The On-Line Magazine of Rideable Model Railroading

  NUMBER 173


© June 17, 2011   

 ©Discover Live Steam. This material may not be published, rewritten, or redistributed without written permission.

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"My Brother's the Conductor,
I'm Just the Brakeman"


 Written  by Mike and Jim O'Connor

We recently had the pleasure of meeting two unique members of Union Pacific's steam excursion crew: brothers Jim and Kevin Coker, while on UP's "You Route the Steam" trip from St. Louis to Little Rock.  On this day, conductor Jim Coker was celebrating the 40th anniversary of his employment with the Union Pacific.

We asked Jim how he ended up on UP's steam train.  Jim told us, "I was a freight conductor for 38 years prior to this.  The previous conductor from the "steam crew", Reed Jackson, had passed away."  Jim continued, "The head of the program at the time, Steve Lee, called me up and asked if I'd like to come over and be the full-time conductor on the steam operations. It was a no-brainer!" Coker said.  "Then the program head asked me to join them on a trip to Denver to see if I liked it."   Jim told him, "I can already tell you that I'm going to like it!".

It's been a great ride," Coker continued. "In the past, the only member of the crew with a conductor's uniform was the conductor. "But now Jim Leonard, Kevin Coker, and Darwin Brown are all in uniform.  It puts much more of a positive image on the program with everybody in uniform, it adds professionalism."

Cindy Acosta photo

I asked Jim, "We met Kevin Coker, your brother.  How is it working with him?" “Oh, it's great! Easy, very easy. He's got 36 years as a conductor, and he knows his job well. He's a very good employee, and it's just a natural fit," Jim told us. 

Later, we caught up with Jim's brother, Kevin Coker.  Kevin is the train's brakeman.  Kevin is proud of his brother Jim.  He told us, “Today is my brother Jim's 40th anniversary with the Union Pacific Railroad; I've been out here 36 years. Jim took the full-time steam position a couple of years ago. He was a Wyoming Operation Lifesaver coordinator. He and his wife have volunteered for everything since the day he was hired - the employees club or anything to do with Union Pacific. Both of our grandfathers worked there [Union Pacific], my dad for 42 years, and my brother's son has been out here for 10 years as a signalman."

Conductor Jim Coker taking a rare moment to review the Little Rock Express' schedule for the day.

"What did your grandfathers do?" we asked.   “One was a switchman, one was a fireman/hostler [a hostler moved locomotives in the yard]. So, at a young age, we were around trains and I learned to love them early on. Upon graduation from high school in 1975, the personnel man from Union Pacific asked me what my future plans were and, at that time, I was going to get into law enforcement. He asked me how I felt about hiring out switching to put myself through college. And of course, I said yes, and I did my grandfather's job. I got on my first train ride at Cheyenne, Wyoming in that year. I decided I always have a love for law enforcement, but this was going to be my career. Anyway, when Jim was given this job as a steam conductor, he told me there may be a time or two when he could use me as his brakeman. So, it came a time when the previous brakeman had a vacation planned, so he took vacation and I got invited on some trips. And then Darwin Brown retired last year in December, and I'm over here now as a full-time brakeman, and I'll be here until they kick me out, or Jim retires, whichever comes first.”  

"Do you enjoy your job, Kevin?"   “Buddy, I've liked my job since I hired out on July 20th, 1975. There are times I'd rather be home with my wife, but you know, no matter what, you grin and bear it, and you head off to work. It's a rewarding feeling getting freight from point A to B, everybody safe, delivered safe, get your rest, come back home, and they pay us very well, good benefits, and I wouldn't have wanted to do anything else these last 36 years, that's how I feel. I'm a very lucky man. If you're going to take up railroading, you've got to have a lot of patience, and our parents and grandparents instilled that to us early on. As long as you have that, you'll be just fine. With all of the traffic, sometimes we don't move very fast. Other times, you have fast trips. But you just figure 12 hours, anything less is --- for that particular run, that's the best way to feel about it, in my opinion. And getting to come over here on the steam train, meeting folks like yourself, your son, Skip and Cindy, it's just a bonus. Riding freight trains is great, but when you get to be around this equipment, the passengers, that's just a step up. I'm glad Union Pacific had a vision to keep this alive, and give us all a chance to ride it.”

Often, Kevin sheds his jacket vest and tie in favor of his regular working outfit of safety shoes and high visibility reflective tee as he performs his other brakeman duties.

“My wife wasn't excited about me coming out here and being gone away from home for almost 3 weeks at a time on these long trips. But I told her, back in the early days, Jim and I were brakemen together on the turn when there was a conductor, two brakemen, and an engineer.  I told [my wife], I cannot pass this opportunity up, it comes once in a lifetime. I thought I'd never get to work with Jim again before we retired.  I said, I cannot and will not pass this up.”

"So, you think a lot of your brother then?"   “Of course I do. I've got two great brothers and we've always been a tight family. Whenever anyone on this train asks me 'What's the brakeman's job?', I say 'The same job I've had for 54 years, whatever Jim tells me to do." 

Kevin is proud of his brother Jim.  You can hear it in his voice when folks would ask, "Are you the conductor?"  He'd always answer, "No, Ma'am, my brother's the conductor. I'm just the brakeman".

Brakeman Kevin Coker on the platform of the business car "Feather River" aboard the "Little Rock Express". Cindy Acosta photo

You may also want to read our Trip Blog from the "Little Rock Express".

Read the article about Business Cars and the "Little Rock Express" from the Wall Street Journal.




Written  by Mike and Jim O'Connor
photos by Cindy Acosta and Jim O'Connor

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