Sunday, April 19, 2015

10 Questions for Ken McCutcheon

Railroad magazine used to have a regular feature highlighting an "Interesting Railfan". I thought I would run a similar series with some railfans who have agreed to participate. I'm asking each railfan 10 questions, some standard and some customized for the particular person. I hope you enjoy it.

Ken McCutcheon is a retired railroader and a long-time railfan. Ken is the fourth in this series (see all).



1. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I'm almost 67 years old living in Assiniboia, Sk.   Married to  Pamela, my fantastic wife of 38 years. We have three adult sons, Kendall, Thomas and William.

I grew up in Toronto, son of Ken Sr. a Dining Car steward with Canadian Pacific.


My childhood was spent around trains, specifically passenger trains. The railfan bug bit me early.

On graduation from high school I set my goals high, and became a train order operator with CP in the Toronto Area and on the Trenton Division.

Being laid off from CP I hired on with CN and in September 1971 bid north into the Northern Ontario Area working in Longlac, Nakina and Armstrong.

As a young man I developed a keen interest in train orders and time tables, collecting them as much as possible. It soon became apparent I wanted to become a Train Dispatcher. I was young, 23ish, and impatient.

In the summer of 1972 I left CN and drove west until landing a job with CP out of Moose Jaw, SK. 
After being laid off in January 1973 I again pointed my Datsun westward.

In March 1973 I hired on with BC Rail and began an over 30 year career with them, first as an operator and then on December 20th, 1973 I achieved my dream, qualifying as a Train Dispatcher.

On July 15th, 2004 CN entered a partnership with BCR in which we became CN employees.

Ten months later, May 1st 2005, two days before my 58th birthday, I worked my last shift as a Rail Traffic Controller (RTC) and also the last shift for CN in North Vancouver BC.  At 0445 that morning all RTC control was transferred to CN Edmonton.  Electing to take early retirement, walking out of the door for the last time.

In December 2006, Pam and I relocated to Assiniboia, SK where we have lived for the last 8 1/2 years. We love it here, the Prairies, small town life and especially Saskatchewan.

2. Where’s your favourite place to railfan?

I'd have to say right here in the Prairies.  Wide open spaces, great climate sometimes changing seasons several times a day.  No overgrown vegetation to fight.  Beautiful sunrises and sunsets, and storm lighting to enhance the experience.  We have it all here.

3. If you could railfan anywhere, anytime, where and when would it be?

There are some experiences I missed out on or didn't spend enough time with while younger I really kick myself for. The railroads of New York State and Pennsylvania in the late 60's and early 70's specifically the Lehigh Valley, Erie Lackawanna and New York Central.

Once out west I wish I had camped down on the Milwaukee Road. There was such a resurgence of traffic and it was such a captivating subject.  I am thankful for the photos and experience I did have but it just wasn't enough.

4. What’s your favourite railway?

I'm not sure I have a favourite railway.  At any given time we all have favourites but today for me I like the short line scene.  Whether GWR or any of the other Prairie shortlines, I find them all interesting.
Even branchline CPR in southern SK is a favourite for me.
The Great Western Railway - photo by Ken McCutcheon


5. What would you say are the best and worst things about the move from film to digital?

If it wasn't for digital I am not so sure I would have gotten back into photography. Once Pam and I had our family, three young boys, I got away from photography and travelling for 18 years.

There wasn't the time to raise a family properly or the money to travel/photograph.

I quit in 1983 during the BCR two toned green Alco era just before they adopted red, white and blue.

It wasn't until 2001 I again got back into photography and railfanning, at the prompting of a couple very good friends.

It was a Canon digital camera I experimented with and have stuck with moving up from a point and shoot to the middle/higher line of equipment.

The best thing about digital is the faster shutter speeds and higher ISO. And the ability to see the photo instantly for exposure adjustments.  Not having to wait three days for film processing if you were lucky enough to live in Toronto or Vancouver as I was.

6. To an outsider like me, it seems like being a railfan is discouraged when you work for a railway. Were you a “railfan” when you were working for BC Rail?

I don't think BC Rail discouraged me from being a railfan.  What they didn't know didn't hurt them.

I didn't advertise the fact I photographed trains.  As my fellow Dispatchers found out I'm sure they had a good laugh behind my back.  My attitude was, let them laugh.  One of the first requirements of railroading was to have a very thick skin.  No room for sensitive and easily offended people.   However, having said that I never brought my railfanning to work with me.  On the job, the job was number one.  There were, of course, perks to being a Dispatcher and attaining certain info about train movements for after work activities.
Info I would just tuck away.  As a railroader and while on the job you never ever acted "stupid" about trains.

The railway pays you to do a job and that only.


Was I a railfan?  You bet I was.


7. What would you say is most misunderstood about working for the railways?

Working for the railway is not a dream job for the railfan.  There is no room for your hobby and working on the job.

In fact most railfans make lousy railroaders.  Not many of us could work an eight to 12 hour shift 
and then spend the balance of our time being around the same environment looking through a camera lens.

For fellow employees, running trades and engineering, Train Dispatchers do NOT sit in an ivory tower thinking of ways to delay your trip or short change you on track time.

You have one train to run, or one gang to keep working.

I have multiple trains and gangs to organize, the BIG picture, so to speak.  LOL


8. How would you say a railfan should act to get along best with railways, especially shortlines?

Professional and courteous.  Always receive permission and tell the employees what your intentions are.

I know, asking for permission can be a pain since there is always the chance you may be refused.

Wear the appropriate safety clothing.

Many short line employees are railroaders retired from the larger railways, especially in the running trades. The working environment is more relaxed and the hours usually better suited for a normal life.
Usually the employees are friendlier.  It makes a difference when you haven't supervisors looking over your shoulder and attempting to observe you breaking a rule or two.

But the railfan still has the obligation to treat all railroaders with respect. You are on their turf.

Offer to send photos to the shortline or their employees and then carry through.  A small gesture like this will earn you 
respect and a welcome mat when you come back.

9. What projects do you have on the go, or in planning?

Not much of anything.  I guess I would be classified as an underachiever.

I want to get around to scanning my slide collection.

I am having too much fun out photographing.

10. How’s retired life treating you?

Fantastic.  Never thought it could be so much fun.

Do I miss the job and the guys I worked with?

Yes and no.  The guys I worked with, we had some great times.

Whether the challenges of the job or the satisfaction of having a good shift, it is something I will never forget. When train crews and engineering employees thanked you for a good trip or providing track time it made my day.

It was why I was there.

When things went for a dump, whether a rock slide, engine failure, a derailment, or too many trains and you couldn't talk fast enough issuing train orders or OCS clearance, it was all apart of the job, and knowing the next shift could only get better, couldn't it?

Do I miss all this?  When I walked out the door for the last time, I walked out and have never looked back. 
I do not miss midnight shift, or 2000-0600 or 0200-1200? Not a chance.

I do love retirement and the flexibility it affords me.

Thank you, Ken!

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