– There’s a certain swagger to the way Ed Steiner shouts
At over six feet tall, porkchop sideburns blaring out from under
his train conductor’s cap, Steiner cuts an imposing figure. But the
Gilroy resident is a garrulous man with more than a bit of
performer in his personality.
Gilroy – There’s a certain swagger to the way Ed Steiner shouts “Ahaaalll uhbooooaaarrd.”
At over six feet tall, mutton chop sideburns blaring out from under his train conductor’s cap, Steiner cuts an imposing figure. But the Gilroy resident is a garrulous man with more than a bit of performer in his personality.
Routing people on and off the train in less than a minute per stop is just one part of his work as a Caltrain conductor. Most people think of the conductor as a ticket-puncher, just along for the ride while the engineer leads the train to its destination. But most people are wrong. This is Steiner’s show.
“The conductor is the boss of the train,” he said. “The engineer and the assistant conductor work for the conductor, but we all work as a team.”
Steiner’s day typically begins between 4 and 5am, on one of the early morning trains that shuttle commuters between San Jose and San Francisco.
“The two most important things we strive for are safety and excellent public service,” Steiner said. “The way we do that is by keeping the trains on time, answering questions, and assisting the disabled.”
Sound simple? Try helping a wheelchair-bound man get on the train while reminding the engineer to slow down for upcoming station repairs and answering ticket questions from a Russian woman who can’t speak a lick of English.
Beads of sweat collect on Steiner’s upper lip as he juggles his duties, but he doesn’t lose composure. While lowering the wheelchair lift, he hands a conductor’s translation guide to the Russian woman, which explains in her language – as well as Italian, French, German, Tagalog, and Vietnamese – the basic procedure for buying tickets and riding the train.
“We could write her a citation,” Steiner noted, “but it’s clear she doesn’t know what’s going on.”
Riders are generally “very good” about having tickets, he said. About 700 commuters ride his trains each week, but he only issues one or two citations in that time.
Often he uses his discretion – as in the case with the Russian lady. Plus, there are other things on his mind, like making sure the train doesn’t tear through a vehicle crossing where the traffic arm has broken.
At the San Carlos stop, Steiner reminds Rebecca, his trainee for the day, to “call” the Redwood City station on the train’s intercom and give the engineer a second notice to slow down to 15 miles per hour as they pass Sunnyvale. Crews were supposed to be repairing the traffic arm.
Steiner explained that a conductor constantly reviews and updates his sheet of “restrictions,” or potential hazards along the course of the track. In the case of Sunnyvale, the train has to slow down as a precaution. Had repair crews not been on the scene, he would have had to jump out and stop traffic himself to prevent any accidents.
“Conducting is about prioritizing,” Steiner said.
Before he became a Caltrain drive, Steiner served in law enforcement for 15 years, first as a deputy sheriff in Kern County and later as an animal control officer in Indio, Monterey, and Laquinta.
Since joining Caltrain five years ago he has risen quickly through the ranks, becoming a conductor after just eight months. Now he trains others in the classroom and in the field.
In addition to his work for Caltrain, he has a legitimate performance career, moonlighting as Elvis for weekend events. Steiner’s part-time life in show business started more than 10 years ago, when an executive with KESQ TV noticed his Elvis impersonation and hired him to host a show for Star Trek fans.
He’s “been doing Elvis” ever since, performing mostly at weekend weddings.
“I won’t bring it out for less than $350,” Steiner joked, although he regularly makes exceptions for charity. In August, he performed at Christmas Hill Park to benefit a local church and Catholic school.
His favorite song to perform? “Happy Ending,” from the Elvis film “It Happened at the World’s Fair.”
He rattled off a portion of the tune, complete with Elvis’s famous longing stare and vocal lilt.
Lately, Steiner has had less time to perform, putting in extra hours beyond his own shifts to instruct new conductors. But that doesn’t seem to bother him much, because he’s a man with more than one passion.
“I’ve always loved railroading,” Steiner said. “I’ve always wanted to do it.”