A ringing telephone is all it takes to awaken Mike Giles from a deep sleep.
Coming from the dispatcher’s office at 1, 2, or 3 in the morning, the calls might relay news of a derailment, mainline blockage, injury, or some other issue affecting train movement. Pushing all thoughts of slumber aside, Giles, assistant superintendent of the Piedmont Division, springs into action.
“You’ve got to wake up pretty quickly and understand what’s going on,” he said.
In the absence of a pre-dawn phone call, Giles’ typical day starts with a 5 a.m. call to the division’s chief dispatcher for a rundown of the previous night’s activity. Giles is at his desk in the Greenville, S.C., division headquarters by 6 a.m. for a conference call with each district and terminal on the division. That’s followed by a 7 a.m. conference call with Greg Comstock, general manager Eastern Region, and representatives from the Pocahontas and Virginia divisions. “By 7 o’clock or so, the plan is already put in place, and you know what you’re going to accomplish that day,” he said.
Giles usually is in the office on Mondays and Fridays and travels across the division Tuesdays through Thursdays. It’s an eight-hour drive from Greenville to the Piedmont’s northernmost point in Manassas, Va. “The division is an integral part of the Crescent Corridor,” he said. “It’s the main line between Atlanta and Manassas, and it’s important in moving intermodal traffic. It carries a lot of UPS traffic and has more passenger traffic than other divisions because of Amtrak and the North Carolina Railroad.”
He said his main responsibility is to support Division Superintendent Robert Lewis. Giles works alongside Lewis to handle customer issues and to ensure operations run safely and efficiently and meet Federal Railroad Administration requirements. He supervises district trainmasters and works closely with field employees, including terminal superintendents and road foremen.
“The division superintendent is a busy person so we try to take as much of the workload as we can,” he said.
Giles began his railroad career 38 years ago earning $42 a day as a brakeman on Southern Railway. “I thought I’d make some quick money,” he said, laughing. “The first thing I knew I was there five or six years and
was promoted to conductor. It got into my blood.”
He worked his way up to engineer, supervisor, road foreman of engines, and trainmaster before becoming assistant terminal superintendent and then terminal superintendent at Detroit’s Oakwood Yard. Giles joined the Piedmont Division as assistant superintendent
“I’ve been fortunate in my career that all my promotions were the next logical step,” he said, adding that he prefers his current job to working in a terminal. “In a terminal, it’s hectic, fast-paced, and exciting, but you do the same thing over and over each day. With this job, it’s something new every day.”
Despite that fluidity, Giles makes it a point to review his calendar every Sunday afternoon to determine what he wants to accomplish during the week. “Sometimes by Monday afternoon that plan is pretty much shot,” he said. “You never know what the next phone call will be, and you have to be prepared to reconfigure.”
The Piedmont Division was one of the first to participate in NS’ behavior-based safety training and has helped set the standard for NS’ new safety culture.
“We’ve seen tremendous results with a lot of discretionary effort from the crews,” Giles said. “The atmosphere we work in is much better than I can ever remember it being on the railroad.” He added that employees are offering suggestions more frequently for improving safety and performance, and supervisors are listening and implementing their ideas. “It’s taking us to the next level,” he said. “We’re reaching out to employees and offering them opportunities to come to us.”
Railroading has become a family matter for Giles. His son, Brent Giles, is a shop supervisor at NS’ Charlotte Roadway Shop. Mike looks forward to retiring in about a year and a half, but he acknowledges that he will miss the railroad – even the middle-of-the night phone calls.
“I would not trade my experience for anything,” he said.