The railway that’s in my blood.

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.

19 Responses to “The railway that’s in my blood.”

  1. June 6, 2009 at 7:11 am

    Wow… I have the vague feelings I’m somewhat addicted to airports and airplanes in the way you are addicted to trains.

    I’m actually going to have my first VIA Rail experience in a week or two–I hope its on par with Deutsche Bahn. I suspect it will be closer to Amtrak.

  2. June 6, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    Wow. That’s really neat!

  3. June 6, 2009 at 8:00 pm

    That is really interesting. I’m looking forward to your other train posts. I love trains and have lived within hearing distance of them since I’ve been in this house, though I also grew up within walking distance of train tracks. I like the sound of their whistle, comforting and eerie at the same time. And our house rumbles when the trains are heavy.

  4. June 6, 2009 at 11:15 pm

    Oh, what pure delight! I grew up going with my grandfather to the railyards of Waterloo, Iowa, watching trains the way some people of that era would drive to airports and watch planes land and take off. There was a roundhouse – sometimes we got to see the trains moved around – and there were lots of Rock Island engines to admire while I learned to sing “Rock Island Line”.

    My first train trip was with my dad in the early 50’s. The engine was a coal-burner, of course. Cinders flew in the open windows and we ate our box lunches of chicken and hard-boiled eggs while trying to dodge them. I still can feel the seats – the covering was stiff and bristle-y. Horsehair, perhaps? The seats were burgundy and the walls covered with a red flocked velvet – rather like a rolling bordello, now that I think about it.

    The very best train song ever is a combination of railroads and the Rocky Mountains – “Railroading on the Great Divide”. It was written by Sara Carter of the Carter Family, c. 1950 or so. The Deseret String Band does a killer version but I can’t find it anywhere on the web. I’ll dig through my old CDs and see if I can find it.

    I’m looking forward to lots of reads, re-reads and enjoyment.

  5. 6 PJ Wolllum
    June 7, 2009 at 6:31 am

    My mom and I hope to go on a train through the Canadian Rockies later this year. It sounds like we’ll be going right past your old office.

    The sound of trains is so soothing at night.

    My son is starting graduate school in Vancouver, BC in September, so we’ll be going to see him there.

    I like your blog! You’ve led an interesting life!

    Take care.
    PJ in Minneapolis, Minnesota, US

  6. June 8, 2009 at 7:48 pm

    That’s awesome. Reminds me of the many road trips I took as a kid. I live right by the train yard in downtown Vancouver so whenever you need a train fix just let me know and I’ll go video some for ya. They so kindly wake me up in the middle of the night with their blaring horns!

  7. June 8, 2009 at 8:07 pm

    Hi Kate,
    After a while, it got so that even when they were rolling by at 50 miles an hour in the middle of the night, I could sleep through it.

  8. June 9, 2009 at 9:22 am

    It all sounds wonderful – the isolation, the simplicity. There’s nothing to beat the romance of that old-fashioned rail.

  9. June 9, 2009 at 10:03 am

    hey very interesting Ian. I love trains too – mostly because of a very romantic and highly memorable journey from Paris to Venice in 2001 *sigh*

  10. June 9, 2009 at 8:24 pm

    neat video. my boyfriend is a train conductor for CN @ Capreol. i love hearing about trains.

    • June 9, 2009 at 10:29 pm

      My favourite part is seeing that bright-orange wheat car with Canada splashed all over it.

      I wish they hadn’t dropped the caboose, though. I guess it was just a matter of time, but seeing a train roll by without one is like reading a sentence without a period

  11. June 10, 2009 at 8:13 am

    Trains are cool. I’ll send you a railroad song.

  12. June 10, 2009 at 8:38 pm

    I’ve been told trains get in your blood. Great video as usual, Ian.

  13. June 12, 2009 at 1:42 pm

    Ah, a trainspotter at heart eh!

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The banner photograph shows the town of Britannia Beach, BC, Canada, where I grew up. It's home. But I don't live there anymore.

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