Hardly a day goes by without Thomas McDaniel hearing the same question he has heard for the past two years: “Wait, the railroad has a police department?”
The 35-year-old CSX Police Department special agent usually gets the question whenever he’s shooing unruly youths away from the company’s bridge over the Savannah River. But every now and then, he’ll catch a glimpse of someone eyeing the patch on the sleeve of his uniform when he’s out for lunch.
He’s a law enforcement officer just like any other. He just works for an agency you might have never heard of.
“The vast majority of people I speak to had no idea that we existed,” he said with a laugh.
McDaniel, who began his law enforcement career in 2000 at the University of Georgia Police Department, has been with the CSX force since March 2012. He said police work is something he had dreamed of doing since he was a child.
Having studied criminal justice at the University of Georgia, he said, McDaniel jumped at the first opportunity at a career in law enforcment. After more than a decade at the university, he said, he began looking for new opportunities.
Enter the railroad police.
“There’s a little under 200 of us, but that’s spread out through 23 different states and 21,000 miles of track,” McDaniel said of the agency. “When you come from a traditional agency, you’re used to having records people and dispatchers and investigators. Here, you have to wear all those hats yourself.”
Wearing multiple hats is something McDaniel does well, said David Thomerson, the special agent in charge of the company’s Florence, S.C., division.
“We always say that you can train somebody to be a police officer and they can be a police officer for any other department,” Thomerson said. “But when you come to us, you’ve got the concepts to be a police officer, but you’ve got to become a railroad police officer … Thomas quickly grasped it like a sponge soaking up water.”
McDaniel is responsible for about 500 miles of track, stretching from Greensboro, Ga., to the west and Fairfax, S.C. to the east, and as far north as Greenwood, S.C. In all, 14 counties rely on his expertise to prevent cargo thefts, trespassing and vandalism on company property.
“Certain locations deal with certain things more than others,” he said. “In Atlanta, they have a lot of problems with cargo theft. Out here, there’s more time for proactive things. There’s a lot of metal theft and a fair amount of vandalism.”
In the summertime, the agency pays special attention to bridges over waterways, which attract thrill-seeking youths, he said. CSX’s downtown Augusta bridge, in particular, sees a lot of action.
The job differs greatly from other municipal agencies, Thomerson said, as CSX’s business is “on wheels and rolling.”
“(The train) might stop in Augusta and have a problem, then make it all the way to Atlanta and Chicago before somebody realizes there’s a problem with this car,” he said. “There’s a lot of investigative work to be done.”
Traveling the long miles to see that the work is done is something McDaniel said he doesn’t mind.
“I enjoy the wide open territory,” he said. “And just like any other police agency, we have different opportunities that we can pursue in good time.”