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Day in the Life: Loone the train conductor

Elron conductor Loone Astula starting her workday on the Pääsküla-Tallinn electric train. 20 November 2018.
Elron conductor Loone Astula starting her workday on the Pääsküla-Tallinn electric train. 20 November 2018. Source: Aili Vahtla/ERR

A typical two-day work cycle may see me travel hundreds of kilometres of track, sometimes just within Tallinn and the rest of Harju County, other times across the country and back. The job involves lots of human interaction, which I love, and between journeys I have downtime during which I can read, for example, which I do voraciously. My name is Loone Astula, and I am a train conductor for the Estonian passenger train operator Elron.

Given the nature of my job, my workdays often begin at very different times. Regardless of when my "morning" is, however, it always begins with coffee. I believe, at least, that this isn't a requirement so much as a ritual of sorts.

I live alone — truly my own master — although I also share my flat with a cat. I would definitely have a dog as well, but given my schedule, this unfortunately isn't feasible.

Sometimes my workday begins at 5 in the morning — in Pääsküla, a subdistrict of Tallinn's Nõmme District where Elron's depot is located. In that case, I either leave home in Lehtse at 3 in the morning, or I will take one of the last trains up the night before and sleep there. Each new cycle, or tour, begins in Pääsküla, and your tour schedule is printed exactly on a piece of paper, including a lot of detail regarding train times and destinations. If you don't read this schedule very carefully, you could end up on the wrong train altogether — this hasn't happened to me before, but it has happened.

I really admire the amount of fine work that our logisticians put into drawing up these schedules, which cover both local electric trains to Riisipere, Paldiski, Keila, Kloogaranna and Aegviidu, as well as the long-distance diesel routes, from Tallinn to Rapla, Pärnu, Viljandi, Türi, Tartu and even all the way to the Estonian border in Narva, Valga and Koidula. There are over 100 of us, with some 50 working at any given time, so it is fine work indeed that goes into piecing these schedules together.

One cycle may involve only trips between Tallinn and Türi, or Tallinn and Viljandi. Typically, however, a cycle may begin with service on some of Elron's electric trains before switching over to its long-distance routes, which are served by diesel trains.

Our schedules include platform times, according to which we report to our train 20 minutes before it is scheduled to depart. There is a screen in Pääsküla where I can check which train is currently located on which track — to ensure I don't get on the wrong one! By the time I report to my train, I am already in my uniform, having changed into it at the depot beforehand, and since we report early, I have time to stow away my personal belongings in the train's cab. We're not supposed to disturb the driver, or engineer, while they are working unless we have something important to report to them, so I will often stow my things in the cab at the opposite end of the train. During most of the journey, however, the conductors are out in the train itself along with the rest of the passengers.

One thing I will ask the driver at the end of a route if I heard them blow the whistle at an unexpected part along the way — that is, not at a crossing, as is required — is what they had seen on the tracks. Generally that is what that means if the train blows its whistle unexpectedly, and it's usually some kind of wild animal crossing ahead of the train. Sometimes I have been lucky enough to see them myself as we blow past; one time I was even lucky enough to see an entire herd of wild boar.

Tickets, please

Partly because stops are so frequent and card payments are cumulatively so time-consuming, Elron's electric trains do not take card payments, only cash or farecards, so the card terminal is one less item I have to carry with me on those routes. On every route, however, my gear includes a bag for cash and change, as well as an electronic ticket terminal which both reads farecards and barcodes on printed tickets as well as issues paper tickets for those buying their tickets on the train.

Most people are pretty good about having their cards or tickets ready for me to check, or money out to buy their tickets. You'll occasionally run into someone who ends up fishing for their wallet for some time, but at that point most will politely ask if I can come back to them later. In one funny instance, I sold one passenger a ticket, and then upon passing by a second time, they tried to buy a ticket again! I was confused, as I thought I had already sold them one, but as it turned out, they were one of a set of twins travelling together! I myself have a twin sibling as well, so it was an especially amusing coincidence for me.

Other interesting cases involve travellers who do not speak Estonian, which is not unusual in the least. I speak some English and studied German in school, but in my experience, the necessary info always gets communicated, regardless of language barrier. Sometimes others around me and a passenger will help translate. People are very kind about this, and in my experience, foreign travellers are always very polite to me.

Sometimes there will be a pause of even a few hours between the end one train journey and the beginning of my next. Depending on the situation and location, I might use this time to catch up on some sleep — the company ensures that we have somewhere to rest, eat and relax at every terminus — do some shopping or run errands, or read. I always have a book in my bag with me, as I am a voracious reader, and average some ten books per month. Not fiction, though! I like learning about new things, including all kinds of history, which fascinates me. As a child I was never sure what I wanted to grow up to be. I studied to become an accountant, and have experience working in that field as well, but it doesn't interest me anymore. Now I can tell you for sure, however, what I would have wanted to be when I grew up  — an archaeologist! It seems endlessly exciting to be able to dig history up like that.

Athletics and the arts

I grew up together with a number of siblings in the countryside in the Järva-Jaani area of Central Estonia. I excelled in athletics in my youth, even achieving a number of records. Nowadays I bike a lot during the summer, and I also love to ski, although for the past couple of years my skis have admittedly been collecting dust. Another, admittedly less athletic, passion of mine is writing poetry; I even published my own poetry collection, titled "Tundemõtted," a couple of years ago. I also attend concerts, the theatre and the cinema, when I find a performance that I think would suit my tastes. I'm not a big fan of cheap humour.

I have worked as a conductor for Elron for nearly four years already, after first hearing about the opportunity through someone I know. I love being able to talk to people, which this job naturally entails quite a bit of; we're a good fit for one another in that regard. Surprisingly, I am not even exhausted by constantly having to interact with people.

I am also content with my current living situation; it is stress-free, and I have no complaints. Sometimes the second day of my work cycle will end at 8 in the morning, other times at 1:30 or 2:30 in the afternoon, at which point I can even head home early and have the rest of the day to myself.

Living in Lehtse, which is just west of Tapa and one stop closer to Tallinn, means it is convenient enough to get home, as so many trains pass through there, especially as additional departures have been added to the schedule. Express trains do not stop at Lehtse, but in one case, I can take the train to Tapa, and seven minutes later a bus departs from Tapa to Lehtse.

Face time, not Facetime

On days off, my days begin, as always, with coffee, and typically not just one cup. I'll make myself porridge, and while I'm not one to need a lot of sleep, sometimes I'll climb back into bed after my morning coffee and porridge to read. Sometimes, admittedly, I'll end up falling asleep again while reading.

During these days off, which are usually two or three in a row, I'll take time to clean at home, but really I spend a lot of time with my children and grandchildren, of which I have two each, which is especially convenient as they live right around the corner. It is also important for me to make time to spend time in person with my girlfriends, so I make plans to see them as well.

With age, people tend to become more mature, more analytical and more even-tempered; this has been the case with me as well. One thing I have noticed over the years is that society and the world at large are in a constant state of change, but there are both positive and, unfortunately, negative changes. For example, I believe that the so-called "smart" world is actually doing us harm. Technological advancements are accompanied by IT solutions that actually end up driving people further from creativity and basic values, for example, and the virtual world and the real world have unfortunately become mixed up. This is part of why I prize spending time in person with my loved ones.

I believe people have the chance to make life better, however. The gentle movement of a butterfly's wing thousands of miles away can affect us. But in order to change, we must first decide what is important — whether to destroy, or to create.

Personally, however, I believe that one should enjoy things in the moment, as nobody knows what lies ahead. I am not terribly ambitious. I just believe people should treat people the way they want to be treated, and be kind. And enjoy the little things. I recently experienced a moment of joy when for the first time in my entire life I spotted a Eurasian hoopoe, a bird rarely seen in Estonia. It was incredible and beautiful; I'm still enchanted by it.

At the end of the day — whenever the day ends, in my case — I just go to bed when I feel it's time to go to sleep. Before I nod off, however, I have no choice — I have to read for a little bit. And of course sometimes I get caught up in what I am reading, and I end up getting to sleep too late. But I simply can't not read.

A lot of trains pass through Lehtse, including express trains that don't stop there. Trains can arrive at a station early, but they cannot depart until their scheduled departure time. Of course, factors such as temperature and humidity can affect the way the sound carries through the air, but when I am at home, I can just about set my watch to the train whistles.


Day in the Life is a new weekly series by ERR News telling the stories of everyday Estonians, their livelihoods, and their lives. If you know someone whose story you feel should be told, email us at [email protected].

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Editor: Dario Cavegn

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