People often say to Brad Coates “you have the best job in the world. You get to drive that old train and blow the whistle!”
While he admits that this is true, there is in actuality so much more to his job as locomotive engineer and operations manager for the Kettle Valley Steam Railway.
Coates first became involved with the railway in 1993, before it was even operational. He was brought in as a labourer to do track work, build infrastructure, work on the equipment and restore the coaches that the railway received in 1994.
When the 1924 Shay locomotive arrived in 1995, on loan from the B.C. Forest Discovery Museum, a crew arrived with it in order to operate the steam engine.
“They needed someone to train on this end so their crews could be relieved and then we could basically take over the operation of the steam locomotive and run our own railway,” explained Coates. “That crew is who I received all of my training from.”
It was in 1997 that Coates qualified as locomotive engineer.
The KVSR acquired the 3716 steam locomotive in 2003. Coates was involved in the dismantling and transporting of it to Summerland and headed up the restoration of the boiler and the whole locomotive. It was put into service in 2005.
Part of being an engineer is being able to detect problems before they arise.
“The engineer has to have a keen ear and a keen sense in order to pick up things that may be going wrong,” said Coates. “A good preventative maintenance program will ensure that you operate every day.”
Things don’t always go off without a hitch. Coates explained that when one is dealing with equipment there are bound to be breakdowns. He has spent much time on evenings and weekends educating himself so he can do all his own welding and machining in the railway’s workshop.
“Every part on that locomotive is tailor made. There are no standard parts and pieces so it all has to be handmade,” explained Coates.
As operations manager, Coates is also responsible for looking after the track system.
“We have to satisfy the B.C. Safety Authority inspectors with not only the locomotives and the rolling stock like the passenger cars, but also the track system,” he said. “There’s a lot more to it than a couple of rails and ties. There’s a lot of science and engineering involved in that.”
Each year Coates determines what needs to be done and hires and oversees the contractors that do the work in repairing the tracks.
Weed control is another issue that must be addressed because of the risk of fire. Much time and money has been spent on fire prevention.
Fencing also needs to be repaired along the railway right of way in order to keep horses and wildlife off the tracks.
Coates also winds up spending hours in his office, dealing with all the paperwork that needs doing.
He admits to feeling overwhelmed at times.
“It’s a little stressful at times but the better you become at doing something the more efficient you are,” he said. “As long as you’re a good juggler I guess. It’s taken me a lot of practice.”
The off season for Coates can be busier than the operating season. That is when preparation starts for the Christmas trains. It is also the time when inspections and repairs are done on the engine’s boiler and the running gear.
Although he came to the railway with a fair bit of mechanical knowledge already, Coates has gained so much experience that is tailored specifically to the railway.
“I guess that’s where I’m valuable now, is just by virtue of my experience,” he mused.
It takes more than experience to be good at a job though.
“I am actually very passionate about my job and keeping the railway safe and continuing to make it a great tourist destination for Summerland,” said Coates. “I really believe in this place and I believe that the town needs something like this. It’s a great thing.”