Most people don't know her by name, but thousands of New Yorkers rely on Natasha Dinnall every single day.
Dinnall, 51, is a train conductor for the New York City subway system — the heartbeat that keeps the city running.
The NYC subway is one of the biggest rapid transit systems in the world, with 493 stations on 25 routes, and 24/7 operations 365 days a year. More than 3 million people ride the NYC subway every day, and ridership surpassed 1 billion passengers in 2022.
Dinnall has worked on the Q train line for over 10 years — "I consider myself a Q baby because I made the Q line my home a couple of years ago" — and knows every stop by heart. Every day, she helps shuttle New Yorkers and visitors through three loops on the line, which runs from Coney Island to the Upper East Side and through some of the busiest areas in the city, including the iconic Times Square station.
Doing her job well is both an art and a science. She has to be disciplined and reliable to keep the train running on schedule, first and foremost. But she also has to deal with every kind of passenger request, commuting mishap and New York-sized personality imaginable.
Here's how Dinnall earns $86,000 a year as a subway conductor in NYC.
Dinnall joined the New York City Transit Authority in 1992. She filled out an application her dad, also a city transit employee, brought home from work one day. She took her first job with the agency as a property protection agent and later became a station agent, conductor, train operator, and finally a conductor again.
Train operators and conductors play distinct and important roles: Operators drive the train, while conductors make announcements, stick their heads out of the cab to give the operator the all clear, open and close the train doors, and interact with passengers directly.
Employees must go through "extensive training" to become a conductor, Dinnall says. Conductors must learn how to open and close the train doors, climb on and off a train, assist passengers in case of an emergency, do fire evacuations and a host of other things.
Conductor training takes seven to nine weeks, and workers are required to take refresher courses every three years to keep their skills up-to-date.
Dinnall gets to work at 4:40 a.m. and her first train leaves at 4:55. She makes three round trips: The Q train starts at the Stillwell Avenue station at Coney Island, snakes through Brooklyn, heads uptown through the heart of Manhattan, and ends the first leg of the trip at 96th Street on the Upper East Side a little over an hour later. Once there, she heads back in the opposite direction.
Dinnall ends her shift by 2:15 p.m. She works five days a week.
While she spends the day in her cab, she's in constant communication with an operator that drives the train to stay on schedule and get a birds-eye view of how the overall system is running.
The hardest parts of her job — early mornings, staying on time, working weekends and holidays — are also what New Yorkers depend on.
Another challenge is also sometimes the best part: interacting with passengers.
"On a normal day, passengers are really nice," she says. "They get on and off the train like they're supposed to. Sometimes you'll get occasionally the person that wants to hold the door."
The interruption can be "annoying." Dinnall just wants to get passengers where they need to go. "We run on very prestigious schedules, because trains have to leave at a certain time. No ifs, ands or buts."
"It is very overwhelming sometimes because you're dealing with a lot of people, a lot of nationalities, a lot of personalities," Dinnall adds. But at the end of the day, "I love it. I love the customer interaction. I love helping people get where they have to go. I love giving directions. I'm just a people person overall, so it doesn't bother me much."
One thing she doesn't tolerate is people who complain about the subway. "I tell them don't talk about my job. My job is the best thing out here," she says.
Dinnall says a common misconception about her job is that it pays a ton of money. After working her way up to $86,000 per year, she's not flying high, but she does consider her pay "a substantial amount of money." Starting pay for conductors is $24.32 per hour and increases to $34.75 in the sixth year of service, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Dinnall is at the top of the pay scale and earns $35 per hour.
"We make enough to keep food on our table, a roof on our head, and clothes on our body just like anybody else," she says.
The money, and maybe more importantly a steady career with the MTA, means a lot. Since joining the agency, Dinnall has had two children, got married, got divorced, and got engaged to remarry again.
Her work ID grants her free rides on public transit and, looking ahead, she'll also get a pension, a rarity in the modern workforce. "This job affords you a life after working where you'll still get a salary," she says.
"You do your whole life down here and it's a wonderful thing," she says.
Dinnall does her best to keep her fellow New Yorkers on track, detours and all.
"Sometimes I still get a little confused and jumbled up because you'll be thinking you're going northbound and you're coming southbound and it just because you do it every day, repetitiously," she says. "But you just correct your mistake and keep the train moving. That's what transit is all about. Keeping the trains moving from point A to point B."
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