Meet Ernie Foster: working tirelessly to reduce crossing & trespassing incidents in Manitoba

It takes a lot of hard work and dedication to get the lifesaving rail safety message out in a country the size of Canada. We couldn’t do what we do without the tireless support of our volunteers – like Ernie Foster, 2014’s Roger Cyr Award recipient. For this week’s post, we caught up with Ernie, a Hudson Bay Railway locomotive engineer with 40 plus years working in the railway, to find out what motivates him to get out and share Operation Lifesaver’s message year after year. Based out of The Pas, Manitoba, Ernie travels to rural and remote communities in Manitoba to ensure that the communities and their thousands of children get the OL message. [caption id="attachment_9953" align="alignright" width="300"]Ernie talking to students about rail safety. Ernie talking to students about rail safety.[/caption]
Ernie’s message rings loud and clear: “Don’t take your safety for granted.”

You were awarded the Roger Cyr Award for your dedication to rail safety. How long have you been involved with OL and the Manitoba Provincial Committee?

It has been my pleasure to be involved with Operation Lifesaver since 2011 and the Manitoba Provincial Committee since 2012.

Why are you involved with OL? Why do you think it’s important?

Originally, I became involved through our local workplace occupational health and safety committee when Operation Lifesaver was presented as a need in our area. I could see the importance of having such a program offered and volunteered to take on this position. In a small southern Manitoba community in 1975, I was the second individual on the scene of a very horrific accident involving a 12-year-old boy who was struck by an eastbound train. This young lad, who I often think about, never had the opportunity to experience a program like Operation Lifesaver. I feel in my heart that if he had perhaps he would have never lost his life that day. He would have been better educated in regards to the dangers of the railway. This is why I am so passionate about this program.

What kind of activities do you take part in as a means of promoting rail safety?

Since 2011, I have presented the Operation Lifesaver program to students in grade levels beginning at Preschool all the way through to Grade 12. I have done this in 14 Northern Manitoba communities reaching a total of approximately 900 individuals each year. For students in the Preschool to Grade 5 level, I present the program by myself, but in Grades 6-12, I am accompanied by a member of the RCMP who discusses with the students the legal repercussions of trespassing on railway property.

You do a lot of work with First Nations communities in Northern Manitoba and have done so for many years. Have you noticed a change in the level of rail safety knowledge in those communities? 

Having operated as a Locomotive Engineer through 11 of the Northern Manitoba First Nation communities the program is offered in, it’s interesting for me to have conversations with many of the former students who are now adults and talk about things they remember me saying during the presentation. It is encouraging to know that Operation Lifesaver is having this impact in communities where many of the railway crossing are unprotected, meaning no lights, bells or gates.

In your years as an OL volunteer, has there been a particular standout moment when you realized that your audience was really getting the rail safety message?  

During the presentation for the Preschool to Grade 5 level, I have always made it a point to mention to the children that when travelling in a vehicle and approaching a railway crossing, they should always remember to ask, "Are any trains coming?". This is to alert the driver, who may be distracted, to pay close attention. One day, while I was uptown, the mother of one of the children who attended the program approached me. She mentioned that her child now asks the question every time they are about to approach the tracks and she appreciates this. She has some comfort knowing that her child is very aware of the importance of rail safety. This particular moment stands out with me because it gives me sense of peace knowing that at least some of the students are taking these lessons to heart.

What's one thing you'd like Canadians to know about rail safety? What would you like them to think about when they see train tracks and railway property?

Don't take your safety for granted—trains can be unpredictable. You think you may hear them coming, but that is not always the case. Trains are also travelling much faster than they may appear. It’s never a good idea to try and beat a train at a crossing—that is not a race you will win—the train is much larger and heavier than you. Due to this size and weight, understand that trains are also harder to stop in the case of an emergency.  Weather affects visibility, yours and ours, so keep that in mind. You might have a harder time seeing us, we might have a harder time seeing you and this is why it is so important to always: Stop, Look and Listen.