VANCOUVER (NEWS1130) – Are trains in Canada being run safely? That’s a question being raised by the union that represents locomotive engineers and conductors at CP Rail.

Union Vice-President Douglas Finnson says non-unionized managers, some whom do office jobs, are being trained to work as replacement locomotive engineers and conductors.

Finnson tells us CP seems to mostly be using civil engineers and foremen — the people who fix the tracks. But he says managers being trained under the program also include some from head office, safety and environmental affairs, and customer service.

“These people are office workers. They don’t work in an industrial setting around large, heavy equipment. The rail business involves heavy, heavy rail equipment. This is a very serious and very safety oriented operating environment.”

Finnson says while CP hasn’t shared specifics of the training these managers go through, he’s confident training is not at the same level as that of the unionized workers.

He tells us his understanding is managers who are training to be conductors are expected to keep on with their usual jobs while training, and he believes they go back to their regular jobs when they’re finished.

“And when they’re done and they’re qualified, that’s a minimum qualification, they go back to their office jobs, their desks, they don’t look at trains anymore, so any temporary skill set they’ve achieved is easily lost.”

Finnson adds people who have gone through the program have said they’re coached through the exams.

“You get an answer wrong, they take you to the head of the class and they keep on asking you different questions until the answer is so absolutely obvious, you see ‘Yes, that’s the correct answer,’ and they say ‘Congratulations, you’ve now passed,’” he says.

Finnson adds unionized locomotive engineers must have at least two years’ experience working as a trainman and conductor before even beginning the training to be a locomotive engineer.

“I don’t see how they can bring a person with absolutely zero experience and put them into a locomotive engineer training situation, and expect them to pick it up.”

He says a few managers have previous experience running and operating trains, but not many.

“These jobs as locomotive engineers and conductors are considered safety-critical positions, and they’re subject to heavy stress on the individual through severe operating conditions, all hours of the day and night, long days and long nights. We’re very highly regulated because it’s a very safety-critical industry that we run in.”

Finnson notes a manager trainee fell off a rail car in Calgary in March because of fatigue.

A locomotive engineer operates the locomotive. The conductor does all of the other work, like reporting, switching on the ground, and the setting off and lifting of cars.

CP would not agree to a recorded interview, but in an email, says the standards it is using for the training are identical to what is in place for qualifying employees for unionized positions.

Here is its entire email:

CP’s conductor and locomotive engineer training programs give employees the opportunity to enhance their understanding and skills required of the railroad industry.  We feel it is important that all employees have a thorough understanding of our business and customer demands. 

The standards that CP is using for this training is identical to what is in place for qualifying employees for unionized positions. This means all candidates must pass the required tests, be rules qualified and meet all the standards for train operations. 

Safety is a priority of this railway. It is a foundation of our company, including in the area of training. Whether an employee is unionized or a management employee, nobody gets certified as a conductor or locomotive engineer under this program until they achieve all the necessary requirements.

Finnson believes CP has put the program in place so trains can still be run in the event of a strike or lockout — the program has been running for about two years.

The collective agreement expires December 31st, bargaining is set to start this fall.

A hearing, in part, looking at the program, is set to happen this September in Calgary, before the Canada Industrial Relations Board.