All the Livelong Day
George J. Cahill Jr. reflects on his tenure working on the railroad
Published in 2021 Connecticut Super Lawyers magazine on October 12, 2021
On Nov. 9, 1978, George J. Cahill Jr. won his first jury verdict in federal court, on behalf of a train conductor against the rail company Conrail. That night, instead of celebrating, Cahill worked the controls of a passenger train between New Haven and Grand Central Terminal as he had numerous times before. He was also a train conductor. For Conrail.
But not for much longer.
“The top management for Conrail in Philadelphia, when they heard I hit them for $600,000 that day, they were very upset,” Cahill says. “They told the superintendent in New Haven at the time, Larry Forbes, that I was fired for disloyalty. He told me that they were more upset about the fact that I earned $60 that night as a conductor than the $600,000 verdict.”
That was the end of a rail career for Cahill that laid tracks in his family more than 200 years ago.
Cahill was a fifth-generation railroad worker. His grandfather and father were conductors, and the latter also served as union leader. His great-great-uncle was killed on the job back in the 1880s, prior to the passage of the Federal Employers Liability Act. “So he received nothing,” Cahill says. “What they would do back then, if you were seriously injured or killed, they would offer a job to another member of your family. That was your only reward.”
Cahill started at New Haven Railroad in summers during high school, as a clerk, trackman, laborer and caboose inspector. After a stint in the Marines, he returned to the railroad throughout college and law school, as a block operator, brakeman, skate man and conductor.
“I would work a train into Boston, go to school all day, and work a train back at night, and I would get continuous pay,” he says. “I would go to law school with my train uniform on, and initially my friends made fun of me, but when they realized how much money I was making, they all wanted jobs on the railroad.”
Cahill so enjoyed his time there—the pay, benefits, people—that he suspects he would have retired as a conductor were it not for law school. He also knew the upsides could come at a steep cost. “It’s a very dangerous place to work,” he says.
When Cahill was a skate man, the train crew would push cars up humps to roll down a hill and be switched to one of 44 different tracks. Down on the track, Cahill would stop them. “As a car is coming down maybe 10 miles an hour on the track, if there’s a clear alley, meaning no cars on that track, a car would run into another and make a hitch onto them,” he explains. “You set up a skate on one of the rails of the track, and it catches the wheel on a rolling car, and it stops that car probably three quarters of the time. One quarter of the time, that doesn’t stop the car. You have to chase it, climb the ladder, go up on the top of the car and turn the wheel to put the handbrake on. That was extremely dangerous—especially at night, or in cold weather.”
His closest call occurred when working as a brakeman on the Providence and Worcester Railroad while studying for the bar. On the way back from delivering freight cars, the conductor opened a switch that put them on the wrong track. “We came through Worcester doing about 20 miles an hour, but with probably 75 heavy cars that we were pulling,” he says. “In front of us, there was a Boston and Maine freight train that was stopped. We saw the caboose. We knew our train couldn’t stop, so we all jumped off the locomotive, out the front door. I was the last person out, and I was not that far from the caboose when I dove off. When our train hit that caboose, it went probably 20 feet in the air and landed about five feet from me, crumpled up like an accordion.”
The upside? “It made it easier for me as an attorney because I knew how things operated on the railroad,” he says, “which is a completely different world.”
It’s also an evolving world, Cahill says. Changes include the way trains are powered and the dwindling number of freight trains. But it’s the advances in safety practices that he takes the most pride in. “There have been many, many changes due to injuries,” he says. “And the reason for those changes is the lawsuits that make them pay for those injuries.”
From the Rails to the Ring
In his spare time, George was an amateur boxer with over 60 fights in Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) matches, and in the New York City and Massachusetts Golden Glove tournaments. In 1973, he was selected
for a national AAU team as a middleweight.