Friday, November 18, 2016

This is why I bleed action red

Let's forget about Hunter Harrison, Bill Ackman, Pershing Square Capital Management, operating ratios, profit per share and the rest of the soap opera that has typified the Canadian Pacific Railway's recent history. Let's forget about blind trusts, Norfolk Southern, hostile takeovers and everything else. Let's forget for a moment the argument that rail systems need to span the entire continent. All of these items are worthy of discussion, but there's something more important about the CPR that is worth considering.

Canadian Pacific's Rideau at Ottawa's Central Station in 1967. I had this postcard for years before losing it. I had it so long I didn't even know who gave it to me. I was lucky that I got another copy from Trackside Treasure blogger Eric Gagnon. Thanks Eric!

The Canadian Pacific Railway is quite far removed from that iconic entity that brought Canada together from sea to sea in the late 1800s. I'm not naïve enough to think that this railway is anything other than a for-profit company that is beholden to its bottom line and shareholders. We live in a capitalist country and I don't have a problem with a company doing all it can to earn as much as it can. That's how it works.

But I'm disappointed with this railway because it means so much more to me. The Canadian Pacific's history runs deep in my family. At one time or another, just about all my uncles, my father and both my grandfathers worked for this company. I'm immensely proud of that fact because the CPR is more than just a company in Canada's history.

So, why am I disappointed with all the shenanigans that have typified the railway's recent history? Well, from a personal point of view, I think the company can do more to honour its rich history. I think it's better than this.

But to truly explain just how deep this company runs in my family, I'd like to share a few stories.

Let's start with my grandfather, Egidio. My grandfather (I called him Nonno) was born in northern Italy and came to Canada after World War II to build a new life for his family. My Nonno was pressed into enlisting for Mussolini's army and was forced to fend for himself in what was then Yugoslavia after the Italian army disbanded when Il Duce was overthrown.

My Nonno, Uncle John and me at Heritage Park in Calgary in the summer of 1992. You can see a piece of the park's passenger train in the background.

I'd imagine that he likely had seen enough by war's end and welcomed the opportunity to come to Canada. When he did, he found work as a general labourer for the Canadian Pacific in the Crowsnest Pass area. I only know this from my Uncle John. My Nonno spoke very little English, even though he lived in Canada for fifty years. He knew I liked trains and once gave me a book Canadian Railway Scenes Vol. I by Adolph Hungry Wolf. He would sometimes mimic the motions of a steam engine to me to try and explain what he did. As I grew older and learned more about railways, I knew that what he did wasn't glamorous. He fixed tracks, tamped down ballast and did a lot of the grunt work that often goes unnoticed. It was hard work. For my Nonno, it helped build a future for his family, including my Mom.

My other grandfather, Paul-Émile, worked for the Canadian Pacific in Chapleau, a town in Northern Ontario that owes its existence to the CPR, since it served as a servicing point along the transcontinental main line. My grandfather worked as a rolling stock mechanic in Chapleau and then Windsor. Again, since he didn't speak a great deal of English, I mainly know about his work through stories he told my Dad and uncles.

My grandfather and me in Mirabel, Quebec, 2005

And the stories are amazing. My Dad told me this summer about some of the more colourful duties that fell to my grandpa. Whenever there was a wreck, my grandpa was dispatched to the crash site to help repair the cars and get them back on the rails so they could be towed back to Chapleau to be fixed properly. My grandpa also was dispatched to crashes when he was transferred to Windsor. You can see a photo of one of these wrecks in this post.

My Dad told me that my grandpa was often away from home for weeks, which makes sense considering how much territory there is west of Chapleau where the railway crosses nothing but wilderness. One of the fringe benefits of going to these crash sites would be that the crews were able to take home the damaged merchandise that fell out of the boxcars. My Dad said my grandpa would often return home loaded with all sorts of things that had fallen out of the boxcars and couldn't be salvaged otherwise.

My grandfather worked for the railways for decades and brought me aboard my first locomotive in Windsor when I was very, very young. I still remember him sitting me in the engineer's seat and showing me how the engine worked. Years later, when I was a teen, he brought me back to the Windsor yard, where I was able to take photos from a vantage point I wouldn't otherwise have access to. His former co-workers greeted him warmly when he showed up and told him how much they could use his expertise at the yard.

Canadian Pacific yard in Windsor in 1991

This summer, my Dad told me about another chapter in our family's railway history. When my Dad was in grade nine or ten, he landed a job with the Canadian Pacific in Chapleau. On Sunday nights, he would board a train westbound toward Manitoba. He would ride a caboose in the back of a freight train. He carried a box of food for himself for a week. At a given point, the train would stop and let off my Dad and a few others. Over the course of a week, my Dad would bunk in a trackside bunkhouse and spend his days repairing tracks "in the middle of the bush" (his words). He said that his supervisor would keep in touch with dispatchers via a trackside phone so the crew would know when to keep clear of the tracks when a train was coming through. This work would continue through the week until my Dad boarded an eastbound freight and returned to Chapleau.

My Dad said he spent a summer doing this work. His older brother, my Uncle Claude, did the same thing, although my Dad said my uncle worked further west on the line. Both my uncle and my Dad told me it was incredibly hard work. They also spoke of working with local First Nations youth on these track gangs. The First Nations part of the crew would work half days, since they were expected to spend their afternoons hunting and fishing.

Later, when my Dad's family moved to Windsor, he worked with my Grandpa in the Windsor yard, doing things like trackside inspections and greasing the bearings on the old freight cars. Again, he said the work was incredibly hard, which made his decision to work for Ontario Hydro much easier. At one point, the railway offered my Dad a job, but the railway dynasty wasn't to be.

My Dad's little brother, my Uncle Michel, did work for the railways for a while, working for Via Rail at Toronto's Union Station, but that was it. My cousin worked for CP for several years in dispatch before he moved on to another career in the railway industry.

Me on board an old Canadian Pacific switcher at the Railway Museum of Eastern Ontario in Smiths Falls, Summer 2015

And then there's me. My connection with this railway has been peripheral at times, but it seems as though the CPR has always been there.

Going to Windsor to visit my grandparents as a kid was always a highlight, since it pretty much was a guarantee that I would see a CP train. There was one crossing at Howard Avenue that was the best bet, since it wasn't far from the CP Yard and the old Michigan Central Railway tunnel. I remember how excited I was when a long freight train would slowly pass by, as motorists on the busy thoroughfare would patiently wait. That crossing was replaced by a flyover a while ago.

When we visited my Nonno's house, also in Windsor, I used to stand at the end of his driveway, since his street, Wellesley, provided a direct view to the CP tracks. For a young railfan, it didn't get any better than this. Seeing the old multimark go by was a thrill for me, since I mainly saw Chessie System trains in my hometown of Corunna.

Then there was the summer of 1992 when I went to Alberta by myself to visit family, including my Nonno and Uncle John. That trip included a few days in Banff where I visited my sister, who was working there for the summer. One of my best memories of that trip was railfanning at Banff station where I saw this unit grain train. (You can read about my railfanning in Alberta in this post and this post.)

When I worked for the newspaper in Peterborough, I remember watching the Kawartha Lakes Railway trains rush by our newspaper offices at night, en route to the Nephton mines. There were a few times when I would have to stop my evening jogs after work when a train was passing through town. It was always nice to feel that draft of wind when the train passed by.

I often travelled the Highway 7 between Peterborough and Ottawa during that time of my life. The highlight of the drive was very often going through Havelock, where the Kawartha Lakes Railway still maintains a small rail yard that parallels the highway before the line branches off to the Nephton mines. I often considered pulling over on my trips to and from Ottawa to take pictures, but I never did since I wasn't in the habit of taking rail photos then like I am now.

More recently, since I began this blog, I have had a few occasions to see some CP action in Bedell (You can read about my most recent time there in this post).

Empty CP ethanol train westbound at Bedell, Summer 2016

The whole point of these stories is that this railway has always been a part of my family's story and a part of my story as a railfan.

That is why all this drama surrounding the railway makes me sad. I won't argue the economics of mergers or the improved performance that the railway has shown under its current management. Like I said, it's a public company and it is doing a good job of making money for its shareholders.

But I also know from a number of sources that the morale in the company is low. I know that its CEO is not terribly respected by the rank and file, although it's no mystery why he is loved by investors. I won't get into the particulars because it's not my place.

I will only say this. I think this company can do better to live up to its legacy. There are no doubt many other families with similar stories to that of my family. And there are many other stories of how this railway has helped shaped Canada.

I don't begrudge the company for wanting to do the best it can.

But I think the Canadian Pacific is better than what we've seen in the last few years. Be profitable, sure. But never forget your roots because there are countless Canadians that contributed so that company could endure.

I'm not sure today's CP truly appreciates that.


Steve Boyko said...

Well said, well said indeed. A company has to make money, and do so for its shareholders, but it can do that while respecting how it got to where it is.

Michael said...

Thanks, Steve. It's been a while since I went on a good rant on the blog. And, I am looking forward to seeing the CP Holiday Train next weekend as it comes through Eastern Ontario.

Eric said...

Great post, Michael!

Michael said...

Thanks Eric!