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IBMer David Hilliard on His Role as a Locomotive Engineer for the Catskill Mountain Railroad

David Hilliard's skills as an IBMer often overlap with his skills as a locomotive engineer.

David Hilliard at Catskill Mountain Railroad

David Hilliard at Catskill Mountain Railroad, Image by Natalie Chitwood

IBMer David Hilliard has always had a passion for trains. Upon moving to Kingston, New York, he learned that the Catskill Mountain Railroad was looking for volunteers and jumped at the opportunity. 

Hilliard began as a flagger in 2008 and worked his way up from there to brakeman, then conductor, and finally to engineer—a position he’s held since 2014. His IBM career has also involved several moves. Hilliard, currently IBM
z/OS® Security Support provider for ICSF, System SSL and Encryption Facility, has worked on
IBM Z® since 1982. He was a programmer through 2000, and from there moved to z/OS security.

As a locomotive engineer, Hilliard keeps up on train maintenance. He checks the oil, adds antifreeze, adds water to the coolant system and more. “When the oil is low in a locomotive, we add about eight gallons,” he notes. “It’s not like a car, where you just add a quart.”

Hilliard’s skills as an IBMer often overlap with his skills as a locomotive engineer. The biggest overlap is customer service. “With IBM, I get called in the middle of the night or on weekends. Those customers are happy to reach me because their system is down and I’m going to get it back up,” he says. “When the railroad has events, I have upwards of 375 passengers. They’re excited to see me, and they’re depending on me to take them on a magical ride to the North Pole, or wherever it is we’re going.” 

Problem determination is also key for Hilliard in both positions—especially the importance of troubleshooting to reduce costly downtime.

A Rich History

The Catskill Mountain Railroad tracks are nearly 150 years old, connecting the Catskill Mountains with the Hudson River and opening the interior of New York to the world. Various railroads used the tracks to carry freight and tourist traffic, but the future of the line became uncertain when the Catskill Mountain Branch of the railroad was removed from the latest rail service in the Northeast.

Several communities called for the railroad to be saved, and in 1983, the Catskill Mountain Railroad was chartered to operate as a tourist passenger operation and a freight service. Now, the railroad hosts themed events like the Easter Bunny Express, Great Train Robbery, Peace Train, Rails of Terror, Catskill Fall Flyer and The Polar Express.

‘We Run the Train Just Like the Movie’

The Polar Express is especially interesting for Hilliard. “We run the train just like the movie,” he says. “When you board, we have chefs dressed in white hats and white coats, serving hot chocolate and chocolate chip cookies. I’m the engineer, but I also play the ‘Polar Express’ conductor where I dress up as Tom Hanks’ character and punch tickets for passengers.” The children are convinced that Hilliard is the conductor from the movie—and he has the pocket watch and golden tickets to prove it.

Hilliard is dedicated to making the experience extra special for passengers. “Sometimes, as I look through our passengers, I’ll see a young child with the typical engineer cap or overalls. They’re just so excited to be there,” he says. “I’ll ask the family to come into the locomotive and let the child start the locomotive for me. The look on everyone's faces is wonderful. They love it, and when I can make memories like that, it’s priceless. All aboard!”

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