Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Red River College program puts grads into tough, lucrative rail jobs

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Hundreds of tonnes of rolling steel rumble down the track as a student jogs alongside and grabs for the ladder to hoist himself aboard an enormous boxcar -- what a cool classroom.

And also incredibly dangerous and unbelievably strenuous.

It's a classroom with immense responsibility, demands and risks, a classroom in which the student dares not, must not, let his attention wander for even a split second.

And for those who make it, a starting salary of $65,000 a year, which can quickly double in two or three years.

Way out on Pandora Avenue East, past the Transcona Rail Yards, Red River College has its own sections of track and boxcars and a leased locomotive, where three dozen students undergo intense daily training to see if they can cut it as railway conductors.

No, not conductors checking tickets on a warm and cosy passenger train.

Conductors are the crews working the frenetically sprawling rail yards in brutal cold and overbearing heat and bugs, ensuring freight cars are connected or decoupled properly, seeing to it boxcars being assembled into mile-long units are in the right order and their brake hoses hooked up and working properly, overseeing the moving of freight cars from track to siding to other tracks and other trains.

They're called the 'running trades.'

"It's anyone associated with moving trains," summed up Joe Carey, RRC's program manager for the Trades, Transportation, Industrial and Environment School of Continuing and Distance Education.

It's Perry Marquis's classroom, and he's a tough taskmaster. He has to be, because his grads are responsible for their own and others' lives, not to mention millions of dollars worth of equipment and cargo.

It's not quite accurate to say Marquis has been working the railroads since John A. drove in the last spike, but he's had decades in the industry.

Now he's the lead instructor in a training program Red River College began in 2009, which has grown to three classes a year, three dozen students at a time starting a 15-week course in January, May, or September.

Marquis made a call a while back to someone high up in CN, and the next day, RRC's program was housed in a dormant training centre the railway owned in the far east end of Transcona.

"They've allocated several tracks," Carey explained. "They've given us eight to 10 boxcars. We've leased a locomotive."

It's not cheap -- tuition is $9,900 -- and the students have to buy their own safety boots and other gear.

"(Pay) $9,900 and you get a job that starts at $65,000 a year," said Carey.

"It's pretty strenuous," he said. "You have to be able to get up and down the boxcars, while tying up the boxcars" and handling various locks and releases. Coupling or decoupling boxcars -- always when they're standing still -- means being able to lift and carry pins weighing a good 22 kilograms.

If the closest you've ever been to a moving freight train is sitting in your car at the barriers on Waverley, being three metres away from a moving freight train is pretty unsettling. These students jump on and off those moving boxcars and stand just clear of the locomotive pushing and pulling them.

"They're up and down, up and down, on the sides of these cars," Marquis said.

Marquis has seen more fatalities and lost limbs in railway yards than he wants to remember. The boxcars weigh 30 tonnes empty, a locomotive can weigh 6,000 tonnes.

"It's very safety-sensitive," Carey said. On the first day of training, "We take them to the Symington yards to see if they freak out."

Clayton Rasmussen had been pumping gas for the past four years when he enrolled in the program. "It's a little nerve-wracking getting close to the cars," he acknowledged, then demonstrated just how nimbly he's got over his initial nerves.

Alex Vandenberg and Aaron Harrigan enrolled days after graduating from Lord Selkirk Regional Secondary School.

You have no idea how big the locomotives and boxcars are until you get up close and personal with them, said Vandenberg.

No kidding.

"Half of us have parents or family in the railway business," said 36-year-old student Tom Jarmoszko.

Red River touts a high hiring rate among its students, as high as 96 per cent in some graduating classes.

Both CN and CP do their own training, Carey and Marquis explained, but the companies sift through hundreds of applicants before choosing the lucky few who get to begin training.

Going to RRC is expensive, but gives the program's grads way beyond a leg up on getting hired, Marquis explained.

If a student opts to enrol at Red River and pay the tuition, graduates will already have jumped to the head of the employment line by proving to the railroad companies they have what it takes, he said. The railways will often hire RRC students prior to graduation, and subject to passing their finals, the students will need only a short orientation program with a railway before starting the job.

"You're buying a job by coming here," Marquis said, a statement whose candour may have some college administrators cringing.

"Both railroads come here (each term) with the intention of hiring at least 15 students each," he said.

That's if you stay in the course and pass.

Students have their rail-yard practical training to pass, their classroom work and require a perfect mark on the signals test.

Carey said RRC has had eclectic student bodies that have included a law student, a theology grad and people owning their own business -- all chucking it in to learn to work the railroads.

Only two of the current class are women. RRC staff are somewhat perplexed, given women are 35 to 40 per cent of the rail-yard employees in Edmonton and Vancouver.

The railway jobs are open to anyone aged 18 to 65, though Marquis could not recall anyone over 50 being hired, given there are hundreds of younger people vying for jobs.

There's no fitness test required to enrol in the RRC course, but Marquis tries to dissuade people from enrolling who he knows might not get hired.

For example, the student who turned out to have bad knees, and couldn't climb the ladder onto boxcars.

"We don't want to take someone who's a round peg in a square hole," he said.

When RRC says a graduated student is ready to work the railroad, the railways know they've got a keeper who already knows how to work the yards and knows what something as mysterious as 'kicking a car' means, Marquis said.

"It's a language -- the vocabulary is so different," Marquis said. "We don't just teach the curriculum and the practicum, we teach a culture."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 13, 2012 A6

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