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Railway Rock Gang

By Gary Sim

Review By Robert D. Turner

May 28, 2014

BC Studies no. 185 Spring 2015  | p. 218-19

Gary Sim worked for BC Rail rock gangs from 1978 until 1987. He gained first-hand experience in many facets of railway operations and maintenance that were the gangs’ day to day work: blasting, tree falling, rock drilling and scaling, using heavy equipment, and rigging massive blocks and tackles.

This was hard, physical work, often in the most difficult of circumstances and extremes of weather. Rockslides, derailments, mudflows, floods, and slumping slopes seldom happen on beautiful spring afternoons; usually they follow heavy rains, snowstorms, or other extreme weather events, and often in bone-chilling cold or exhausting August heat. Yet the BC Rail rock gangs attained a remarkable safety record, achieving 69,840 man-hours in six years without a lost-time injury. This achievement earned them the BC Safety Council Gold Medal in 1986, reflecting professionalism and great attention to detail and safety.

BC Rail was a well-run organization with a highly skilled and experienced workforce. Moreover, the railway’s personnel knew that the day-to-day operation of the railway was important. As Sim notes, “what made it all worthwhile was being one of the team of people who kept the track open. The railway is of immense importance to the interior of BC. If the trains are rolling, a huge swath of interior of BC is ‘business as usual.’”

The railways are still predominantly a place of male workers, and in jobs such as those undertaken by the rock gangs, those involved are often younger men working under experienced foremen, such as Fred Hunter (to whom the book is dedicated) and Mel Tutush, who oversaw the work and made sure the men got home. The railway depended on them, but most of us seldom appreciated their contributions or just how challenging their work could be.

Gary Sim worked along the steep slopes of the Coast Mountains, on the dry interior route to Kelly Lake, and also on the railway line to Tumbler Ridge in northeast BC. He recounts many projects and incidents and the routines and challenges involved. Some jobs were unexpected, such as the salvage of three wrecked locomotives in the Cheakamus Canyon in 1986.

Railway maintenance of way work developed its own specialized vocabulary. The book includes a lengthy glossary, including a fascinating variety of technical terms, slang, place names, and some tongue-in-cheek references such as “blackfly” or “wasp.” The glossary includes more than just definitions, and adds depth and interest to incidents and general background to working on the railway.

All of the photos are by the author, as are the drawings and paintings, which are included throughout the book. For the author, taking photos was a secondary concern because he was fully occupied with the work at hand. Nonetheless, the photographic record is surprising and insightful. The book is nicely printed with clear text and with good reproduction. Technical references and an index complete the volume.

I am very pleased to see this account by Gary Sim of his work with BC Rail. The writing is articulate, enjoyable, and interesting, and gives a detailed insight into the day-to-day work essential to running a railway transportation system. The book is a welcome contribution to the history of BC Rail and, more generally, to our understanding of work in British Columbia beyond the limelight and outside of urban centres.

Railway Rock Gang
Gary Sim
Vancouver: Sim Publishing, 2013. 196 pp. $99.98 cloth