It’s hard to know exactly why Joshua Phillips is so fascinated with trains. It could be their rhythm, enormity or, maybe, their constancy of daily arrivals and departures.
Phillips is mostly unable to speak, except to voice certain numbers and words, because of a severe form of autism.
But every afternoon, seven days per week, the 43-year-old Amtrak aficionado paces the San Luis Obispo station platform, eager to spring into action and help with tasks, greet workers and monitor every train-related movement with an eagle eye.
Phillips has spent much of the past three decades around trains, and for the past 17 years he’s been part of the landscape at the San Luis Obispo station. He’s either accompanied by his father, 73-year-old Michael Phillips, or caregivers.
Amtrak crew members let him load their luggage at the start of shifts. Once the trains halt and doors open, he greets working crew members who sometimes offer him an apple, a fruit that he loves.
Then Phillips makes himself available to help out. He hauls trash bags. Before departures, he latches car doors shut, giving the windows an authoritative little knock to let the crew member inside know it’s a go.
It’s a rare day that’s he’s not here. It can be 100 degrees, and he’ll be out there in the sun waiting for the train to arrive, getting so excited, jumping up and down. I think trains are what get him through life.
Bob Fritz, Amtrak station agent
Phillips is accepted by the Amtrak crew as an unofficial mate, a kind of volunteer. Some have known him for more than 20 years. They greet him with smiles and a cheerful, “Hi Josh.”
“It’s a rare day that’s he’s not here,” said Bob Fritz, an Amtrak station agent. “It can be 100 degrees, and he’ll be out there in the sun waiting for the train to arrive. I think trains are what get him through life.”
Phillips displays his passion with hand waving, yelps, and general direction of traffic. Train engineers know precisely where to stop, but he helps them along anyway.
“I don’t know why he likes trains so much,” said Michael Phillips, a retired Grover Beach pharmacist. “It might have been that my wife took a train ride when he was still in the womb. Even at the age of 3, he loved to watch the trains go by.”
On a recent Friday, Phillips looked the part, dressed in workman-like white pants, a railroad-themed hat, and a shirt featuring an Amtrak train. He sported a scanner radio strapped to his belt.
Upon the arrival and departures of Amtrak trains, Phillips performed a dramatic crouch — as if he were ready to leap into the air, spreading his hands into the air like a bird ready for sendoff in his excitement.
He’ll briefly holler out sounds, occasionally forming words. Josh calls out “14” to announce the coming of the 14 Coast Starlight train or “11” to announce the 11 Coast Starlight. He’ll call out “Pop” to get his father’s attention.
Phillips lives in a San Luis Obispo group home — supervised around the clock. During his mornings, he participates in a program called PathPoint, a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities or disadvantages “achieve self-sufficiency and dignity.” He socializes and performs tasks like folding laundry.
I don’t know why he likes trains so much. It might have been that my wife took a train ride when he was still in the womb.
Michael Phillips, Josh’s father
Then in the afternoons, Phillips assumes his post to monitor the two afternoon Coast Starlights — one northbound and the other southbound — between 3 and 4 p.m. Four days a week, Michael Phillips accompanies his son to the station; three days per week, Josh is joined by a caregiver.
Michael Phillips keeps an eye on his son, making “sure he’s not getting into any trouble,” but also gives him space to conduct his business. Father and son share a bond formed by hours upon hours spent with trains.
“We have taken trains to Seattle, to San Diego and other parts of the country,” Michael Phillips said. “We took a train ride to Chicago one year. We ran into workers who knew him all the way out there because they’d worked here in California.”
On volunteer days, Phillips isn’t allowed to tote passengers’ bags, but crew members who work overnight shifts typically allow him the honor.
“The girls generally take to him and let him carry their bags,” Michael Phillips said. “The guys can be a little hesitant at first, but he usually wins them over.”
Occasionally, frustrations have cropped up.
“Some passengers would come up to Josh and ask for information,” Michael Phillips said. “He can’t really form sentences, so he’d turn his back and walk away. I try to explain to them what’s going on.”
Fritz said that he’s amazed that the routine hasn’t changed for decades.
“The arrival of one train to the next isn’t much different,” Fritz said. “It’s pretty much the same, but it’s amazing how excited he gets each time. He’s really into trains.”