Of Trains and Men


Following my interview with Assistant Superintendent Pogue, my name had been added to the Spare List (of on-call employees, a.k.a. the list), and so I went home to wait.  Days would pass, however, and since I knew so little about my new employment, I wasn’t aware that I could call the Crew Clerk every couple of hours to see if the list was moving and get an educated guess about when I might actually be needed.  So, in those pre-answering machine, pre-cellular and pre-portable phone days, I stayed within earshot of the apartment phone which, at length, did ring for me.  I gratefully accepted to replace a regular man (women were unknown in this line of work until much later) on the 3 to 11 p.m. main yard switching assignment.  That was about the time I stepped into the abyss.

Arriving at the Yard Office extra early, I took the chit provided by the Crew Clerk and made my way over to the Storeroom behind the roundhouse, where I drew out my very own lantern and a 6‑volt battery.  Afterwards, I began to familiarize myself with the Bulletin Books in the crew area, into which were pasted notices for yard and train crews.  The notices conveyed all manner of useful information, including critical stuff such as which non-operating tracks, e.g. private sidings, were temporarily or permanently out of service, an important consideration in a terminal undergoing as much change as Ottawa in the mid-1960s.  I soon learned to initial the items as I read them, so that new ones added between then and the next time I worked would immediately be obvious.

The Yard Foreman (the Foreman) arrived about 15 minutes before call time (the time at which you were expected to report ready for work), which is when he learned that a regular crewmember had booked off (took a holiday or sick day.)  The Crew Clerk made an introduction of sorts through the little window connecting the two parts of the Yard Office, after which the Foreman quietly busied himself with the switch lists he was handed.  When the other Yardman arrived, the Foreman’s own introduction consisted of “We have a green brakeman tonight.  His name is Dennis.”

I recall feeling more than a little put off by that.  After all, I knew something about railways, having followed them for as long as I could remember, commuted between Ottawa and Delson, Quebec, almost every Saturday for two years to work at the Canadian Railway Museum, and recently put in a solid four months working for a railway contractor.  I guess I expected that my ability to build and tear up track and operate a small industrial yard engine would somehow be relevant.  It wasn’t, of course, and even if the Foreman had known anything about my background, his assessment of me wouldn’t have changed one whit, which was fortunate, not the least for me.

Looking back after more than 35 years, I’m still not certain how you actually teach anyone about how a yard works.  In retrospect, my experience suggests that CP had never considered the question or, at best, had dismissed it as a waste of resources, because I was totally unprepared for what I stepped into on that October afternoon.  In retrospect, a little individual or classroom instruction would have been enormously helpful and probably would have made me more useful more quickly, but that wasn’t to be.  It still amazes me that anyone could be sent to work in such a dangerous environment with no training whatsoever.  Small wonder that CP’s Law Department played such a shadowy role in the hiring process!

But, as I have indicated previously, that’s the way it worked around the CPR I was learning about.  I had applied for work off the street instead of being brought in by family or friends who were already employees, so I would have to learn the ropes myself.  When I did ask questions, the answers were not especially helpful, because I didn’t yet have much of the context, for example, I didn’t know the track layouts or what each train number implied, and because my fellow crewmembers were generally men of few words.  On the other hand, because they spent a lot of time watching from their confined little cabs and waiting for things to happen, engine crews tended both to provide many helpful comments and be more sociable.  For the most part, though, you just learned by osmosis, watching and listening to what was going on and picking up a bit here and there and eventually (hopefully) putting it all together.

Inasmuch as I did gain a decent understanding of railway operations over the next number of years, I will try to set out some of the basics in an understandable way, beginning here with yards.  As some of this comes from my time in Ottawa, Montreal and elsewhere, it is not an exact representation of any one place but is instead typical of procedures in place during the period described.

In the beginning, railways created the bill of lading and from it, the waybill, without which nothing productive happens.  The waybill is the authority to move a car and, more importantly, for the railway to issue an invoice for transportation and related charges.  In the late-1960s, all loads and foreign line (in my case, non-CPR) empties moved on waybills prepared in multiple copies at the point of origin.  One copy was retained for station records where the waybill was ‘cut’ (filled out), others were sent off to accounting and car billing offices, while still others remained with the car, either in the custody of a train conductor as it moved between terminals or of a yardmaster where the car was being switched.  Waybill information included: car initials and number; nature and weight of contents (for billing purposes); weight of car and contents (gross weight, for calculating train tonnages); information on shipper and receiver; and origin and destination points, both as place names and unique station numbers.

In the care of a yard, waybills (and equivalent information about incoming trains received by teletype) allowed for the planning of what was to make up each train.  Sorting all the waybills by destination or routing gave the Yardmaster (the yard planner/supervisor on each shift) the total workload.  That workload could then be broken down by shift, depending upon the schedules of intercity trains or local switching assignments.

What the Yardmaster then needed to know was the location of each car in the yard, because being able to find the cars you need is a prerequisite for a successful switching operation.  This was accomplished by having the Car-checker (one of the yard clerks) walk every track and record the initials and numbers of whatever was there.  As a general rule, no matter what the weather, the complete yard was checked once every 24 hours, while the main tracks that would have been disturbed during the preceding shift would be checked again at 8‑hour intervals.  The consists of incoming trains were also recorded as they arrived, to ensure that there was a car for every waybill received and vice versa (never a given), and that you had a record of empties moving without a waybill.  Departing trains were similarly checked against a copy of the manifest as they pulled out.

The data collected by the Car-checkers was then compiled in two ways.  The first was on a track list, often a large sheet or board with parallel columns, on which the identity of each car was listed in sequence by track number.  The track list gave you an overall picture of the yard.  The second was in a register, either a pre-printed book or another large board with ten columns numbered from 0 through 9.  Into this register was entered the number of each car according to the tens digit, e.g. CP hopper 360159 would be listed in the ‘5’ column, along with the number of the track on which it was located.  As a timesaving measure, home-road (CPR in this case) cars were listed by number only, while foreign-line cars also had their initials recorded, in order to avoid confusion with similarly numbered home-road cars.  Between the waybills and the information recorded by the Car-checker, the Yardmaster (himself a former Yard Foreman) could now make up the switch lists for outgoing trains.

Once all the waybills for a planned train were assembled, you determined where the cars were, first by checking the register under the appropriate tens-digit column to get the track number, and then by the track list to confirm the previous information and see where it was on that track.  Car numbers and tracks were then recorded on a switch list (one per train to be made up), along with other necessary information such as: the destination, if the train was a way freight that needed to be marshalled (organized in a given sequence) to facilitate switching along the way; the contents, as safety considerations required cars containing certain dangerous commodities to be separated from each other or kept a minimum distance from the engine or van; or, blocked (organized in groups to facilitate switching at a subsequent point, i.e. where traffic changed trains.)  If the car was on an especially long track, how deep it was ‘buried’ might also be indicated.

Yard crews consisted of a Foreman and two Yardmen.  The Foreman held the switch lists and generally stayed up around the ladder (where the yard tracks branch off the switching lead.)  He decided the order in which tracks would be ‘pulled’ to get needed cars, and where those cars would be ‘set’ on an interim basis.  The junior (by seniority) Yardman stayed near the engine, throwing switches along the ladder, working with the Foreman to set out the needed cars and handling light-engine (not coupled to anything) movements between tracks.  Because radios were not then in common use, both Yardmen stayed within sight of each other to relay hand or lamp signals to the engineman, or at least within sight of the Foreman, so that moves weren’t started unless everyone was known to be in a safe position. 

The senior Yardman had the more demanding job.  It consisted of walking down the yard tracks to make the cuts (uncouple between cars) so that the fewest cars were pulled out.  There were several reasons for doing this rather than pulling the whole track and stopping to make the cut near the ladder.  First, you never pulled more tonnage than necessary.  Second, handbrakes would have been applied to several cars at the far end of the track, to prevent anything from rolling out unexpectedly.  Finally, if you pulled a whole track, a man would then be required on the leading end of the movement for safety reasons when it was shoved back in, a requirement that was absent if some cars were left in place.  After a cut was made, the senior man ensured that the string was properly coupled up once again, not only to secure the cars but also for reasons of courtesy -- so that the next crew pulling the same track didn’t have to make joints (couplings) that should have been made.

Every couple of moves, he would ride out on the end of a cut, get direction on what was to happen next, and then disappear back into the yard.  Coordination between the Foreman and the senior man was critical, as the most time-consuming part of any switching operation was walking the track to where the cut had to be made.  Having someone in position who could remember the next couple of moves and skip from track to track without further direction often spelled the difference between working the full eight hours (minus the 20-minute paid lunch) and an early quit.

That’s the simple part.  Notwithstanding the problematic introduction to the first of my Foremen, the more I learned about yard operations, the more I came to have enormous respect for their abilities.  While a terminal yard operation might have a Yardmaster for each shift and a General Yardmaster and Assistant Superintendent for longer-term oversight, the Foremen could make or break any yard because, to use a non-railway metaphor, that’s where the rubber hit the road.

In getting through a shift, Foremen needed to be continually considering numerous physical, circumstantial and human factors.  Physical considerations might include the length of the switching lead (was it long enough to pull an entire track in a single move?) and whether it was on a curve (making signalling more problematic) or there were road crossings to flag (meaning that the junior man would be protecting the crossing instead of helping along the ladder); the general layout of the yard (straight with good sight lines or curved with none at all); the length of yard tracks and their various uses or assignments; and, when you might have to share the lead with other yard engines, arriving and departing trains and the light engine movements to or from those trains.

Circumstantial factors included whether the engine assigned to your yard crew was sufficiently powerful or loaded quickly (the delay between when the throttle was opened and real power was applied to the wheels); whether you had a fireman (so you could signal on the side opposite the engineman, if necessary); whether you had first class trains to clear (if any part of a main track was used for switching) and whether they were on time; whether other yard assignments working nearby would interfere with your work; how complex the blocking was of the various trains you had to make up; how much time would be lost to inbound and outbound trains, and whether something else could be done during that time; and, if needed cars were arriving on an inbound, whether you had time to walk the train and bleed the air brake reservoirs (to release brakes that had gone into emergency as soon as the road power cut off (uncoupled)), or you had to ‘cut in the air’(couple the train line) and pump off the brakes to make your first moves, after which you might still have to bleed the cars to do the remainder of your work.

Finally, there were the human considerations, such as the ability of the engineman to make his charge perform as it should (never a given, both for engine mechanical and engineman competency or pig-headedness reasons), the required meal (and occasional bathroom) breaks and, last but by no means least, the experience and mental and physical abilities of the Yardmen. 

A really good Yard Foreman, of which Ottawa had several, would expect to be given as many of their switch lists as possible right at the beginning of the shift.  While there was an order in which trains had to be built, having additional switch lists enabled the effort involved in the latter stages of the shift to be minimized.  The additional information also enabled them to better contend with other train and engine movements, as they had a better chance of organizing the work so they could be ready to take a break as soon as the headlight of an inbound hove into view.

No matter what you had to do, the biggest time waster of all was pulling the same track twice, and a good yard foreman would get all of his cars the first time, stashing those needed later in the shift here and there, or just keeping them coupled to the engine if there was nowhere else to set them.  Space considerations were a constant factor of life as most yard tracks had cars on them at any given time.  Because typical flat switching yards in smaller centres like Ottawa didn’t warrant or have space for designated arrival and departure tracks, an integral part of every shift was freeing up yard tracks of sufficient length in order to build outgoing trains, to yard (receive) arriving trains and provide an escape route for engines once they had uncoupled.

When the yard was particularly full, one technique employed by Yardmasters involved timing the departure of an outbound to be just ahead of an expected arrival.  While this could shave the requirement for open tracks from three (one each for the outgoing and the incoming, plus an escape track) to two, there were associated risks.  Any unplanned delay to the outbound, including by a lethargic crew determined to extend its initial terminal time, could leave the inbound sitting outside the yard on final terminal time.  In such a circumstance, the Yardmaster had but two options.  The first was to do nothing and wait until the outbound finally left, which meant that the yard would be charged with delaying an incoming train.  A more proactive second choice involved yarding the incoming on the remaining open track, after which the yard engine, which had been sent to cool its wheels in an out-of- the-way ‘pocket’ (a short, remote utility track), would pull the whole train out to let the road engines escape, and then push it back in again, a process that could easily consume 30 minutes or more.

The nature of railroading and railroaders being what it is, as soon as that inbound was irrevocably committed to entering the yard, the outbound would suddenly (and not by mere coincidence) report itself as being ready to go.  Because the outgoing was now blocked by the incoming, the yard now stood a good chance of being charged with the entire delay to the outgoing.  As well, no matter which choice the Yardmaster had made, another certainty was that he would get an earful from the General Yardmaster about how bad a choice it had been!

Taken together, all of the planning and figuring described above, and a great deal more, were the backdrop to my new career.  Being young and inexperienced, however, I truly had no idea of what was going on most of the time — in fact, when I look back on those days, I sometimes think that the brightest part of me and my switch lamp was the lamp.

To their credit, the Foremen intuitively understood this and, for that reason, the ‘green brakeman’ terminology preceded the beginning of almost every shift over the next couple of weeks until everyone knew I was green and it no longer bore repeating.  As undiplomatic as it may have sounded at first, I later understood that with those few words, Foremen were conveying very important messages to other yardmen and engine crews – we have a new guy with us, make sure you know where he is at all times so he doesn’t get hurt and, by the way, the rest of us will all have to work a little harder, because he won’t be much help.  And while I may have had a greater knowledge of the wide world of railways than most of the people I now worked with, that assessment was quite correct.

Since I had little hope of contributing in a meaningful way to the crew’s effort, the Foremen also routinely instructed me to “stay with the engine.”  While that had verged on the boring during my trial trips, it has to be said that it was now a relief because it provided me with a defined boundary and limited responsibilities while I was becoming acclimatized to my new environment.  It was helpful for the Foremen also, because they would know where I was and could rely on the engineman to keep an extra eye out for me.  Unlike the trial trips, however, I was now outside, either on the engine footboards or around the ladder, throwing the occasional switch or doing something equally simple in every imaginable kind of weather, with even worse to come as winter approached.

While my usefulness as an Ottawa West Yardman increased quickly over the ensuing weeks, shaking the ‘green brakeman’ moniker proved to be the greater challenge.  Then, as luck would have it, something happened that forever altered people’s perceptions of me.

Next: A Yard on the Move

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

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