The People Behind Trains: Two Documentaries
by Fernanda Fernandez
Most of us don’t usually think about railroads today. I can count with one hand the times I have travelled on trains. That has changed since I started my job at the Cranbrook History Centre, where we keep a large collection of rolling stock, and the passing trains behind the building shake us at least three times a day.
In our tours, we try to evoke the experience of the passengers who travelled in them; they mostly were wealthy businessmen, politicians and even royalty. They enjoyed comfortable accommodations such as hot water, delicious dinners, and round-the-clock service provided by the train crews.1 However, I would like to dedicate this text to the people who operated them (and still do). In my research, I came across two interesting documentaries. The first is a 1958 film entitled Railroaders, directed by Guy L. Coté. The second is Tshiuetin, by Caroline Monnet.
Both are black and white, Canadian short films that deliver an insightful and dignifying perspective of the hard-working railway employees.
Many small towns in British Columbia changed their social dynamics around the construction of train tracks; one of those was Revelstoke. This short film portrays a profile of the men who lived there and used to work along the Canadian Pacific railways in the Rocky Mountains in the late fifties. The director follows their daily routines and gives us an educational perspective of the tasks and the people who made train travel possible. Even men whose trade or profession wouldn’t have an obvious connection to railroads nowadays were tied to them. A curious example was the local jeweller who also held the title of “Railway Watch Inspector.” As the name estates, his job was to repair and maintain the crew’s watches, which was essential to share their timetables with other train operators to avoid collisions.
Even if Coté portrays a “train safety” narrative ⏤probably because it was an institutional film, he does that in a way that never loses the human perspective of workers. For instance, as he films the job of the dispatchers, the scenes not only focus on the technology that allowed them to communicate with other stations but the complexity of the multiple tasks they handled efficiently. These men were in charge of letting operators know at different stations when and where trains in opposite directions would encounter.
The operators then passed the information to the conductor with a “train-order hoop.”2 Conductors and engineers read the instructions aloud to corroborate they had understood them. The montage is carefully crafted to make the viewer understand how these men’s duties were interconnected to make the railroads safe.
Another aspect that this film underlines about Canadian railroads is the weather. Those who work along the tracks had to face the harsh winters of the Rockies. Some had jobs that one would never think about, such as “knocking down snow caps before their weight snaps the telephone wires.” They had to know beforehand where the trains would pass to do their job without risking their lives. Their role was essential to keep telephone lines working, on which railways depended too to communicate between stations. We see these men climbing up telephones poles and poking the snow with a stick until it falls. There were also section men who removed the snowbanks, and repaired or adjusted any loose parts on the tracks. Maintenance crews would report any dangers along the way.
Railroaders shows us the faces of the men who work hard in adverse conditions. They had to live in remote places, sometimes away from their families and do potentially perilous jobs to minimize the risks of accidents.
There are fewer passenger trains now, but we still depend on railways to move food, medicines and other essential goods. Railroad jobs have changed over time with the improvement of technology and automatization. However, to safely operate trains we still need a capable workforce to ride them and maintain the tracks. Today, Canadian Pacific still operates with conductors, dispatchers, track labourers, and all sorts of mechanics and technicians.3
Tshiuetin‘s first sequence shows us footage of a departing train somewhere between Schaefferville, NL and Sept-Îles, QB. We only see the lower part of a train in motion and hear the boisterous sounds of the tracks, the squeaking wheels and the tolling of bells. Then, a pan shot shows us the snowy landscape and the stillness of the station. These beautiful and melancholic scenes are the introduction to a short documentary that showcases the uniqueness of this railway.
The director follows the TFT’s conductor (the acronym stands for Transport Férroviaire Tshiuetin), an Innu man who works for the first railway company owned by First Nation peoples. The line serves the Uashat mak Mani-Utenam, de Matimekush Lac-John et de Kawawachikamach communities and tourists seeking adventures in Canada’s Eastern provinces. They started operating in 2005 under Federal regulations.
It took more than a century for First Nations to own a railway line in Canada. No one can deny the benefits of this means of transportation; they allow us to move provisions to and from remote places. They have contributed to the development and economic growth of communities worldwide. Canada’s railway companies have been a source of employment for decades. However, the history of railways is also one of colonization and discrimination. We need to remember that the construction of railroads in the Kootenays changed the life and culture of the Ktunaxa and deprived them of their lands.4
When we hear the Innu man talking about his life as a conductor, it compels us to reflect upon the importance of self-determination. Not only does the train fulfill the purpose of transportation for the Indigenous communities, but it also functions as a place of social encounters where they can speak their language and keep it alive. We see Innu women playing cards, children smiling, and people talking. These scenes remind us of the crucial role that passenger trains still play in people’s lives, especially for those in remote areas. In one of the closing scenes, the conductor states that he is proud of his job; he considers himself a hero because he is able to bring his people closer.
Railroaders and Tshiuetin have something in common. They show us the snowy, desolate landscapes, the industrial facilities and the weather-beaten appearance of train cars that contrast with the warmth of the people who ride and operate the Canadian trains. Recreating the experience of wealthy passengers is part of the history of our trains, but let’s not forget that train travel wouldn’t be possible without the people who operate and maintain them. Both films illustrate the life of these unsung heroes.
One last consideration that stands out from the documentaries is the lack of women. Further research is needed to understand their role in past and present railway operations. In the meantime, we invite you to share your stories if you have been part of a railway crew.
1 The CHC published a blog entry about the black men who used to work as porters, mostly in sleeping cars. These men had to face racist company policies and exploitation. You can read the full entry at https://www.cranbrookhistorycentre.com/how-the-black-sleeping-car-porters-shaped-canada/. Date of access: Apil 28th, 2022.
2 The book Off on a Wild Caboose Chase…, presents an account of a Canadian Pacific conductor who went on a hunt for an old caboose to adapt it as an office. While the main topic is this quest, he integrates stories about his experience working for CP. One of them is a memory regarding the operators passing along the instructions to the conductors: I did catch a quick glimpse of the operator standing out of the station platform near the track, holding a long, thin stick in one hand. It was the train-order hoop, which he passed to the conductor, who stood down on the steps of his caboose for that purpose. From papers that were fastened to this hoop, he learned what trains we would be meeting on the line ahead, plus any other information pertinent to our safe efficient journey. Hungry Wolf, Adolf. Off on a Wild Caboose Chase… True Adventures, Folklore, and a Farewell Tribute to the Old Train Caboose by a Writer Who Lives Aboard One, New York: 1988, William Morrow & Company, Inc, pp. 30-31.
3 Canadian Pacific website. Date of access: April 28th, 2022.
4 Turner, Robert and McNair Randal. “Railway Route to the Crowsnest”, BC Historical News, Vol. 34, No. 1, Winter 2000-2001, p.15.
Hungry Wolf, Adolf. Off on a Wild Caboose Chase… True Adventures, Folklore, and a Farewell Tribute to the Old Train Caboose by a Writer Who Lives Aboard One, New York: 1988, William Morrow & Company, Inc, pp. 30-31.
Turner, Robert and McNair Randal. “Railway Route to the Crowsnest”, BC Historical News, Vol. 34, No. 1, Winter 2000-2001.
Railroaders. Directed by Guy L. Coté, National Film Board, 1958, 21 min.
Tshiuetin. Directed by Caroline Monnet, CBC Docs, 2016.
Canadian Pacific. Website, accessed: April 28th, 2022.
Transport férroviare Tshiuetin. Website, accessed: April 28th, 2022.