By the Spring of 1970, the railways were running at full capacity.
CN was chronically short of locomotives and box cars required to move the grain from the prairies to the coast.
|Here, Trainman Jim Percy, borrowed from Kamloops, is taking his power, which included a 'rented' C&O GP9 to the shop track in Jasper.
Photo Credit RB Harvey
There were no firemen left on the board, as all had been set up on the engineers’ boards and the chronic shortage of brakemen was being addressed by the importing of young brakemen from all over
Canada. Jasper was filling up with them.
Of course, there were always fluctuations in the traffic patterns that affected the number of miles a brakeman could earn during a month. These fluctuations were monitored by the company and the local union reps, and once a week, the total miles earned were tallied up, then divided by the number of crews working, plus the number of “spareboard” miles earned.
This gave the railway and the unions a basis for projecting the number of employees that would be required for the coming week. Of course, this system wasn’t foolproof, as “Murphy” was never consulted. As a result, one could find himself sitting at home, waiting for a call that might not materialize until you finally broke down and joined a few of the boys for a few beers at the Athabasca Hotel beer parlor.
Of course, the ‘call boy’ wasn’t supposed to call crews out of the beer parlour, but in exchange for a couple of beers shoved his way, you could get your call and head off to work.
The alternative might also take place. The board might be set for a given number of crews, then all hell breaks loose and the railway wants to run two dozen trains a day with enough crews to run twelve because of an ambitious crew reduction on the previous board adjustment day.
Brakemen were allowed to accumulate a total of 4300 miles each month, but could work “hog miles” if they were reported to the crew office prior to taking a call for a hog trip.
Brakemen who took a call with just under their 4300 miles and came back into town with miles in excess of 4300, would be required to “bank” the excess, or carry it over into the following month.
Where is he goin’ with this, you might ask? And that would be a reasonable question.
At the Fall Change of Card in 1972, I narrowly escaped being forced on the midnight yard at Jasper by being assigned to the Wellman Crane number 50368 on the Tete Jaune Sub for two weeks, more or less.
When the work on the Tete Jaune sub was wrapped up, I returned to Jasper and took a few days off to be with my wife, who was expecting our first child before the end of October.
The Tete Jaune work train hadn’t been a good-paying job so I eventually wandered down to the crew office to see if there was a job I could take for a few weeks.
There was no one around the station except Joan, who was working as the crew director for the day.
I found myself alone with my thoughts, looking at the assignment board with its name tags; green, pink and red indicating who was manning which assignments, who was booked off, and who was on vacation.
I always enjoyed the regularity of a job working with a regular crew in Chain Gang service on the west end, but I noticed that the spareboard was currently exhausted. However, there might be a chance to make a lot of trips, back to back and be off for miles in time for the birth of my first child.
While I was debating my immediate future, the phone on the desk in front of Joan began to ring. She pushed the button that put the call on ‘speaker’, and said…, “Crew office”.
The caller was Jack Flewin, the Local Chairman of the union for Jasper brakemen.
Jack was one of the successful applicants for a work train that was hauling ballast from a pit near
Alberta to the new Pulp Mill at Shaver, Alberta. Shaver was near Grande Prairie on the newly constructed
Alberta Resources Railway line which connected CN’s mainline at Swan Landing to
Northern Alberta Railway trackage.
He told her that he had his miles in, but was willing to stay out on the job if there was no one available. She didn’t hesitate, but told him that there was a man in the office who was unassigned and who might be booking on the spareboard in a moment or two. With that, she reached up and turned his green name tag to show that he was ‘off for miles’ and that his job was now available as a Temporary Vacancy, or TV.
He argued that he should be allowed to remain on the job, but she pointed out to him that as the Local Chairman, he should know that he wouldn’t be allowed to work his own TV.
Jack was going to be sitting at home for three weeks before he would be allowed to return to his job.
With that…, she looked at me and pointed to the tags on the board that held the names of the men who were working the Alberta Resources Railroad (ARR) work train.
When it was bulletined, the seniority went so high for the conductor and two brakemen that we calculated there was more than a hundred years of seniority in that caboose.
The job was ordered to load and haul ballast from a pit near
all the way up to Grande Prairie. The ballast was to be used in the building of
the yard at Shaver, the site of a new pulp and paper mill, just south of Grande Prairie.
The majority of the work involved loading and hauling the crushed rock northward, then dumping it in place on skeleton track at the mill. The train would then run empty back to Hinton to be reloaded.
The crew was working 24 hours each day, seven days a week. Train crew members were making their 4300 miles in less than ten days.
Jack, and the other brakeman, Vic Sivik of
had given up their conductor’s seniority in order to take the very lucrative
work train on the A.R.R.
The conductor, Vern Siga had already made his miles in very short order and had been replaced by a younger conductor, Ernie Robinson.
In the fall of ’72 I didn’t have enough seniority to hold anything but the spareboard, but that didn’t stop me from looking, longingly at the really good jobs.
Here was a ‘gift horse’ looking me in the eye. The only men who could take a temporary vacancy on the work train was a man who was assigned to the spareboard. All I had to do was tell Joan that I wanted to book on the spareboard and the work train was mine, provided a senior spareboard man didn’t walk into the office before Joan had a chance to “call” me for the job.
Knowing that the crew office phone was in “open speaker” mode, I said to Joan, “Book me on the spareboard, please…, and I’ll take a call for the ARR work train”.
Joan got up from her chair and moved my name tags from the “unassigned” board and lifted Jack’s tags from the ARR work train assignment.
I felt a rush of excitement when I saw her hang my tags on the work train peg where Jack’s had been.
I might have nearly three weeks on this job before Jack would be able to come back on his job. At the very least, I would be able to accumulate my 4300 mile limit in less than ten days, giving me lots of time off for the birth of my baby.
When I arrived at Hinton later that evening, the train had been loaded and was standing in the siding at Hinton, ready to leave for
Grande Prairie. I took my place on the engine with engineer
Danny Fry and when the signal turned green, we were on the move, westward to
Soon, we were leaving the main line at Swan Landing and, after running around the train, we were heading up a long grade; the first of several on the ARR between Swan Landing and Grande Prairie.
It was a straight haul to
Grande Prairie, where we went into town to
eat. After breakfast, we took our train…, twenty two cars of crushed rock to
Shaver spur, a few miles south of town.
Our power, an SD40 and a GP9 would be split up at Shaver, with the GP9 being used to push the loads of ballast into the yard to be dumped. The SD40 was considered too heavy to be used on the new, un-ballasted tracks in the yard, but was needed to haul the loads up the heavy grades.
Photo RB Harvey
Once we had emptied all of the cars on the rails and ties, the empty cars were pulled back out to the mainline, where the SD40 was once again attached to the rear of the GP9, and the caboose.
On arrival at Swan Landing, the engine would be on the west end of the train. In order to run to Hinton, we would need to cut the engine off and run around the train, putting the engine on the east end. Once that was done, the dispatcher would be asked for a signal to leave the siding at Swan Landing allowing us to travel to Hinton.
On arrival at Hinton, we would leave the train in the pit to be loaded by the front end loader and we would take the engine uptown for a bite to eat and a rest.
Then the cycle would be repeated. When the train was almost loaded, we would be notified of an estimated time that we could take over, beginning our return trip to
and Shaver Mill.
This was back in the ‘good old days’, prior to mandatory rest rules. The crew was on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The combination of long subdivision miles and accumulated time claimed while switching, loading and unloading racked up our miles in short order.
At the end of my first week on the job, I had accumulated 4300 miles. When we arrived at Hinton, about noon on my eighth day out, I called the Jasper Crew Office from the station at Hinton.
As it happened, Jack was in the office when my call came in and he listened as I informed the Crew Supervisor that I now had my miles in and would require relief.
The Crew Supervisor asked me if I would be able to stay out on the job, as there were no men available on the spareboard at the time. I readily agreed, seeing an opportunity to make two months pay or more in two weeks.
Jack immediately piped up, saying that he was available and that he could drive the 45 miles to Hinton and be there in less than two hours.
The Crew Supervisor then told Jack that he wouldn’t be allowed to go back out to the job until his mileage date, which was two and half weeks away. When Jack protested, he was reminded that under the Union Agreement, when a regularly assigned man had made his miles, the assignment became a TV, or Temporary Vacancy which could not then be filled by the man who was first assigned to that job.
In other words, Jack couldn’t work his own job until his mileage date once again showed up on the calendar.
The job was mine, even though I would be working well over my miles. I couldn’t be bumped from this little money-maker.
Sorry Jack, but I’ve been waiting many years to tell this story..., and I'm still smiling!