Working for the railroad was never an occupation that Fort Wayne-native Yalonda Naylor, saw for herself, not when she played under the bridge at Edsall Avenue, below the railroad tracks, when she was little, and not when she watched tanks and other equipment being loaded on a railroad car when she was in the military.
One of a few female engineers, and the first and only African-American engineer, for her rail company, Naylor started her career, where most newbies begin, as a train conductor, in charge of the paperwork, talking to dispatchers, and navigation. After passing the test for promotion, engineer Naylor is now the train operator pushing the buttons and pulling the levers. She has also been a manager, held an office job, as well as overseeing men.
Depending on the experience level of the conductor, sometimes the engineer assumes the boss role. With Naylor’s experience and her knowledge of the territory, as engineer, she’s the authority, directing American and European men who can’t always deal with a woman, not to mention an African-American woman, in charge. And the no-joke reality of rail work is, at times, 12 hours in a small, two-person cab.
Generations of men (sons, fathers, uncles, sons-in-law, grandfathers) work on the railroads, according to Naylor. “I realize I’m probably one of the first African-Americans they ever really came in contact with.” She may go months, years without working with same person.
Generational workers is just one of the reasons why Naylor said that some people struggle working in the railroad environment. She’s on call 24/7; the government has stepped in and now Naylor and her brethren are allotted 10 hours of mandatory, partially-paid time spent in a hotel in between jobs. Sometimes the 10 hours become 30; it’s a hurry up and wait job, be it in a hotel or on the tracks, in the two-person cab.
Naylor has to deal with weather issues while compensating for a 11,000-foot, 15,000-ton train that can’t make it up a hill, that eventually needs to be pushed by another train to make it over. That takes times, more waiting. Then there are the fatalities; drivers are still trying to beat the trains.
The job’s not for everyone, but it is for someone. One can apply to work on the railroad with only a high school degree, eventually netting a six-figure salary. Naylor graduated from Snider High School, herself, but was trained in Atlanta for the rail work. (She attended Indiana Institute of Technology for two years but didn’t graduate.)
Never really having a 9 to 5 job before the railroad, Naylor was leading that entrepreneur path, living that life. The railroad job was “a blessing in disguise,” she said, giving her the right amount of structure and disposable time to slow down and embrace what she called “a different program in my heart.” Naylor, also a personal trainer, restructured her fitness and nutrition nonprofit, Transitional Health. “What we do is bridge the gap [between nutrition and time management] to overcome obesity for the underserved who are surrounded with the more convenient options of corner store, or gas station, food shopping…we believe more drive-thrus than drive-bys are killing us.”
Naylor was trying to keep a low profile when she applied for the railroad, so much so she applied to a company outside of the city and was turned down; then a Fort Wayne company called her. She had just lost five people in her life in a year. She was in a weird space. But then, “in the middle of the night, God [spoke to me]: Join the railroad.”
The mother of four (Royal, Donte’, Skila, and Shalonda) has worked with her rail company for over 10 years.