Good Work, Stories

When the Whistle Blows – Deborah Howard

Some people make their living doing unusual jobs. Others do ordinary work with particular skill and dedication. Still others offer their talents as true amateurs, because they love what they do.

They all do good work. And we’d like to showcase their efforts here. Check back weekly for the newest essay in the Good Work series.


Fan Ruixian hears the whistle blow, and she is gone. She works on the Xi’an to Kunming train route as a train attendant, checking passengers on board, collecting tickets, cleaning and solving problems.

Chinese trains may not always run with military precision, but the attendants do. Fan Ruixian leaves early to catch the train from her home in Baoji, and travels about 90 minutes to the Xi’an train station, where she joins the other members of the crew in the crew room. Here they prepare any paperwork, tidy their uniform, and make certain that their hair is firmly tied up. Ms Fan also teaches short classes on the train for young migrant children travelling with their parents back home or to a new job. This work takes preparation time as well.

Train time sees her march in formation with the crew to the train, stand in formation and then march to her particular carriage where she checks general tidiness, then stands at attention at the entrance until passengers arrive. Tickets are checked, suitcases handed up to the frail or elderly, questions answered. Finally the train is ready to depart and her special keys come out, the mistress of the mobile home with her chatelaine. Train doors are locked, and the bathroom doors are locked, only to be opened when the train has left the city limits.

Once underway, Fan Ruixian walks through her two carriages collecting the paper tickets and exchanging them for ‘credit card’ plastic tickets. This exchange gives her the information to wake sleeping passengers 30 minutes before their destination is reached. She can also check to see that no young romantics have smuggled a partner from the cheap hard seat carriages to the hard or soft sleeper carriages…. There’s always one or two who try!

Tickets collected, she tucks herself into her tiny office at the end of the carriage and writes up the first report… passengers present and accounted for; train tidiness attended to. Fan Ruixian’s shift is 12 hours on, 6 hours off for the 72 hour return journey. During those 12 hours she sweeps the corridors, collects rubbish from the passenger cubicles, wakes departing passengers, locks and unlocks the bathrooms, remakes the bunks when passengers leave and is available for any emergency.

Her 6 hour break allows her to eat in the restaurant carriage and sleep in the bunks in the staff carriage. This carriage is a ‘silent’ carriage – no chatting, no lights, just sleeping attendants.

When the train reaches Kunming, Fan Ruixian returns each passenger’s paper ticket, makes sure they all leave, cleans the carriage, remakes the bunks, removes the dirty bed linen, makes her last report and then heads for the crew room to wait for the turnaround, where the whole process starts over.

A mobile life, one that takes her away from her family, but one she enjoys and where she feels she is doing good work.

You can view more of Deborah Howard’s work here.

We are interested in stories and storytellers for this ongoing series. If you have an idea for a Good Work piece, please contact us.

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