June 2, 2009
Living with your fellow workers  By: Ken Cameron, National Health & Safety Coordinator, CAW National Council 4000
 
Ever wonder what your co-worker in the cubicle next to you looks like before he or she has had
breakfast and a coffee?  When the work day is over do you get in a taxi with all of your fellow
workers to go and sleep in the same hotel?  Do you work 18 hour days?

If you answered “No” to all of these questions then you don’t work on a transcontinental train
at VIA Rail, catering to the needs of passengers.  What is it like to go away from home for four
to six days at a time, working long days, and getting extended days off?  To find out, I spoke
with three on train employees who work on the Winnipeg to Toronto leg of the western
transcontinental train, “The Canadian”.

Michelle has been with VIA for ten years.  She has a 17 month old daughter.  She has just
obtained a regular assignment on the Park Car, the dome car at the tail end of the train,
serving bar, making beds and keeping passengers informed and amused. The round trips take
four days, with five to seven days off.  With a regular assignment she has a chart with her
schedule plotted out for a year in advance.  Otherwise, when she was on the spare board she
could not predict when she would be at home.
For Michelle, she may be away for extended periods, but when she is off she has
quality time with her daughter.  When she had to take a course in the terminal on
her days off, on day shift, she hardly saw her, except at the end of the day.  But
for this to work one needs support from spouse, parents, in-laws and full-time
daycare.  On the down side, you miss birthdays, anniversaries and general
holidays.  If you are on the spare board at Christmas means not knowing if you
will be home with your family.

Working closely with others can bring closeness among crew members.  At the
end of your tour of duty you may give a fellow worker a hug goodbye.  But when
you get home you leave work at work.  “It’s over when you take off that uniform.”

Denis has over twenty years on board, and presently is working in the sleeping
cars.  He identifies the good and bad of his job quite simply—you’re away from
your family a lot, but you are also with them a lot.  His daughter is in grade one
now.  His wife works a normal dayshift elsewhere and is accustomed to the work
arrangement; otherwise it would be difficult for a marriage.  Being home for
Christmas is a priority when making your job selection a year in advance.
Photo: VIA Rail Canada

As for the job itself, the tasks are the same but the people make the difference.  “For a people person, you meet interesting people
from all over the world.”  Your crew becomes a second family while you are en route.  “I’m lucky to work with good crews,” as a
negative co-worker can affect everyone.  Upon returning home though, it takes a day of rest to recover, with napping and an early
bedtime.

Mario is an attendant on the sleeping cars with eleven years of service, as well as a member of his work place health and safety
committee.  This was his first serious job; he came for a year but stayed.  He loves to have time off—four to six days at a time, not
just a week-end.

He likes the fact that he can’t spend while at work, and says it’s like having two lives.  Go snowboarding in Jasper on your days off?  
Why not?

He is not attached so the schedule is not a problem.  But you miss many family gatherings, Christmas and scheduled activities like
the “Ultimate Frisbee”.  Being on the spare board there is no predictability.

Being part of a crew is like having a second family.  You develop good friends and unique relationships in close quarters, working
from dawn to midnight for days at a time.
He is thankful that the work place changes—the scenery and passengers—giving him the challenge to his personality to adapt.  “I
would have been a different person if I had chosen a desk job ten years ago.”

Sleeping on the train can be a challenge for him, and gets harder with age, but he gets it done.  The past several years have been
difficult with train delays, mostly due to CN and so outside his control.  Passengers get very angry and disappointed on the trip of a
lifetime to be very late and maybe arrive by bus or plane instead of in your luxury bedroom.  The fatigue from the long days is
difficult and he really enjoys the 36 hour layover when he works to Vancouver.

Do you have what it takes to serve the public and to travel?  These people do, along with the 618 other on train employees who do
so at VIA Rail.

CAW National Council 4000 also represents similar workers at Rocky Mountaineer Vacations, members of CAW Local 4001, who work
on-board Rocky Mountaineer trains that operate throughout Canada’s Rocky Mountains in British Columbia and Alberta.
Source:  
CAW Health & Safety Newsletter (March/April 2009)