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Interview with Steve Barrall

We sat down with the very-mustached Steve Barrall, Stationmaster of the Strasburg Rail Road, to discuss everything from rockets to rail cars, and discovered the meaning of the term "putzing" along the way. Read on to learn more about the man who keeps everything on the right track at the Strasburg Rail Road!

Steve Barrell Interview Portrait

So Steve, You are not new to this area even though you have just hit your five year anniversary here at the railroad.

That's right.

Am I correct, You grew up in the Manheim Township area?

Lancaster county born and raised. Grew up and graduated from the Manheim Township school district. Around the time I turned 21, I married my beautiful wife Jen and we moved to Lancaster city. We were there about 10 years.

Young at 21!

Yeah, young enough. Then moved here about 6 years ago to the Strasburg community.

Where in the city did you move to?

In Lancaster city, we were on East Frederick Street. The very last block of East Frederick, not far from the 6th Ward park.

Did you enjoy the city?

Train Pulling Into Strasburg Rail Road Did you enjoy the city?

We did. I will say however that we were interested in moving to a community more like Strasburg around that 10 year mark mainly because our first child was getting ready to enter school. She was getting older and we were expecting another child at that time. We were looking for something that did incorporate the town atmosphere, not totally rural but not as urban as Lancaster city. We made the switch to Strasburg Borough and along with that Lampeter-Strasburg school district.

Was there a part of you that didn’t want to leave the city?

I would say a part of me. I loved the proximity to things and I loved the fact that the park was within walking distance. A sub shop, a convenience store, even McDonald’s for that matter was all right there. There were other aspects that were foreign to me that I came to appreciate within those 10 years. Foreign in the sense that growing up in suburbia, in Manheim Township, it was very much a community there where you drove in your garage, closed the garage door and went about your business in your house.

You never really mingled with your neighbors all that much. There was a closeness in the city that was, in some ways, a little overbearing. You still see it to some extent in the borough.

Do you feel like you have that sense of community here in Strasburg Borough compared to Manheim Township?

Yes, definitely. I very much like the borough feel over the suburbia development feel, where in order to go anywhere you have to get in your car and drive somewhere or potentially get on a bike. At Least here, in Strasburg, it is great because I can walk to the bank, I can go to the Creamery, I can get donuts at the donut shop, and get my pizza, all that stuff! I could walk to work if I wanted to. Those are blessings that I didn't have growing up in Manheim Township.

When you were growing up, were you aware of Strasburg? Was the railroad a thing for you?

I had been to the railroad a couple times, though not a lot. I didn’t have an appreciation for it then as I do now. Other than that, I had been to the Creamery a few times and had mini-golfed at Village Greens. Some of those types of things, but I didn’t know Strasburg to be the community I know it to be now. And, I was a kid. I was only coming here for leisure purposes, not to live or to relate.

What brought you to the railroad, how did you come upon this one?

Smiling Steve Barrall In The Station What brought you to the railroad how did you come upon this one?

We moved to Strasburg first, about 6 years ago. At the time I was working at Christ’s Home for Children, which is a residential child care facility out on the Lincoln Highway in Paradise. That was a great first job for me coming out of college but I was looking for something different, something I could better apply myself. Yet, we were very tied to Lancaster County, particularly because our family was located here, both my parents and Jen’s parents and other relatives have put down their roots here. I wasn't comfortable exploring much further than the Lancaster County community.

I came to a point where I was interested in reaching out and see what opportunities might be available and really just on a whim put in an application to Strasburg Rail Road not thinking anybody would even pick up on it figuring it would be one of those things that would be round-filed.

This wasn’t a "help wanted", you just said, “I’m the guy!”

Right. I’m not unlike many people who just submit an application to the railroad purely because it’s a unique place to work, not even really knowing the company’s culture or anything. Just thinking, “Wow, that would be kind of different!” That was sort of me! I’d say it was a good year later before I got a phone call saying they had a ticket office manager position, asking if I would be interested. I scratched my head and said “sure” though I didn’t know anything about it. But why not? That was my application, it was very general, like here are my skills, my experience, my background...have at it!

Is that where we are sitting right now, the ticket office?

This is the station, the ticket office is adjacent to us behind that wall.

Explain to me the terminology of the Station, not sure what that means.

Historically, the station would be a place where you got your tickets, first of all. We are in the waiting room here, so passengers waiting for a train would have some place out of the elements to wait. But you also have the far side of this building which is also considered the station. The far side handled mail or baggage. All that stuff is coming in and out of the depot or the station area and handled right here in this building.

Is this historically a station?

It is. This particular building is unique in that this came from East Petersburg. Again, a Lancaster County building but it has been relocated. It was built in the late 1800’s and would have been in East-Petersburg as part of the Reading Company branch line. When that was shut down, there was opportunity for investors of Strasburg Rail Road to move it here, and that was done in 1960.

Since you got this job, you have been thrown in to train and train culture. Would you call yourself an enthusiast now?

I’m enthusiastic about what I do and I am enthusiastic about Strasburg Railroad. I would make some distinction, and I say this tongue and cheek, there are people who are REALLY enthusiastic about trains. They know who they are, and that is probably not me. I can’t tell you everything about this train or this piece of equipment or all the history. I love the history but I am not a historian. I tend to appreciate, but I can’t regurgitate.

I’ve seen the passion over trains. What do you think it is that brings people across the county to come see these old trains?

Steve Standing On The Station Hands In Pockets I’ve seen the passion over trains. What do you think it is that brings people across the county to come see these old trains?

That's a good question. You see different things in different people. In some, specifically older folks right now, there is a type of nostalgia that they maybe have, if you are talking about steam trains, they grew up seeing those. Now they don’t see them that much so to come back to a place like Strasburg Rail Road brings back that nostalgic feeling. Others, they seem almost enamored with trains, whether it is steam or diesel or whatever.

That one is a little harder to explain, but even historically I think people have an intrinsic understanding of the role that trains played. Even if they really don’t think about it all that much. The role that trains played in connecting our country in particular but also connecting communities. Not all that different from today in how social media and other modern technologies serve to make connections, back in the day the train did that and provided that connection. In a different way than just getting into your automobile, you hop in your automobile and there is no sense of community.

You hop on a railcar, even today aboard Amtrak, there is somebody next to you or around you. You may choose not to talk to them but you may or you may walk back to the cafe car and get something to eat and you start chatting with the guy there, so there is a whole culture there that we are not completely aware of but people latch onto.

So you started out as Ticket Office Manager and now you are the Stationmaster?

Right. Some of that was just a title change. There came a point where I was asked if I wanted business cards (laughs) and I was like, “Yeah that would be helpful!” And the question was what title do you want on the business card? It was apparent from early on that I was given some responsibility outside of just the ticket office. Stationmaster was the more historically accurate term.

What does that mean to you then?

My job, I often times would break it down to a historic role as opposed to what I do today, is to oversee the station and station personnel, our ticket agents and red caps, but also oversee anything that goes on here in terms of ticketing, scheduling of the trains. Even determining train consists we will put together, which is what cars will be on the train on a given day. Then as that translates into modern day 21st century, that means putting the tickets on sale on the web, and it means providing an in-house presence at the railroad for some of the marketing initiatives.

I would say that you are the Sir Topham Hatt of the Strasburg Railroad! If people think of the railroad, they think of you! To that I ask, what came first the mustache or the railroad?

Man Standing On Side of Train Moving I would say that you are the Sir Topham Hatt of the Strasburg Railroad! If people think of the railroad they think of you! To that I ask what came first the mustache or the railroad?

(Laughs) Very good question, I was waiting for that! Very interestingly enough, the mustache came first. Getting back to when I was hired, No one has been able to give me a straight answer and I still wonder if the mustache got me the job? I don’t know! But as a bit of a sidebar, the mustache story is interesting. It was purely experimental. Actually, what I was going for was the look of General Joshua Chamberlain from the 20th Maine during the Civil War who was most known for his action at Little Round Top during the battle of Gettysburg. He had a mustache that just hung down on the sides, straight down. I thought I’d grow out my mustache and see if I could do that. Well, my mustache didn’t want to do anything of the sort -- rather it wanted to curl up! I just ended up playing with this thing and it was probably late 2010 when it was grown out to what you see today but I interviewed March of 2011 for the railroad.

So the wife approves of the mustache and said go with it?

Eh, not at first. She’s very supportive though, so she let me experiment with it without giving me too much of a headache. It’s funny, she would be the first to admit that now, because of the role I have here and the opportunities at the railroad, she can't imagine me getting rid of the mustache.

You said part of your role is to pick cars for the trains. How do you do that? Do you pick styles of cars or is it about capacity for the given day?

Mostly it's about capacity but there are a few considerations to go into the mix. We always like to have a dining option as well as a couple of first-class options. Usually, what I refer to as the “three on the rear", those cars are almost always there: the dining car, the lounge car, and the parlor car. There are instances where they might have to go in the shop for repair, so I obviously need to be aware of that. Then there are options like, through the window we can see the Pinball Pendolino which we unveiled last year. That is in the mix on weekends generally.

Open Air Cars will be added to the train during warmer weather. But where you see the biggest fluctuation of the number of cars would be the number of standard coaches we put out there and that is all based on presales, group bookings, and expected attendance based on the weather, or if it is a holiday weekend.

Does it ever catch you off guard that there aren’t enough cars on the train?


Is that something you can adapt quickly to on a railroad?

Man Walking Down Strasburg Rail Road Is that something you can adapt quickly to on a railroad?

I think our railroad can adapt more quickly to it then perhaps some other railroads, but it is easier said than done. So, if the first train goes out and it is sold out and we have people left standing on the platform, when we get back, we only have 15 minutes until the next train departs according to our schedule. That is not a lot of time for a train crew, no matter how good they are, to go pick a car, throw it on the train, and then be ready to go on that same schedule. We have done it in the past, but it's pretty tight.

My job is to make sure that happens very infrequently.

I can imagine that could be a little bit stressful to always get it right!

It can be. One would think, "Then why not just put on a bunch of cars?"

That was my next question.

Well, it puts wear and tear into those cars. Also, we don’t have a need, or we don't want to put a train out there that looks as though it is empty. If I put a ten car train out, which is the maximum we can put on station siding here, and only 100 people are on it, it looks empty and not all that interesting.

Does it cost more fuel to pull more cars?

The biggest cost factor is not going to be the coal necessarily, it is going to be the repair to the locomotives themselves just like you would expect on your automobile.

You have 2 engines here?

We have 4 serviceable steam locomotives.

On any given day, will there only be 2 running or will all four be running?

Well, for the vast majority of this season, there is one that is fired up, meaning that it has a fire in its firebox and steam pressure in the boiler. There are certain times in the year, weekends in the summer as well as Christmas time, when we are running two trains frequently.

Then the other two, it just depends on what rotational cycle we are on with respect to maintenance and inspection and that type of thing. Right now we have engine 475 and engine 90 that are available for service basically any day throughout the year. Engine 89 was in service all of last year but she just went out the beginning of this year for a BIG inspection that is done. Engine 31 is one that is also currently down for a similar rebuild and inspection.

When you say she went out for inspection, do you mean out of this railroad?

No, she is here. We do all that work, but she is torn apart. There is no saying, “Hey, let's get engine 89 out there today!” There is a lot of work.

This railroad is more than just a historical train ride, you guys do a lot of industry in this railroad too. What kind of stuff is that? Is it bringing cars in and tearing them down?

Train Backing Out Of The Repair Room Steam This railroad is more than just a historical train ride you guys do a lot of industry in this railroad too. What kind of stuff is that? Is it bringing cars in and tearing them down?

There are three major business lines, if you will, for the Strasburg Railroad currently. The one is obviously the passenger and tourist side of the business, which is the biggest component. The second largest right now would be the work that we do in our locomotive and car shops. We take care of our own equipment, but not only that, we take care of a lot of equipment for other tourist and heritage locations as well. Repairing, rebuilding, restoring...whatever it is.

Are these historical trains?

Correct. Mostly steam train equipment and sometimes some other things here and there. You can walk into our shops today and probably see a dozen or more different projects from other railroads currently taking place right now. That was one of those aspects that I didn’t appreciate as a kid growing up, or until I was employed here, that Strasburg Rail Road has such a place in the country as one of the premiere locomotive shops for that purpose, for steam train equipment stuff.

Why is that? Is it the capacity or the skill?

The skill and the dedication really. Going back to when the Strasburg Rail Road was revitalized, or reborn in 1958, there was a passion for steam and as Strasburg Rail Road grew its own steam locomotive roster, with it they gained a lot of experience and practical know-how about how to repair these things and how to work on them and then built up over time the machinery and the skills to do all that. We like to tell other folks that the fact is, for as often as we run our equipment, that's what lends us credibility and allows us to repair somebody else's.

Good point. And then what would be the third business?

Ah yes, that would be frieght! It has really been on the rise for the past 3 or 4 years or so. There's always been a freight component to the Strasburg Railroad going all the way back to the 1850s, but today we bring in freight cars from Norfolk Southern, which is a big class one freight carrier that services this area. Norfolk Southern drops the freight cars at the end of our line in Paradise where Amtrak passes, and then we bring them here to Strasburg.

Those cars are typically off-loaded onto tractor trailers. What that does is that it saves those companies those shipping costs of having to send a driver and a truck over land a decent distance to get whatever product they are getting. They just get it right here and then maybe just travel across town. They aren’t traveling those larger distances and paying that wage. Particularly, right now, we are bringing in products such as grain and lumber. We have handled biofuel products as well as other things.

Do you guys work with the museum across the street at all as far as restoration projects and probably marketing that you coordinate?

Steam Punk Steve Barrall Full Garb Do you guys work with the museum across the street at all as far as restoration projects and probably marketing that you coordinate?

Yeah, The Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania is definitely one of our partners in the community, and the history there goes way back to when the state of Pennsylvania decided to put the museum here right next to the Strasburg Rail Road. That partnership has been positive, particularly on the tourist side. We have done some of their cosmetic restoration stuff. Our missions are somewhat different, where they are restoring cosmetically for preservation purposes, whereas we restore things for operation so people can enjoy and experience. We are both very much interested in preserving railroad heritage in that sense.

Anything coming up that railroad enthusiasts should pay attention to?

We don’t have any major new events slated at the moment but there are a couple things that I can’t really mention here that we are looking into as possible new events, or things to do to cause some new publicity or new interest. We have a lot of the same standbys that we've been doing for the past couple years like the Train Robbery and Steampunk Unlimited comes back in October. We have the antique auto show that comes by in July, and the Easter bunny train will be coming up shortly.

The auto show, let's talk a little about that. Lots of old timey cars there, right? It's cool to see that old car next to an old train. And, isn't there a race between the old cars and the train?

Yeah, there's a dirt road that runs along a good stretch of our track and the cars are allowed to kind of “race” the train. Its nothing too cutthroat! (Laughs) Most of the cars, if I am not mistaken, are 1941 or earlier. That's what we focus on. You can go to a lot of car shows that have cars more recent than that.

It does feel like you are transported back in time.

You will see that the folks that bring their cars, they bring them in any condition. You have ones that have restored them so they are very pristine and almost look like they just drove off the lot back in 1920-something, and then you will have others that have that sort of patina, they have been worn! Some will let you know that there has been no restoration to the vehicle and it's exactly as it was originally.

And probably equally as fascinating to look at! Let’s get back to you now, what hobbies do you have?

I enjoy camping with my family a lot.

Were you a scout?

I was not, but I did get outdoors with my dad in particular. We would enjoy time getting out and hiking around whereever that was. I enjoy fishing, not much of a hunter, but I definitely enjoy fishing and hiking. My wife says that I like to putz, not sure where that came from.

(Laughs) What does that mean, putz?

Steam Punk Military Costume Near Trains (Laughs) What does that mean putz?

What it is, is that I definitely enjoy time when I can get it, because it isn’t all that frequent, to create and build. It can be anything, I’ll say to the kids, “Hey, I’m going to get out some watercolor paper and some watercolors and we are just going to paint.” I’m not a painter, but there is a little bit of a creative side to me. For example, I have been enjoying building my own model rockets.

Again, I am not a rocketeer and I don’t know anything about the physics of them, but I know how to set them off and that sort of thing. The majority of the fun in that, the "putzing" so to speak, is just building it and coming up with a paint scheme...putting them together and coming up with a product that I'm proud of.

Are you doing this with your kids?

Sometimes I do it with my kids and sometimes I'll sequester myself in the garage and there I am putzing! (Laughs)

How many rockets have you set off?

How many have I set off? I have 4 at the moment at home, but model rockets were also something I did as a kid and those rockets are long gone!

And they are reusable? Do you shoot one and then it parachutes down?

Right. It has a recovery system that brings it back down to the ground. Hopefully safely, but that doesn't always happen.

What do you put in it to boost it?

You can purchase a solid fuel model rocket engine, but what I have been doing is you can buy those engines and build your own rocket around them. Usually I buy the pre-made kits and stuff like that, and I have a number of those, but again, you can take those and put your own paint scheme on and add some components or whatever. Of course, none of that stuff is probably what the manufacturer would recommend…

What kind of scheme do you go for?

Ah, just something that looks classy. It could be anything, I could take one and give it a look that it is almost a military rocket, it’ll have an olive drab coloration with serial numbers and stuff like that on it. And I’ll take another and make it look like something NASA put up.

Do you have an interest in military history? I remember you brought up Gettysburg.

Again, I am quick to say I'm not a historian, but I appreciate history. Certainly military stuff from any era. I have read books on the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, Vietnam war, even our current wars in more modern history here.

I’ve seen your interest in military aspects in your Steampunk garb as well. That is something you seem to enjoy as well. Want to tell us more about it?

Yeah, it's been a fun event to build and be a part of.

Would you be there if you didn’t work there?

That's a good question, and I probably would not. I probably wouldn’t be introduced to it if it hadn’t been for the railroad. In all honesty, I don’t go to other Steampunk events. I would probably say I’m not a “Steampunk.”

But your costumes are top notch!

Steve Barrall In His Steam Punk Costume Others But your costumes are top notch!

That kind of gets back to the “putzing” side of me! When we had the opportunity to put this event together, I was looking at what other people were doing and thinking, “This would be fun!” That is the creative side in me being like, "What can I put together and what can I put together on a shoestring budget too?" I have enjoyed that, and I look forward to this year’s event.

Do you feel like you are an artist, to express yourself through your putzing?

Yeah, I wouldn’t go as far as to call myself an artist, maybe somebody else would. All through school I loved to express myself through my hands and through creativity. That is not only in art, but also in music. I have a great appreciation for music. I played the trumpet growing up, and I was relatively accomplished at that, though I don’t play it anymore. I also took a number of art classes in high school and throughout college.

I was not an art major. I didn’t set out to do that. All that centers into how I am and my personality and my appreciation and my style.

Growing up art was something you could go back to, even now.

Yeah, I took some ceramics courses in high school which were some of my favorites. That was all! You're sculpting right there with the clay and getting dirty.

What type of things would you make with the ceramics and your brush? Was there a theme you would come to regularly?

Not necessarily. It really varied.

Just putzin’ around!

Yes, Just putzing around! It would all be very design-inspired things. I'm not much of a portrait kind of guy, whether it was in ceramics or drawing or anything like that. I’m not good with the human figure, but other shapes and interesting designs I enjoy.

I see a lot of photography coming out of the railroad, is it any of it yours?

Well unfortunately, a lot of what is on social media is from me, though certainly not all of it.

It is good stuff! We are getting close to the end of the interview, are there any other gems in Strasburg that you want to point out to us?

I don’t know if I have any particular gems, but I have certain places that I like to go. A week ago we went to Sugar On Top to get some donuts for breakfast on that Saturday. In the summertime, we love to go to the Creamery and get some ice cream. I have tried to make an effort to be just more locally-minded.

You have been very active in the community, correct?

Station Master Steve Barrall Interview You have been very active in the community correct?

I wouldn’t say I’m a civil leader or anything like that, but I have had opportunities, whether it's serving on the PTO, or coaching one season of my son’s soccer, just trying to fill in where there's a need. I have certainly done that. I just try to support the community. Through the railroad, I am also involved in the Strasburg Marketing Association and that is a great opportunity to rub shoulders with some others that are again, locally-minded and interested in promoting their own businesses, but looking to keep people here and keep what we have here in Strasburg.

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