Exactly 30 years ago today I stepped off a Via Rail passenger coach in the middle of the night in McBride, BC, to begin training for a summer job with Canadian National Railways.
They say once you’ve worked for a railway, you might leave the job, but the job never leaves you. The trains get in your blood. I believe it.
I even shoot videos of them. Here’s a westward CN train at Redpass, BC, taken on our last family trip to Canada in 2006.
Although it was mostly office work, a vital part of the job involved standing right alongside the tracks facing an oncoming freight train exactly like that one. As the engine got close, I’d reach up and pass messages attached to a long pole to the engineman leaning out of the cab. Once the 100 cars or so had rolled by, I’d pass a copy of that message to the conductor standing on the back steps of the caboose.
The job was called Train Order Operator. On the CN, it doesn’t exist anymore. The implements we used to perform it are now in museums, and some of the buildings we showed up to work in are themselves being used as museums to display them.
The caboose is also long gone, replaced by a beacon that sends vital information about the air pressure in the train’s brake system by radio to a display up in the front-end cab.
So is the first office they sent me to work on my own. Sixty miles up the hill east of McBride in the middle of the Rocky Mountains on the edge of Moose Lake near the headwaters of the Fraser River, I’d sit in a cramped, fly-infested cube wedged between the mainline tracks running between Vancouver, BC and Jasper, Alberta, and the branch line tracks that started at Redpass Junction and ended about 550 miles west on the coast at Prince Rupert, BC.
Right on the spot you see in that video.
Wedged at the bottom of a valley surrounded on all sides by some of the finest Canadian parkland wilderness you can find, I’d sit completely alone at the height of summer in my overheated little cubbyhole and type out those train orders on a manual typewriter as the dispatcher dictated them. Once he issued the order, I’d repeat it back by spelling out every place name and every number letter-by-letter, bundle the order in a string along with a clearance – an OK from the dispatcher that the train crew had all the messages it needed to get down the next stretch safely – and pass it along to the train.
The trains would roll by the mainline tracks about once an hour on busy days, but all I’d do is step out of the office and watch the wheels go by. If there was a smoker – a wheel whose bearings had drained of grease or otherwise heated up so hot it might melt and fall off – I’d get on the line and tell the dispatcher in Kamloops, so he could radio the train to stop and have the crew check it out.
I had no messages to pass to them because the trains on the high-traffic main line were all controlled by a dispatcher hundreds of miles away using a centralised traffic control system installed in the 1960s. But on the low-traffic branch line they still used train orders, a system whose roots reach back 100 years to the beginnings of railroading, when the only way to communicate was by telegraph.
Aside from this post about falling asleep at the wheel, I’ve been waiting 30 years to write about my time on the railway. This is the first of an occasional series. Expect delays, derailments, and trips down side-tracks.