Saturday, October 8, 2011

Bravery and Courage Defined

Only those who have actually worked on trains can have a real sense of the dangers that might be encountered on the job.  Those same people know the measure of their own courage.  I've known railroaders who have been involved in derailments, large and small.  Some have slammed into large snow slides, rock slides or have ridden their charges over washouts where the rails were hanging in the air.  There have been head-on collisions, rear-end collisions, collisions with vehicles at level crossings, rollovers and engines that have gone over the side into the river or lake.  Not everyone survives the particular incidents that they have the misfortune to partake in; and not everyone will sustain injuries.  In thirty six years of railroading, I have experienced a number of occasions in which my adrenalin levels were elevated by the sudden appearance of the possibility of my death....or that of someone close to me.

Photo credit Peter Cox.  CN train hits rock slide at Boothroyd on Ashcroft Sub in Fraser Canyon. 

In the lives of railroaders, miners, loggers and fishermen there is an expectation of danger; an acceptance of the risk of injury or death.  Men, for the most part accept the risk as a fair exchange for the adventure, hardship and financial rewards offered by the occupation they choose.  Women, on the other hand prefer not to take risks and expose themselves to unnecessary dangers.

Let me tell you a story of exemplary courage and bravery of a different sort.

In 1972, CN was facing critical manpower shortages, especially in engine service.  They had all but run out of locomotive firemen from which they could draw to fill the locomotive engineers' ranks.  Engineers were 'doubling the road', meaning they were making a complete round trip, from home terminal to away from home terminal (average 18 to 24 hours) and, on arrival back at their home terminal, would accept another call to double back, or double through on the same train.  In many cases, the dispatcher would call the engineer when he was only halfway over the subdivision on his return trip to ask him if he'd take a call to double through.  This practice might mean that the engineer would make the equivalent of a weeks pay with little or no rest in less than three days.

Again, in 1972, CN sent emissaries to Eastern Canada in an effort to recruit engineers for the Western Region with limited success.  The decision was made to create a locomotive engineer training facility and the unused ex-RCAF air base at Gimli, Manitoba was chosen to accommodate the program.  It began pumping out engineer trainees a year later. None of the unions involved were willing to accept the new engineers outright, and CN wanted to be able to use them as multi-purpose employees; as engineers when increased traffic warranted it and as brakemen when business was slow.

Bruce at the throttle on the Okanagan Valley Wine Train in 1999...when business was good!  
Photo credit Phil Moreau ex CN Rule Instructor @ Kamloops, BC

And, when an ESB isn't set up as an Engineer, he or she works as a Conductor or Switch Person
Photo credit RBH.  Conductor Roger Befurt on Okanagan Valley Wine Train 1999

After leaving the classroom environment in Gimli, the student/recruits returned to their home terminals where they would be paired up with pre-screened and qualified locomotive engineers for an indeterminate length of time in order to gain as much experience as possible with as many engineers as possible to round out their training.  When the on-job trainers felt that the students had reached a level of proficiency that would enable them to take control of a train by themselves, the Master Mechanic in charge of the terminal would ride with the student to determine their level of competency.  Once qualified by the Master Mechanic, the student was then given his certificate and his seniority number on the Locomotive Engineer's Seniority List.  But they weren't to be called Locomotive Engineers, rather Engine Service Brakemen, or ESB's.

In 1979, CN's ESB program had been in full swing for about five years.  A sufficient number of new engineers had been trained and qualified under the terms of the negotiated Labour - Management agreements to fill the job assignments.   The rush was over!  This left a little classroom space at Gimli for the older Scoop-shovel hoggers to take advantage of a 'refresher course' of two weeks duration.

The photo above was a "class photo" taken by CN on November 2, 1979 of the Refresher Class I attended. If anyone can help me identify the men in the photo, please contact me.  Klaus Henze is third from the right in the back row and I'm first on the right in the front row.  I apologize for the lack of sharpness of focus.  The original picture was not entirely in focus.

This opportunity was not well patronized by the scoop-shovels in the Mountain Region and CN found that seats in the classrooms were going begging.  In an effort to keep the engineers at the top of their game, CN threw open the doors to anyone in engine service to attend the courses, and I applied.

I boarded an Air Canada jet in Vancouver and took my seat next to an old friend and fine engineer, Klaus Henze.  Klaus was anxious to see the Gimli Training Center, so I told him of my two month stay there, four years earlier.  Upon our arrival in Winnipeg, we caught a 'company shuttle' to Gimli, about sixty miles to the north and prepared to settle in for two weeks of intense training.

The weather was cold, especially for a couple of west coast fellows who rarely see temperatures that reach freezing.  Even though there was frost on the windows of the bus, I could see that there was definitely no fruit left on the trees between Winnipeg and Gimli.  Snow began to fall in earnest and the flakes grew larger, reaching upward at the last possible moment in front of the headlights as they tried to gain altitude to avoid a collision with the windshield.

We signed in and found our rooms, and after a shower and a change of clothes, Klaus and I met at the student's lounge.  Ordering a glass of "Gimli Goose", a locally made wine of questionable palate, we took a table near the fireplace.

The buildings were chock full of new recruits, brakemen and switch-men from all across Canada.  Well, I guess I should say the new recruits were made up of both men and women, as there were two or three women attending classes, one of whom was from the Greater Vancouver Terminal.  Her name was Karen.

One day, Klaus and I were sitting in the cafeteria with a small group of engineers (not students) from Southern Ontario.  The discussion was animated and friendly, considering that the conversation was focused on the Second World War in Europe.  One of the fellows at the table had joined the US Air Force when the war broke out; another joined the  Canadian Merchant Marine.  Still another had made his way to England to join the British Navy and Klaus...., well,  he was a youth in Germany when war broke out and he joined the Luftewaffe as a pilot-trainee.  In fact, Klaus was only a couple of days away from his first solo flight in a Messerschmitt 109 when the war ended and he was ordered to stand down...without even having made a test flight.

I sat quietly, eating my lunch and taking in the wonder of these former adversaries, now brothers in arms talking about their war experiences.  Perhaps, I thought, perhaps one day I might be able to sit down with a group of CPR guys and we'd all get along like these fellows.

A light tap on my shoulder brought me back to reality and I turned to see a man from the office of the General Superintendent of Transportation - Edmonton standing there.  He said that a group of officers would like to talk with me and could I please join them for a discussion?  Since I was all but finished with my lunch, I excused myself from the company of good friends at the table and followed the gentleman out of the cafeteria.

As we walked toward the Administration building, I asked him if he knew what this was all about.  He said they wanted to talk with me about the on-the-job portion of the engineer training program.  Ten minutes later, I was seated in an office with officials from the Mountain Region as well as the Transportation Training Center's second in command, Roy Stowe.

After we got settled into our chairs and everyone had been introduced, they began by asking me questions about the effectiveness of the program as a whole and the on-the-job part of the training.  I suspected that this was a 'fishing expedition' as there was no hiding from the fact that the Vancouver engineers were a thorn in the side of anything that the company wanted to do, even if it would benefit the engineers.  I suggested that we cut to the chase and talk about the matter that was obviously bothering them... the lack of cooperation by the scoop shovel hoggers in Vancouver!  They surprised me with their rather unconcerned response to my thrust into the conversation.  They were of the opinion that, like any forest fire, the controversial disruptions in Vancouver would burn themselves out eventually.  There was something else they wanted to address with me.

It took only a moment for them to explain the situation they were concerned about, and I understood it immediately.  The engineers in Vancouver had taken a stand.  Their executive insisted that ESB's would not be qualified until they had far more head-end experience than the time CN had felt should be adequate.  The BLE (Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers) local chairman had voiced what he felt should be the training benchmark and that should be modeled after the length of time that firemen had to serve.  Firemen, who were promoted to engineers whenever engineers were needed had sometimes been unable to achieve promotion for 15 years or more.  In some cases in Eastern Canada, firemen were still working on yard engines after 25 years of service.  Some of these were the men who had answered the call to move to the west coast to take instant promotion to the engineers list.  This conflict had been ongoing since the ESB program began in late 1972.  In 1974, I was assigned to train with an engineer on the 1600K transfer out of Lynn Creek and the engineer would only allow me to touch the throttle while the train was "inside" the two-mile tunnel under Burnaby mountain.  This was to assure him that no other engineer would know that he was "training" an ESB.
If it were discovered that he had allowed his ESB to run the engine, even to take it from the shop track to the head end of his train, he risked serious censure from the union local 945.

The purpose of this little chat in the Supervisor's office wasn't to ask me if I'd agree to train new engineers but, indeed, to ask me if I'd train their first FEMALE locomotive engineer candidate when she returned to Vancouver from the current course, now in progress.

There was no need for me to take my time in making my decision.  I had two young children at home...both daughters.  If I was to refuse to train a female student engineer, I would be denying my own children their opportunity to make career choices that might interest them when they came of age.    I knew that there would be trouble from the scoops, who for the most part would try to make my life and Karen's life miserable.  But I felt that she deserved the same opportunity that I had been given.

I said "yes".  The Master Mechanic in Thornton Yard would be advised that I was to train Karen when she returned to the Greater Vancouver Terminal.

At the end of our two week stay, Klaus and I got on the plane for our flight back to Vancouver and took our seats in the very rear of the plane...right beside the jet engine.

It was Klaus' birthday and I wanted to buy him a glass of wine, but he declined, saying that he wanted to be in the best shape possible when he got off the plane.  His new wife, Barbie was going to be meeting him and he'd been missing her.  We sat and tried to talk, but the noise was awful, so we fell into silence.

Then....I had an idea.  I excused myself from my seat and walked up to the galley.  I explained to the Stewardess that my seat mate had been in the German Airforce as a youth and hadn't gotten off the ground before the war ended.  I told her that it was his birthday and, was it possible to ask the Captain if Klaus might see the flight deck.   She asked me to wait while she stepped through the curtain onto the flight deck.

In a moment she returned and told me that the Captain said it would be OK for both of us to join them in the cockpit, but it would have to wait until after we left Regina, where we had a scheduled stop.  The Stewardess said she'd give me a little wave when it was time to bring Klaus forward.  I returned to my seat and sat down...grinning!

We landed in Regina and after a half hour at the terminal, we were airborne again.  When the aircraft leveled out, the Stewardess came partway down the aisle and motioned to me to follow her.  Klaus was sitting with his eyes closed and was about to nod off.  I tapped him on the arm and told him I had a surprise for him and that he should follow me.

We stopped outside the cockpit curtain and the Stewardess reached across and pulled the curtain aside.  Klaus still didn't understand.  Then the Captain turned in his chair and extended his hand to us ... and welcomed us into that magical little space.  Klaus and I were both spell-bound.

The Captain and his First Officer squeezed their seats forward and the Stewardess reached in and pulled two jump-seats down for us to sit on.  There was a small, triangular shaped window just above my head through which I could see the stars in the late night sky.  They seemed close enough to reach out and touch.  Looking through the front windows, we could see the clouds below us.  The earth was blanketed with a field of fluffy cotton that, illuminated by the full moon, stretched as far as the eye could see.  The only sound to be heard, other than the sound of Klaus and the co-pilot talking about locomotives, was a low hissing sound created by the atmosphere being pierced by the planes nose and running over the hull of the craft.

This was certainly a far cry from the control stand of a GP7 on a midnight transfer!

The First Officer asked us where we had been and when we told him we had been at CN's Gimli facility, he lit right up.  His dad was a CPR hogger in Revelstoke and he, himself had worked as a brakeman there while he was going to university.  We asked questions about aircraft and they asked questions about locomotives until the Captain changed radio frequencies from Regina to Vancouver and began to reduce the throttles for the initial approach.

This photo was taken by my wife, Susan while we were returning from a visit with my mom in Kelowna, BC.  The Fraser River can be seen below and Mount Baker, in Washington State can be seen through the smoke from summer forest fires in 2009.

We went back to our seats and sat down.  We both had wide grins on our faces this time.
I knew then that I was in the wrong profession.

Now what about the Bravery and Courage I mentioned in the title of this story?  You'll have to wait a little longer for that part.  It's a good one and you won't want to miss it, I'm sure.


LOU said...

HEY-THERE-BRUCE !!!!!!!!!!!!

I never-fig'r'd your-RR would ever-hear-to send'n you guys by AIR !!!!!!!!

You-really-did have those connections-in-high-places, and then pull that train'n-duty w/ KAREN, also, sure-makes-a-believer-outa-me!!!!!!!!


misskay said...

Hi Bruce, my name is Missy, Klaus was my grandpa, I appreciate the story, he was a great guy!