William Cate, a Ball State University junior, volunteers as a conductor on the FairTrain. He makes sure passengers get on and off smoothly, loading and unloading the strollers, holding kids’ hands on the stairs. He logs the train’s progress back and forth between Fishers and Indianapolis and watches its clock down to the second. He waves out the window at people in cars.
On an especially busy Thursday afternoon, he even strode up and down the aisle collecting tickets.
“You look very busy tonight,” said one passenger, handing over her green fare.
“I’m a conductor, I’m a mechanic, I’m a college student,” Cate answered. “When am I not busy?”
Cate is one of three Ball State students working on the FairTrain, a rolling history museum and favorite mode of transportation to and from the Indiana State Fair.
The FairTrain operates throughout the entire Indiana State Fair. Passengers have two options for boarding locations: 71st Street in Indianapolis and on Municipal Drive in Fishers. All of the ticket sales go to the Indiana Transportation Museum, which is a nonprofit heritage railroad line that operates along 38 miles of the former Nickel Plate Road line.
“I’ve always done better when I’m busy. I run well on only about four hours of sleep,” Cate said—and that’s how much he’s getting right now. He also works the night desk at Park Hall, one of BSU’s dorms. “It’s always great seeing things get accomplished, so that’s what drives me to do this.”
While Cate works directly with people as conductor of the train, fellow Ball State students Aaron Hutchinson and Cameron Nichols work in more solitary roles.
Hutchinson, a junior from Indianapolis, is acting as engineer-in-training for the morning shift.
“Being the engineer for the day, we have to make sure that the passengers have the smoothest ride possible,” said Hutchinson, who arrives at 7 a.m. sharp for the first run at 8:45 a.m.
He ensures the brakes are ready for safe travels and the oil levels are good, and he fills out his daily logs.
Hutchinson has been a train fanatic since he was just a toddler.
“Ever since I was little, I thought it would be cool to run something big and heavy,” he said. “Without this opportunity, I wouldn’t be fulfilling a dream I’ve had since I was little.”
Being an engineer can be a stressful job, as Hutchinson has to be prepared for every outcome. “What guardrail was Tom talking about?” he calls to his brakeman Larry Elliott, a former engineer from Pendleton with more than 40 years of experience. He acts as a second pair of eyes to make sure every crossing is smooth.
“You always have to be extra cautious if you’re ever uncertain about anything,” Hutchinson said.
Jay Harmon, a veteran of the railroad from Sheridan, said Hutchinson has really improved since he first started.
“He’s successful because of his cooperation and willingness to listen,” he said.
As Hutchinson’s shift ends, Nichols takes over as engineer. Nichols, a junior from New Palestine, said trains connect people in many ways.
“Everybody you talk to comes from different backgrounds,” he said. “It really helps you to find a common thread on how you’re linked with other people.”
Nichols pointed out that none of the workers on the train receive pay.
“We’re all volunteers here,” he said. “We all enjoy working together to be able to put this on for the people.”
On days when Nichols isn’t running the train, he helps rebrand the museum’s social media presence. He’s done everything from graphic design to organizing some of the press releases put out by the museum.
“Being an advertising major, someday I would like to create my own startup job by doing ads for nonprofit groups,” he said.
Nichols and Cate also help work with the restoration team at the museum to keep these train cars in top shape.
“I really, truly value historic preservation,” Cate said. “It’s a part of my childhood. I grew up immersed in the railroad.”
The Indiana Transportation Museum heritage railroad is one of only five heritage railroads in Indiana.
“It’s one of very few in the United States that runs in a metro area,” Nichols said.
“How original it is, is uncanny,” said David Wilcox, vice chairman of the Indiana Transportation Museum.
Working on the train has made Cate, Hutchinson and Nichols great friends.
“We’re like an extended family here on the railroad,” Hutchinson said. “It’s a blast.”
“I don’t think I would’ve ended up at Ball State if it wasn’t for the Indiana Transportation Museum,” Nichols said. “I really don’t think I would be on the path that I am now.”
The passion for the railroads runs deep in all of the members involved.
“Railroads are essentially the foundation of America,” Hutchinson said. “It’s awesome to see people point out their backyards as we drive by. They don’t realize how close they are to the railroad.”
Hendrix Magley is a writer for BSU Journalism at the Fair, a group of 30 students telling Indiana’s stories from a trailer somewhere between the cheese sculpture and the state’s biggest sow. This Ball State University immersive-learning project works for elephant ears.