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Cleveland Man Serves As AAA For Broken Locomotives

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

We're going to introduce you now to a guy with an unusual job. Jon Jaros runs Horizon Rail Services.

JON JAROS: Heading out on the east side again - got a second locomotive needs some help.

MCEVERS: It's like emergency road service meets used car salesman meets parts dealer of the locomotive world. Basically he's the guy you call when your enormous locomotive breaks down somewhere on the tracks. From a Cleveland rail yard, Ida Lieszkovszky reports.

JAROS: Here we go, hot start.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN RATTLING)

IDA LIESZKOVSZKY, BYLINE: In the heart of Cleveland's industrial area sits a turn-of-the-century roundhouse. There are old trains strewn about here - some gutted to the core, others fixed up shiny and new. These locomotives are enormous. Each can weigh a couple hundred tons. Anyone who's spent any time around toddlers, like this 19-month-old, knows the appeal of these monstrous machines.

MAX: Hoo, hoo. Hoo, hoo. Hoo, hoo.

LIESZKOVSZKY: Many kids dream of growing up to work on trains. Jon Jaros was no different, but he took it a step further.

MARY ARMSTRONG: He seemed to like them right from the start as a little toddler.

LIESZKOVSZKY: That's his mom, Mary Armstrong.

ARMSTRONG: He came to me one day and says, I want to lease locomotives. And I rolled my eyes. I'm sorry (laughter). It was like, OK, who wants to lease locomotives, especially a teenager? And I said, well, if you want to do that, then you need to do - I gave him a couple steps. We have several locomotives out on lease. And I'm just very proud of him.

LIESZKOVSZKY: When he was 16, Jaros decided to build a one-eighth scale model of a steam locomotive. That's big enough to ride. Just don't put your feet down. By 17, he was selling heavy-duty industrial equipment and locomotive parts. A couple years later, Horizon Rail Services was formed. Steve Korpos runs the roundhouse and leases Jaros work space.

STEVE KORPOS: His knowledge of locomotives and diesel engine is superb compared to other people, you know? He does really know his stuff.

LIESZKOVSZKY: Jaros is largely self-taught, learning mostly on the job, hanging out at rail yards and by building that small steam engine. He's mastered mechanical and electrical engineering, hydraulics, diesel and gas engines. He now has three employees, seven locomotives and hundreds of clients worldwide.

Though he mostly travels the Midwest, often at a moment's notice to fix broken locomotives, his clients range from industrial companies to nonprofits like the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad.

TOM JAITE: I've known Jon since he was about 16 or 17 years old and did business with him back then. He was young but mature and was able to get things done.

LIESZKOVSZKY: Tom Jaite is that railroad's chief mechanical officer. He regularly hires Jaros to repair his fleet of locomotives.

JAITE: Our locomotives are all from the late '50s, early '60s. The parts for them are becoming very hard to find, and it's real good to have a resource that knows throughout the country where to find these parts.

LIESZKOVSZKY: Jaros will work on newer locomotives, but he has an affinity for those older machines.

JAROS: I just enjoy them. I like them, and I like working with them.

LIESZKOVSZKY: He refers to newer locomotives as junk, specializing in ones built between 1952 and 1987.

JAROS: They're simple machines. You can fix them. They are built in such a way and you can maintain them in a way that is very easy.

LIESZKOVSZKY: So is his job as much fun as he thought it would be as a kid?

JAROS: Oh, yeah. I do things that are cool every day. I mean we're outside, lifting up, you know, 26,000-pound engines and flying them around.

LIESZKOVSZKY: Jaros says there are plenty of job opportunities in rail. So the next time your kid tells you they want to work on trains when they grow up, don't laugh. Instead, maybe have them build one. For NPR News, I'm Ida Lieszkovszky in Cleveland.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE QUANTIC SOUL ORCHESTRA SONG, "PANAMA CITY - SOUL DESCARGA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.