The Fraser Valley Heritage Railway Society might seem quiet now. The doors to the big car barn are closed to the public, and the little station house is dark.
But on May 6 the station will again be filled with people, the train car windows will be flooded with sunlight and the doors to the barn will be wide open.
People will take rides on the restored heritage trains. Kids will drive a simulated train, playing with the speed controller and brakes. (Adults have been known to try out that piece of equipment too). Visitors from as far away as Germany and Japan will come to visit the historic train station—at least, that’s where they’ve come from in the past.
But before any of that can happen, the Fraser Valley Heritage Railway Society needs volunteers. And that’s why the society is holding a volunteer open house on March 11 and 12.
For Ray Hudson, the communications director at the society, volunteering is a way to make a tangible impact on history.
As a journalist “I put out a tv show or I put out a radio program, and it’s gone,” he said.
“You walk out and you say, ‘I own a chunk of that because, see that seven on there, I put that seven on there’…It’s something you can stand there and look at, you know. And it’s a contribution to what really made the Fraser Valley function.”
Between May and October, the society has around 60 volunteers—and it will definitely need those volunteers this year. The Duke of Connaught’s train car 1304 is being unveiled after years of restoration and soon the City of Surrey will build an addition to the car barn.
But who really volunteers for the society?
Well, you have people like Hudson, a journalist who’s spent years as a broadcast journalist with the CBC. And you have people like Terry Nichols, who learned to drive on the 1207 car when it was part of the historic railway in Vancouver.
Now, Nichols drives electric trains on the society’s private length of track, and teaches new volunteers how to operate the trains as well.
There was also Frank Horne, who used to operate 1225 when it ran through Vancouver, Steveston and Burnaby.
When the society acquired 1225 in 2005, Horne volunteered. He worked to restore the car so he could drive it one more time. He died months before the train car was finished.
Not everyone who volunteers needs to be intimately familiar with trains though.
Ray Crowther, the director of buildings and grounds, was a site superintendent for Concord Pacific, looking after the construction of high-rises in False Creek.
Crowther started volunteering at the Fraser Valley Heritage Railway Society because he loved woodwork and wanted to do more of it. He started working on 1304, the society’s newest car which will be unveiled this season.
“When I came here, I came here to rebuild all the windows in 1304,” he said. “I spent two years almost, rebuilding the windows.”
The first year, Crowther stripped paint off the car, “day after day after day.” Then he and other volunteers took the windows apart, re-glued pieces, added new components and finally put in tempered safety glass, the kind you would find in a modern car window.
Although Crowther’s experience in construction made him well-suited to taking on 1304, everyone is keen to point out you don’t need any sort of experience at all.
“Who do we want? Anyone who wants to be part of it,” Hudson said. “You can come in with all the skills or you can come in with no skills.”
Crowther agreed. “What they don’t know we can teach them,” he said.
The society accepts anyone: the youngest person working with the trains is 11, the oldest is 86. And the volunteers do everything from managing the historic station house and conducting car barn tours and restoring the cars.
Why do the volunteers spend their free hours in an often-cold car barn, stripping paint from century old train cars?
“Where the rail line goes now is where most of the roads go and all the settlements are,” Hudson said. “It was a good idea 100 years ago. It still is. That talks about the quality of what happened to build this place—and we are rebuilding it.”