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Culture Deficit: Hostile Railroad Employees

July 12, 2013

Common wisdom dictates that older people will often lament that "things aren't what they used to be," to which young whipper-snappers will say "it's time to get with the times." I often find myself in the latter camp, advocating for change, and I use the incredible progression of our standard of living and acceptance of others in Canada over the past century as justification for continuing to move forward. However, this summer I found myself—at the ripe old age of 27—wondering whether we haven't lost touch with some of the values that have shaped our identity in the past... and whether perhaps there isn't some wisdom to be gained from the laments of our elders.

In yearly trips to London, Ontario to visit family, I have gone to the CN rail yard to watch trains almost every year for the last ten years. I am opposed to trespassing, so I have always tried to remain on public property. Doing so was easy enough: the West end of the yard is crossed by Egerton St. with sidewalks on both sides, while most of the South edge of the yard is immediately bordered by Pine St. The latter is separated from the yard by a grassy median, a row of trees and bushes, and a ditch. A driveway enters the yard from the South a short distance along Pine St.

My first visit to the CN London yard this year found me standing at the edge of the driveway adjacent to the row of trees. A short time later, an employee pulled up in a CN truck and told me to "get off the property."

"OK," I replied. "Where is the property line?"

"The road," he answered, meaning the pavement of Pine St. I did not believe him, and my suspicions were confirmed a week later by municipal documents and maps I obtained that showed a 6-metre public right-of-way lining up with the grass median on either side of the road—which (in seeking shade under the row of trees) I had overstepped by little more than a metre. I would gladly have taken two steps back had I known such small distinctions were crucial.

However, I complied, not wanting to debate; even if I had, it was a moot point. The employee immediately rolled up the window and drove forward, strategically turning sideways right in the middle of my line of sight for photos. Miffed but undeterred, I walked (on the road) to the sidewalk on Egerton St. for a similar vantage point. The employee then pulled forward and watched me for some time from a few paces away, before driving off—apparently realizing that a person standing in one spot on public property legally taking pictures was not really worth observing.

Second encounter: A few days later, hoping to make amends and to connect to the yard crew as I had in other places in the past, I printed off one of my drawings to share, along with my name and website address. It was an undecorated drawing of CN #4760, which was switching in the yard at the time. I left behind my camera, hat or anything else that might give me the appearance of a railfan. I arrived at the yard at the same time as a truck with two employees, who looked at me suspiciously when I said I was interested in getting in touch at the folks at the yard to share some information.

"What kind of information?"

"Well, I have a drawing here of one of the units currently switching in the yard, and..."

"No, not interested." The employee walked past right in front of me on the way to the office. "Not interested."

"You're not interested? Well, I could give it to you if anyone else might like to see it."

"Not interested," and, walking into the office with a sidelong glance, the two employees shut the door in my face.

The drawing of CN GP38-2(W) #4760 that I had printed off to share.

Rudeness in general annoys me; this made me furious. I left the yard in disgust, threw my drawing into the garbage, and did not take a single photo for the rest of the trip. In an unfortunate but ironic twist, it was the morning of Canada Day (July 1) and I was visiting Ontario as a Quebecer.

* * *

Until this summer, my experiences with railroad employees had been universally positive: A guided tour and extended cab ride in the BC Rail yard in Fort St. John, BC in 2004; horn concerts, greetings and wild photo-posing from St. Lawrence & Atlantic crews ever since the railroad began operations in Canada; a private visit of the exquisitely upgraded Orford Express Budd cars in Sherbrooke, QC, just before they opened to the public in 2006; a chat with a crew at the CP Quebec St. Yard in London, ON, who knew family friends... Even at the CN London yard, an employee a few years back who saw me taking pictures from the sidewalk on a hot afternoon told me, "wait here a minute, let me see what I can get you." He drove off and returned with a water bottle and two hats, saying "enjoy your visit." I did not request any of these experiences; they were all offered by rail crews and employees entirely out of generosity and a desire to share their work.

January 2004 - One of many spectacular greetings I've received from St. Lawrence & Atlantic crews (see recordings and photos).

Perhaps my previous experiences gave me rose-coloured glasses. Perhaps I was also affected because the negative encounter this year involved my drawings, to which I devote a huge investment of time and work for little reward (other than email feedback, for which I am very grateful). However, just about any railroad forum will contain posts with advice on avoiding trouble with railroad police, especially in the post 9-11 United States; American readers may even find my experience rather mild. While retribution is justified when picture-taking turns into trespassing and vandalism, many railfans have experienced negative encounters without engaging in such illegal activities, to the point that (until this year) I was almost surprised that I hadn't had one myself.

While general unfriendliness may simply be a function of who one meets, I cannot help but wonder whether it speaks of much deeper problems within CN—and I am certainly not the first person to say so. Browse through any job review listing and you will find many CN employees expressing a love for their work but a hatred for what their job has become within the past few years. My first encounter with negative employee perceptions of CN (or of any railroad, for that matter) came back in the summer of 2004, when a former CN engineer in Jasper, AB, shared many thoughts (mostly negative) about the railroad from which he had just retired. Within the past few years, even the Canadian government has raised concerns about CN, on top of previous investigations in the 1980s.

Among these sources, the concerns share a common theme: That CN upper management has instilled a "culture of fear" that, in the name of efficiency, takes a toll on employee morale, working conditions and—ultimately—safety. It is a culture that emphasizes reprimanding the slightest misstep, but that often fails to address the underlying causes of problems.

The retired engineer I encountered in Jasper had known some of the crew members killed in the 1986 Hinton, AB collision between a CN freight train and a VIA passenger train. The resulting government report, released in late 1986, criticized a culture within CN that favoured extreme working hours and crew fatigue, which had been the cause of the collision. The report ultimately led to the adoption of several new safety measures, including strictly enforced on-duty time limits for crews. Despite these improvements, the retired Jasper engineer told me unabashedly that CN was still sacrificing its employee culture and safety in the name of the bottom line. At the time, CN was removing long stretches of existing double track around Jasper in favour of shorter double-tracked sections spliced by single track—and it had been at just such a transition between double and single track that the 1986 Hinton collision had occurred.

In a 2008 review of rail safety, a Canadian government panel raised concerns similar to those of CN employees, singling out CN in particular for criticism among the country's railroads. The Standing Committee on Transportation, Infrastructure and Communities on Rail Safety in Canada stated that "CN's strict adherence to a rules-based approach, focused largely on disciplinary actions when mistakes are made, has instilled a 'culture of fear and discipline' and is counter to effective safety management systems." The infamy of the CN culture has gone so far as to spur union protests at CP in early 2013 upon the arrival of CEO (and former CN CEO) E. H. Harrison, who is credited both for CN's admirable operating ratio and for the negative culture that it engendered. In response to concerns about the culture he was bringing to CP, Harrison replied, "...if that's a culture of fear, they better get ready to deal with fear." Such disturbing words offer little hope that the employee culture is going to be any more positively impacted at CP than it was under his tenure at CN.

* * *

I did not go back to the CN London yards after this year's two encounters, but I will likely return there for picture-taking in the future. My initial anger, directed at the employees themselves, has shifted to a reflection on the negative culture that may in fact be burdening them on a daily basis. The combined objections from employees, government panels and other railroads are beginning to shed light on some of the negative consequences of such an extreme drive for efficiency as the one that has been practiced at CN over the past 15 years.

Perhaps the old-timers are right: Not everything new and great and efficient is universally good, and we could benefit from re-learning some of the ways that seem to be forgotten. A higher emphasis on creating a positive corporate culture, while not candy for shareholders, would be indisputably beneficial for the well-being—and safety—of the workforce at large. Supplanting fear and suspicion with happiness and trust might also simply make life more pleasant—both for the employees and for the people they meet.

 Copyright © Michael Eby - Last updated 2017-05-16