Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Mark A. Perry Retires

What's in a number you say? Well the above number is how many days I worked for CN Rail from July 6, 1979 until today.

...just a few days ago, CN hogger Mark A. Perry decided to call it a career with CN. From his first email to me in 2007, I've always enjoyed corresponding with Mark. I've enjoyed his photography AND his writing. He needs to create a book! Sometimes irreverent, ever-skilled and always a gentleman, I've decided to share Mark's writing in this post, as well as some photographs he's kindly shared. His farewell Facebook post, then two pieces Mark contributed to my books comprise this post. Most people try to forget about work once they retire. I think you'll agree we need to do all we can to get people like Mark not to forget, but rather to remember, and to share. (Top photo by Jim Burnside. All others shared by Mark Perry.)
This morning at 0200 I was ordered on train Q147 at Ranier MN and brought it to Symington Yard in Winnipeg. We were just over 11 hours on duty (DOUBLE RX Claim, thank you) traveling the 199 miles. 
I did a lot of thinking on the trip home about my career and who I spent it with. I think quite a few people are surprised that I retired knowing my love of trains but honestly I knew it was time, it's not the same railway I hired out with for so many different reasons. The radio all the way home, was filled with congratulations and I was truly appreciative of every one of them. Norm and I finished it off in style in a one month old, "smells like a new car", CN 3824.
Sure the money was good for an uneducated bum like me but the people I worked with over the past 39 years, was truly the biggest gift of the employment. And there are so many to thank for helping me along the way.
Still wet behind the ears, the first fellow I really respected was my first trip pit foreman Bob Fraser, he was the one who actually convinced me to transfer over to transportation. Long retired, I still see Bob and his wife once in awhile in Safeway, still the total class act all the way.
Hiring out as a brakeman in 1981, I'm the last of the original class to retire, long time friend Russell Thordarson just retired a month or so ago in the same Fort Pool and now contracts out helping new hires over at the Training Centre.
Moving to Gillam in 1982 was the best move I ever made in my career, I went in as a kid and left as a adult. So many good people that I worked with up there, Pat Nowlan, Joe Jarvie, Brian Larson, Art Beadle, Rick Small, Marcel Vallee, John West, Scott McLaughlin, Rob Westhouse, Shane Thompson, Jim Langlois, John Arnold, the list is endless.
The move to Dauphin in 1987 was equally rewarding and I made some great friends there in fellow employees like Derrick Vendramin, Gary Bogoslowski, Vern McDuffee, Gary Garlinski, Jose Lopez, Brent Dillon etc. (Mark loading boxcar CN 557132 moving from Gillam to Dauphin in 1987 - above.)
And don't let me forget to mention the outstanding conductors who tutored me and helped me along the way become a pretty good conductor with a sharp pencil. Fellows like Bill Warner, John Atamanchuk, Jake Robinson, Dunc Kabel, Lawrence Larson, Merv McLaughlin, Geoff Vanalstyne and Leonard Weslowski.
Equally as important are the locomotive engineers who trained me both officially and "unofficially" in my younger years. Talented hog heads like Alphonse Kloschinsky, Keith Pottle, Lance Lauze, Tom Monson and Rick Horn. It meant a lot knowing they trusted me 100% running the engine. It is fitting to know that I tried to pass down that very same knowledge to young talented trainee engineers like Chase Vukovic, Shashi Batt and Lisa Schmidtke and it worked.
Sometimes it was just a voice on the other end of a radio or a telephone with a unknown face that made the job, so much more pleasnat. RTC's like Gordie Willitz, Dwight Kereluk, Dale Kluk, Joe Gozda and crew callers like Kenny Cloutier that made the job just that much more special in my mind.
Despite the never ending union/management battles that always happen at CN, I can sure say I did work for some truly professional individuals in the management ranks, people like Leroy Fox, Scott Lintick, Randy Anderson, Mike Cory, Graham Wood and the ever helpful and smiling Joanne McMahon.
Ditto for the guys like Carman Gordie Clyde and Norman Long, engine watchman like Charlie Lavallee and Harvey Enns. Sectionmen like Ernie Foster, Ray Lavallee and Stan Peters, TMC's like Bernie Naokonichony and chauffeurs like Pete Rozicky. Operators like Bob Semenchuk and Bill Saggs and station agents like Norm Reid.
(Mark operating CN 102 during Family Days - above.)
The last eight years working in Winnipeg, were some of the best times I had working for CN. Starting out on the Emerson 532-533 assignment, working with conductors Joel Bourgeois and Calvin Kahler, was simply a joy to behold, on a somewhat difficult at times, wayfreight job.
Finally moving over to the big time mainline railroading on the Fort Pool, working with the likes of Richard Plouffe, Ken Gunlaugson, Ken Kulbbuba, Blair Brown, Tom Hosfield, Doug Charban, Brent Brooks, Brian Shymkiw, Glen Bynkoski, Neil Sheirich, Scott Fardoe, Gerry Lowery, Tom Trenchard, Bill Tataryn, Doug Biggs, Will Kossman, Mike Pallick, Dave Bolianis, Kevin James, Ian Coley, the list is endless. These people sure helped this branchline bumpkin, find his way around the place and lights. Sitting in the kitchen or outside in the front of the hotel on countless days, sharing laughs, lies and tales, is a memory I will never forget.
And all the new hires I worked with, that listened to my endless bullshit stories and laughed along. People like Chris Snell, Kris Isford, Areimei Kamei, Dave Moline, Curtis Wall, Dustin Mowe, Brad Spence, Matthew Kruczynski, Koryn Grenier, Joe Dobransky, Brendan Hosfield, Dustin Kolback, Drew and Kyle Brown, Duane McPherson, G note, Chris DeVries. Way too many to list, heck you all made the old man proud. Thank you.
I always tried my best and had pride in the job despite some trying times. I accumulated 105 demerits in my career though 55 of them were wiped clean just like that, a few years ago. Thanks! Oh well that's the way it goes and just comes with the territory. Big thanks to the union people who fought hard battles for all of us. Without enjoying the fruits of the hard fought for furlough board, for many years, there was no way I could have ever been a single parent when my kids were young and needed me the most.
So to end this off, it was a great 39 years and honestly I would do it all over again, if I was young and foolish again. But it's time to move on in my second phase of my railroading career, I'm equally proud to say that the Central Manitoba Railway (CEMR) has thought enough of me as a skilled railroader and has offered me a job as a conductor/engineer. I'll only be working a few days a week which is fine with me but I'll get to hook up and learn from again with some talented old railroaders again like Doug Charban and Rob Nykoluk. I won't be on call all that much, pretty much will know when I'm going to work and I won't be working midnights for endless hours with little or no sleep ever again.
So to you all at CN, huge thanks for being my brothers and sisters all these years and making me feel like I belonged in your family for the past 39 years. Equally big thanks and hugs to my two boys, thanks for putting up with Dad when you needed him the most but I was away at work, sorry but I still love you.

So to the CN crew office in Edmonton, please be advised:


In the spring of 1982, I was working as a CN brakeman in Edson AB, tired of the mountains and homesick for the prairies, I was going through the job bulletin books every day to see if there were any jobs to bid on, much closer to my hometown of Winnipeg. (Train No M291 at the Pas, December 1986 - Mark A. Perry photo - above).

Finally one day there was a job up for bid - brakeman on VIA passenger train Nos 94/95 running between Gillam and Thompson.  Though I wasn’t a VIA employee, I could bid the job because CN manned those trains.  Ten days later I closed the job and was awarded the position.  I packed up my things, loaded up my shiny new Honda Civic and drove east, non-stop back to Winnipeg.  I wasn’t sure where Gillam exactly was in the province. I thought it might be around Brandon or Minnedosa but I got out my old school atlas when I got home to my mother’s house and checked it out.  Hmmm, Gillam was north…wayyyyyy north.

The only two ways into Gillam in those days were taking the train or flying in.  I elected to shell out the big bucks and flew in on a Pacific Western 737.  I reported to the Trainmaster’s office upon arrival at the CN station and the first words out of his mouth were, “So you think you can last all summer on the passenger, eh?”  I wasn’t too sure what he meant by that. I showed up for work in the wee hours of the morning when No 94 pulled in at 0200. We were called a bit early and had to take a CN GP-9 off the shop track and lift some silver 222000-series reefers from the shed tracks, run around them and put them in the team track off the mainline. From there, we could lift them with No 94’s power and put them on the train.  No 94 pulled in and it was quite a sight!  Two 9100-series F7Au’s, a steam generator unit (SGU), a bunch of silver reefers and about ten blue & yellow VIA cars trailing.

Once the train stopped, we traded off with the incoming crew and loaded up the large number of passengers going to Thompson for the day.  We then cut off the power and the SGU and picked up the reefers from the team track and got our train all back together.  On the advertised we closed up the Dutch doors and yelled into the radio “Highball Number 94!” There was quite an assortment of passengers on the train:  towards the tail-end in the sleepers were all the tourists returning from Churchill sound asleep in their rooms, berths and roomettes.  The second and third coaches had a full-house of passengers and were dimly-lit:  these people didn’t want to pay the sleeping car fares.  The first coach behind the baggage car was for locals getting on and off.

First stop leaving Gillam was about one hour and 40 miles later at Ilford.  The station there was an ATCO trailer. There was a CN operator on duty and the train order board was set to green 99% of the time.  There was a silver 40-foot reefer there to be picked up, so we cut off the power again, to go pick up the reefer spotted in the siding.

After picking up the reefer and loading up all the passengers and baggage, away we went.  Next stop: Pit Siding at mile 255 of CN’s Thicket Subdivision - home to three section houses and a wye.  The tail of the wye heads north 13 miles to the Manitoba Hydro power dam at Kelsey, MB.  If aircraft were unable to land at the Kelsey airstrip and employees need to get out, they were hi-railed over to Pit Siding to jump on the train going to Thompson. 

The next stop was at mile 213 of the Thicket Sub - the First Nation community of Pikwitonei.  A large number of passengers board the train here, going to spend the day in Thompson shopping, medical appointments and visits to the local drinking establishments.  Thirteen miles later the train turns west on the wye at Thompson Junction and heads up the Thompson Sub for 30 miles.  For the trainman, one of the more important jobs while running through this isolated region was walking to the tail-end every 20 minutes to check to see if the steam was flowing all the way through the train and coming out of the rear conduit on the last sleeper. 

Arriving at Thompson, the largest city in northern Manitoba where INCO has a large mining and smelting plant, we reached the end of the Thompson Sub.  Before arriving at the station, the train must turned on the wye located just outside of town before backing in.  After spotting the station, our Gillam crew is relieved by a crew from The Pas and they start setting out the reefers and unloading the throngs of passengers.  Our crew heads to the nearby bunkhouse for some sleep and an hour or so later the train departs southward.
(VIA No 94 at Gillam in 1987 - Mark A. Perry photo.)
Around suppertime we are called back to Gillam on train No 95 coming from Winnipeg.  This time The Pas crew backs into the station track and we trade off with them - now it is our turn to work.  The empty reefers set off in the morning have been loaded and are now ready to head north.  Again the power is cut off and we lift the reefers and a CN black & grey baggage car used for mail, behind the SGU.  There was no carman stationed here, so it was up to the crew to connect the steam lines. It’s not a pleasant job doing up rusted and wet steam conduits between the reefers and the baggage car. My immaculate blue VIA suit got pretty dirty after a few minutes’ kneeling on wet and oily tracks underneath.

With the train together, it’s time to load up the passengers. There are lots of them, they’ve been shopping all day and they have a ton of boxes and bags to put on the baggage car.  The three coaches are now packed to the rafters and so is the baggage car!  Job done, it’s time to yell “HIGHBALL” again and away we go, retracing our footsteps back to Gillam where we started out this morning.  Every stop is the same: unload the passengers first,  then head up to the baggage car to help the baggageman unload the mountains and mountains of groceries, bicycles, fish, beer, boats and anything else that can be bought in Thompson.  You name it - it was in that baggage car!

Upon arrival at Gillam at 2200, the train is now pretty empty with only the Churchill passengers left on board.  The train north to Churchill crosses the barren tundra and there are no settlements along that segment except for the odd section building.  At Churchill the reefers are set out and unloaded, and the train sits on the station track for the whole day. 

I spent that whole summer of 1982 working that passenger train and I survived.  I didn’t stay long on that job though - I preferred the north end to Churchill, or the mixed train running between Wabowden and Churchill, Nos 294/295.  This was a regular CN freight train that ran once a week between the aforementioned towns. It had an ancient steel combine tucked in ahead of the caboose.  VIA 7209 was a rebuilt Colonist car with six-axle trucks and was equipped with an electric furnace.  This train was very lightly-patronized and only a few passengers ever sat in the passenger compartment each week - usually locals dropping off at some isolated trapping shack along the track.  Ordered Saturday morning at Gillam at 0800, No 294’s crew made up their train and headed south for Wabowden, doing any necessary line work along the way.  The crew spent the night in Wabowden, ordered back to Gillam for 0800 Sunday morning on No 295. Arrival in Gillam was usually around 1700 and the train was put away for the night.

Monday morning, the same crew was ordered at 0800 to head north to Churchill on No 295, again making up their train and switching it out to prepare it for spotting in Churchill.  Upon arrival in Churchill, the train was turned on the wye located about five miles south of town, then backed into the station track. After the passengers and baggage (if any) were unloaded, the crew would usually spot the numerous fuel cars on the train at the Esso unloading site for furtherance to the North-West Territories.  On Tuesday, the crew spent the day switching the yard in Churchill, lifting the empties and spotting the loads.  On Wednesday morning, the crew was ordered on No 295 at 0700 to head back to Gillam, first gathering any remaining empties and putting the train together to head south to Gillam at 0900.  Upon arrival in Gillam, the crew yarded the train, took the power to the shop track, and then had two days off.
(Mark on VIA No 94 in May, 1985 - above.)
I worked these jobs for the better part of six years until I was able hold a job ‘down south’ and left Gillam for warmer climes.  OmniTRAX, an American company based in Denver, CO took over operation of the trackage between The Pas and Churchill in 1997 and most, if not all, of the former CN employees transferred down south.  A few years later, the mixed-train service between Wabowden and Churchill was quietly dropped. OmniTRAX continues to operate VIA’s passenger service between The Pas and Churchill with HEP-equipped F40’s, ex-CPR stainless steel equipment and trailers on flatcars.


In this day and age of 100-car unit trains being spotted at inland grain terminals, many modern railroaders don't know how the movement of grain took place on the railways out on the Prairies.

The whole grain industry and the movement of crops by the railways started to change in the late 1990's.  Old wooden grain elevators were closed up and demolished or sold off and big new high throughput inland terminals were being built at an alarming rate.  As a result, many of the light rail branchlines were sold to shortline railways or pulled up for scrap.

I spent the majority of the 1980's and the 1990's moving the country's crop to port for export.  Based out of the CN terminal in Dauphin, MB I spent a lot of my career back then spotting and pulling grain cars on the Togo, Cowan, Erwood and Winnipegosis Subdivisions (Subs).  Most of the grain loaded on these Subs went to the ports of Thunder Bay, ON or Churchill, MB.  Some also went west to Vancouver, and when the port at Thunder Bay froze up in the dead of winter, grain was then moved east to Montreal.

The Togo Sub running between Dauphin, MB and Canora, SK had 14 towns or villages that had grain elevators loading cars or a back track that loaded producer cars.  The westbound train that spotted the empty grain boxcars or hopper cars returning from Thunder Bay was numbered G867 by CN.  Ordered out of Symington Yard in Winnipeg in the afternoon, it would reach Dauphin around midnight, and a four-man Dauphin crew would be ordered for the train.  The trains still had a caboose on the tail-end of the 100-car trains, and the conductor would ride there.  The two brakemen would ride on the lead unit along with the engineer.   Both would have spot lists in their possession for the wayfreight, which indicated how many cars were to be spotted at each elevator requiring empty cars for loading.  A quick trade-off in front of the yard office in Dauphin between the incoming Winnipeg crew and the outgoing Dauphin crew, followed by a pull by the carman for a train inspection and the train departed.

It wasn't long before the crew set about the task of spotting the Togo sub, 10 miles later after leaving Dauphin, the first of the wooden elevators appeared in the darkness at the tiny hamlet of Ashville which had two wooden elevators.  The train would stop short of the highway so as not to block vehicle traffic and the required number of cars to be spotted were cut from the train.  Sometimes it was just one car, sometimes a few. Pulling ahead, one brakeman hopped off the cars at the derail in the elevator track, and the other brakeman took the train up to the mainline switch.  The empties and the units would then back into the back track to spot the elevators.

The cars had to spotted the proper way depending on the grade of the elevator track and which way the cars rolled.  Usually the elevator agents would paint a large arrow above the loading spout to indicate which direction the cars rolled.  After determining which way the cars rolled, the first top hatch of a hopper car or the first door of a 40-foot boxcar was spotted at the pipe-like loading spout on the elevator.  A quick handbrake applied to make sure the cars stayed put and the units were cut off the empties and back out to the mainline.  After tying back onto the train sitting on the mainline, the brakes released and it was off to the next town, usually about five to ten miles away. Then the whole process was repeated at every town, for the next eight hours or so.

Covered hopper cars were the much-preferred type of grain car to be spotted or picked up by train crews.  The old 40-foot boxcars had a high handbrake which meant climbing up a side ladder whereas the hopper car handbrakes could be applied or released from the ground.  Grain elevator agents and employees did not like the boxcars either. Boxcars had to be coopered and have cardboard grain doors applied inside the car before they could be loaded.  Hopper cars were much easier. Most of the time, all that was required before loading was to ensure the bottom doors were completely closed.

Finally, the whole Subdivision was spotted after placing the last of the empties at Mikado, SK. The crew would run into Canora, SK caboose hop - just the caboose and the two locomotives. The locomotives were usually SD40's in the 5000-5240 series.  The crew would book rest and go over to the bunkhouse sitting beside the station. If they were lucky enough, they could double back to Dauphin on a lumber train, or some other preferred train.

If luck was not on their side, the crew would rest in the bunkhouse until around 1500 when they would be ordered back to Dauphin on eastbound G868, the Togo pickup.  Coming off the shop track with the same two units and caboose, the orders would be secured, clearance issued and it would be a repeat process all the way back to Dauphin.  Cab hop to Mikado SK, where the crew would now pick up all the empty grain cars that were now loaded with the area's crops.  This schedule was followed in order for the elevators to load their cars in the daytime. (CN No 864 at Mikado, SK in January, 1996 - Mark A. Perry photo.)

Stopping at every town on the way home, the crew would now have to do up the train-line air hoses. The grain elevator guys usually only loaded one car at a time, and would roll it down the elevator track to the derail at the other end. Thus, the air hoses had to be done up between almost every car on a 100-car train!  One brakeman would usually hop off the train at the west end of the elevator track, as the train was pulling into town. Then he would start bucking up all the hoses on the loads. The other brakeman would cut the locomotives off the train, and proceed to take off the derail on the east end of the elevator track before bringing the units in to pick up the cars.

Sometimes a quick air test was done, but usually not. The loaded cars were brought out of the elevator track, tied back onto the train and the derail restored, then it was off to the next town to repeat the process over and over.

Upon leaving the last town at Ashville, it was already around midnight, and a Winnipeg crew was ordered to trade-off with the incoming Dauphin wayfreight crew.  The train would usually slide down the mainline in Dauphin as the incoming crew dropped off and went home. The outgoing Winnipeg crew would hop on the train and take it to Winnipeg, for furtherance to Thunder Bay.  If the Churchill grain rush was in full swing, the process was done in the opposite direction.  A crew would be ordered with the empty returning boxcars around midnight and spotted east to Dauphin.  Another Dauphin crew would be ordered in the afternoon to pick up the loaded boxcars heading back to Churchill, to be loaded into grain ships at the port there.

These days, most grain elevators load unit trains in 100-car spots with their own unit or use the Class 1 units for the day. A 50-car spot is considered small!  Producer cars are pretty much a thing of the past on the Class 1 railways but are still loaded by shortlines that took over the CN or CP branchlines.  Thus most grain trains on the CN and CP are just spotted at one town or elevator. Wayfreighting a branchline, with a stop at a town every five miles, placing one car here, three cars there at various elevators, is now sadly a thing of the past.

(VIA No 95 at Churchill in December, 1986 - Mark A. Perry photo - above)


Don Janes said...

Great story Mark. Railroading in those parts was sure different than here in Southern Ontario. I am a retired engineer from Sarni, ON. When in Gimili in 1975 I met one fellow from The Pas, Russ Jellison, who used to relate similar stories. I was always amazed at how railroaders worked in the more remote areas of our country. Congrats on your retirement. I know I have enjoyed every day of my 10 years on pension.

Eric said...

I hear all good things about retirement, Don. I'll pass your message directly to Mark via social media. Continue enjoying retirement and I hope to join you soon. You know, to spend more time on the important things....like blogging!

Thanks for your comment,

Eric said...

Here's Mark's reply, Don:
>Russ was a master mechanic in Canora SK in the late 80’s.

Unknown said...

Russ retired at canora as a master mechanic
still is living in the area on a acreage near canora with his wife

Eric said...

Thanks for your comment, U.
I'll pass that along to Mark.