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Romance of the rails never left this former Port Coquitlam conductor

A former railway conductor who was based at the CP Rail yard in Port Coquitlam has gathered photos and stories from his 35-year career on freight and passenger trains in a new book.

John Cowan has seen Canada in a way few others take the opportunity to experience. 

Now, the former train conductor, who spent several years based out of the Port Coquitlam yard, is sharing some of the photos he took along the way.

Canadian Pacific Trackside 1977-2012 with Conductor John Cowan is a lavishly illustrated memoir of a railway man whose childhood enthusiasm for trains never went off track, even as steam locomotives were mothballed, passenger service languished and freight crews diminished. 

All of the 250 colour photos in the book – set to be released April 2022 – were taken by Cowan, who packed his camera and slide film for trackside sorties as his trains snaked through the Rockies, or arrowed across valleys or ambled from factory to factory in the Fraser Valley to collect boxcars for delivery to the PoCo yard where they’d be hitched to much longer freight trains for delivery to bigger factories or ports back east.

Cowan, who now lives in Maple Ridge, said he never lost his appreciation the uniqueness of his position, whether it was riding in a caboose of a long freight train chugging through Revelstoke, chatting with guests on the famed Canadian Pacific dome car or being a conductor on the West Coast Express commuter train where he spent the twilight years of his career.

“I really did love my job,” he said. “It’s just been an awesome experience.”

Cowan said his affection for trains started when he was a kid growing up in Ontario. He started hanging out at the rail yards in Peterborough and Port Hope to watch and wave as the big locomotives lumbered by. 

Sometimes the engineers would even invite him up to the cab for a short ride.

“It was a different time then,” Cowan said. “They gave me a whole new panorama about life on the railroad.”

In 1977, he got a job at the CP rail yard in Smith Falls, Ont. 

From there, he went to Montreal to work as a train order operator for trains delivering skiers to resorts in the Laurentian Mountains, then eventually to Revelstoke, where he became a conductor.

Cowan worked on the old Kettle Valley Railway in the Okanagan, and the Royal Hudson steam locomotive on tours to promote tourism. He rode the rails up and down Vancouver Island. He met celebrities like Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and Michael Gross — the dad on the TV show Family Ties — while working the passenger lines through the Rockies. 

He said he loved meeting people from all over the world the most. But occasionally there were adventures.

Like the time he and the conductor on his passenger train that had just left Golden corralled a group of passenger volunteers to help move a giant boulder that had rolled down the walls of the Kicking Horse Canyon and onto the tracks, blocking their way.

Cowan, who started digitizing his thousands of slides a couple of years ago so he could share them on Facebook groups of fellow rail buffs, said there’s a common thread that runs through all his photos and recollections — the innate ability of giant, powerful trains to connect with people as they pass by.

“People wave at you like crazy,” he said. “They’d never do that if you were in a car or on a Greyhound bus. Trains help people become more human.”

Cowan’s book can be viewed and ordered on Morning Sun Books. You can also call Pacific Western Rail Systems in Vancouver at 1-866-840-7777.

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