By Jess Kelsey
In May of 1972, Mustang local David Townsend went to work for Santa Fe Railway as a summer job. Little did he know, he’d begin a career of more than 40 years traveling across the nation’s railroads.
Townsend, who is a locomotive engineer for BNSF, sets out on this last route today from Oklahoma to Tulsa as he retires from the job he’s dedicated most of his life to.
“It’s changed quite a bit in 45 years,” said Townsend, who has seen unimaginable change in the technology of locomotives in America over 40 years.
Townsend said he’s seen the size of the crew decrease by more than half, as well as drastic changes in the size, weight and length of locomotives since the early 1970s.
According to Townsend, in the 1980s, train sizes would range up to 75 cars weighing 4-5,000 tons, but today’s average can range approximately 120 cars of up to 10-20,000 tons depending on what is being hauled.
Townsend, who originally started out as a fireman on the crew, eventually learned how to run a train using analog-style controls. That has since evolved into fully digital control screens, which Townsend said has been amazing to see progress.
Retiring from the locomotive industry will be bittersweet for Townsend as he leaves behind an industry he truly enjoys working for.
“That’s all I’ve ever done is run engines,” said Townsend. “Whenever you’ve worked some place for 45 years and you do not mind going to work, you’re probably in the right place.”
When asked what were some of the most unique items Townsend has transported during his time in the industry, he answered with two trips that have stuck out the most in his mind. That includes one where he picked up radioactive uranium fuel near Denver, Colorado, as well as his experiences transporting numerous windmill blades throughout the state of Oklahoma.
During his time in the locomotive industry Townsend has traveled some of the most scenic routes, including one of his favorites, the Washington State Cascade Tunnel, which is an eight-mile tunnel under one of the nation’s most picturesque mountain views.
The sights Townsend has seen have been captured within his more than 40,000 photographs shot on a 35mm camera that he carried with him his whole career. This love of photography will carry over to Townsend’s retired lifestyle as he works to develop some of the negatives he has kept during his 40-year career.
“It’s going to be a culture shock because I don’t know anything else,” said Townsend of his upcoming retirement. “I don’t even know where to start.”
Townsend will also be busy fixing and updating his home in Mustang, as well as restoring a 1965 Ford pickup that he father previously owned.
He also plans to continue volunteering with the Oklahoma Railway Museum in Oklahoma City, which he has been a part of for more than 13 years teaching classes as well as running their popular Thomas the Tank Engine attraction.
Reflecting on his career in the locomotive industry, Townsend said the notion that the railroad business is dying is false.
“What people associate with railroads is passengers. That’s why people think the railroad is dying off, but they are hauling more tons right now than they ever have in history of the industry,” said Townsend.
Townsend said he will miss his career, but he looks forward to living a more structured life as a retiree.
“I really like living here in Mustang, I always have,” said Townsend.