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A Meteorological Railroad Man: Conductor Travis D. Ford

DOWN IN THE SOUTHWESTERN CORNER of New England, where Connecticut resembles a funnel draining toward New York, dour commuters on the Metro-North train suddenly smile when they see Travis D. Ford in his blue conductor’s uniform. The day instantly seems a bit more promising, the rat race a little less daunting. “Nice to see you,” beams Ford at a man in an expensive suit. “Good morning, dear,” he croons to an elderly lady, taking her elbow as she boards. A harried-looking executive brushes past, nods sharply at Ford, and says, “I need you today.”

“Hey, Travis,” says a woman dressed for success, “which car are you going to be in?” Ford points with one hand and uses the other to high-five a boarding passenger.

“And how are you today?” he asks a man sitting with his briefcase already opened for business. “I don’t know yet,” replies the man. “Let’s just see what the weather is first.”

Ford stands squarely in the aisle and addresses the assembled in his strong, gravelly baritone. “Good morning! Pleased to have you here! And now here’s your extended five-day weather report!” He speaks in italics and exclamation points, partly to be heard over the rattle of the train and partly as a matter of style.

On this day his report goes like this (read this as quickly as you can, for a sense of how Ford speaks): “Today’s high will be in the mid-fifties under mostly cloudy skies, with a 40 percent chance for shower activity. Winds will be light. The evening low will be 50, it will be mostly cloudy, and we stand a 90 percent chance of occasional rain. Tomorrow we can expect some shower activity with a high of 60. Looking ahead to Thursday, there remains a 70 percent chance of rain activity with a high once again of 60. On Friday we’re expecting some clouds in the atmosphere and some scattered thunderstorm activity, with a high of 63 and a low of 47. Saturday should be a nice day, mostly sunny, with 53 for the high and 42 for the low. And that’s your five-day extended forecast.”

By this point most people in the car are watching Ford with delight or amusement, though one stoic guy in a gray suit, aisle seat, three rows up, keeps his head buried resolutely in his briefcase. But Ford is not finished, not by a long shot. He knows that his weather report tickles people, gives them a little show, but New York is a cold, hard town, so he likes to administer a couple of booster shots of cheer.

“Have a nice day, all day,” he continues. “I wish you a good evening and a pleasant and safe tomorrow! It’s been a pleasure to have you on Metro-North.” He pauses, then pours it on for the finish. “You owe it to yourself to have a very enjoyable day. You deserve it! In short, sock it to ‘em! Take no prisoners! Storm the fort! Go all the way, and have a real good day to-day!”

People chuckle, applaud, look at each other and grin. Even the stoic guy in the gray suit can’t resist Ford’s last flourish and cracks a smile, looking around for reassurance that he’s not the only one having fun. A tourist from France hustles up to Ford and asks if he can stand next to him for a picture. Ford is used to all of it. It comes with the territory.

HE HASN'T ALWAYS been a performing meteorological railroad man. His previous profession was computer operator, which provided a living but little latitude for theatricality. When his company moved to California in the 1970s, he opted to stay rooted in Connecticut, where he was born, married his high school sweetheart, and raised four daughters. He lives in Hamden now. He’s tall, with a tidy paunch and some gray showing beneath his conductor’s cap. His wife won’t let him divulge his age because that would divulge hers, but he appears to be in his vigorous mid-fifties.

The weather report originated one day in 1986 soon after Ford started what he refers to as “conductoring.” A passenger was wondering about the day’s weather and was startled when Ford spontaneously and dramatically recited the current climatic conditions. Then it was Ford’s turn to be startled—other passengers clapped. A star was born.

He memorizes his daily report after consulting newspapers, the Weather Channel, and a weather radio. He also announces scores and updates for all important ball games, complete with dramatic re-creation of key plays (“Starks drives to the basket past two defenders—and scores!”), particularly if the games involve Notre Dame or his favorite New York teams—the Yankees, Knicks, and Giants.

Sports and weather may be Ford’s signature acts, but they’re just part of his gift to the passengers on Metro-North. “When you get on my car,” he says, “you know that if I have anything to do with it, you’re going to have a grade-A excellent ride to New York City. My object is to make people relax, to wipe out that little degree of paranoia some people have at the beginning of the day. If I can get you feeling good for a few minutes, I did my job. It doesn’t cost anything to be concerned and to show I enjoy being with them. And they give it right back to me; they spark me. It causes passengers to be friendly with each other, too. I’ve even seen people exchange addresses after I do the weather.”

His passengers love to talk about him. “The bonhomie he creates in the car is very unusual,” says attorney Warren S. Goodman, who can’t help smiling at the idea.

“People get on the train, they look grumpy, and he makes them smile,” adds Barbara Nachman from Rye Brook. “You can’t not respond to him. He’s a real antidote to the impersonality that pervades our society.” She pauses, a little embarrassed by her earnestness, and then says even more earnestly, “I wish I could be more like him.”

People send fan letters about him to Metro-North, and the company has used him in its commercials. He’s been on the Today show and Good Day New York and has been written about in several New York and Connecticut papers. He loves his job and shows it, and people love him for that.

A few minutes out of Grand Central, Ford goes into his second stand-up routine. “I’ll say good-bye to you now,” he begins, and then recites in rapid-fire singsong, “Auf Wiedersehen, arrivederci, sayonara, ciao, hasta luego, adios, good-bye, so long, and farewell, au revoir and shalom.” He pauses for a breath. “If I’ve missed anyone, I’m sorry,” he says, then proceeds to say good-bye in Greek, Turkish, Swahili, Hungarian, Filipino, Russian, Danish, Chinese, and a United Nations of other languages, all in less than 15 seconds. More grins, more happy applause. Ford has them ready for another day in the city.

“Watch your step leaving the train,” he says, as we pull into Grand Central. “Don’t forget anything. God bless and have a nice day.”

A commuter rushing past sees Ford on the platform and says, “Oh no! I missed the weather!” He means he missed Travis Ford, the sunshine of Metro-North.