Since joining Mass Transit, I’ve interviewed the heads of some of the largest transit authorities in North America. Despite that, it was with no small amount of trepidation that I found myself in the office of Federal Railroad Administrator Joe Szabo.
With the increased interest in passenger rail in the United States, I thought it was time to get information from the horse’s mouth so to speak. Szabo’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) oversaw the granting of $8 billion in federal stimulus funds earlier this year and is likely to give even more as it looks to bring President Obama’s vision of high-speed rail in the United States to fruition.
I expected your usual conversation with a politician — dancing around questions and not giving real answers — but instead found Szabo didn’t shy away from anything asked. In fact, he was open and candid with his responses, including his feelings about high-speed rail’s detractors.
Railroad in the Blood
As Administrator Szabo describes it he has a “very zig-zag background,” but one steeped in the rail industry. Szabo is a fifth-generation railroader whose father spent 40 years as a switchman for the Illinois Central railroad, now a part of the Canadian National Railway. As with too many other transit backgrounds to count, Szabo’s father asked him if he wanted to take a job with the railroad to make some extra money for college one summer and he never left.
“There’s so many just like me that hired out supposedly that one summer and never left,” Szabo says.
“And so that was my case. At 18 out of high school I was working the railroad and kind of fell in love with it. It got in the blood.
“I still got my degree, but it took more than a decade. It was a lot of night classes or sometimes the opposite, working midnights on the railroad and going to school in the daytime.”
Szabo split time on the freight and passenger rail industries, “I worked in freight service, over the road freight, as a yard switchman, but mostly commuter service in Chicago.
“While I enjoyed the opportunity to move around for a change of pace, commuter work was always cleaner. You were in a uniform. You had much better control of your hours. I preferred the passenger service to freight.”
From UTU to FRA
Szabo’s degree in labor relations and personnel management would serve him well over the next two decades as he got involved doing union work for the United Transportation Union (UTU).
“My father had been a local union officer,” Szabo says.
“As a kid in high school I’d do my dad’s books for him. He was the secretary/treasurer for the switchmen’s local, and so I did his books for him. And he paid me $100 a month. For a 15-year-old, it was huge money. And the majority of it went into the bank, I always saved.”
Szabo’s union career started as a local officer. When the secretary/treasurer position opened up he was asked to run for the position and he got it, which started his lengthy career with the union.
“The local legislative post for the union opened up and I always had an interest in politics,” Szabo says.
“You know I grew up in a home that was always civically involved. The hometown I came from, Riverdale — we always called it a community ofvolunteers. Mom and Dad were civically active, so it was just one of those core family values.”
Szabo spent two terms as a local officer before moving onto a statewide position, “I was elected state legislative director for the union, which was a full-time position, so I went on leave of absence from Metra at that time.”
While expanding his railroad industry career, Szabo was also growing a political career back home in Riverdale, getting appointed chairman of the local zoning board by the time he was 25. From there it was a steady climb over the next 14 years from park board to village board and eventually to Mayor of Riverdale.