DON GOLDE looked at his watch - 10 a.m. - and swung himself up steep metal steps onto the hulking locomotive. He slipped nimbly along a catwalk and into the engine's cab and his train, its bulky, sooty boxcars loaded with lumber and building supplies, began rumbling out of the rail yard and down a stretch of tired track.
As the graffiti-dappled locomotive passed by, grizzled men in dusty overalls and grease-streaked work boots waved. One almost expected to see a hobo or two stowing away, or some cows to be shooed from the track.
But this was not the Old West or Depression-era Chicago; it was a week ago in Western Queens. And the train was bound not for Albuquerque or Rock Island, but rather a rail yard in Nassau County - Hicksville, to be exact. This train, a daily "job" known as the RS-30 run, would pass neither desert nor prairie nor mountain range, but instead a landscape of well-tended lawns, shopping malls, backyard swimming pools, decks and patios, and herds of minivans jostling on nearby roadways.
Though well hidden from many Long Islanders, rail freight is alive and chugging on Long Island.
"When I tell most people I'm a conductor, they usually say, "Oh, the L.I.R.R.?"' said Mr. Golde, 26, of Nesconset. "Then I say, 'No, I work on rail freight.' They say, 'What's that?' and I say, 'You know the little trains you set up around your Christmas tree?' "
One of the two brakemen on the train, Jeremy Lally, 29, of Brightwaters, laughed in agreement. "They can't believe they still have freight trains on the Island," he said.
The train is operated by the New York & Atlantic Railway, a short-haul rail freight company that pays the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to run freight trains on the Long Island Rail Road's tracks.
New York & Atlantic trains operate mostly out of the Fresh Pond Yard in Glendale, Queens, but it has small yards in Farmingdale, Hicksville and Deer Park.
It ranges as far east as Southold and Bridgehampton, transporting a wide range of cargo, including lumber, plastic, recyclables, chemicals, food, iron and steel, lumber and building materials, paper products and scrap.
"We bring animal feed to Eastport, propane to Bridgehampton and lumber to Speonk," Mr. Golde said.
Since it was created in the privatization of the L.I.R.R.'s rail freight operation in 1997, the New York & Atlantic has seen its volume rise to 18,000 carloads of freight last year, compared with 9,400 cars in its first year. But Ron Ziel of Southampton, a historian of Long Island railroading, said the freight volume was nowhere near the peak level around 1960, when more than 100,000 freight cars were being moved by rail.
The New York & Atlantic has inherited a rich history of freight railroading on Long Island going back some 170 years, before the L.I.R.R. dominated the market. The inheritors of that mantle on this weekday morning are four trainmen in their 20's, working the RS-30. Compared to a fast-moving, air-conditioned commuter train that seems hermetically sealed in shiny metal, riding in a large diesel on a summer's day is a rich sensory experience. In the locomotive, one sits much higher than in a commuter train (except for the upper tier on the double-deckers) and large windows provide panoramic views. When they are opened, the warm air whooshes in and the diesel exhaust mingles with the smell of wildflowers along the tracks and hot asphalt from the roadways down below.
It is not wasted on Mr. Golde, who threw open the window as the train approached the Wonder Bread factory in Jamaica, then the William E. Martin & Sons spice company, then a depot for a trash carting company. In the span of 30 seconds, three distinct smells flooded the cab, each tinged with diesel fumes. "Favorite part of my day," Mr. Golde shouted above the pounding of the engine. "We see a side of Long Island the commuter will never see."
Passengers on fast commuter trains get only a quick view of Long Island, and often through plexiglass windows clouded by age or grime. They zoom right by the spur lines that veer off into commercial yards and warehouses. Mr. Golde said many of those have become useless, rusted and overgrown, but some still function, providing freight access into small industrial yards, such as Southern Container in Deer Park, where trains pull off the Ronkonkoma branch and into a warehouse big enough to fit eight train cars. Farther east is a two-mile track that serves the Brookhaven National Laboratory.
With 63 employees and 14 locomotives, the New York & Atlantic Railway does eight regular runs daily except Sundays. It operates on 235 miles of the L.I.R.R.'s roughly 700 miles of commuter track, and on another 20 miles of freight-only track in Queens and Brooklyn, said Fred L. Krebs, the railroad's president. The New York & Atlantic has 85 steady customers, ranging from Gallo Wine to Prima Asphalt to Favorite Plastics, he said.
Mr. Krebs estimated that less than 2 percent of the Island's freight is handled by rail. He said his company would like to increase rail freight on Long Island and there are plenty of customers out there. But the size of his yard in Queens prevents the company from expanding operations much further. "We're going to run into a capacity issue soon," he said. "There's only so much track here before we run out of space for our cars. We could make a dent, but we wish we could do more."
The state has plans for a truck-rail transfer station on the grounds of Pilgrim State Hospital in Brentwood that would increase capacity and relieve some of the congestion on the Long Island Expressway and other roads. But Albany has not committed the money to build it.
Besides space, Mr. Krebs said, there are other difficulties in running a freight line in suburbia, including complaints about noise and exhaust.
"I've worked on rail freight all over the country, and this is definitely the toughest place to run a freight line," he said. "There are just so many people here. Farther out on the Island it's less of a problem because there are fewer trains and fewer people, but this is a tough place to be. I guess it's true: If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere."
In addition to Mr. Golde and Mr. Lally, the other two crew members on the RS-30 are the engineer, Jason Minarovich, 24 from Brooklyn, and a brakeman, Louis Echevarria, 24, from Holtsville.
"Boxcars don't talk back," Mr. Golde said, describing his decision to go into freight rail rather than a commuter line. "I don't have to listen to, 'Oh, I forgot my ticket' or 'I left my cellphone on the train.' "
Yes, but he does have to negotiate a tricky matrix of permissions to work around the schedule of the country's busiest commuter railroad. The crew is constantly seeking clearance from L.I.R.R. dispatchers and block tower operators who prefer that the freight trains not travel during rush hour in either direction, giving New York & Atlantic crews long stretches of sitting around in the locomotive waiting for track space. "The name of the game is ducking in and out of the clear of the regular railroad trains," Mr. Golde said. "You have to know the train ahead of you, the one behind you, and the train behind him. It keeps us constantly on our toes."
He reached into his bag and grabbed a fat blue binder as thick as a phone book: A timetable for every L.I.R.R. train. He slapped it down on the console, a large metal box with a sign on it warning "Danger 600 Volts," and began thumbing through it. For the trains they usually deal with, the crew has much of the timetable memorized.
To take advantage of small windows of opportunity, most New York & Atlantic trains are powered at all times by three running locomotives. "We could pull the train with one engine," Mr. Minarovich explained, "but there are times when you have to maneuver between two commuter trains and you need more power to accelerate."
The RS-30 crew's day began at 7 a.m., when they began assembling their train at the Fresh Ponds Yard. Putting the train together is a slow, painstaking process, and crew members radioed directions to Mr. Minarovich, sitting on a swivel chair in the lead locomotive, Engine 271, tending to a console of levers and dials and radios. He worked the throttle with his right hand and two different brake levers with his left, one for the locomotives and one for the train cars. He was picking up various cars by backing into them, so their couplings connected.
Mr. Minarovich, an Army reservist, recently returned from Iraq, where he served nine months as a military police officer. He started working on freight trains at age 18, he said.
"Only 34 years to go before retirement," he said. "Almost there." An engineer or conductor who is eager to work all the overtime the company offers can earn as much as $90,000 a year, he said.
The men are all younger than the train they're operating. The locomotives are 60 feet long and weigh 250,000 pounds. Most were built by General Motors in the 1970's. The MP-15's have 1,500 horsepower and the GP 38's have 2,000, Mr. Minarovich said, and each holds about 2,000 gallons of diesel fuel.
"That'll last us a week, pulling a heavy train all over Long Island, out to the Hamptons, Riverhead, Brooklyn, all over," he said.
Before heading out to Long Island, the crew had to head down a freight track into Brooklyn to drop several boxcars of Corona beer to a distributor.
"That's my dream back there," Mr. Minarovich said, en route. "A train full of beer."
The crew's Long Island destinations were a lumber company, a scrap metal recycler and a waste removal company, all in Hicksville, and a Farmingdale building supplier. The crew was told that because of track work they had to take the Babylon line east and then double back to those destinations from Babylon. They train headed past Jamaica station toward the Babylon line and picked up speed.
"Now you're gonna see some railroading," Mr. Golde said, as the train motored along at the speed limit - 45 m.p.h. for freight trains, well below the 80-m.p.h. limit for commuter trains - on a new stretch of track.
"See these concrete ties?" Mr. Minarovich said. "That's the new track they're laying now. See how smooth it rides, like a Cadillac."
As the train hurtled through commuter stations, passengers on the platforms stared as if this strange string of faded boxcars towed by three roaring engines blowing black smoke had just taken a wrong turn out of a Wild West film.
A bit west of the Babylon station, Mr. Minarovich stopped the train, hopped from the locomotive onto the tracks and stepped carefully over the third rail. Then he walked the length of the train and climbed into the locomotive at the other end, switching controls to make it the lead locomotive. Then he pulled the train onto the Central Extension, a single, unelectrified track connecting the Babylon and Ronkonkoma lines.
At traffic crossings, Mr. Minarovich let loose the mandatory four blasts on the train whistle, a five-horn cluster above the locomotive's headlights. Up close, it sounded like a trombone choir from the heavens. At most crossings his serenades were played to long lines of cars waiting for the train to pass. None of their passengers seemed pleased. "People throw bottles and curse at us and give obscene gestures" at crossings, Mr. Golde said. "I've never heard my mother insulted so much."
"You always have drivers who think they can beat us at a crossing," Mr. Minarovich said. "They say the average engineer kills three people in his career." He described how he once totaled a car at a crossing, but the driver was spared serious injury. He also ran over a man sleeping on the tracks.
"I saw him at the last minute and then ran back and pulled him out from under the train," he recalled. "His arm was cut off. I thought it was a bum, but he was dressed nice and had credit cards in his wallet. The police said he was drunk, though." He also survived.
In Hicksville, the train stopped and Mr. Golde hopped down onto the tracks and walked back to a large lever connected to an antiquated-looking track switch. He reached down and with no small effort cranked the lever over to switch the track, so that the train could enter the yard. The train was backed into an asphalt lot with several large industrial buildings around it. The crew maneuvered the train to pick up three cars and leave three empties in their place.
"These three are filled with contaminated soil going to Utah," Mr. Golde said. Then they went to pick up three hoppers of scrap metal from American Steel Processing in the yard, but a man in a crane was still filling the last one, using a huge electromagnet and pulling scrap metal out of an open-top tractor trailer, loading it into the boxcar.
Faced with a wait, two crew members got a ride to a nearby Wendy's for some lunch. The other two began an impromptu whiffle ball game against the backstop of a load of bricks they recently delivered.
Heading back later, they passed industrial parks, warehouses, factories and storage facilities, as well as sumps and auto salvage yards and concrete plants. Approaching Jamaica station, Mr. Golde said, "Right about now, they're going to ask us if there are any 'highs or wides,' meaning oversize cars."
A moment later, sure enough, a voice crackled over the radio: "RS-30, any highs or wides?"
Mr. Golde winked and said: "See? The rail freight man is always one step ahead."