Salem – Eighteen years. That’s how long Victor Baez has been working for the commuter rail in the Boston area – and for the majority of it, the Puerto Rico native has been charged with the maintenance and upkeep of the bridges that carry trains over coastal waterways. As one of seven machinists that Keolis Commuter Services has working on North Shore bridges 20 hours a day, 7 days a week in two 10-hour shifts, Victor does a little of everything – from maintenance, to storm preparation, to snow removal.
It’s been quite a journey for the longtime Salem resident. Growing up in the manufacturing town of Gurabo, Puerto Rico, before arriving in Massachusetts with his single mom as an adolescent, Victor’s teachers saw early on that he was mechanically inclined. After a stint in the Marine Corps serving abroad in Japan, Victor found himself back on the North Shore where his family put down roots, working for Sylvania before moving on to the commuter rail.
We spoke with Victor on the heels of a particularly busy month – a hat trick of nor’easters—three snowstorms in two weeks—with multiple feet of snow to clear off bridges in communities like Gloucester, Manchester, Beverly, and Saugus. It’s not just the safety of passengers and his fellow crew members on the top of Victor’s mind when clearing a bridge of ice, snow and debris. “These bridges also have to open in case boats like the Coast Guard need to respond to an emergency. So there’s a lot riding on what we do.” This year was especially challenging – in addition to heavy snowfall, some of the area bridges were flooded by historic ocean tidal surges, ruining the drive motors that bridges use to open and close.
“Some of these bridges are as many as 100 years old,” he says in between storm cleanup shifts. “Thankfully, we just replaced the bridge in Beverly. But for some of these bridges, there are no replacement parts. So when things break, they not only have to be replaced – they have to be fabricated from scratch using a variety of tools, heavy machinery and cranes.”
Even as technology improves the way Victor’s team responds to weather events, the job is still physically demanding. “It used to be we would walk up and down the tracks nailing spikes by hand in the wake of a storm,” Victor says. “In the middle of a storm, that took a lot of time. Now, we’ve invested in technology that can help not only repair these issues faster but also detect signal issues and other problems when they occur in real-time. A lot of questions automatically are flagged, and our response time is so much quicker.”
Communications is another area where technology has transformed how many commuter rail jobs are done, whether that is communicating directly with passengers or across departments, including engineering. “Most of us are now linked together with smartphones that give us instant notification to trouble spots along the way,” Victor notes – adding that another group in the engineering shop even used Keolis aerial drones to help during heavy rains in Natick. “Some of these things seem simple but compared to relying on voicemails, pages and nailing spikes by hand, trust me, it makes a big difference for our team and ultimately the passengers. As recent accolades from the likes of Governor Charlie Baker and Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack show, the improvements in performance and response time are real – and are getting noticed. It’s a far cry from just a few years ago when the area saw 100 inches of snowfall over a four-week period, severely hampering all modes of transportation, including the commuter rail.
Does Victor notice the praise? “Honestly, I’m just trying to do my job as best I can. We all are,” he says. “If our work is getting noticed that’s great. But we don’t do it for us – we’re doing it for the passengers.” If Victor’s humility seems a bit personal, there’s a reason: “I’m also a commuter. I take the train into Boston on the line our team services, and see first-hand the work we are doing, and where we can strive for improvement.”
Thanks to advancements within Victor’s team and elsewhere on commuter rail, on-time performance for 2016 and 2017 ended at 89 percent, two points ahead of the 10-year average. With more investments and work do to, the team aims to continue this positive performance trend.
When he isn’t de-icing bridges in sub-zero temperatures, Victor keeps himself busy with three daughters, four granddaughters and two sisters who live in nearby Lynn – “I’m surrounded by women,” he says with a laugh. Together, his extended family participates in the North Shore Cancer Center’s annual 10K walk every year. As an active member of The Honorable Few, a veteran organization, he also spends time advancing causes for his fellow veterans, victims of domestic violence and suicide prevention.
It begs the question: what does Victor do to relax? “Ride my Harley.” A machinist to the end.