ARTICLES WRITTEN BY BRUCE CHAPMAN



The Staff System in Hull and Ottawa

See also 1915 article on the Staff System written by E.S. Taylor.

Rick Mannen’s article on the staff system in the October Newsletter reminded me that readers might not be familiar with this method of traffic control. The system was often used on short segments of lines with heavy traffic. There have been several other articles published in recent years.

First, for those less familiar with the electric train staff system, there are three common types:

 Absolute block – A block in which but one train is permitted at a time. It is governed by an absolute staff, which is a steel rod turned into rings.

Permissive block – A block in which one or more trains are permitted to follow or to meet as instructed. It is governed by a permissive staff, which is either a divisible steel rod equipped with eleven removable rings.

Pusher block – A block in which a pusher engine is permitted to enter and assist in the movement of trains. It is governed by a pusher staff of special design.

One of the busiest and longest-lasting of the staff systems was the absolute block system used by the Canadian Pacific Railway in controlling trains in the Ottawa Terminals. Prior to the relocations made in the early 1960s, rail lines ringed and criss-crossed the central area of Ottawa.

In 1956, the CPR had three subdivisions feeding into Ottawa Union Station across the Alexandra (Interprovincial) Bridge from the north. About a mile to the south of the station was the junction at Deep Cut. Over this joint south access line from Deep Cut the trains of the Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, and New York Central were funnelled in and out of Ottawa Union Station.

The west end of the CPR M&O Subdivision was Ottawa West, and from there the line crossed the Ottawa River on the Prince of Wales Bridge, ran through Hull, then crossed the river again on the Alexandra Bridge into the station, then continued south and east towards Montréal. The map on the next page shows most of the important trackage as it then existed. As shown, CPR’s Maniwaki, Lachute, and Waltham Subdivisions all connected to the Ottawa Terminal trackage in Hull.

The staff system in the Ottawa Terminals involved two separate staff systems, and the operator at Hull West was the key to the whole operation. He had four separate staff machines in his office. One system, the ‘A’ staffs, was used between Ottawa Union and Hull West, with a “dummy” machine at Hull (Beemer). The other system was the ‘D’ Staff , and covered from Hull West to Ottawa West, with a “dummy” machine at Wamo. The staffs were engraved with the letter ‘A’ or ‘D.’ Needless to say, an ‘A’ staff did not fit the ‘D’ machine, or vice versa.

(Wamo is a junction that was added when a wye was constructed at the connection between the Waltham and M&O subdivisions as part of the changes necessitated by the opening of the Hilton Mines on the Waltham Sub. This change permitted trains from the mines to avoid the need to go into the Hull West Station, and having to back over the Prince of Wales Bridge into Ottawa West, with its single-ended yard. Also, the imminent demise of the mixed trains on the Waltham Sub. brought about the building of the wye.)

If a train were to leave Ottawa Union, say Train No. 1, the operator would clear that train with the dispatcher in Smiths Falls, then call the operator at Hull West for a staff. The Hull West operator would insert his staff into his machine, then by means of a hand-cranked magneto on his staff machine, produce an electrical current that released the lock on the Ottawa Union machine. This permitted the Ottawa Union operator to remove a staff from his machine (an ‘A’ staff) and give it to the conductor on Train No. 1.

No. 1 would leave Ottawa Union (office signal ‘CD’), proceed over the Alexandra bridge, through Hull (‘HJ’) and on across town to Hull West (‘HU’), where the Conductor would throw his staff (which was in a leather pouch) onto the platform. In the meantime, the HU operator, after holding up a ‘D’ staff for the engineer on No. 1 to see, would then pass it up to the Conductor who would be standing in the vestibule of the 500-series Skyline car. At Ottawa West (‘UY’), the operator would hoop up the orders to the head-end as No. 1 left the Ottawa Terminals and entered the Carleton Place Subdivision, and then the tail end would throw the ‘D’ staff, which would also be in a leather pouch, onto the platform, and take his orders for the Carleton Place Subdivision from the hoop the operator was holding for him.

The operator at Ottawa West would place the staff from No. 1 in the staff machine, and give one short crank of his staff magneto box to the operator at Hull West, announcing that No. 1 had arrived, and that the block was clear, should there be another train or a light engine to move from Hull West to Ottawa West. This is the same procedure that the Hull West operator would have done as No. 1 cleared Hull West, so the operator at Ottawa Union would know that No. 1 had arrived at Hull West and that the block between these two stations was clear, should Ottawa Union have another move to make over the Alexandra Bridge towards Hull.

Now, after No. 1 arrived at Hull West, the operator at Ottawa Union might have had the Maniwaki passenger train, No. 535, due out of CD at 16:30. The operator at Hull West would crank his magneto box until the operator at CD told him that he was successful in withdrawing his next staff from the machine. No. 535 would proceed, with the staff, from Ottawa Union to Hull (Beemer) only, where another operator was working. The operator at Hull would have previously obtained clearance from the Smiths Falls dispatcher for No. 535 to proceed up the Maniwaki Subdivision from Hull. Upon arrival at Hull, No. 535 would get his orders from the operator there, and give the operator the ‘A’ staff. The operator would insert this staff into his “dummy” machine once No. 535 cleared the Ottawa Terminal trackage, and give one push of a button on his magneto box, telling the operator at Hull West that No. 535 had arrived and cleared the terminal trackage, and at that time, the operator at HU would push the magneto button on his magneto box, and an electric current would be generated automatically, without the operator at Hull (HJ) having to crank his magneto box, and the operator at Hull West would then be able to extract an ‘A’ staff from his “dummy” machine, and the whole block was again open for others trains or light engine moves.

When the Hilton Mines opened, and the new junction was constructed at Wamo, another “dummy” machine with ‘D’ staffs was constructed within a little typical CPR wooden shack at Wamo, where the train crews were to try to extract the staffs from the machine. They were not used to trying to wrestle with the machine, and there were plenty of train delays while that happened. In addition to Hilton Mines, there was also a gravel pit at Franceschini Pit about five miles west of Shawville, Québec, using a little Plymouth engine, and they gave the CPR one train per night, five days per week, and when the Wamo wye was opened, this train also used it, instead of pulling into Hull West for his own staff and orders. Trains from the Waltham Subdivision using the staff did not have to get any train orders when re-entering the Ottawa Terminal trackage to return to Ottawa West, the staff being their authority.

If you had a staff, you were king of the road, you didn't care about No. 1, No. 2 or any other train . . . just don’t delay them! The fun would start when someone mistakenly took a staff past its territory, or one was lost. One conductor was swinging the staff in its leather pouch while standing on the platform of his caboose while waiting for the block signal to enter Ottawa West yard when it got out of his grip, and landed in the Ottawa River – his train had been standing with the caboose just onto the Prince of Wales Bridge. When that happened, the signal maintainer had to be called to ascertain that the staff was indeed lost, so there wouldn’t be two staffs outstanding at once, then he had a key to unlock the machine, and remove a staff to replace the lost one. Should this occur on a weekend, it could take some time to get the maintainer to come in from home.

One time, the E8 1800 was into Hull West, just arriving from Montréal on Train 503, and was moving light to Ottawa West for servicing. The engineer and fireman were in Hull West chewing the fat with the operator, just having given him their ‘A’ staff. As they were leaving, they picked up the staff, and were proceeding over the Prince of Wales Bridge towards Ottawa West, when they looked at their staff and saw that they had picked up their original ‘A’ staff, which had only given them authority to go from Ottawa Union to Hull West, not from Hull West to Ottawa West. They made a hasty return to Hull West (not according to the rules) and picked up the proper ‘D’ staff.

Another time, due to an accumulation of staffs at Ottawa West, the Chief Train Dispatcher in Smiths Falls authorized the signal maintainer to transfer 20 staffs from Ottawa West to Hull West on a Saturday afternoon, so that Hull West wouldn’t run out. Saturday afternoon was when all the wayfreights came into Ottawa West from all the branches, and it could be sheer hell at Ottawa West. The maintainer came down, extracted the 20 staffs, and asked what was going to Hull West next. He was told that it would be the 1227, a light engine from Ottawa West to Ottawa Union, in 20 minutes.

The light engine had clearance, since the operator at UY had obtained clearance for him from the Smiths Falls dispatcher, so when the switchtender brought the 1227 around to the station from the shop, and the engineer was told that the signal maintainer was riding with him to Hull West to deposit 20 extra staffs, he assumed one of the 20 was for him, and off he went backing onto the Prince of Wales Bridge. (There was no wye at Ottawa Union, so all engines for passenger trains leaving Ottawa Union for the Carleton Place, Lachute, Maniwaki, or Waltham subdivisions had to back all the way from Ottawa West to Ottawa Union.) Around Lemieux Island, where CPR had a customer in the City of Ottawa’s water filtration plant, and cars of chlorine were delivered to them, the engineer on 1227 was surprised to see a caboose coming towards him, and behind that some boxcars, and behind that a D4g. The Waltham wayfreight had backed out of Hull West and was backing his train towards Ottawa West. Movements were very slow, about 10 m.p.h., and both trains stopped. The 1227 reversed position, moving back to Ottawa West to clear the wye switch so that 424 on the Waltham wayfreight could get his train put away, took the 424’s staff, and proceeded to Hull West, not in the best humour at the signal maintainer, who was still clutching his heavy load of 20 staffs.

Another fun time was when someone took the staff west of Ottawa West, which usually happened about once every five years. About 1955, a conductor on No. 551, the Ottawa to Chalk River passenger train which ran Sunday only, took a staff through to Carleton Place, and there were no eastward trains until No. 8, The Dominion, Monday morning, so the staff system would have been immobilized for almost 12 hours. A yard clerk from Ottawa West drove his car to Carleton Place to retrieve the staff at 22:00 on a very dark night. I think he got some merit marks from the CPR for that feat, while I’m sure the conductor got some shares in the company (alias brownies). I wonder if Mr. Crump knew that this was how his CPR was being run?

 At Ottawa West, Saturday afternoons were the busiest time, when all the wayfreights were coming in, and trying to get home for one day a week . . . this was before the 40 hour week. A quick scan of timetable 45, dated April 29, 1956, shows the following regular trains at UY on Saturday.

Eastbound: Chalk River passenger No. 556 at 11:00; No. 558 due at 17:05; No. 562 at 17:25 from Toronto via Brockville; and No. 2, The Canadian, at 19:00.

Westbound: No. 555 to Chalk River, 08:30; No. 563 for Brockville and Toronto at 09:30; No. 1, The Canadian, at 15:29; Brockville train No. 559 at 15:45; and No. 557 to Chalk River at 16:25.

This was all steam, and all passenger engines went from Ottawa West to Ottawa Union. The Maniwaki passenger, No. 534, would arrive at Ottawa Union at 10:25, and the engine then ran light to UY. No. 556 from Chalk River arrived at CD at 11:15 and his engine ran light back to Ottawa West. No. 421, passenger from Montréal via the Lachute Subdivision, arrived Ottawa Union at 12:20, and his engine would back, light to UY. The same would happen to the engine from No. 562 after its 17:40 arrival at Ottawa Union. Train No. 503 would arrive at Union Station at 09:45 after its trip from Montréal via the M&O Subdivision and the joint track from Deep Cut, and then its engine would be cut off and move light to Ottawa West.

 A light engine would have to make the same trek back from Ottawa West to be at CD about noon for the 12:40 departure of the Saturday-only Maniwaki passenger, No. 539. Train No. 428, the Saturday-only Montréal passenger via the Lachute Subdivision, would run light from UY to CD at 12:30 to be ready for its 13:00 departure. At 14:30, a repeat run would be made with the engine for No. 559 to be prepared to haul the daily Brockville passenger. Less than a hour later at 15:20, the engines for No. 557 and No. 535 moved to Ottawa Union coupled together (No. 535 was Monday-Friday only). At 17:00, an engine for No. 424 headed to Ottawa Union for the run to Montréal via the Lachute Subdivision. Then the engine from No. 505, from Montréal over the M&O Sub., ran west after its 19:00 arrival.

Then there were the wayfreights. There were two runs to Gatineau daily, at 02:00 and 11:00, and they returned as their 12 hours were up. These trains ran as No. 72 and No. 78. An eastbound wayfreight ran down the Lachute Subdivision, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday as No. 74, westbound with no number Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Then there was a Waltham wayfreight westbound, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday as No. 95, eastbound as No. 96 on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. The Maniwaki wayfreight was northbound as No. 79, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, returning as No. 80 on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

Canadian Pacific had two transfers to Hull daily to switch E.B. Eddy and the other industries there. This transfer usually had a yard engine such as 7011, 7028, or 7089, which were the first diesels assigned to Ottawa. Six days (nights) a week there were overnight freights No. 85 and No. 86 on the Montréal run. No. 85 would arrive at UY about noon, and No. 86 would depart for Montréal at 20:00. At times when there was extra switching on the Lachute Subdivision, CP would run a No. 54 leaving Ottawa West at noon, usually with steamers fresh from an overhaul at Angus Shops, out for a test run, often the standard Hudson 2800s.

There were also the Waltham mixed trains. Saturday one would arrive at Ottawa Union at 09:45, and then its D4 would run light to UY; Saturday afternoon it left CD at 13:30, and so the engine would run light from Ottawa West to Ottawa Union at 12:45.

All of these movements were made under the control of the absolute electric staff block system. Only one train at a time with one staff was permitted in the block. Sometimes, if there were two or three light engines going to or from Ottawa Union, they would be coupled up. One picture in my collection shows Waltham steamer 425, Maniwaki gas car 9005, and Montréal E8 1800 coupled together moving light over the Alexandra Bridge back to Ottawa West for servicing.

When the staff was out of action the train dispatcher in Smiths Falls would have to issue a train order, such as this, to all trains between the affected points, which would then reintroduce the superiority of trains by time table and train order.
In Canada, Eastward and Southward trains were superior to Westward and Northward trains, but there were also first, second third and fourth class trains to come into the picture.  And if there were extra trains and engines in the mix, it was quite a chore moving trains when the staff system went down. 
This was the only time that we saw white flags in this territory.
Green flags were more common, when sections of passenger trains ran, during holiday periods and summer vacation time.

Should the staff system have become inoperative, all movements were by train orders. Regular trains proceeded with eastward and southward trains superior to northward and westward trains, so No. 2, or other eastward first class trains had right over No. 1, and all other westward trains. Westward trains would have to know where the eastbounds were before proceeding. The fun started when you tried to move all the wayfreights and light engines.

First of all, the train dispatcher in Smiths Falls would put out a 19Y train order saying “Electric staff block system between Ottawa West and Hull West is inoperative. Trains will be governed by time table and train orders.” Then, say, the light engine for No. 425 was ready to leave Ottawa West for Hull West. The train dispatcher would have to put out another order saying “Engine 425 run extra Ottawa West to Hull West with right over westward extra trains.” Before this order could be issued, the dispatcher would have to ascertain that all of the westward extra trains had arrived at Ottawa West. Once No. 425 arrived at Hull West, he could then let another eastward go with another similar order, or he could let a westward train leave Hull West for Ottawa West with an order “Engine 1800 run extra Hull West to Ottawa West,” making sure that no eastward extras still had right over the 1800.


4097 is a passenger special which came from Toronto, I believe, on the CNR, and was given to CP at the new Ottawa Station and headed to Montebello Quebec, but with CP power.  This is the return move to Ottawa Station from Montebello showing the special arriving at Ottawa West on 10 October 1967.  As the electric staff block system went down, it had to be run as a passenger extra west from Hull West to Ottawa; hence the white flags on the engine.


Train No. 85 from Montreal via the Lachute Subdivision is arriving at Ottawa West on 14 January 1966.  Again, as the electric staff block system was inoperative, it had to be run as an extra west from Hull west to Ottawa West.

It was said that the train dispatcher in Smiths Falls controlled this operation, but actually it was the operators themselves who ran it, the train dispatcher only “cleared” the trains on the green clearances, and let the operators run the show, except when first class trains were in the vicinity.

Another pain to the 1950s train operations at Ottawa West was a red train order signal. It was red all the time, and could not be moved to another position. Four passenger trains a day did not stop at Ottawa West, Nos. 1 and 2, The Canadian, and Nos. 7 and 8, The Dominion. The Uniform Code of Operating Rules states “. . . when no 19R train orders are held for any train in the direction indicated, the operator will, on the approach of the train, in addition to the stop signal, display a yellow flag by day or a yellow light by night.” So when hooping up orders to the head end of No. 2 or No. 8 at Ottawa West, the operator was holding his hoop in one hand, a yellow flag or light in the other, plus the ‘D’ staff and orders for the conductor in the trailing 500-series dome car – quite a handful when a train is cruising by at 30 or so m.p.h. If the operator dropped the hoop, the train dispatcher was none too pleased with his performance.

The ‘A’ staff was abandoned when the new Ottawa Station opened on July 31, 1966. The ‘D’ staff section was abandoned when the operations at Ottawa West moved to Walkley Yard, October 31, 1967. Two staff machines are in the National Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa along with some staffs. The machines were built in Liverpool, England in the early 1900s.

The last staff system in service on CP was one near Sudbury, Ontario, on a 1.7 mile section of the Nickel Subdivision between C.N.R. Junction and Clarabelle. This was an absolute block staff system.

CP also used the staff system on 2.1 miles of the Québec Subdivision between Québec and Cadorna. Again, this was an absolute block staff system. A pusher block staff system was used for the four miles between Orangeville and Fraxa, Ontario, on CP’s Owen Sound Subdivision.

The 2.2 miles from Edmonton to South Edmonton, Alberta on the Leduc Subdivision used an absolute block staff system. A permissive block staff system was used on the 3.8 miles from Saskatoon to Sutherland on the Sutherland Subdivision. Saint John, New Brunswick, had an interesting combination over 2.2 miles of the Saint John Subdivision to Fairville. It was an absolute block system with pusher block override.

And of course we cannot overlook the 3.3 mile absolute block staff system that was in place in Toronto between Don and Leaside on the Oshawa Subdivision.

Upper Canada Railway Society Newsletter, December 1989.

Home    Circle    Articles