Of Trains and Men
Nothing left to Chance, or the Boilerplate wasn't only in the locomotives


It was a dark and stormy night.  The cozy Ottawa Transportation Commission streetcar that carried me and my mother home in late-1949 or -1950 turned north at the east end of Laurier Avenue.  Ours was the first stop on Charlotte Street, just past the old Russian Embassy that had figured so prominently in former cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko’s recent revelations of spying activities.  As the car began to pull away, my mother realized that her purse had been left behind on the seat and, what with a 4-year old in tow, all she could do was yell and wave after the streetcar which, of course, did not heed her call to stop.

As luck would have it, behind the streetcar was a large, dark, chauffeur-driven car waiting to turn right onto the tony end of Wilbrod Street, overlooking the Rideau River.  As the car pulled up beside us, it stopped once again and the back window rolled down.  Following a brief inquiry from the occupant about the cause of my mother’s distress, parent and child were invited to share the cavernous back seat with Senator Norman McLeod Paterson, founder of the N.M. Paterson grain-handling empire and Paterson Steamship Lines, and the chase was on.  Within four blocks, the fleeing streetcar had been overtaken, its further escape being effectively prevented by the car now purposefully parked in front of it.  Once the chauffeur had retrieved the purse and returned it to my grateful mother, the streetcar was permitted to resume its route while we were delivered to our front door in a style that I could easily have become accustomed to!

I mention this incident both because beginning a series on my railway experiences with my earliest transportation memory seems especially appropriate and because I have often wondered how much of a role it played in sparking my lifelong interest in railways, not to mention my attraction to big black cars!  Learning, as I did recently, that the good Senator’s first job was with the Manitoba Railway & Canal Company, the oldest constituent of the Canadian Northern Railway system, and that I had been in the presence, even for an instant, of a link to Canada’s railway past only gives me that much more to think about.

Whatever the truth of how I became interested in railways, the task of actually setting down my experiences on paper stems from another fortuitous contact, that of Features Editor Phil Jago who, for at least three years, has done what editors mostly do – encourage, indeed badger, people to write.  In my case, Phil focussed on my time as a Yardman in Ottawa, a kind of a Tid Bits from the back end of the train instead of the shovel, if you will.  Given that the totality of my formal railway career – partly with a Toronto railway contractor, partly with the CPR in railway operations and public relations – barely covered a decade and that I’ve spent five times that long observing, researching and thinking about railways, I agreed, but only on condition that I could expand the time frame and the subject matter to provide a little more scope.  And while the initial focus of the series will still be to describe the CPR’s Ottawa operations in the late-1960s, over time, I hope to shed some light on how railways operated on a day-to-day basis before the advent of computers and the communications technology that we now take for granted.

My title for this series, Of Trains and Men, is a nod to the poem 'To a Mouse', penned in 1786 by the immortal Robert Burns.  In it, Burns tells of how a mouse's nest is upturned while ploughing a field and, in apologizing to the mouse, explains that “the best laid schemes o'mice an' men, Gang aft a-gley”.  In other words, no matter how well you make your plans or prepare, things often go off the rails – in life, in railroading and, indeed, in writing.  One need only look to this piece, which was intended to be the first in the series but is now instead the second, pre-empted by an editor’s need for a timely piece on the late Myra Canyon trestles for the November, 2003 issue.

The wisdom behind Burns’ admonition (and my companion theory of the unintended consequence) is never far from my thoughts at the best of times, and it will be front and centre as I set about the task of researching and writing each piece; however, that is where he and I will part company.  For one thing, I’m going to write for you in conventional English.  For another, both in order to avoid the wrath of our six daughters and because not enough has yet been said about the role of women in railroading, I will invoke a writer’s Rule 99 (the flagging rule in the old Uniform Code of Operating Regulations) by stating up front that wherever the masculine gender is expressed, for example, the word “men” in the title or elsewhere, it is to be taken as if the feminine or neuter, as the case may be, were expressed.  And last but not least, I’m going to try to do it all with more than a little humour.

I like to think that Burns was ploughing a cornfield when he came upon that mouse, if only because cornfields share a special relationship with railways.  In addition to producing the wherewithal to fill trains the world over, they have also become part of the jargon of Canadian railways, in which any collision is an ‘affair’ and the head-on version is sometimes referred to as a ‘cornfield meet.’ 

When such events happen in ordinary life, you either shake them off and go back at it or you make a new plan.  Before either of those options can be pursued in railroading, however, there is an additional step – the assignment of blame, typically through a process in which the ‘Company’ fulfills the roles of prosecutor, judge and jury and is, therefore, held blameless.  So, tradition being what it is, if this series works out, the credit will go to Phil, but if not, I’ll get to wear the demerit points.  Either way, as I set out on this journey, your observations, comments, corrections and contributions will always be welcomed.

And so to work.  While the railway experiences of my youth were not insignificant and will not be left out, things really started to come together during my ten years with CP.  For that reason, I’m going to begin my tale at the moment just before I hired on, with the reprise of a piece that ran so long ago in Branchline that most of today’s readers will not have seen it.  And if any of you older members can actually remember when it was first published, I’d appreciate knowing, because I just can’t find it anywhere!

Nothing Left to Chance, or The Boilerplate Wasn’t Only in the Locomotives

1967 was a fateful year for me.  Within six short months, I turned 21, left university for a job with railway equipment dealer Andrew Merrilees, married, incurred lease and loan obligations, and was laid off, all pretty much in that order.  Finding a new means of support, preferably another one connected with railways, seemed like a sensible thing to do, so I headed over to the Canadian Pacific Railway offices in the new Merchandise Terminal Building on Old Alta Vista Drive in Ottawa.

A proverbial piece of cake, I thought.  Just slip down to Windsor Station, Montreal, on No. 232 and do the Company’s bidding: a medical, a reading and writing proficiency test, a colour sense exam (picking little balls of coloured wool from a box), and a hearing test (cover each ear in turn and repeat after me!)  Shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours, after which Omer Lavallée, an Assistant Paymaster with CP and its future Corporate Historian Emeritus, could be counted on for lunch.  That would still leave a couple of hours to watch some trains before returning on No. 235.  All in all, a great way to begin an employer-employee relationship, and on a pass too!

It seemed almost too good to be true, and it nearly was.  Before the pass could be issued and the first wheel of my new career could turn, CP’s Law Department had to be placated.  In the process, I would also learn Lesson One from the CPR Book of Management:  Never leave the Company open to unnecessary liability. 

So, having delivered my three letters of reference (from Ken Chivers, Tom Hood and Andy Merrilees), I waited expectantly as G.L. (Gord) Gunning, the prototypical Chief Clerk to the Assistant Superintendent, hammered out a seemingly endless document on an old Underwood upright.  What he produced, on triplicate sheets, was my first and, thankfully, last experience with FORM Y-1 RELEASE.  It read:

 I HEREBY ACKNOWLEDGE that I have applied to the Canadian Pacific Railway Company for employment as a Yardman and that the Canadian Pacific Railway Company has declined to employ me as a Yardman and has declined to employ me as an apprentice Yardman or as a learner and has informed me that it does not require my services in any capacity.  I HEREBY FURTHER ACKNOWLEDGE THAT THE SAID Canadian Pacific Railway Company has not requested or desired me to undergo any training or to do any probationary work preliminary to employment by the said Railway Company.  AND I DO HEREBY REQUEST the said Canadian Pacific Railway Company to permit me to travel or ride at my own risk upon its engines, tenders, cars, coaches and trains for the sole purpose of observing the work of and thus enabling me to form an opinion as to whether or not I would like to work as a Yardman for the said Canadian Pacific should there be an opportunity for me to be so employed.

I HEREBY FURTHER ACKNOWLEDGE that in so travelling or riding upon said engines, tenders, cars, coaches and/or trains and/or while on or about the premises of the said Canadian Pacific Railway Company and in anything I do or say in the way of observing and understanding the work of Yardman while so travelling or riding, or while on or about the said premises of the said Railway Company, I am acting solely for my own benefit and for my own purposes, and in pursuance of my own plans.

                AND in consideration of the permission granted me by said Canadian Pacific Railway Company to travel and ride upon said engines, tenders, cars, coaches and trains and of observing the work of Yardman I DO HEREBY FREE AND RELEASE the said Railway Company in respect of any injuries sustained by me while travelling, riding and/or observing and/or while on or about the said premises of the said Railway Company, whether or not such injuries are sustained as the result of negligence on the part of the said Railway Company, its servants or agents.

The craftsmen who turned steel sheet into boiler shells at CP’s Angus Shops couldn’t hope to do better than the anonymous lawyer who crafted those tightly packed paragraphs.  Words assembled in just the right way have the power to transform onionskin paper into a kind of boilerplate that is even  more sound than anything ever intended to confine locomotive steam.

As young and inexperienced as I was, I recognized intuitively just how a few simple strokes with my pen would shift a significant risk from CP’s broad shoulders onto my own considerably narrower ones.  But the overriding consideration was the need to earn a living, something CP certainly counted on.  Despite my misgivings, just like tens of thousands before me, I signed.

Next:  Writing the rulebook, trial trips, and an interview with the Assistant Superintendent.

Bytown Railway Society,  Branchline, January 2004, page 10.

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