Keeping it rail (Pt. 3): Riding the rails and realizing dreams as a GO train conductor

This is the third part of a multi-media series by Matt Llewellyn, following the path of a GO train conductor. In this feature, former GO Transit customer service ambassador Tyler Austin moves to the front of the train.

Success can be measured in many ways.

But for Tyler Austin, there’s only one: the mile-markers up and down the Lakeshore GO Transit line.

The image shows the inside of the cab of a GO train, looking outside.

Tyler Austin and a teammate take control of a GO train on a recent trip. Photo by Daniel Santos, Training Supervisor, Bombardier Transportation.

“As a CSA (customer service ambassador), I knew what Lakeshore looked like from the north and south windows, but it’s so crazy to see what it looks like from the front,” he says. “It’s just so nice to put everything into perspective.”

After months of intense training, Austin has officially graduated from being a GO Transit CSA, to a commuter train operator (CTO) – or more conversationally known as a GO train conductor.

When Austin began his journey back in 2017, he had no former rail experience and was actually a certified firefighter. He applied for the job thinking it would be a way to transition to Bombardier’s Aerospace Firefighting Team.

But once he began interacting with GO customers, he said he totally fell in love with the CSA role and became obsessed with the head-end of the train. He knew, at that point, being a conductor was something he wanted to work toward.

Now in the role, the memory of his first trip as a fully qualified CTO seems to be seared into brain. So much so, he can still describe the trip in incredible detail, calling it one of those pinch-me moments in life.

“It was super early morning and I remember walking in to meet my crew and the words out of my mouth were, ‘this is my first trip by myself’,” Austin says, smiling ear-to-ear.

“I remember we were sitting at Union Station and I couldn’t believe it – no trainers, nobody looking over my shoulder.”

It has now been nearly eight months since that first trip and yet Austin says it still seems surreal every time he puts on his Bombardier uniform and climbs in to the locomotive of a GO or UP Express train. Bombardier Transportation operates Go Transit trains.

Tyler Austin is shown in a seat at the front of a GO train.

CTO Tyler Austin inside a GO Transit locomotive on the Lakeshore East line. Photo by Daniel Santos, Training Supervisor, Bombardier Transportation

The 31-year-old now lives and breathes this work. On a recent vacation, his light reading for the plane ride was actually his rail rules book. He wanted to sharpen up on some changes being put into place and wanted to ensure he was prepared for work when he got home.

Being able to retain information is a key skill to being a successful commuter train operator. The GO network is made up of seven rail lines that span more than 530 kilometres and each of them is unique with their own set of rules. Plus, with Metrolinx in the midst of a 10-year rail expansion program, and steadily expanding service to new locations, there`s always something new to learn.

Tyler Austin is shown in the cab, looking forward.

Tyler Austin keeps a close watch on the track ahead – as well as important paperwork. Photos by Daniel Santos, Training Supervisor, Bombardier Transportation

Austin recalls a time when his memory was really put to the test on the Lakeshore West line at Union Station. It was back in April, and he was waiting for a rail foreman to respond to a call over the radio. That particular weekend, there was track replacement work happening near Exhibition GO. Austin says usually those foreman calls are pretty straight forward, but not on this particular day – and he still vividly remembers it.

“He (the foreman) said, ‘Any track, except for track one and track two, between miles 1.3 and mile five. No track three between signal numbers zero-2-2-T3 and zero 2-3-T3 and a speed restriction of 33 knot miles per hour on track four,” Austin recalls with a Cheshire smirk on his face.

He would then have to quickly confirm those instructions back to the foreman.

“The foreman’s reaction is what got me,” Austin remembers. “You could hear the slow clap, because he’s like ‘Yeah! Yeah that was a correct repeat!”

Tyler speaks into a radio while aboard his train.

CTO Tyler Austin makes a radio call at Willowbrook Maintenance and Storage Facility. Photo by Jason Sandford

Austin boasts that he was one of the only CTO’s to get a correct repeat on the first try that day and while it’s the type of detail that likely makes most people’s eyes glaze over, for Austin, it`s a profoundly proud moment.

“I was never very good at school,” he explains.

Austin says through high school and even college, he hated going to class – even though he graduated with honours and was on the dean’s list.

“For me to have an opportunity to learn and grow again is crazy,” he says. “I never thought I would be able to do that – and I’m incredibly proud of myself getting through it.”

To get to this point, all CTO’s must complete at least one year, on average, as a CSA before being promoted. Then there’s a grueling eight weeks of rules class. 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.

“The high standards in the conductor program come not only from the instructors and supervisors, but also from the peer trainers who do the on-the-job training, coaching, and evaluating,” says Paul Robinson, manager of training with Bombardier Transportation.

“In this environment you have the support of knowledgeable and capable trainers, but also the expectations for effort and execution to match.”

Given that GO Transit moves roughly 300,000 customers a day, Robinson says there is no ‘spoon-feeding’, adding every conductor qualified must be able to perform according to the safety standards expected by Metrolinx, Bombardier, and most importantly, passengers.

Following rules class there’s usually another three months of more practical on-the-job training.

“I’m lucky that I did my training during winter,” explains Austin.

He says it’s hard to teach how blowing snow, ice buildup and extreme temperatures will actually affect GO trains and track infrastructure.

Austin remembers one bone chillingly cold morning working on the Barrie line this past winter and trying to leave Allandale Yard.

“We were blow torching the ice – that was a shock,” he says. “You know, passengers probably don’t know that’s the delay, but we have to get the ice out first.”

Tyler Austin stands in front of a GO train.

CTO Tyler Austin poses for a photo at Willowbrook Maintenance and Storage Facility. Photo by Jason Sandford

And it’s that ability to solve impromptu challenges that Bombardier values as a trait when signing up new recruits.

“We teach and preach situational awareness, meaning that our operators must have, at all times, an accurate, real-time mental model of their circumstances and conditions,” says Robinson.

He adds, successful conductors much know the time, location, speed, restrictions, instructions and weather conditions they’re operating in.

“It’s all part of the conductor’s thinking to best inform their actions and decisions,” he says.

This year alone, GO Transit train crews will make over 880,000 station stops and pass over 4.5 million signals.

“Focus on safety, and the job and the task at hand are of critical importance,” says Rob Andrews, senior manager, rail operations. “Tyler and his fellow crew members at Bombardier, are tasked with taking care of our customers when they are riding the GO or our UP service and they do an excellent job.”

As for Austin, his momentum isn’t done yet. He’s already planning the next part of his GO Transit journey.

“I’m still enjoying being newly qualified and settling in to my role, but yeah the five year plan… is to be on the other side and have my hand on the throttle,” he says proudly.

“Maybe there’ll be another chapter in my story of going through throttle training,” Austin adds. “That’s definitely the goal for me.”

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

Want to read the first part of Tyler’s journey? Click here.

Want to read the second part of this series? Click here.

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