An employee of Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. was asleep in a small Prairie town hotel when a middle-of-the-night phone call startled him awake. He’d been called for the 4 a.m. train and a cab would be there shortly to pick him up.

The life of a railroader is not an easy one, with unpredictable hours, long shifts and plenty of nights spent in dreary small-town hotels.

“I could hear the rain thundering down,” said the employee, who asked not to be identified to protect his job. “It was so depressing.”

But this employee was different: He was an office worker who had been pushed into the railroading life against his will, just like hundreds of other white-collar CP employees.

These employees are being pulled away from their desk jobs on a regular basis to work as conductors and engineers, raising serious safety concerns and potentially putting themselves and others in harm’s way. They are often required to travel far from home on short notice, work gruelling hours with little training, and receive little to no extra compensation for their troubles.

Angry union workers say former chief executive Hunter Harrison is to blame. Significant job cuts during his tenure led to an “unsustainable” situation where non-unionized employees are forced to fill the gaps, said Doug Finnson, president of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference (TCRC), which represents CP’s 3,000 unionized employees.

“Physically, you can’t run as many trains as they’re running now with the workforce they have. It’s structurally impossible,” Finnson said. “We have a chronic shortage of workers.”

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