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As one Hurd retires, another son follows same career track

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Sheridan Hurd, left, will continue working for Amtrak after his father Scott retires as Station Agent for Union Station this month.Scott Hurd’s family has been working on the railroad all the live-long day since 1900.

Hurd, the station agent at Portland’s Union Station, retired in July after 36 years of working for Amtrak. His son, Sheridan Hurd, will carry on the family tradition by working as an Amtrak conductor, a job he started two years ago.

But the family’s history of railroad work actually began with Scott’s maternal grandfather, Claude Rooks, who worked for the Great Northern Railway in Montana for 50 years. His son, Scott’s father Jim Hurd, pursued the same career by working 36 years for Southern Pacific Railroad.

“It’s hard to describe the feeling of having your son carry on the work your family has been doing,” Scott Hurd says.

The family’s long history with railroads is rare in these days of employment shifts caused by globalization, new technologies and economic upheavals. It also has enabled them to experience first-hand the many changes in America’s transportation systems over the past 115 years, changes that are still unfolding as political leaders consider high-speed rail lines that eventually may connect to Union Station.

Golden Age

Claude Rooks began working for the Great Northern Railway during what is considered the Golden Age of rail passenger service. From the mid-19th century until 1920, virtually all people traveling between cities in America went by rail. The popular passenger trains were operated by the same private companies that also operated freight trains.

PHOTO COURTESY SCOTT HURD - A railroad brakeman from 1950, when Scott's grandfather retired from the Great Northern Railway.

In 1900 at age 15, Claude started out with the lowest possible railroad job in Great Falls, Montana — call boy, which meant he rode his bike around town waking up brakemen, conductors, engineers and locomotive firefighters at their homes to call them to work. He went on to become a brakeman himself at 18, and eventually a conductor, working on both passenger and freight trains, before retiring in 1950.

During his 50 years with the railroad, Claude saw passenger rail service fall dramatically because of the growing popularity of automobiles and the construction of interstate freeways. To cut their losses, the rail companies began dropping passenger lines and, by 1946, passenger trains had declined 55 percent from 1929.

After he retired, Claude moved to Portland and built a house next to his son, Jim Hurd and his family, including Jim’s son, Scott.

“Listening to Claude’s stories about working on the railroad is where I got my passion for it,” Scott says.

Jim’s father, Lynn Hurd, was a merchant in Spokane next to the Great Northern Railroad yard there. His brother, Charles Hurd, worked on the Milwaukee Railroad out of Spokane for 40 years. Jim began working for the Great Northern Railway in Montana in 1941, but the hours weren’t steady enough. So he moved his family to Portland in 1942 to take a job on the Southern Pacific Railroad as a brakeman.

Jim worked on local freight trains throughout Western Oregon — including the “fast freights” between Portland and Eugene — and eventually was promoted to conductor.

During his railroad career, Jim also worked on both passenger and freight lines — although Scott says his father preferred working with freight because it was a lot less bother. He retired in 1978 — seven years after Congress finally woke up to the transportation crisis being caused by the loss of passenger rail service.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Union State Agent Scott Hurd helps Michelle Shaffer of Vancouver, B.C., get her luggage in order.

Humble beginning

Congress created Amtrak as a government corporation in 1971 to take over all passenger service from the private railroad companies, which were continuing to drop lines. When Amtrack was first created, passenger stations and trains were still staffed by employees of the private companies. But in 1981, they all became Amtrak employees, expect for some contract workers.

That was shortly after Scott was hired at Union Station.

Despite his family history, Scott did not immediately go into railroad work. Born and raised in Portland, he attended Mt. Tabor Grade School before graduating from Madison High School in 1973. But at that time railroad jobs were down because of the decline in passenger service and a drop in freight service in Oregon caused by the beginning of the timber industry collapse. So Scott attended Portland State University before transferring to Oregon State University with a U.S. Bank scholarship to prepare him for a career in banking.

However, after graduating from OSU in 1978 and working at the U.S. Bank branch in the Hollywood neighborhood, Scott realized he didn’t like the work. So he quit and went to Union Station looking for a job. Nothing was available on any train, but, because of retirements, some positions were opening up at the station itself. Like his grandfather Claude, Scott took the lowest one available in January 1979 — janitor, which was called red cap.

“My mom was disappointed. Her son the banker was working at a train station. But I felt at home,” Scott says.

Scott worked his way up through the ranks during the next 11 years, moving into management jobs that required his family to move to San Francisco and Indianapolis. With his next position set for Washington, D.C., Scott decided he preferred Portland and returned to town in 1990 as a relief station agent at Union Station. Three years later, he was promoted to station agent in charge of the ticketing and passenger boarding process, the job he is now leaving after 12 years.

During his 36-year career with Amtrak, Scott saw rail passenger service stabilize and begin growing again. In the 2014 fiscal year, Amtrak operated more than 300 trains each day on 21,300 miles of track. It connected 30.9 million passengers to more than 500 destination in 46 states and three Canadian provinces — approximately double the passengers it served in 1972, its first full year of operations.

Like Scott, his son, Sheridan, did not immediately go into railroad work. He enlisted in the U.S Air Force and worked graphic design assignments until they were phased out and he left to pursue similar work in the private sector. But when Amtrak began prioritizing hiring veterans, he applied and was hired in June 2013 as an assistant conductor trainee.

After spending eight weeks at the Amtrak training facility in Wilmington, Delaware, known as “Choo Choo U,” Sheridan started working as an assistant conductor in August. He’s since been promoted to conductor and works on the Cascades trains to Eugene and Seattle, the Coast Starlight to Klamath Falls, and the Empire Builder to Spokane.

“Some trips are overnight and some get you back in your own bed the same day. We are responsible for learning all of the many railroad operating rules, as well as memorizing hundreds of miles of physical characteristics for the tracks we run on. We need to be able to glance outside for just a split second and know exactly where on the railroad you are,” Sheridan says.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Amtrak Conductor Sheridan Hurd stands inside of an Amtrak Cascades train parked at Union Station.

Changing times

Scott will be missed as the Amtrak contact at Union Station by local railroad buffs, including volunteers at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center near the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, where the city’s three historic steam locomotives are stored. Arlen Sheldrake praises Scott for cleaning up the area around Union Station over the years and saving historic artifacts found buried underground when the parking lot was built there in 2003. Some of them are on display in a case near the Luggage Room.

In the years that Scott has worked at Union Station he has been the “go to” guy to get things done with Amtrak. “Scott cares and goes the extra miles for Amtrak,” says Sheldrake, who also volunteers for the Pacific Northwest Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, which has a replica Observation Platform on display at Union Station.

Scott is retiring at an uncertain time for Amtrak. Alternative transportation advocates are pushing to increase passenger rail service across the country to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles. The first high-speed rail line opened between New York and Boston in 2000, and more are being added in other parts of the country — including Oregon and the West Coast.

But, so far, Congress and the Oregon Legislature have been unable to pass new long-term transportation funding packages. Sheridan is hopeful he will see passenger rail service continues to grow, however.

“I would hope that we will see the creation of more high speed rail routes across the country. This will require a large infrastructure investment but if any region can get behind it, it is the Pacific Northwest. We see the value in green technologies and mass transit. With some upfront costs we can shape the future and ensure that these rail lines are viable for future generations,” Sheridan says.