Keeping it Rail Pt. 2: What it takes to be a GO Train conductor

(This is the second part of a multi-media series by Matt Llewellyn, following the path of a GO train conductor.)

The radio crackles.

It’s a quick combination of straight detail and underlying graveness.

“Emergency. Emergency. Emergency,” comes the call out. “GO nine-zero-five, engine three-not-not-west. Calling an emergency on track three and four on the Oakville subdivision, mile six.”

It’s a call-out for a car on the tracks – and it appears another locomotive may have struck the vehicle. In the radio message, it’s not clear if anyone is seriously hurt – or worse.

The message carries weight, but in this case, not reality.

It’s a simulation and the car on the tracks isn’t real. But there’s a sense of urgency in Tyler Austin’s voice as he makes that call.

Austin is in the middle of an eight week Bombardier training program, that’s commonly referred to as ‘Conductor School.’ It’s a mandatory requirement for anyone who wants to operate a GO Train.

Commuter Train Operators, or train conductors as they’re more commonly referred to, sit in the left seat of the cabin. CTO’s are responsible for doing the majority of the signal and communicating work.

The Qualified Commuter Train Operator (QCTO), or engineer, sits in the right seat. They are responsible for operating the throttle and ‘driving’ the train. Becoming a QCTO requires about two more years of training as well as several additional qualifications.

Paul Robinson, Manager of Training and Customer Service with Bombardier Transportation, says the company looks to invest in people who they believe have what it takes to become engineers. That means looking for candidates who bring different skills to the table.

“It strengthens our operation and brings in diverse perspectives and the skills,” Robinson points out.

Robinson says having a background in manufacturing, heavy industry, first aid and emergency response is considered a major asset, adding: “We want candidates to demonstrate strong situational awareness to the ability to ensure their own safety and that of others.”

Before joining Bombardier, Austin was a certified firefighter.

“At that point in time, that was the most intense program I’ve ever been through,” he says.

“But coming into the rail rules class, and the CTO training program, has made firefighting look like kindergarten.”

SENDING THE RIGHT SIGNALS

All successful CTO’s must score a minimum 100 per cent on their Signal System Exam, and they must score at least 90 per cent on all their Canadian Rail Operating Rules Exams.

Rail signals look similar to standard traffic lights that drivers are likely to encounter on their commute – but that’s where the similarities seem to end. On the tracks where GO Trains operate, there are 116 different signals that CTO’s could encounter and need to know on command.

“Imagine that a train is going 150 km/hr and you have just a few seconds to look at the signal,” Austin explains. “You really have to know what you’re doing.”

Conductor school Rule Books

The new rule books compared to the old rule book (Photo by Matt Llewellyn)

Kevin O’Connor is the supervisor of Bombardier’s rail simulator training. He has worked in the rail industry for nearly four decades. When he started with CN nearly 40 years ago, he could easily fit the railway’s rule book into his shirt pocket. Now you need a backpack just to carry the essential reading that’s required for every single trip.

O’Connor says operating commuter rail trains is different than being a freight operator and there’s more to know.

“They’re moving a lot faster, there are a lot more stations and stops, and there’s a lot more movement happening on the tracks,” he says. “Even the speeds and the braking are a lot different than freight.”

SIMULATING SUCCESS

To help CTO trainees fully understand all those rules and to let them become familiar with the nearly 500 km of track on the seven major rail corridors GO Trains operate on, Bombardier has created a simulator training centre near the Willowbrook Maintenance Facility in Etobicoke.

With three large TV screens broadcasting computer generated graphics that mimic what the conductor and engineer would actually see out of a train’s windshield, and an exact replica of a locomotive console, trainees are able to practise complex real-world scenarios – such as pulling into Union Station Rail Corridor during rush hour, and what to do if there’s a car parked on the tracks at a level crossing.

“You don’t get a second chance out there,” O’Connor says. “That’s why this simulator training is so important, because it allows these new trainees the ability to go over rules they likely won’t encounter frequently.”

‘SAFETY IS CENTRAL TO EVERYTHING WE DO’

“Safety is 110 per cent central to everything we do,” Austin explains. “From the brake tests in the yard, to wearing the appropriate personal protective equipment – it’s all about safety.”

In addition to all the tests and the exams, there is also a significant on-the-job training component. In order to become familiar with GO Transit’s entire operating territory, CTO candidates must complete approximately 55 to 60 training trips. Training supervisors also perform multiple check rides on new CTO’s.

“It may take me that extra five minutes because it’s my first time, but it comes down to safety,” Austin says about his on-the-job training runs. “I want to go home the same way I came to work and I know that passengers want to go home the same way.”

THE BEGINNING OF THE JOURNEY

GO Transit is in the midst of its largest service increase in five years and Bombardier, the company that operates the GO Transit train network, has called this a particularly heavy year for hiring.

Robinson sees it as an opportunity for people to step forward into a promising career with lots of opportunity going forward. He adds, that this includes recently laid off workers from General Motors in Oshawa.

“They have skills and dedication we’re looking for,” he says.

It’s something Austin agrees with wholeheartedly.

“I mean what other company will give you an incredible career from day one and encourage you to move up to such an incredibly important role,” he notes.

Austin is expected to complete his CTO training, and fulfill his dreaming of becoming a Commuter Train Operator, in the New Year.

Part Three of the Keeping It Rail series will focus on that part of Austin’s journey.

Anyone wishing to apply for a position, can visit the Bombardier job site.

Anyone wishing to apply for a position, can visit the Bombardier job site.

Story by Matt Llewellyn, Metrolinx spokesperson and senior advisor, media relations and issues.