LENOX -- There are only two directions in which a train can travel: Forward and backward.

But that doesn't mean driving one is easy.

Kevin Chittenden, a volunteer for the Berkshire Scenic Railway, took a reporter into the cab of a 1953 Diesel locomotive on Sunday to present a taste of what an engineer sees when driving a train.

The sense of power permeates the cab, even before the train is started. Chittenden, an Amtrak executive who has been a Scenic Railway volunteer for 29 years, walked the visitor through the process.

There is a dizzying array of dials and levers. The reporter points to one ominous-looking gizmo.

"What the heck is that for?" he asks Chittenden.

"Well, that turns on the windshield wipers," Chittenden said.

Volunteer Tom Delasco shows students the inner workings on the train’s engine.
Volunteer Tom Delasco shows students the inner workings on the train’s engine. (Stephanie Zollshan / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

Ah yes, the reporter said.

On Sunday, four train enthusiasts got a more intensive immersion in the world of locomotive driving. They spent the morning in a classroom instruction session, and the afternoon driving a 1953 EMD SW-8 locomotive around the train yard of the Berkshire Scenic railway as part of a unique "hands-on" experience.

"It's not an original idea," said Chittenden, one of two instructors for the program. "But most of the programs I'm aware of basically consist of riders just jumping on. The instructor says, ‘Here's the Go button, here's the brake. Have at it.' "

The instructors at the Berkshire Scenic Railway, said Chittenden, walk prospective one-day engineers through the mechanics of why and how trains start and move -- and stop.

"Part of the program is also about safety," said Tom Delasco, another instructor. "I email the participants our safety rules a week or so before the class, and we go over them in the classroom."

Delasco, like Chittenden, has been a volunteer at the Scenic Railway since it's inception 29 years ago.

The classes will run every other Sunday and prospective engineers should probably sign up for tickets soon; some of the sessions are already sold out.

The cost of this one-day class is $200.

Engineer and Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum volunteerTom Delasco climbs down from atop the engine car during Sunday’s class.
Engineer and Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum volunteerTom Delasco climbs down from atop the engine car during Sunday’s class. (Stephanie Zollshan / Berkshire Eagle Staff)
But there are no shortage of people wanting to get on board.

Travis Frieri of Adams and Ryan Trela of Windsor both admitted Sunday they signed up because they loved trains as young boys.

"I've always been interested in trains," Trela said. "This was a chance of a lifetime."

There was a father-son team in attendance, as well: Jonathan Jacobsen and his father, Bruce, both of West Springfield, and both train lovers. But Jonathan admitted that, "I like to do things with my dad. And he likes trains."

"I've been fascinated ever since I was a kid," said Bruce Jacobsen. "The chance to see what's involved with driving one was wonderful."

The elder Jacobsen added that Chittenden and Delasco "were wonderful teachers. It's nice to get the background of operating a locomotive."

The classes are intentionally small, said Chittenden, to allow more personalized instruction. Advance reservations are required. Prospective drivers must be 18 or older, have a valid driver's license and be able to physically climb into the cab, which can be a little tricky.

Candidates must also wear work clothes and heavy boots; no flip-flops allowed. And, say both instructors, be prepared to get dirty.

One of the more interesting points of the visit in the cab with Chittenden was discovering how many brakes are built into the controls. A total of four, including the last-resort, always-in-the-movies "dead man's brake."

"An engineer has to keep his foot on this at all times," said Chittenden referring to the ‘dead man's brake.' "That way, if he's somehow incapacitated -- a heart attack, whatever -- when he takes his foot off it, the train will stop."

Also, one can't really see over the engine from the cab. The engineer can see part of the tracks from his small front window, or he can look out a side window on his right. Which is why in television shows and the movies, the engineer is always jauntily looking out that side window -- he needs to see.

Chittenden was visibly amped as he talks about all this. He is told that he and Delasco clearly enjoy their volunteer stint. He laughs.

"Railroading is a disease," he said. "And you can't really get rid of it."

To reach Derek Gentile:
dgentile@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6251.
On Twitter: @DerekGentile