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.”

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