Working on the Trains: A High-Speed Ride to Success

Countryside as Seen from a Moving TrainKeenan Adams headed for Alberta right out of high school, landing a job as a labourer on a railway.

“I wasn’t really digging it that much but I always looked up at the conductors and engineers and thought, ‘That looks like fun.’ Plus they got paid the most.”

Back in Powell River a few years later and considering his next career move, Keenan remembered his experiences on the railway. His research led him to the 17-week Railway Conductor training program at BCIT (British Columbia Institute of Technology). Fresh out of college, with no experience, he knew he probably wasn’t going to find work in the Lower Mainland. So, six weeks after graduation, he accepted the first job he was offered: working on the Polar Bear Express in Northern Manitoba.

“It’s a tourist train that takes people to Churchill to see the polar bears. I got some great experience working for them, and made some good money. Then I got a phone call from Port Coquitlam, and I’ve been here ever since, working for Canadian Pacific Railway [CPR].” That was almost three years ago.

As Keenan explains, the conductor is essentially “the boss of the train and the train crew. You sit up front with the engineer and tell him or her what to do. You handle the emergency brakes, the radio, the demographics of where you’re going and at what speeds. If the train breaks down enroute, you’re also the mechanic.” According to BCIT, “the role of the Conductor is an important link between customer satisfaction and maintaining efficient operations.”

Keenan sees a bright future for the industry. “Just to show you how business has picked up from a financial perspective, this time last year our stock was at $47 a share and now it’s up to $130.” One reason for the surge is the continued delay in pipeline projects. As well, says Keenan, “it takes 100 semi-trailers to haul what we can pull with one train. We use a lot less fuel than trucks and can pull a lot more.” He also believes that trains are superior to trucks from an environmental perspective. “It’s just two diesel engines, compared to 100.”

CPR is well positioned to meet the demands of the future, he says. “For the last 20 years, the company has been investing in its track. Right now it’s probably the best in the country. And thanks to new technology, we use a lot less diesel. I’d say the industry is probably going to keep growing, becoming even more efficient.”

A recent article in the Calgary Herald supports those claims. (“Railway industry expects oil transport to continue to grow,” July 25). In 2013, CPR reported a record second-quarter profit, “driven in large part by growing long-haul oil transport.” The article goes on to quote Statistics Canada, which reported that approximately 175,000 barrels were transported by rail every day in April 2013.

What would be Keenan’s advice to someone considering a career in the industry? “Go to BCIT right away, and get your name on the waiting list.”

He adds a word of caution: “Get into it while you are young because it would be a challenging job for somebody with a family: you’re on call for the first five years, without a planned schedule.”

Being on call, he points out, is not a huge financial hardship. “You are paid a guarantee. Even when it’s slow, you’ll always make a certain amount of money. As long as you never miss a phone call and don’t book large hours of rest, you’ll always make a certain amount of money.”

Even the labouring jobs, he adds, pay over $20 per hour. As a union shop, CPR also offers extended health benefits and pensions.

This is also a field that women should consider, he adds. “There are a lot of really great women conductors out there.”

Admission requirements for the BCIT program are similar to those of other trades programs. Candidates must have completed any English 12 course (or English Language Proficiency exam), and any Math 11 course. Applicants must also successfully complete the BCIT Trades Pre-Entry test. Ability to do hard physical work in all weather conditions is another requirement, as is a certain amount of mental toughness:

“It’s mentally stressful, handling a two-mile long train down the mountainside through the Fraser Canyon. All sorts of things happen out there on the tracks, all sorts of adventures you have to deal with,” says Keenan.

Working on the trains is not for everyone. “You do get drug tested. You’ve got to be ready to let that side of your life go. There were guys in my class who didn’t complete the training because they didn’t want to give up that lifestyle.”

Graduates can expect to be employed fairly quickly. According to BCIT’s Student Outcome Survey, 64% of graduates in the Railway Conductor program found full-time employment, while another 15% were employed part time. Forty-eight per cent of graduates took less than a month to find a job.

Willingness to leave the Lower Mainland, at least in the short term, is key, says Keenan. “Once you graduate, take any job you can get. A lot of the short railway lines around the country are looking for grads from BCIT and the other colleges.”

While graduates may have to relocate, at least for a time, they needn’t fear long-distance hauls. “Since I’m based out of Vancouver, the farthest I go is to Boston Bar, and then from there to Tsawwassen to the super port next to the ferry terminal. Crew members stationed in Kamloops meet us halfway in Boston Bar. We’ll go to a CP Hotel there, while they continue on to Kamloops. Then they’ll trade off with someone out of Lethbridge, and on it goes across the country.”

After completing the conductor program, some students opt to become rail traffic controllers. Keenan, however, already has his sights firmly fixed on his next goal: locomotive engineer, with a salary of $100-120,000 a year.

“It’s all based on seniority: they train you to become a locomotive engineer and that’s kind of your pinnacle. You need to have a fabulous memory, to pass your Canadian Rail Operating Rules exam with 95%, knowing hundreds of rules off by heart. For me, that’s probably the most interesting trade you can get into. It’s what I’m waiting to do. That’s what this is all about.”

Dennis Rubboli now has a new career as a truck driver
Dennis Rubboli now has a new career as a truck driver
By Maureen Latta

Log truck drivers are a hardy, independent breed. Hauling trees out of the bush in blistering heat and blowing snow is demanding work.

“Finding good, qualified people is one thing that’s plagued the industry for the last few years,” says Torey Wightman, Manager for A. Byrne Trucking Ltd.l He says financial incentives to train new drivers are helpful in a sector where training is an expensive process.

“There are plenty of people with log truck experience, but we run self-loading log trucks and there’s a lot of training that goes into that. Not just anyone can jump on there and load wood onto the truck. You do need to be able to think a couple of moves ahead of yourself.”

Owned by Andy Byrne, the contract log hauling company has 14 drivers and mechanics and a large fleet of self-loading log trucks. Truck driver Dennis Rubboli was hired with assistance from Career Link’s Wage Subsidy Service (WSS). The business qualified for the wage subsidy provided by The Employment Program of BC to employers who hire and train eligible job seekers.

Rubboli was eligible for WSS placement because of his Employment Insurance (EI) status. He started off in the shop for a few weeks until a position came available.

“There is a lot of training that goes into getting guys familiar with the trucks,” Wightman says. “It’s not something you can teach them in the yard. They have to be out in the field to understand it.”

Rubboli agrees. “There’s a lot to learn, especially safety-wise.” He started in November 2012 and successfully transitioned off the WSS program to full-time work in March 2013. Born and raised in Powell River, Rubboli had experience driving logging trucks but never a self-loader. The WSS allowed him to gain new skills. “I’m really happy. It got me off EI. I appreciate what it’s done.”

The WSS is particularly important in the volatile forest industry. “Everything has tightened up financially in the forest sector for the big companies all the way down the line to the contractors,” Wightman says. “So having something that gives you a little bit of financial assistance to train new guys and make sure that they are capable of doing the job and competent to do the job definitely helps.”

The company’s drivers haul primarily in the Stillwater and Goat Lake areas. The work day starts as early as 5 a.m. Drivers haul until between 2 and 4 in the afternoon. It’s a job where you can park your truck and go home to your bed at the end of the day.

Hiring Rubboli has been a big success, says Wightman. “He’s eager to learn and to better himself, and he’s quite interested in the challenge of whatever we put forward to him. It’s nice to have someone who enjoys the job.”

A Day on Planet Cleve

Owners Elaine Teichgraber & Cleve Hamilton are justly proud of their burgers and other menu items
Owners Elaine Teichgraber & Cleve Hamilton are justly proud of their burgers and other menu items

Elaine Teichgraber and Cleve Hamilton are in their second year of business at Planet Cleve, a food cart now situated at Willingdon Beach.

It all started with an appreciation for good food. “My father was a chef and my mother was a salad cook,” says Cleve.

“I always loved to cook and entertain, so I thought it would be fun to get involved in this,” adds Elaine.

Elaine and Cleve believe the food cart industry is a viable alternative in a challenging economy. “ I worked in the mill for 10 years until I had my kids,” says Elaine. “I would have loved to have gone back, but they had downsized so much.  When Cleve suggested buying a food cart, I thought ‘I have some ideas, and it would be fun to do, rather than waiting to be hired by someone.’”

Cleve’s interest in food carts was initially aroused by Romeo Styles, owner of Savary Fries now operating out of Townsite. “He had a partner who used to sell hot dogs and was going to sell the cart. You can’t make a living in Powell River just selling hot dogs so we added a whole lot of items to the menu.”

The focus is on quality, with all recipes developed by Elaine. “We use 100% beef burgers, hormone-and-antibiotic free, all purchased locally from the Chopping Block. All our sauces are homemade, including our garlic mayo and burger sauce. Our twister dogs are scored so that they puff up and cook through more efficiently.  We also have an excellent recipe for pulled pork, with a home-made finishing sauce, as well as a really good prawn recipe.”

The food cart business is a fairly recent innovation in Powell River. “The old bylaws have recently been updated,” explains Cleve. “According to the new bylaw, you have to have a cart of a certain size, with three sinks, hot-and-cold running water, and a fridge. It has to be inspected by the Department of Health and the Fire Department every year. There’s also business license fee and a health department fee, as well as a fair amount of insurance. We bought our cart in May of last year, and it took us six weeks to do the paperwork.”

City Council has recently implemented a bylaw amendment for a flat $200 fee for 30 consecutive days or $600 for the calendar year, in addition to the business licence.

Elaine and Cleve were disappointed with the original locations identified by the City. “One was in the lot across from the Bank of Montreal but there’s limited parking there. Then there was another one down by the sewage treatment plant! The third location was here on Willingdon Beach, but the sale of food wasn’t permitted then, just trinkets. So we lobbied City Hall, the two of us, for more spots.”

They originally lobbied for a location on the wharf, near the ferry terminal. “We thought it would be perfect there. We went there for three hours on a Saturday, a beautiful sunny day, and we sold a Coke.”

“Business there wasn’t as good as we thought it would be,” says Elaine. “People who are coming for the ferry come at the last minute and stay in the cars, while people coming off the ferry have somewhere to go.”

In all, the current locations are as follows: the southeast corner of Marine Avenue and Alberni Street, the entrance to the north harbour along Courtenay Street, the north harbour, the southeast side of Willingdon Beach Park adjacent to Highway 101, on Marine Avenue across from Powell River Historical Museum and Archives, two locations at the Wharf at Westview and two at Mowat Bay. [Powell River Peak, July 9, 2013]

Planet Cleve is now in its second year of business, a fact of which Cleve is very proud. “They say most businesses fail within a year. We’ve been here longer than that.”

It’s had its challenges. Both Cleve and Elaine have observed a drop in the number of tourists coming to Powell River.

“The summer I arrived from Ottawa, four years ago, it was hopping for the whole summer. Now just look around,” Cleve says, gesturing to Willingdon Beach. “They’re not here anymore.”

Fortunately, local events such as Sea Fair, the Kelly Creek Market held on Friday nights, and the Open Air Market in Paradise Valley compensate for the relative lack of tourists. For Planet Cleve, the focus is also on building up a local clientele: “We’re starting to build up a really good base of customers, because if you don’t you’re not going to make it.”

They also plan to continue serving the public right through the winter.

“When the clocks change and it gets dark early, we’ll be cutting down to just lunchtime, staying open until 2 or 3 in the afternoon. Obviously you can’t work all the time, but any days that it’s not snowing or cold, blowing rain, we’ll be out here,” says Cleve.  Planet Cleve is also available for party catering, by calling 604.487.9223 or emailing kuti@shaw.ca

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