In the summer of 2009, Paul Proudlock was asked to drive a GO Transit passenger train on two hours' sleep.

The Keswick, Ont. engineer had anticipated driving a freight train the next afternoon, so he went to bed around midnight.

At 2:15 a.m., he was awakened by a CP dispatcher and asked to pick up a GO Transit passenger train in three hours.

When Proudlock told the dispatcher he was unfit to work, and wanted to remain in the rotation for the next afternoon, the dispatcher replied, “You’re obligated to go. If you answer the phone, you have to go. That’s how the world works.”

Proudlock said, “No, I’m not. I’m obligated to do the safe thing first… I drive a train.”

Dispatcher: “It’s fine. You’re refusing, but I’m going to have to show you 'off' because you're refusing duty.”

The debate continued, with the dispatcher and the assistant manager. Even though Proudlock said he only had two hours' sleep and was unfit to drive a train, he was told to take the shift or be marked as having been off, and lose his spot in the rotation, which could lead to discipline or lost wages.

He ultimately did not take the shift.

After the situation was investigated, Transport Canada's Walter Carlson told the CP dispatch group: “Once a person says he is not fit to work, that ends that discussion," and the employee should not be forced to work.

Fearing dismissal

Looking back on the incident, Proudlock told CBC News his experience illustrates the perils of on-call systems for freight train drivers. "The train lineups in Canada are atrocious in themselves, and I'm constantly trying to manage when it is I should go to sleep so I can be rested to run that engine."

Even so, if Proudlock gets his sleep regimen wrong, and he refuses work, he could be subject to discipline.

"They'll have that formal investigation to say, why did I refuse duty," Proudlock explained. If he fails to convince them of why he booked unfit, he would be assessed demerit points.

"So if I'm assessed 60 demerits, I'm dismissed. So every move you make could be steps toward your dismissal."

Proudlock says the danger is when other engineers are so scared of losing their job that they don't declare themselves unfit. He wants to see all the science on sleep patterns incorporated into their agreements with the rail companies, to prevent bad scheduling.

"It's important to deal with that issue in a meaningful way, so that we can be out there running engines safely, so that the public can have some assurance that as we're going through their backyards at 60 miles an hour that somebody is alert and at the controls," he said, tearing up at the thought of causing a tragedy.

"Two miles of train, 15,000 tonnes — that's a lot of weight, that's a lot of kinetic energy moving through backyards."