Gregory Clark recalls being one of very few black locomotive engineers when he joined the Long Island Rail Road more than three decades ago.
And even after becoming the first black engineer to achieve the most seniority at the LIRR, Clark believes things haven't changed nearly enough.
The LIRR says it has achieved, or is near, most of its federally regulated goals for minority representation throughout the railroad, but acknowledges it can do more, especially in the hiring of women and Hispanics.
Clark, 53, said he believes the LIRR should be doing "much, much better" than it is. He estimates that fewer than a dozen of the LIRR's 477 engineers were black when he joined 33 years ago. Currently, the LIRR's 61 black engineers make up 14 percent of its 425 total train operators -- short of its goal of 18 percent.
"Back then probably all of your people of color were car cleaners, station cleaners, laborers, things of that nature . . . The majority of people of color, our tools were a broom and a mop," said Clark, of Franklin Square, who was hired as a car cleaner in 1981 and later certified as an engineer. He worked as a car cleaner for about two years before beginning training to be an engineer, which took 15 months. "I've had a wonderful career here. . . . And that opportunity should be available for everyone."
The LIRR's diversity goals are set using a federally regulated formula involving the pool of internal candidates and a transportation agency's geographic location -- in the LIRR's case, Nassau, Suffolk and New York City.
As of March 31, about 34 percent of the LIRR's 6,847 employees were minorities, including 17.5 percent who are black, according to MTA figures. Through the end of September, 50 percent of all new hires at the LIRR were minorities, including 19 percent blacks.
In comparison, 47 percent of Metro-North hires during the same period were minorities, including 20 percent who were black.
"We are improving," said Michael Fyffe, the LIRR's director of diversity management. "We're not where we should be in a lot of areas, but there's definitely marked improvement."
MTA board member John Molloy of Wantagh, who chairs the MTA's diversity committee, agreed that the agency has been "moving in the right direction" in recent years. But, he said, the MTA still has a long way to go in representation of women and Hispanics.
Although 72 percent of the 4,600 people the MTA hired in the first nine months of 2014 were minorities, only 20 percent were female and just 18 percent were Hispanic.
"Those areas, I think, are going to take some heavy lifting," said Molloy, who encouraged the MTA to build better relationships with colleges to introduce young people to careers in the authority. "You may not be able to get them today, but you might be able to get them tomorrow."
Clark similarly questioned whether the LIRR is doing enough to reach potential minority candidates for jobs. Fyffe said the LIRR's outreach efforts are "pretty robust" and include attending job fairs in minority communities, including the Harlem Week's Historic Black College Fair & Expo.
Clark acknowledged the LIRR has come a long way in race relations since his earliest days at the agency, which included an engineer refusing to train him, and a block operator telling him, "You're nothing but a [expletive], anyway. What are you doing here?"
"I worked with guys who wouldn't even talk to me -- conductors who were the nastiest sons of guns ever," Clark said. But he noted that the majority of his colleagues have always been welcoming and gracious with him throughout his career.
Clark, who's better known among fellow engineers as "Number One," said he owes his top seniority ranking to having been hired at 19, and refusing to retire even after becoming eligible three years ago.
Clark said he takes pride in setting an example for young black men who might not otherwise consider a career in railroading.
"It was nothing that I aspired to do," Clark said. "For me to be in the position I'm at right now, it touches me."