. At 10 o’clock at night, we’re the last place open on the street. We’re right here in the main business district, but there’s nothing else. The only other place that’s open is the Lincoln Inn. So basically, someone who’s here is without any support facilities. So, do you chew up all your change in the payphone? If you need to use the restroom, there’s nothing out here. If it’s the middle of winter and there’s a 30-mile-per-hour wind and it’s freezing, where are you going to stay? We try to get them somewhere with shelter.
SD: What’s the best part of your job?
JM: Getting everyone on their way and off safely. We get people from lots of other places — Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Africa, the Pacific Rim. I always think to myself, What was it like when I didn’t know how to navigate around? I remember when I was in Germany and didn’t know the language and didn’t know the culture. I had the hardest time trying to pronounce Zuffenhausen. Some German teenager helped me out. ’Course, they consider it a mark of education to speak two different languages. So I try to remember that to help people get on their way.
Name: Jim Melone
Occupation: Station Master
Location: Essex Junction