Kettle Valley Brakemen share rail safety message through song

At Operation Lifesaver we focus on preventing railway related deaths and injuries through a combination of the “Three Es”: engineering, enforcement and education. A major part of the education focus is finding new and innovative ways to communicate our train safety message to Canadians. This would not be possible without the help of our partners, volunteers and supporters.

One such valued supporter is a Canadian folk band based in B.C. called the Kettle Valley Brakemen. Headed by Jack Godwin, the band plays “toe tappin’ folk bluegrass” music that tells the tales of Western Canada’s steam rail history. Much of the band’s songs focus on historical aspects of railway life, including the experiences of engineers and trainmen. 

[caption id="attachment_5373" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Current band members include L to R: Fiddlin' Phil Wiebe, Jack Godwin, Debbie Liebrecht and Craig Brown."][/caption]

Over the past 15 years, the Kettle Valley Brakemen have been entertaining – and educating - audiences across B.C. in local museums, music festivals and at heritage events. Their use of the troubadour folk music tradition means audiences are treated to enjoyable music, a fun experience and a history lesson, all at the same time.

The “Railway Crossing” song

Operation Lifesaver was introduced to the Kettle Valley Brakemen when band member Craig Brown brought to our attention the fact that the band had produced a song called “Railway Crossing”. This song focuses on the dangers that exist at railway crossings – and the split second poor decisions that result in needless deaths. The song powerfully communicates our rail safety message in a way that’s true to the band’s form – both entertaining and educational.

 Take a listen to the song from SoundCloud:

[soundcloud id='43500459']

“Railway Crossing” inspiration

Jack Godwin researched, wrote and provided lead vocals for “Railway Crossing” and Craig Brown produced the song and is responsible for all of the instrumentation, except for the harmonica track. 

[caption id="attachment_5384" align="alignleft" width="232" caption="Jack Godwin performing outside the Naramata Museum"][/caption]

Like most of the band’s songs, Godwin found inspiration for “Railway Crossing” through an interview he conducted with an engineer about the “good old days”. Near the end of what had been a comfortable and animated conversation, a friend Godwin had brought along for the interview asked the question: “how many people did you see die in front of your engine?” Godwin was struck by the fact that the man answered, without hesitation: “six” and proceeded to tell the tragic tale of each death.

From then on, Godwin has asked this question of every engineer he’s interviewed. And every single one could remember the exact number of deaths they’d witnessed; some could recount the story and others immediately steered the conversation to another topic. For all, these were painful and permanently life-changing tragedies that will forever haunt them.

“I could sense these deaths were very troubling to these men. Most of the stories were about average people who weren’t paying attention. They just didn’t think there’d be a train coming because most of the time there wasn’t. They just got careless. The engineer is helpless under these circumstances and this makes the awful memory all the more painful.”

In writing the lyrics for “Railway Crossing”, Godwin choose a very deliberate format that effectively emphasizes both the emotional impact a railway crossing death has on an engineer, and the fact that absolutely anyone can be killed this way if they’re not paying attention.

“I wanted to start and finish the song with the engineer’s feelings. I tried to create three absolutely plausible scenarios under which normal people are so caught up in their lives that they forget they were reaching a level crossing.”

Godwin says it's his hope that this song can serve as another way to communicate Operation Lifesaver's train safety message. And he says that so far, the song is having this desired impact on audiences. 

“I know from many post concert conversations that the impact of this song hits when people realize: ‘It’s people like me that have to be aware of this danger!’ The song brings the risk home to each listener. I hope this song can be used effectively to drive that message home to Canadians.”