It’s a side of the commuter rail that most of us don’t often see: trains with no passengers. 

“Usually, we’ll get a call and start to plan,” says Carlos Caban, a conductor and 25-year MBTA veteran. “They’ll tell us they need us to deliver wooden rail ties, stone or rail sections to repair sites.” As he tells it, when there are lines to repair or equipment to be moved, instead of using hundreds of trucks to deliver materials, heavy machinery and snow plows, they arrive by freight train along the commuter rail lines. 

According to Carlos, it’s faster and more efficient – and as the conductor, he’s got an important job at Keolis Commuter Services (Keolis), the MBTA’s commuter rail operating partner. “My job,” he says, “is to decide how many cars we’re going to need, when we need to leave and get everything where it needs to be on time.” Priority number one? “To make sure we aren’t going to delay any passenger trains in the process,” he says, noting the recent increased investment and workload by the MBTA and Keolis to help further enhance commuter rail infrastructure and service.

Like most conductors, Carlos started on passenger trains – and it wasn’t long before the MBTA saw what it had in the gregarious Boston native. “When I was first hired,” he says, “I was used immediately on the World Cup soccer trains going to Foxboro. Because I was bilingual, I could make announcements in Spanish.” These days, Carlos tends to don his conductor uniform on passenger trains punching tickets during particularly busy times, such as a holidays or parades down Boylston Street to celebrate winning seasons for Boston sports teams.

Today, however, Carlos is carrying a very different type of precious cargo – and wearing a very different hat. Wearing his yellow reflective vest and carrying his trusty black lunchbox, it’s a typically busy day. This week, he’ll be off to Haverhill, where Keolis is making major track repairs, to help out with bridge work and maybe pick up scrap rail the company can recycle for other projects. The MBTA, Keolis and Governor Charlie Baker have prioritized critical investments and upgrades to infrastructure throughout the network to help further improve passenger service. 

“You always have to be on your toes,” Carlos Caban

Over on the Lowell line, his crew is helping to install a new signaling system. And then there are the things Carlos and his crew can’t plan for, such as the recent time the team pushed a broken down freight train all the way from Gloucester to Salem so commuter service wasn’t interrupted. “You always have to be on your toes,” he says, acknowledging his team’s quick response can help keep passenger trains moving. Today’s commuter rail runs on-time more often than it has over the past decade, up by two percentage points.

Already, today he’s been out to Wachusett to deliver stone in the Fitchburg area. “We often dump stone on to tracks to make sure the tracks sit properly,” Carlos says. It’s not uncommon for his team to be asked to bring boulders to help rebuild a wall – or to keep ocean waters from flooding the tracks during storms. 

A former criminal justice major in college, the railroad wasn’t necessarily an obvious fit. But, Carlos says, it was almost love at first sight, describing how he learned all the tracks and locations, crossings, signals, speeds, and curves. “There’s more to it than people realize.”

Of course, a lot has changed over the 25 years Carlos has been on the job. “When I first started, we didn’t even have radios,” he says. Today, conductors on trains alike use high tech companion phones, which give them the ability to communicate with dispatchers and respond to any changes in service in real time, a new technology introduced to commuter rail by Keolis.

Even positive changes brought by technological advancement, such as Keolis’ pilot to move toward a cashless ticketing system, require adjustments. “Some conductors thought things like electronic ticket payment were a little challenging in the beginning,” Carlos says. But, he quickly notes, it actually makes the job less stressful, and we carry a lot less cash. “That’s a good thing,” he adds. As this pilot advances, passengers will be able to pay on board with credit cards.

Carlos points to one of the more enjoyable aspects of his job: the caboose. “It’s one of maybe three registered cabooses left in North America. We use it for everything we do – it’s basically our office on wheels.” Carlos explains that the caboose isn’t just a historical throwback, but it actually helps the team expedite movement on tracks so the engineer doesn’t have to keep changing ends when directions change. 

“Working on the railroad makes for long days,” he says, describing 15-hour days with split shifts, working in the morning and then returning to work in the afternoons. 

Ultimately, though, he’s thankful for the opportunity. “I’ve enjoyed working across the entire commuter rail network,” he says and especially playing a part in helping Keolis and the MBTA upgrade the network with recent investments. “It’s never stagnant, doing same thing every day. You’re always doing something different to better commuter rail.”

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