As a locomotive engineer, freight conductor and brakeman, Daniel Florio, 36, has turned his love of railroading into a full-time career , currently working at the Wellsboro and Corning Railroad and Tioga Central Railroad in Pennsylvania.
While he has been involved with railroading on and off for the past six years, Florio recently began working full-time in the industry in February.
The former St. Marys resident had always enjoyed operating or driving anything from trucks to backhoes, even riding lawnmowers.
“I had an interest in railroads since childhood,” Florio said. “The size and power of locomotives and the challenge of being able to control that power is what sparked my interest in the industry.”
As part of his daily duties, Florio is charged with conducting daily locomotive inspections and maintaining and operating the locomotive. When needed he also works in the ground building, at switch operation or with management in car placement. He is also called upon to fulfill brakemen duties on the Tioga Central passenger train, as well as unload the railcar’s products to waiting 18-wheelers.
“The Wellsboro and Corning is experiencing a boom due to the fracking in the Marcellus Shale,” Florio added. “We haul long trains of sand cars from the interchange at Gang Mills yard operated by Norfolk Southern to the IWG (International Waste Group) facility at Wellsboro Junction.”
The company also services OSRAM and Cornell Brothers as well.
In addition, Florio is the Saturday engineer for all tourist trains, including the very popular Santa Express.
“This is actually a wonderful train to be a part of because everyone there is happy and the kids just have a way of making a long day seem not so bad. I know my kids really enjoyed it,” Florio said.
The Santa Express, similar to the popular Christmas train featured in the movie “The Polar Express”, starts the Friday after Thanksgiving and concludes in mid-December. Every Saturday and Sunday, approximately 200 passengers board the train for a one-hour ride beginning at Wellsboro Junction. According to Florio, the train is usually filled to capacity.
The journey includes a stop at the North Pole, an area constructed by railroad employees located approximately one mile north of the station. Santa Claus meets up with passengers, visiting with all children onboard.
“This year Santa gave each child a bell similar to the bell that was given in the movie. Most kids recognize this and really enjoy that,” Florio said. “Ticket agents suggest children wear pajamas to fully have a ‘Polar Express’ experience.”
Florio added that the Wellsboro and Corning Railroad and Tioga Central Railroad were recently featured in Railpace Magazine, where his wife and children are shown in a photo accompanying the story, which provides a full explanation of all things happening with the freight and passenger lines.
Daniel is a 1992 graduate of Elk County Christian High School. He is the son of Donna and Daniel Florio of St. Marys and is married to Mary Jo. Together the couple has four children, twin daughters Morgan and Kirsten and sons Zachary and Blaise. Florio is the older sibling of Debra Lynn Rippey.
Prior to moving to Wellsboro, Florio helped coach football at ECCHS for nine years.
“This was a very great experience in my life. I coached under and with some good men who I respect a lot today,” Florio said. “It’s kinda cool to cross paths with a former player and recall events from practices and games. Certain moments, good or bad, never leave you.”
Florio added that small-town life is all he’s ever known.
“I went from a small town to a smaller town. I don't know anything else nor do I want to. I like it that I can send my kids to the store or to a friend’s house and not have any worries,” he said. “Getting to know people in a small parish helps to make you really feel like you belong. I felt that way at Queen of the World (in St. Marys) and am starting to feel that way here (in Wellsboro) at St. Peter’s already.”
According to Florio, his parents and wife have all contributed to his career’s success.
My parents always backed me in anything I did and stood behind me, even when I made mistakes or got myself in trouble, and when I was younger I managed to do that quite a bit,” Florio said. “They taught me how to be a good person, a good husband, and a good father, all by example. I hope that in time I can learn to be as giving as they are.”
He also praised his wife, whom he said keeps him motivated.
“On bad days she has a way of fixing the problem. My wife also keeps me spiritually in check,” Florio said. “She is a great mother and wife who puts Jesus first in this family and makes sure that when I start forgetting that, she reminds me.
Outside of work, Florio treasures spending time with his children.
“I've learned to value my time with them because of the unpredictable work hours. Even if it’s just playing kickball in the backyard or taking a bike ride, I love doing anything with them,” he said.
Florio also enjoys hunting and fishing. He described a new family tradition which involves watching either Penn State or Miami Dolphin football games while enjoying a “football food” party, complete with pizza, hot wings and a Peter Straub’s Special Dark for himself.
Life on the railroad
Florio began his railroading career with the Tioga Central, which at the time was not affiliated with any freight operation. In 2008 the Myles Group purchased the operating rights for both the passenger and freight lines. At that time, Florio began working on the freight line when the merge occurred.
While every railroad has its own qualification program, Florio’s training lasted approximately two years in order to become a qualified engineer. It entailed working 15 days as a brakeman trainee, passing a test to become a qualified brakeman/conductor, and working as a brakeman until his supervisor felt he was prepared to become a student engineer. At that point Florio was required to pass rule classes, air brake classes and spend numerous hours being trained by a qualified engineer in the locomotive.
When his supervisor felt he was prepared for engineer qualification, Florio underwent a ride check and took a written exam on which he was required to score a minimum of 85 percent. The test was comprised of handling questions, air brake questions and basic safety questions. As part of the ride check, Florio’s supervisor questioned him on every action he took. The last portion of his qualification was a drug and alcohol test.
Florio got his start in railroading after met the president of the railroad in 2005 during an open house event being held for the tourist train.
After inquiring about becoming a brakeman, the president asked when he would be interested in starting.
“I told him I was free on the opening day of the tourist season. I showed up and they started showing me how to inspect engines and it all grew from that day,” Florio said. “There are definitely easier ways to make a living. It’s loud, dirty, time-consuming, at times dangerous, and very unpredictable work hours.”
He noted that working outside at 5 a.m. in a freezing rain storm is not his idea of fun, but at times this needs to be done.
“If you can’t handle weather conditions, hot or cold, wet or dry, I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s not a glamorous job as some people may think. It’s physically and mentally hard work,” Florio explained.
“On the other hand, if you like a challenge, if you can handle machinery, and don’t mind a little snow down the back it can be very rewarding. Running SD-40 locomotives with 60-plus cars behind you, getting them to their destination safety, (and) following all FRA rules is very rewarding.”
Florio added that snow, sleet, rain, impatient drivers and trying to get up hills when the rails are wet pose significant challenges. Wet tracks may cause locomotives to lose traction and experience is necessary to know how not to spin the wheels. This may damage the wheels, rails and motor, which can be costly to repair.
“Dealing with grades can be a challenge. Maintaining speed to make the grade without disobeying track speed can be difficult,” he said. “When you lose the momentum you can stall the train in the hill, which requires either reversing back and trying again or doubling the hill, which is cutting your train in two parts and returning for the cars you left at a later time. Not always a good choice.”
Currently, Florio said his future plans involve him growing with the company.
“Being able to work with individuals who have the same philosophy about railroading as I do: SAFETY FIRST, ALWAYS, NO EXCEPTIONS, PERIOD. Then getting the job at hand done are the favorite aspects of my job,” Florio explained. “I'd like to just remind everyone to please stop, look and listen at railroad crossings. Sometimes when people see the lights are flashing their first thought is to beat the train. We won’t hold you up for hours, maybe a minute or two. I've seen some very close calls unnecessarily just because people are impatient.”
He noted that engineers and conductors inside the locomotive have to deal with the consequences of such actions.
“Nobody in this industry wants to live with an impatient person’s bad decision. Just wait it out,” he said. “Take it from a person on the other side and who knows what will happen. If I have a 50-car train going 20 mph, in ideal conditions I'll need a quarter mile to stop. If you pull in front of that, what will happen is obvious.”