Of Trains and Men

The CPR was beginning to consider my application to work as a Yardman and I had signed its boilerplate release of liability letter, without which nothing else would happen.  Given that I was desperate for work, when the door finally opened, I didn’t waste any time.  On Friday, September 22nd, 1967, I was provided with a pass to travel to Montreal for the various medical, vision and hearing tests I needed to take, and that’s exactly where I was the following Monday morning.  Despite the low-tech nature of the Company’s OCS (On Company Service) mail system (involving manual typewriters, the Windsor Station mailroom, the Baggageman on an Ottawa-bound train and a deliveryman at Ottawa), the results of those Monday morning tests were already in Chief Clerk Gunning’s hands when I returned to his office on Tuesday morning.  In turn, he provided me with a letter directing the Foremen of three yard assignments to “carry me on their train and arrange for instruction in the performance of a yardman’s duties” and to the Car Foreman to have me spend a day on the repair track.  Not wanting to appear too eager, I waited until the following morning to begin putting in my four days of instruction. 

As with many other young train-watchers, I had occasionally entered Ottawa West Yard without authorization and, on at least one occasion, a friendly CPR policeman had encouraged me to restrict my viewing to the public sidewalk, but no more.  Even though FORM Y-1 RELEASE ensured that I was still there at my own risk and peril, for once, no one could ask me leave.  At 8:00 a.m., I headed for the ancient wooden Yard Office building, whose most obvious entrance led into a kind of mudroom where the yard and main line crews could begin and end their working days without being too concerned about how much of the yard was being dragged in on the soles of their boots.  Through the small window that was the only obvious connection to the office portion of the building, the Crew Clerk first directed me to the nearby Rip (Repair in place) Track. 

There, from G. Leach, the Car Foreman, I learned the basic skills - how to bleed air from a car, to release the brakes for switching purposes; how, from the top of a wooden boxcar, to apply and release an old style, vertical brakewheel without getting clothing or body parts caught up in it (on newer models, a clutch precludes the wheel from spinning in reverse when the brake is released); how to couple a trainline (air hoses); how to then release air into the cars being coupled to without setting off an emergency brake application); and, most importantly, how to uncouple a trainline charged with 90 p.s.i. or more of air so that it doesn’t snap back and do serious damage to your person.  With that and some words about watching where I was walking and not to step on the railhead, my letter was dated and signed and that was it – my first day of instruction was over, and all within about an hour.  And while I didn’t realize it then, that was also the only safety instruction I would receive over the next two and a half years as a Yardman.

Back once again at the Yard Office, I was introduced to Mike Zarosky, Yard Foreman of a crew that had just come on duty for the 9:30 a.m. job called the Utility Shunt.  For this, my first trial trip, I was instructed to climb into the cab and observe what would be going on.  Then, for the next hour or two, we first pulled back and then shoved forward, stopped and waited, and then did it all over …. again …. and again …. and again.  Still, riding around in only the second or third working diesel of my life was not something I was going to complain about, no matter how boring it might seem.

When time came for the crew to take a short break, Foreman Mike called me down off the engine and signed my sheet, which both signalled to upper management that I had learned everything he could teach me about a Yardman’s duties, and to me that any more of this was a waste of time.  Since it was around noon and I had completed two full days of training in just four hours, I took the hint and went home for lunch.  Although I hadn’t gained much information on which to base an “opinion as to whether or not I would like to work as a Yardman,” I had unwittingly just participated in my first railway tradition – an early quit!

The two assignments I was to observe the next day, the Hull Transfer and a main yard switching assignment, were scheduled for 8:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., respectively.  For these, I was again confined to the cab, a seat cushion apparently being the accepted conduit for imparting knowledge about railroading to aspiring rookies such as myself.   

At least the Hull Transfer was more interesting.  After the first hour or so during which the crew hunted up cars for our train, we received some train orders and headed across the Ottawa River on the Prince of Wales Bridge to Hull, Quebec.  Once there, we visited various industrial tracks, the furthest one being the beer warehouse siding on the Maniwaki Subdivision a short distance beyond the later location of the Hull, Chelsea and Wakefield Railway enginehouse and terminal.

At that point, we reversed direction and headed back to Ottawa West, where Foreman Roger Nagle signed me out before he and his crew headed off to other duties.  While it had been a pleasant way to spend a sunny fall day, I still hadn’t learned a whole lot about what we had been doing, a pattern I would later learn was not uncommon to other new hires who didn’t already know someone working for the railway.

At 3:00 p.m., I reported to Foreman Joe Maville.  All too predictably, it was more of the same - sitting in the cab, with only the occasional obstruction of the Bayview Street crossing up by Ottawa West Station to relieve the boredom.  To make matters worse, it was getting dark and it began to rain so that, after a time, all that could be seen was the end of the boxcar next to the engine or the occasional handlamp dancing gingerly across the yard.  As if this wasn’t enough, it was also my first encounter with engine 6620, a slippery, hard-riding switcher for which I never developed any affection.  At least when Joe signed me out at about 9:00 p.m., the engineman let me off right by my car, so I didn’t get wet.

Thursday morning found me again in the Chief Clerk’s office [1].  The question was never asked, so I guess he just assumed that I had formed a positive opinion about the work of a Yardman because I was back again, looking for more.  This time, he gave me a copy of the Uniform Code of Operating Rules (the UCOR) and a school scribbler-size booklet in which a series of questions about the rules were printed.  From the tests I had taken the previous Monday, the Company knew that my reading and writing skills at least met its minimum standards, so I was sent home to answer all the questions.

That edition of the UCOR contained more than 300 rules statements and other items of information grouped under 26 headings.  The scribbler contained a least one question per item, with some of the longer ones being broken out into several parts.  The questions were simple and the expected response was to repeat the rule or item.  A typical question might be: (Rule 108) In case of doubt or uncertainty, what must be done?  Answer: In case of doubt or uncertainty, the safe course must be taken.

On the surface, this might seem like a fairly straightforward exercise in getting a prospective employee to read and learn, but the probable truth is that the purpose was much more sinister.  Consider for a moment that the UCOR has been tested in innumerable court cases over the years and that men with years of train operating experience, much like biblical scholars, can debate the meaning of a few words for hours at a time.  Consider what someone off the street, whose knowledge of railway terminology and train operations is absolutely limited, might be expected to learn from an open-book exam with absolutely no instruction provided.  Consider that the ‘exam’ was structured so that there was no way to get an answer wrong as long as your response just re-phrased the rule you were being questioned about.  Then, consider the contrast between this tightly scripted exercise and the absolutely casual nature of the preceding days of on-train instruction and you might begin to suspect that something was afoot.

If you surmised that the lawyers had also invaded this aspect of the hiring process and that the ulterior motive was to protect the Company, you would be very close to the mark.  Once you had certified that the answer book was in your handwriting and that you were the one who had completed the questionnaire, that booklet became part of a permanent file somewhere.  For ever after, as long as you remained an employee, if it was ever alleged that you committed an infraction of the UCOR or, more importantly, if the Company was placed in a position of liability because of something you did or didn’t do, you could never plead ignorance or that you hadn’t understood – the evidence was there in your own hand writing.  Needless to say, no one ever bothered to explain this to the prospective employee.

At any rate, by the following Monday, my questionnaire was filled out and turned in.  A few days later, I was summoned to a pre-employment interview with the Assistant Superintendent that Ottawa still warranted at the time.  Before describing that event, however, I will say a little about my childhood to set the scene. 

I grew up in quite reasonable circumstances.  As an only child, I didn’t have to compete for attention, so I never became particularly verbal or assertive and, as something of an introvert, that suited me fine.  At the same time, I was always in awe of those who were more outgoing and took on leadership roles.  So, when I was ushered in to meet Mr. George D. Pogue, I couldn’t have been any more pre-disposed to being intimidated.  Here was this absolute take-charge guy, probably a railroader all his life, accustomed to cracking the whip over several hundred men, matching wits with local union chairmen and, for all I knew, re-railing locomotives with his bare hands.  Totally in command-and-control mode, he was an essential cog in CP’s machinery.  Our conversation, which seemed to go on forever but probably lasted no more than 10 minutes, was in two parts: the rules test and the pep talk.  It went something like this:

Part One

G.D.P: What’s the definition of ‘Slow speed’?  Me: umm – no more than 15 mph.

G.D.P: What the definition of ‘Restricted speed’?  Me: umm – Restricted speed is, umm …, travelling at a speed that enables you to stop short of, umm .......

G.D.P: within half the distance you can see, right?  Me: Yes sir. 

Part Two

G.D.P: Son, do you know what my initials stand for?  Me: No sir.

G.D.P: People around here will tell you that they stand for God Damn Pogue.  That’s because I’m all over the place and I’m watching everything all the time.  So you be sure to pay attention to your rulebook and your timetable and don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.  My Chief Clerk will fix you up so you can go to work.  Me: Yes sir.  Thank you sir.  (End of interview).

Before I left the outer office, Gord Gunning had instructed the Crew Clerk to add my name to the Spare List (list of employees to be called on an as-needed basis) and to provide me with a chit for a hand lamp (to be redeemed at the Storeroom behind the roundhouse) when I first reported for work.  He also provided me with both CP and CN employee timetables and switch keys, as a great deal of the terminal trackage in Ottawa was subject to joint-use.  He informed that, although it was now early October, my seniority date would be set at August 17, the date on which I had first applied for employment.  And last but not least, he fixed me up with an employee number that would correctly identify me on the all-important trip ticket the Yard Foreman would complete at the end of each shift.  The little rubber-stamp-with-inkpad version of Denis J. Peters 436441 showed up by OCS mail a few weeks later.  This was CP’s second use of that number, the first being for van (caboose) 436441 which, as near as I could determine, was also active throughout my ten years with the Company.  And while I managed to appear in pictures taken all over the CP system during that time, one of which was even reproduced on the cover of a timetable, photos of that van have been impossible to find.  (P.S. I’m still looking.)

Next:  I take my first call and step into the abyss.

[1] In my haste, I had forgotten to bring the letter signed by the four Foremen.  Fortunately, he made no subsequent effort to have me return it, because that original record of events has been extremely valuable in terms of teaching me how fallible my memory can be.

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

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