Profile: Despite furloughs, Gentles couldn’t shake her passion for railroading

Stefanie Gentles: “Anyone who’s ever railroaded for any length of time knows that it gets in your blood.” Photo provided courtesy of Stefanie Gentles

Eight years ago, Stefanie Gentles applied for a railroad job because she needed to make a good living with decent benefits.

She had no experience as a railroader, nor did she know anyone in the industry. But after her husband lost his job following a workplace accident that left him disabled, Gentles had to find a more lucrative position to support him and their two children. At the time, she worked in transportation logistics at the same pharmaceutical company her husband had worked for.

She began applying for positions online and was invited to a Union Pacific Railroad hiring event, where she was one of two women in the group of job candidates. The recruiter was blunt about what the 24/7, 365-days-a-year rail job would mean for one’s personal life: being away from home for long periods, missing time with children, and working at all hours and often under harsh conditions. 

By the interview’s end, the other female candidate dropped out of consideration. But not Gentles.

“I had a few friends that left the pharmaceutical company to be railroaders years before, but I had no idea what they did, what a conductor was or what an engineer was — I just knew I had to make more money because my husband no longer had an income,” Gentles says. “I’d go any place that would hire me. When Union Pacific called, I went to the interview, and miraculously, they hired me.”

She quit the pharmaceutical company and entered 18 weeks of training to become a conductor. It didn’t take long for Gentles to fall in love with the craft.

“I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to learn a new skill and a trade,” she says.

Today, Gentles, 42, is superintendent of rail operations at the Watco Osceola Marine Terminal in Arkansas. She recently took some time after an afternoon shift to chat with RailPrime about her path to — and passion for — railroading. 

Making contacts (and friends)

Getting to where she is now wasn’t a sure thing. Shortly after completing her conductor training at UP, she went through a series of furloughs. During those times, Gentles took on all sorts of jobs — housekeeping, office cleaning and dog-sitting. She earned a real estate license to become a broker in the state of Illinois, a job she still holds part time.

Despite all that, her desire to be a railroader never waned. After receiving her final furlough at UP, she called a friend who was a dispatcher for the Class I. The friend recommended Gentles look into railroad contracting and shared a few contacts. 

“He said, ‘UP gave you a conductor certificate, which you carry in your wallet. You can go out there and work on any railroad and they will license you. You need to put your boots on and go to work, kid’,” she recalls.

Gentles soon signed on with a contracting company as a traveling conductor; one of her first jobs was with Watco at the Bayway Refinery in Linden, New Jersey. It was there that she “learned how to be a railroader,” she says.

Gentles loves to chat, and on each job made new contacts and friends. After a few years of traveling all over the country, a friend in Osceola, Arkansas, told her the Watco Osceola Marine Terminal — just three hours from her home in Mount Vernon, Illinois — needed conductors. Gentles got on the phone with the terminal manager there, and soon was offered a permanent job as a member of Watco’s “Go Team.” The job turned into a rail coordinator position, and a few weeks ago Watco promoted her to superintendent of rail operations at the Osceola terminal.

“This is my first promotion into the leadership management role, and I think I bring a lot to table because I’ve stood so much time on the ground as a conductor,” says Gentles. “I would never ask my people to do anything out there that I wouldn’t do, and all the knowledge I’ve gained — through Union Pacific, through contracting and traveling — I can bring into these facilities.”

When she spoke with RailPrime, Gentles had been in her new position for about a week. She’s happy to have found a permanent home in railroading, especially one that’s closer to her family’s home in Illinois. Her husband Joe, who’s taken care of the household for the past eight years, and their children — a son, now 19, and daughter, now 13 — remain supportive of her railroad career, she says.

Railroading 'gets in your blood'

Although she’s the only woman on her current team and has often been the only woman on a rail job site, she doesn’t view herself as a role model for women in rail. Rather, she views herself as someone who needed to earn money so her family could live comfortably. She just happened to discover a line of work she loves.

“I think anyone who’s ever railroaded for any length of time knows that it gets in your blood,” she says. “It becomes a lifestyle, a part of who you are. I’m a railroader, and that’s how I introduce myself to people. I don’t like to be in the office or sit at a desk. I love to be out there switching cars.”

As for encouraging others to become railroad conductors or engineers, Gentles recommends they get their first job at a short line.

“The Class I money might not be there, but if you [start at] a Class I you’d better have a side hustle because you’re going to get laid off,” she cautions.

Looking ahead, Gentles hopes to become even more involved in the industry’s safety practices.

“Rail safety is so important: It’s life or death out there. If you get hurt it’s a miracle that you don’t die,” she says. “There are tons of safety aspects, and the more I traveled in the industry, the more I learned the different language that goes with each part of the country. Every rail facility has its own language, and someday I’d love to be in a position where I can bring all that together.”