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Working on the Humboldt railway

During his career, Lorne Wolfe had been through a few train derailments – the worst one was in 1981 when the locomotive of about 15 to 20 cars flipped going 64 kilometres an hour near Dalmeny.
Lorne Wolfe
Lorne Wolfe began working on the railway in 1976 as a brakeman, and would hold several roles through the years before retiring in 2016 and joining the Wheatland Express Excursion Train in 2018.

During his career, Lorne Wolfe had been through a few train derailments – the worst one was in 1981 when the locomotive of about 15 to 20 cars flipped going 64 kilometres an hour near Dalmeny.

We started feeling us tip over and I just went to the floor to protect myself as much as possible – and so did the other guys,” Wolfe said.

“That’s about all you can do. You don’t know what’s going to happen when everything is going over. I knew it was going over, but you only have a split second to make a decision.”

Wolfe walked away from the crash with a messed up back leaving him unable to bend over for about three days, while the other workers got off a bit luckier with just bumps and scrapes.

Over the years Wolfe has run lumber and grain from Humboldt to North Battleford, Saskatoon, Biggar and Aberdeen.

“Railroading, especially in the running trains is more of a lifestyle than a job, because a lot of times you don’t know when you’re going to work,” he said.

“So you’re home in the afternoon when nobody else is, other times you’re trying to tell your wife that I’ll be home in lots of time to go your daughter’s concert or something and then everything changes on the other end of the road and you don’t end up making it even remotely close to it.”

Wolfe applied for the railway job in 1976 as a brakeman for the Canadian National Railway (CN) while working for the Sask Wheat Pool in Watson and Burr.

“I had some friends I went to school with from Carmel on the railway, so I applied for the railway job as a brakeman.”

Once a week CN would put out lineup schedules, but Wolfe said those lineups weren’t always accurate, and if a derailment or a backup occurs it can change on a moment’s notice.

Wolfe said that one day, it was just before 11 a.m. when he checked the lineup online. It showed him going to work at 7 p.m.

“I logged off, I got out of my seat in the computer room, my phone started to ring, I walked down the hallway, picked up the phone and took my call to go to work,” he said.

“That was during the day time, I also had the same thing happen to me at night where it didn’t look like I was going to work until five, six in the morning.”

Another time, Wolfe recalls coming home to find out he owned a new water heater in the basement.

“A lot of railroaders’ wives are that way. If something came up, they had to take care of it themselves,” he said.

“I was on the railway before I met my wife so she knew what it was like before we got married.”

At CN everything is seniority based. If there is not work for everyone, the most junior workers would be laid off for the coming week. For the first few years, Wolfe was included in that.

Riding in the caboose required six months seniority and 90 “tours of duty”, with one trip counting as a tour of duty.

After two years of being a brakeman, Wolfe qualified for being a conductor, but that didn’t mean the role was always his.

“It was all based on seniority if I could hold it or not. I’d get a few spare trips in the summer as a conductor and stuff, but most of the time I spent the first few years as either a head-end or tail-end brakeman depending on what the seniority is.”

One positive memory Wolfe recalled from the job with CN was when they had a roadway by Aberdeen blocked for about 15 minutes due to a work block.

“I figured the young guys would be giving me a one finger salute as a wave as we go by,” he said. “No, no, they had big smiles on their faces and gave us a big wave and stuff. That was surprising, but it made our day.”

If he could give one message to the general community, Wolfe asked to not blame workers for blocking the roadway.

“They’re just trying to do their job, they’re not blocking the crossing deliberately or anything,” he said.

“When the train leaves town it might be nine, ten hours before they get to the other end of the road, so whether it’s Saskatoon, North Battleford, whatever, and they put in long days.”

While that memory was positive, he said not all the ones he had were.

“The ones you really remember aren’t too humorous. It’s the ones where you have a malfunction at a crossing where you hit somebody,” he said. “Those always stick in your head.”

Wolfe would retire from his job in 2016, and in 2018 he noticed the mention of a new initiative called the “Wheatland Express Excursion Train” in his pension letter.

The locomotive was a show train running between May and December, with various themes including musical tributes, railway robberies, dinner trains, muder mysteries, wine tastings and more.

That year Wolfe began a new job as an engineer for the train, running between Cudworth and Wakaw.

Wolfe said out of the two train jobs, his preference lies with the Wheatland Express for its predictable hours.

“They’ll have entertainment on the train and then afterwards they’ll have a meal at either the hall in Cudworth or the hall in Wakaw. They’ll have somebody like Rory Allen, some guys with piano, comedians and various things.”

When asked for his advice to newcomers in the railway industry, Wolfe said to just give it a try. If you don’t like it, don’t stick with it.

“Give it an honest try, see if you like it or not. If you don’t like it, bail. Give it up,” Wolfe said. “All the sudden you’re going to have a wife, a mortgage, Et cetera and you won’t be able to quit. You’ll be hooked in a job you don’t like.”