If you screw up, you could kill someone

By the time I was 19 and started training in McBride, BC, for my summer with the Canadian National Railway, I’d already racked up a long list of jobs from house-builder to ferry deckhand to supermarket stockboy, but none so far boiled down to this: If you screw up, you could kill someone.

That point was hammered home my first day of training with a jovial, red-faced, pot-bellied, silver-haired gent named Jim, who told me the story of why being precise in everything you do on this job was a matter of life and death.

In 1950 the Canadian army was sending troops over to fight in the Korean war.  The troops were often sent west to Vancouver by train, but one of those trains never made it.  It slammed head-on into a passenger train, killing 17 soldiers and four train crew.

Here’s how it happened, or rather, here’s how I heard it, because there are different versions out there.

Canadian National Railways Kitwanga CN station board signal 1980

The train order operator’s job was to pass messages from the train dispatcher to the trains, either at the station before the train left, or as they were rolling past stations down the line, so the train crews knew where they’d be meeting trains coming the opposite direction.   Much of Canada’s mainline train traffic is now double-track, but back then most areas were single-track, with sidings every few miles to pull off and let opposing trains pass.

We’d bang out messages – called train orders –  onto a form as the dispatcher dictated them over the wire, and repeat the order back to him.   The dispatcher would then give the OK that what we’d typed out was correct.  After the dispatcher was sure that all trains had their meeting points planned out, he issued a clearance to attach to the orders and we’d hand it over to the crew.  Back in 1950, even the high-traffic mainline trains between major Canadian cities were still being run this way.

One day an operator, after repeating back a train order, noticed he’d made a mistake, so he threw the order away and typed out a new one.

Unfortunately, he made two critical errors.  He not only wrote the wrong meeting point on the new order he typed out, he failed to repeat the order back to the dispatcher.  Had he repeated the order with the mistake back to the dispatcher, he and the other operators listening in to the repetition would have immediately spotted the wrong meeting point, and he’d have had to go back and type it yet again until he got it right.

As it was, he passed a message along to the passenger train to meet the troop train one station beyond the point the dispatcher thought they would meet.

So the troop train and the passenger train met in the middle – head on, around a curve, in the middle of the Rockies.

The train order operator, a young man only three years older than I was when I started my training, was charged with manslaughter.  In the trial, his lawyer argued that the man was actually being used as a scapegoat, and that the real culprit was the shoddy way the railways were being run.  Standing up in the courtroom, he held the railway rule book high over his head and ripped it to shreds, saying the rules by which the railway was then running trains were unsafe and must be amended.

That’s why on the rule book I was issued it said: Uniform Code of Operating Rules, Revision of 1962 on the cover.  They completely re-wrote the rule book based on that one disaster, resulting in a daily routine for train order operators from then on:

All train orders had to be letter perfect.  All times and all place names had to be spelled out letter-by-letter in the operator’s repetition back to the dispatcher.  And if a mistake were made, you could be charged with a criminal offense if it were found that you’d passed the order to the train without having first repeated it back.

The operator’s lawyer, by the way, was none other than John Diefenbaker, a man who later became Canada’s Prime Minister.

Caveat: I’ve re-told this story as I remember it being told to me.  When looking up for information on what’s known as the Canoe River disaster, you come up with several variations.

Disclaimer: I am not now, nor have I ever been, a trainspotter.

9 Responses to “If you screw up, you could kill someone”

  1. June 20, 2009 at 9:43 pm

    That was such an interest story. I hadn’t heard about it–and I love the clincher that it was Diefenbaker. After Mike Harris and Stephen Harmer, Dief looks good. At least he was honest and to my knowledge neither nuts nor hateful.

  2. June 21, 2009 at 8:47 am

    My parents used to call him Diefenbuck, though Dief the Chief is well-known, too. In your short list you forgot to mention Lyin’ Brian Mulroney and his envelopes full of cash.

  3. June 22, 2009 at 12:09 am

    Oh, my. Envelopes of cash? How American of Mulroney…

    Enjoyed the piece, and smiled at the “other” names used for trainspotters by rail workers. The very slight edge of contempt divides “real” from “pretender” in plenty of occupations.

    The various links were interesting, too. I was struck by the need to see the site again that led some to walk back in.

  4. June 22, 2009 at 10:58 pm

    Just walked in the house and discovered live reports of a DC Metro train collision – details aren’t confirmed yet, but there are suggestions of a head-on collision.

  5. June 26, 2009 at 8:09 pm

    What a huge burden to put on a young dude, though effective. Better ‘if you screw up, you’ll kill yourself, or someone will kill you’.

  6. 6 Sherry
    June 30, 2009 at 6:36 pm

    Hi Ian! I pulled up your site the other day to show Dale & low & behold it’s about CN….funny! Dale said you must be missing CN! Yah right hey!?
    I’ve been thinking of you lately as I hadn’t heard back from the email I sent a few months ago. Hope it wasn’t too boring!
    Dale wanted me to remind you that once your back in B.C. to look us up. We’ve got a spare room & would love to see you.
    Hope all is going well.🙂

  7. July 1, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    is that the train station?….

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