Friday, October 28, 2011

One Night On The Rupert Rocket in 1966

The baggage wagons were pulled away from the side of the train and herded to their resting places at the west end of the Jasper station.  Their steel tired wheels clattered noisily as they crossed over the mainline and headed toward the Express and Baggage sign that hung from the large overhanging roof over the station platform.  There they would remain until just before the next passenger train was due to arrive.  Station workers, their outside work completed, disappeared into the brightly lit interior recesses.

 Rain had started falling as the last of the baggage and express was being loaded.  Pools of rainwater, growing too large to remain on the round roof of the passenger cars, released themselves from their lofty perch and cascaded down the sides of the cars and over the windows.  The passengers had settled into their seats and now waited patiently for the train to start moving.  As they watched from the large windows by their seats, rivulets of rain water spilled down like some living creature, trying to reach the ground before the Conductor called "All Aboard" and the train departed, leaving the train station for the darkness of the Rocky Mountains at night.  In the bright lights along the station platform, the cars looked like they had just emerged from the railway's paint shop and had been pressed into service with the paint still wet.

Railway employees hurried this way and that along the platform, gathering hoses to coil up and put away in hidden spaces under the platform.  They pulled carts that had, only minutes before carried supplies to the dining car, or extra blankets to the sleepers.  The men were dressed in dark coveralls and wearing dirty peaked caps that told of countless repetitions of the tasks they were performing at this moment.

Conductor Schwartz, dressed in his dark blue uniform over a crisp white shirt and black tie, came out of the station checking the time on his watch.  As he deftly dropped his trusty Hamilton 992B gold pocket watch into the little vest pocket that kept it safe until the next time he needed it, one couldn't help but notice the cluster of gold bars that were sewn onto the sleeves of his uniform jacket; one for every five years of service.

Looking to his left, he saw that his flagman, the rear end trainman was standing near the stepping box at the back of the train.  The coal oil lamp inside the train's rear marker flickered, displaying a dancing green light that reflected along the side of the sleeping car, the last car on the train.  And looking to his right, Marvin met my gaze and I nodded to him, indicating that all was well in my world...that of the baggage cars on train number nine.

Schwartz raised his arm high in the air and the flagman answered by raising his arm as well.  In one motion, and without breaking stride, Conductor Swartz bent low and grabbed the stepping box from the platform and, taking one of the coach's polished stainless steel grab irons in one of his big, tough hands, he stepped up onto the stairs leading to the platform in the vestibule at the end of the car.  After a brief word with the young head-end trainman who was also in the vestibule, he pushed open the door and stepped into the coach.  The trainman reached up for the cord that hung from a valve near the top of the vestibule and gave it a couple of short tugs.  This was answered by a couple of short blasts on the whistle, as the engineer released the brakes and cracked the throttle.  The bell began to ring from the top of the engine's cab and the sound of air being released from the coaches announced that the train was about to depart.

The brakeman released the catch on the two-part dutch door and closed, first the lower door and then the upper one.  The train was now secure and he followed his conductor into the day coach to help him collect tickets and hang destination tags above each persons seat.

Conductor Schwartz' first name was Marvin, but everyone who knew him called him "Tiger", for that was his professional name when he toured the prairie fight circuit as a pro boxer, and sometimes as a rodeo rider in the late 40's and the 50's.  Tiger still liked to ride the bulls whenever he got a chance and he was known as a scrapper among both crews and passengers alike.  Tiger and I got along quite well.

In the Winter of 1966, the Rupert Rocket was the most practical and economical method of travelling to Prince George in the interior of BC from all points east.  The train, run by the CNR from Jasper, Alberta to Prince Rupert, BC left Jasper after dinner six nights a week and arrived in “PG” in time for breakfast.  During the night, the train would stop at several regular stops, as determined by the timetable; and many more "Flag Stops" would be made at unmarked places along the way.  Wherever a green and white flag was encountered, sometimes displayed in front of a small track-side shelter, sometimes from a nearby tree branch…the train would stop to entrain passengers, pick up mail or drop off supplies to bush camps, prospectors, hunters, trappers and Natives. 

After leaving Jasper, there wasn't much to do until we arrived at Redpass Junction, about 43 miles west.  There was a tiny train order station at Lucerne near the halfway mark and the possibility of receiving train orders on the fly, or perhaps a passenger to drop off or pick up.  Since there were no private dwellings at Lucerne any more, and only the CNR train order operator who lived in the converted boxcar that was both his office and his home away from home, there was little likelihood that there would be a passenger to pick up or leave behind.

At Redpass, our train left the former Canadian Northern Pacific mainline, now...CNR mainline to Vancouver and branched off onto the former Grand Trunk Pacific mainline to Prince Rupert.  Local railroaders still called it "The Trunk".  Leaving Redpass on our descent of the hill past Mount Robson, following the headwaters of the Fraser River, we entered very dark territory.  Gone were the electric 'search light' signals of the Automatic Block Signal train detection system of the Albreda Sub.  We were now running on the Tete Jaune Sub, where switches were marked with oil-burning switch lamps that were filled and lit by section crews who patrolled and maintained the track, mostly during the daylight hours.

This was true western Canadian wilderness.  There were no lights from homes and farms, no roads or power transmission lines...nothing but dark forests and towering, snow and ice-covered mountains.  On a clear night, you might get an unobstructed view of Mount Robson from the train, reaching up nearly 13,000 feet above the sea.

The station at Tete Jaune was dark, as it was operating under new hours, being open only during the day when most of the freight trains that ran on this subdivision might be found.

Arriving at Dunster, halfway between Tete Jaune and McBride, the train slowed.  Opening the door on the side of the baggage car, I stuck my head out into the night while reaching up to find the communication cord hung somewhere above the door.  There was a green and white flag hung in its holder by the waiting room door in front of the station and a woman stepped out of the darkness and, picking up her suitcase from the platform, moved forward to the line near the edge of the platform.  Judging the right combination of speed and momentum, I pulled twice on the cord and the train stopped.

While the trainman stepped off the train and placed the stepping box on the platform, I climbed down from the open door and, taking the long wooden draw bar of the baggage wagon that stood in front of the closed up station, I pulled the first of three wagons loaded with large cans of raw milk and cream that was destined for the creamery at Prince George.

Conductor Schwartz had commandeered a couple of strong backs to help swing the heavy cans up onto the baggage car while he and I spun them into place near the end of the car.  In less than fifteen minutes, we were underway once more.

Completing a quick tally of milk and cream, I pried the lid off one of the cream cans and scooped up a cup full of the thick off-white coloured delight and set it in the middle of the table for use in our coffee.  I banged the lid back onto the can and put it with the others.

During a half hour stop in McBride, the baggage car was loaded with many more five gallon cans of un-processed milk and cream from local dairy farms, and items of baggage belonging to people who had come aboard heading for Prince George and points west.

Day coach passengers were given the opportunity to get off the train during our stop at McBride.  When the train pulled to a stop in front of the station, several got off and wandered into ‘the beanery’, a railway operated restaurant for an early breakfast. The beanery staff had a talent for getting a customer's order ready in a matter of minutes so that everyone could eat, have a cup of coffee and get back on the train without delaying the schedule.

The in-coming engineer and fireman, who had brought the train from Jasper to McBride were standing on the platform talking with the out-going head end crew.  Surely, they were discussing water and fuel levels, the way the new traction motors on the lead unit were behaving and the ditch light that had burned out as the train was leaving Redpass.  All of these matters would have been booked, or written down on CN Form 538D which lived in a sheet metal holder on the back wall of the locomotive cab, but the engine crew would still discuss their findings with the new crew before they handed over responsibility for the engine consist.

The McBride shop staff were on hand to check fuel and water levels and would check the function of the large steam generators in the car immediately behind the locomotive.  You see, the engines used on the Rupert Rocket were not the same as those used on the mainline passenger trains.  Normally, they were used in freight service and when needed on the branch lines, were coupled to a steam generator car that did nothing else but create steam, under pressure to heat the train and provide heat for the galley in the dining car.

This photo, taken by Peter Cox, of Edmonton AB is of CN train number 4 east of Vancouver.  It shows the use of two freight locomotives, the 9173, a GFA17 and a similar "B", or cabless unit.  Notice the blue car immediately behind the second striped locomotive: this is a steam generator car providing heat to the train.
This photo also demonstrates the placement of the lights on the front of the locomotive, with the dual sealed beam headlight on top and the two ditch lights, a CN innovation, on the bottom.  Thank you, Peter.

The final load of baggage rolled out of the express shed on an old green cart at the west end of the station topped with grey canvas bags marked "Royal Mail".   The station agent and his helper slid the baggage across the floor to me, then piled the mail bags on top of the already deep pile that had come from Jasper.  Wiping their hands on their trousers, they climbed down from the car and without a word, slipped inside the station, closing the door behind them.

After comparing their watches and discussing the train orders with the engineer, the conductor gave the familiar “all aboAARRd” call from the platform and lightly climbed onto the coach to check his passengers.

Once more, the familiar scene was repeated.  Station staff  retreated to their desks, the beanery staff busied themselves with cleaning up the counter top, sweeping the floor and washing up the kitchen before heading home to bed.

I finished processing the baggage, adding their tag numbers and destinations to the report that I would hand over to the station agent in Prince George.

The rain began to fall with a vengeance.  Rain drops drummed a constant and concerning roar on the roof of the baggage car as I took one last look at the station platform for anything, or anyone that might get left behind.  I closed and locked all the doors, except one.  This, I left open just a few inches for fresh air.  

 I was grateful that we had gotten our work done at McBride before the deluge began.

The head-end brakeman took one last look up and down the platform and, picking up the orange stepping-box he swung up into the vestibule.  In a series of movements, he put away the stepping box, lowered the vestibule deck into position over the steps and closed the doors.  Reaching up to the ceiling he hooked his fingers over the communicating cord connected to an air-operated signalling system and pulled it twice.  The brakes on the train were released as the locomotive’s bell began to ring and the whistle sounded twice.

With the slightest lurch, the night air came alive with the creaking and squealing sounds of draw bars, vestibule buffers and truck springs.  The train began to move, then slipped silently away from the brightly-lit station platform and into the rain soaked night.  The engine throttles were opened up and the big diesels eagerly leaned into their charges, speeding away to the next stop.

In the baggage car, the coal stove was burning hot and the over-filled kettle began to hiss and spit as water escaped from the spout, landing on the hot cast iron stove top as the train rolled along the track.
Running a bit late due to several slow orders that were in place due to soft track conditions between Tete Jaune and McBride, locomotive engineer ‘Pappy’ Howard worked the throttle and the air brakes in an effort to make up a few minutes on the schedule.  I listened to the  staccato rumble of the diesel engines that echoed off the mountains and trees.  The wheels and the rail joints created that clickety-clack that everyone loves to remember, and mixed with the engine sounds was music that entered my baggage car through the partially opened sliding door.  I shovelled a scoop or two of coal into the pot-bellied stove that stood beside the painted steel desk that was fixed to the wall, midway along the length of the baggage car.  On the desk lay baggage reports and Express Department documents that I would have to edit into reports-in-triplicate that would be sent by OCS Mail (On Company Service) to offices in Vancouver, Edmonton and Montreal.   Hanging on a length of heavy wire hung a flat steel key of about three inches in length which unlocked the heavy steel safe sitting on the floor beside the upright desk I called my office.  Much of the time, the safe wasn’t locked, as there wasn’t much need to lock it.  Occasionally though, certain items would be loaded onto the head-end cars at Jasper or Prince George that were accompanied by a “Value Receipt” which the baggageman (me) signed for in the presence of the Express Agent.  The ‘item’ mentioned above might be an envelope, or it might be a package containing something of value like jewelry, bullion or cash. 

On this particular trip, we were carrying several oblong shaped bundles that were approximately 14” long by 8” wide by 6” high.  These were wrapped in heavy brown waxy paper which was neatly folded at the ends and where the folds met, there was a dollop of heavy, hardened red wax that had been imprinted with a stamp of some sort.

Each of the bundles had a 3 by 5 form taped to it with rather obscure hand-written code that consisted of letters and numbers.  The form also had a clearly defined number of 6 or 7 digits, as I recall that identified the package as one that I had signed for on a sheet that the Express Agent brought for that purpose.

Most of the bundles were all locked safely inside the heavy safe and the key was hanging from a hook above the desk.  However, the steel strong box wasn't large enough to hold all of the shipment, so some of it was had been stuffed into compartments above my desk that we called pigeon holes.  These were open compartments and were never meant to protect high value shipments.  When I brought my concerns to local railway authorities in Jasper, I was told to keep all the doors locked and not leave the car unattended.  

While they weren't identified as such, it was reasonable to assume that these packages contained paper currency, as there was reference made on the way bills to a Canadian Bank in Edmonton and another branch in one of the small towns on "The Trunk" in north western BC.   Out of curiosity, I added up the total value as stated on the waybills and came up with a figure in excess of half a million dollars!  Not that much by 2011 standards, but in 1966, when a 12 hour day's pay on the railroad was less than $25.00, the contents of those packages represented a large fortune!

Pappy blew the whistle signal 14(l), two long, one short and one long... just as I placed the cast iron lid back on the stove.  I tossed the scoop shovel into the coal bin and dropped the metal lid into place. Wiping my hands on a paper towel, I unlatched the big sliding steel door and leaned into it, pulling it open a few feet.  Cool, damp air rushed into the warm car and rain water that had been running down the outside of the door's window, now rode the swirling puffs of night air and settled on the polished steel floor in the doorway.  Taking a firm grip on the grab iron that was bolted to the wall near the edge of the opening, I squeezed my eyelids closer together and poked my head outside.  Looking forward, I could see the track and trees ahead of the engine as the scene was illuminated by the engine's headlight and ditch lights.  Everything behind the leading end of the engine lay in darkness, save for the soft yellow light that originated from a grime covered light bulb under the skirt of the engine that lit up the leading truck and the ground beside it.

Brakemen depend on this light to lead them to the hand rails and foot rests on the ladder when en-training or de-training in the dark of night.  When attempting to "lift" a heavy train from a stopped position, engineers would roll down the window and lean out, resting an elbow on the padded window ledge and, releasing the brakes and cracking the throttle with their left hand and pushing the "manual sanding" lever over into the forward position with their right, they would watch the illuminated ground beside the engine for an accurate indication of their forward movement.  Sometimes, if this operation was not carried out successfully, the train could roll backward, even with the throttle open in forward operation.  This could force the engineer to reverse the engine and back into the train while setting the brakes.  The object of this maneuver is to bunch the slack while the train is stopping.

The engineer will then return the engine to 'forward' position and begin to work the throttle once again.  When he sees that the load indicator is showing two or three hundred amperes of DC power being delivered to the traction motors on the axles, he will release the train and engine brakes and once again, watch the ground below his window.  With his left hand, he will work the throttle back and forth, exercising care that not too much, nor too little power is being delivered to the traction motors.  Too much, and the wheels will slip and the engine will lunge forward with the potential to tear the train in two.  Too little and the train will once again begin to move in reverse, resulting in the whole procedure to be repeated.  As the brakes release, the engine picks them up, one or two at a time while the brakes are still applied at the rear of the train holding it in place.  

Squeezing my eyelids closed to force the rain water from my eyes, I could see the engine leaning into a right hand curve as the track followed the course of the river.  The bright headlights, boring a hole into the cold, wet night illuminated the open end of a tunnel that allowed trains to pass beneath the steep mountain-side ahead.  I pulled my head inside the car and reached for another paper towel to wipe the rain from my face. 

While the rules called for the whistle to be blown approaching tunnels, curves, bridges, railway crossings at grade and other places as may be determined by the railway, it was a bit unusual for Pappy to blow the whistle for the tunnel this late at night and in such bad weather.  My curiosity was up.

As I wiped the rain-water from my eyes, I heard the train brakes go into emergency!  The baggage car began to surge back and forth.  As the train’s speed dropped quickly, the leading end of the car was raised up a few inches and began to tilt toward the river.  I abandoned any thought of pulling the door closed, and dove headlong into a large pile of Royal Mail sacks that had been neatly stacked on the floor near the end of the car.  Frantically pulling as many bags as I could reach on top of myself,  I huddled in a tight fetal position and took a deep breath.  I wondered if the train would stop moving in time to avoid a cold swim in the river.

Amid the sound of screeching brakes, grinding metal and surging train cars, all movement finally came to a stop.  The baggage car settled with only a slight list toward the rain-swollen river.

After waiting a moment anticipating an after-shock of some unknown origin, I threw off the mail sacks that had covered me and re-opened the side door, which had rolled to a close during the excitement.  I looked toward the engine to try to determine what we had hit and saw the two locomotives standing upright along with the steam generator car immediately behind it.   The Express car, which contained  high-value shipments and which was immediately behind the steam generator car was upright as well.  My baggage car was next in line. 

I was unable to determine whether the baggage car was derailed or not, because it was standing in mud, rocks and broken tree parts.   Looking toward the rear of the train, I saw that half of the baggage car was still inside the west end of the tunnel.  

The door at the end of the car closest to the coaches opened with a loud bang and the conductor came striding in.  Marvin “Tiger” Schwartz was well seasoned as a passenger conductor and had seen just about everything that the railroad or Mother Nature could throw at him.  When it comes to train mishaps, this one was of the "not too serious kind", but neither was he flashing his usual broad smile.

Sliding open the door closest to the mountainside, Tiger took a look around outside.  He said we were going to need help to get out of there and asked me if I had checked the tool locker before we left Jasper.  “Of course”, I lied;  I could tell by the look that he gave that he knew I was lying.  It didn't matter, though.  One shovel and a pry bar was not going to get us out of this mess.  We were going to need a gang of men, each with a sturdy hand tool.

I knew that there was a shipment of hand tools including shovels, picks, axes, bars and others in the express car.  These had been consigned to Ben Ginter Construction of Prince George and were en-route to one of his  construction sites near Prince George.  I mentioned this to Tiger and he brightened right up with “Hell yeah”, “And I've got about twenty of his men sleeping in the day coach!”  He told me to go back to the coaches and conscript every able-bodied man I could find, while he made his way up to the engine to find out how Pappy and the fireman were doing.  While he was on the engine, he said he’d call the dispatcher and get permission to put Mr. Ginter’s men to work, putting them on the company payroll. 

I returned to the baggage car with every man from the coaches.  Not a single man chose to remain behind.  They all volunteered!  Tiger had spoken with the fireman who had come back to find out how the train had fared in the collision with the slide.  The fireman told him that the dispatcher in Prince George had been notified of our situation and arrangements were being made to help us, if required.  Tiger decided that we would try to extricate ourselves and, failing that, we would call for help. It would take at least four or five hours to get help to us, even if an "ASAP" call was initiated at Prince George.  Wrecking crews, train and engine crews, laborers, bulldozer and operator, front end loader and operator ... all take time.  Besides, we were about 130 miles from Prince George and the running time alone would eat up four hours. was a good decision on Tiger's part.  We would see what we could do with what we had.

It was Tiger’s intention to put a shovel or a pick into the hands of every man on the train.   His instructions to me were to coordinate the distribution of the tools and keep the fire hot to make coffee for the workers.   Tiger and I got along pretty well.  Tiger Swartz looked out for his brakemen.

After a couple of hours of non-stop digging and shoveling, rolling rocks away and pulling roots and large branches from the mud, they had cleared away all of the debris under the baggage and express cars, righted the baggage car and cleared all of the mud and debris from the train’s running gear and brake rigging.  The locomotives and the steam generator car got a good once-over and the decision was made to attempt to move the train ahead, while our conscripted "volunteers" stood alongside, watching for anything that might be a hazard to the train.  The "All Clear" was finally given, and with no remaining threat to the train or engine, we pulled away from the site of the slide at restricted speed. 

Once underway again, I dug through a mountain of luggage that had once been stacked and organized so meticulously so that the workers could find clean clothes to change into.  It was a madhouse in there for over an hour while men stripped, wiped themselves down with paper towels from the coaches and linen that Tiger commandeered from the sleeping cars. 

While the men were cleaning up and putting their luggage back into orderly piles inside the baggage car, I continued to make lots of "baggage car coffee" having borrowed coffee pots, water and cups from the galley in the dining car.  I put out sugar cubes that someone brought up from the diner and I pried off the lid of a three gallon can of heavy cream that had been loaded onto the car by a dairy farmer in McBride, destined for the Prince George Dairy.  The cream was marvelously rich, being the consistency of ice cream.

Once into fresh clothes, we hung out in the baggage car, drank hot coffee and talked about the great recovery effort we had all taken part in.

By the time I bunged the top back onto the cream can, we had depleted the contents by about a third!  It was so good that someone even spread a heaping tablespoonful onto slices bread that he had toasted on the top of the coal stove.  Needless to say, every slice of bread in the bag was toasted and creamed in short order.

When the train finally rolled into Prince George, it was met by the usual station staff, express and baggage handlers and others.  Apparently, when it was learned that some passengers had been allowed to work in and around the baggage and express cars, CN's security people had been notified.  I had been busy inside the baggage car, transferring my duties to Prince George station staff when Tiger came in and asked me to stay inside the car until CN had finished checking the train.  When I asked him what that was all about, he just repeated his instructions that I stay inside the car and not allow anything to be removed.  Well, it was already too late for that!  The baggage wagons had already been towed away from the train and taken inside the station.  One or two wagons had been unloaded from the express car and were standing on the platform, waiting for someone to move them into the express shed.  

After several minutes had passed, Tiger entered the car with a man who was dressed in a suit.  Tiger asked me to give the man my 'grip'.  I did, and he looked through it and handed it back to me.  I asked Tiger what was going on, but he didn't answer me.

We walked across the yard to the bunkhouse for a shower, then we turned in for some very much needed sleep.

On our return to the station for a late night departure on train number ten, we learned why there had been such interest in the contents of the express car and…..the safe…!

Tiger explained to me that there had been a large shipment of cash in the safe, packed $50,000.00 to the bundle and wrapped in heavy waxed paper, with a hard wax, red seal on it.  When CN checked the ‘valuables’ on arrival at Prince George, one or more of those bundles were deemed to be missing.!!

He later learned that police dogs had located the money hidden under the tracks inside the tunnel within 100 feet of the site of our derailment.  All train crew members must have been cleared of any suspicion, because we never heard another word about the theft, and we never learned who had taken the money from the train, or how they had done it.  It would have been easy enough, I suppose.  There was a lot of excitement on that train following the striking of the mud slide.  Several people had been moving about, in and out of the baggage car...and, in the excitement of the moment, I completely forgot about the brown-paper covered bundles that were stuffed into the safe and the open pigeon holes.

Friday, October 21, 2011

A Rock On The Track, Or Not!

From 1995 to 2000, I worked as an engineer on CN's Okanagan Division between Kamloops and Kelowna, both in B.C., with headquarters in Vernon.  The majority of the assignments were day jobs that started and ended in Vernon, and the rail traffic that was collected in the Okanagan was hauled to Kamloops by the only night job which left Vernon just past the supper hour.  Arriving in Kamloops after midnight, the same crew would make up their southbound train and leave for Vernon, hopefully arriving there within 12 hours of going on duty in Vernon the evening prior.  As often as not, one of the day jobs would have to climb into a vehicle and head out into the hills to find "the south" and bring it into town.  More on that another time.

This story is about one of the trips I made as the hogger on 455 and 454, Vernon to Kamloops and return.

There was nothing unusual or outstanding about this trip.  A warm night, late in the summer; the weather was good and our train was all made up on the main line with power on and air test completed.

We had our paperwork in hand and climbed aboard the lead locomotive of three SD40-2's that would take us to Kamloops and back home again.  When the SBU on the last car announced that the entire train was moving, I announced on the CPRail radio channel that we were entering CP territory and would be travelling northward from Vernon to Armstrong.  This was a requirement when making a movement on "joint track" where two or more railroads share running rights on each other's tracks.  With fifty or more cars in tow, we made our way slowly over CP's rather rather poorly maintained railroad.  After stopping at Larkin siding to pick up forty cars of forest products that one of the day shift jobs had collected at the mill, we advanced a few more miles to Armstrong where we re-joined CN's Okanagan subdivision.  From Armstrong to Campbell Creek we were the only train on the road.  All we had to contend with were the steep grades, the last one was from Monte Lake, descending 1240 feet to the CPR mainline at Campbell Creek; a distance of sixteen miles.

This hill, at least by CN standards was quite steep at 2% for much of its run and seldom less than 1.5% and was limited to a maximum of 25 miles per hour.   There is a tight horse shoe curve in the middle of it that is restricted to 15 miles per  hour.

There is a bit of mathematics and good ol' seat of your pants running involved in what comes next.  In train air brakes, the braking system is charged up to approximately 90 pounds per square inch.  This keeps the brakes in "released" position until needed.  When I want to apply brakes to the train, I reduce the air pressure in the brake pipe system and the brakes will be applied to the wheels throughout the train.  The degree to which the brakes are applied is dependent upon the amount of air I take out of the system.  For example, a 'minimum' brake application is obtained by reducing the brake pipe pressure by 6 to 8 pounds per square inch.  A minimum brake application really doesn't have much effect on speed reduction; rather, it serves to stabilize the slack that abounds in a long train.  With the slack under control, the engineer can then apply the brakes a little heavier without so much risk of damage to cars and lading.  The use of "power", or throttle during a brake application and/or release can affect the train's handling and stopping distances.

I mentioned "mathematics" in the paragraph above, and I think that it needs to be explained before we go on.
Through an extensive process of trial and error, locomotive engineers have developed operating practices that dictate certain parameters which enable safe handling of trains on grades, and in many other situations.  These operating practices are not dissimilar to the way we drive our cars on the roads and highways.  When you're travelling on a city street at 50 kilometers per hour (30 mph +/-) and the traffic light ahead of you changes from green, to yellow and then to have to begin a process that's not unlike that of an engineer.  Your right foot (in North America) moves from the accelerator pedal to the brake pedal where you apply a small amount of pressure.  This begins to slow the vehicle down and you "read" the rate of decline in speed with a view to stopping at a predetermined spot that hopefully, lies before the red light and not beyond it.  If you find that you've applied too much pressure on the brake pedal and will stop before you wanted to, you can then reduce the amount of pressure on the pedal.  Using the brake and accelerator (throttle) in this fashion, you'll bring the vehicle to a safe stop in exactly the spot you had planned for.

Engineers handle their trains in much the same way as you handle your car, except for a couple of points.  In many cases, the starting point at which the braking process must begin is critical.  But it's not just knowing where the 'tipping point' is; there are other factors that must be taken into account such as the length of the train, the train's weight, the number of loads versus the number of empties, the presence of snow on the ground, the depth of the snow, when was the last time you used the brakes and the number of cars you have on the train that are running with the brakes having been "cut out" due to mechanical problems.  As well, the engineer should have a fully charged brake pipe before beginning the descent to the bottom of the hill.  If you've used the brakes within fifteen to twenty minutes prior to beginning the run down the hill, you will have less braking capacity to call on when  you need it.  Also, if there is snow on the ground, and the snow is either blowing and drifting, or is standing deep above the rail head, it's a pretty good bet that snow has built up between the brake shoes and the wheel treads.  This factor, among all others can present the greatest threat to the crew because, when the brakes are applied the snow gets jammed inside the retarding surfaces and becomes a thin layer of ice!  Now, faced with a very serious dilemma, the engineer slams the brake valve hard over into "the big hole", putting all of the train's brakes into emergency.  This does not reduce or eliminate the ice that has formed between the brake shoes and the wheels, but compresses it further, making it even more dense.  In time, the ice will melt, and the brakes will come on, but by then, it's usually too late.  The train, which until then was under control,  is now a runaway and the crew will either jump off if they feel they can survive the plunge, or will ride it out and hope for the best.

Not to be-labour the point, but in keeping with CN's practice, none of the locomotives in our consist were equipped with dynamic brakes.  We would have to rely on train and engine air brakes to bring us down the hill to a stop, just clear of the CP mainline at Campbell Creek.

Not to worry, I had made a few trips on this run and was getting the hang of it.  The conductors were no longer riding with one hand on the emergency valve in front of their seat, but they didn't allow themselves to fall asleep, either.

With the speedometer holding at  23 mph, the engine passed mile post 28.  This was the time to set the brakes for the run down the hill. I drew seven or eight pounds of air from the 'equalizing reservoir' in the locomotive's brake valve.  The movement of the piston in the equalizing reservoir, in turn allowed air to escape from the brake pipe, causing the brakes to begin to apply in each car in the train.  The sound of rushing air filled the cab as the brake pipe pressure was reduced.  The brake pipe pressure gauge on the control stand dropped accordingly.  Pressing the engine brake handle down, I bailed off the pressure in the locomotives brake cylinders so that there would be no brakes applied on the engine.  I reduced the throttle a bit and watched the speedometer.  At the same time, the load meter on the control panel showed a drop in amperage in the traction motors that are hung on each driving axle and the big diesel engine behind the cab reduced it's rpm's accordingly.

As more of the train followed the engine past the 'tipping point' at the crest of the hill, our speed began to increase slightly.  At 30 mph, I took another couple of pounds of air from the brake pipe and reduced the throttle one more notch.  Out of a total of eight throttle positions, or notches, I had used up two of them.
Working power and air, I got the train settled in at a comfortable 27 miles an hour...just two miles an hour over the speed limit.  Now, less than a mile from the beginning of the 15 mile per hour slow order on the horse shoe curve, I begin to reduce the power, one notch at a time.  I watched the speedometer for the beginning of a drop in speed  that would bring us to somewhere near the 15 mile an hour requirement on the sharp curve.  The speed was dropping, but not enough, so I shut the throttle off and began to add engine brake, five pounds at a time.  Because of the curvature of the track in this area, I didn't want to put too much engine brake on, because it would cause the slack to run in.  The slack, which must be kept under control at all times, had been kept stretched out by using train brakes against locomotive power during our descent.

If the slack ran 'in' too hard, it could cause sufficient thrust against the rails in the curve to force the rails to roll over causing a derailment.  If the slack ran 'out', it could cause the train to break apart.  Fortunately, ten to fifteen pounds on the independent (engine) brake was enough and the train slowed to 15 just as the engine entered the curve.  I carefully released the engine brake and began to add power, carefully stretching the slack and pulling the train through the curve.

Soon, we were back up to 25 miles an hour and drifting toward the bottom of the hill with the throttle in the fourth notch.

In the last few hundred yards of the hill, the grade eases to less than 1%.  In order to stop the train, all I had to do was reduce the throttle to idle and the train would come to a nice stop, with the slack stretched.

There was a busy road crossing about 3/4 of a mile from the CPR mainline crossover switches, and I had to stop the train at the crossing where we were met by a taxi that would take the conductor to the switches.

By the time the train stopped at the bottom of the hill, the conductor had already obtained a CPR clearance and copies of any pertinent train orders and bulletins that might be in effect.  Once the taxi delivered him to the  switches,  he lined all the cross-overs and gave me a big proceed signal with his lantern.  When I released the brakes, the train began to roll ahead.  I held the speed in check, using the engine brake to gather the slack while the fully loaded train pushed from behind.  As the slack was being collected, the train was gaining momentum.  When the speed reached 15 miles per hour, I made 12 pound brake reduction to keep the trains' speed at that speed while we navigated the switches and crossovers from the Okanagan sub across the eastbound main line and onto the westbound  mainline.

After the entire train had cleared the crossovers, I stopped the head-end at a small private crossing, about two miles along on the westbound mainline.  The conductor soon arrived in the taxi, and climbed aboard once again for the run to the city of Kamloops where we will leave CP tracks and re-enter CN tracks for the run out to Kamloops Jct. where the Okanagan sub meets the Ashcroft sub and the Clearwater sub.  Yarding the train in a clear alley, we "change ends" on the locomotive consist.  We'll be taking the same power back to Vernon, so we'll be operating from the opposite end on the return trip.

We back the engine onto the southbound train and cut in the air.  While we're waiting for the Carmen to finish servicing the VIA train that's standing on the main in front of the station, we walk over to the yard office for a cup of coffee and a chat with whoever might be hanging around.

A couple of hours later, we were back on CN track, grinding slowly up the hill from Campbell Creek to Monte Lake.  I don't recall how many cars we were bringing back to Vernon, but the total tonnage was close to the maximum for those three locomotives.  We were down to 6 or 8 miles an hour and I was riding the manual sanders button to keep the wheels from slipping.  One wheel slip could cause the train to come to a very quick stop and we'd have to take our train up the hill in two separate runs.

The conductor and I turned on the cab lights, he to read the Vancouver Sun, and me to try to finish a book I was enjoying.  If all went well, we would be climbing the hill for the better part of two hours.

At one point in the climb, we crept along a steep rock face of basalt.  It was a stable formation, so I wasn't concerned about falling rock, but out of natural caution, I took my eyes from my book and looked at the track ahead.  And there, right on top of the rail in front of me was a rock the size of a mandarin orange.  I mentioned it to the conductor and he took a quick look at it and returned to his newspaper.  Jokingly, I suggested that we stop and remove it from the track.  He smiled and said that I should keep my eye on it because it would probably just hop off the rail to avoid being run over.

Illuminated by the very bright lights on the front of the locomotive, the "rock" that was sitting on the rail began to move!!!    When we were within 20 feet from it, the "rock" turned and looked at us.  It was a small bird and it wasn't making any attempt to leave.  Concerned for its safety, I flipped the ditch lights on and off.  It didn't fly away.  Instead, it shuffled a little closer to the edge of the rail.  Reaching for the air horn handle, I gave a short blast on the whistle.  It seemed to be un-phased, and peered over the edge of the rail toward the gravel ballast under the track.

Then, just as it seemed inevitable that the bird would be crushed flat beneath the steel wheels under the locomotive, a small mouse bolted from beneath the rail ... and the bird leaped from the track and pounced on the mouse, lifting it off the ground and flying away with it.

I had just seen my first Northern Pygmy Owl!

This photograph has been provided by Andy Cassidy who lives in the Vancouver Area.  Andy caught this Northern Pygmy Owl feeding at.... yes, his backyard bird feeder!!!  And it wasn't there for the seeds.

The conductor said that the little fellow is often out there sitting on a rail, waiting for the train to come along.  The noise, bright lights and ground-shaking vibration caused by the big locomotives clawing their way up the mountain, causes the prey to panic, break and run for it. The little owl was waiting for this moment and capitalized on it.   The rodent and the owl disappeared into the darkness beside the engine.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Bravery and Courage Defined - Part Two

Karen, the young lady I spoke of in my last post was going out with us for her first trip as a student engineer. I expected to be called for an eastbound freight to Boston Bar, but when the call came, it was to deadhead by bus to Boston Bar.

Once we had our bus tickets in hand, a taxi was ordered to deliver us to the Greyhound Bus depot in Sapperton.  The ride to the Bar was long and tedious, with the bus taking the most circuitous route through every major center in the Fraser Valley.  Eventually, we stopped in Hope for a twenty minute break and then back onto the bus for the last forty miles through the canyon.

Getting off the bus at Cog's Hotel in Boston Bar, we walked down to the bunkhouse and went inside.  The train crew went to the station to find out what we were lined up for and how long our layover might be.   I showed Karen how to book a private room and where to find the kitchen and washrooms.  She was a bit disconcerted to discover that the company had made no alterations for female employees who would have to use the facilities in the bunkhouse.  It had been a male-dominated occupation since the first rails and ties had been laid here ca. 1913.  For Karen....this was going to be a problem.  For CN, it was going to be a major headache.

When we arrived at the station,the operator was preparing the orders for the train we would take back to the coast.  There was a westbound train sitting in track three, the only train in the yard.  I glanced at the train lineup hanging on a nail near the train register and saw that other than the train in track three, the next westbound freight would not arrive in The Bar for at least eight or nine hours.  It became obvious that there would be no room for bargaining with the Chief Dispatcher for a better train.   This was the only one available and it was something special; it was one hundred and twelve cars of Northern Alberta sulphur, loaded in thirty year old open-top three bay hoppers.  Westbound sulphur was shipped in unit trains carrying the designation "U883 and U897".   "U882 and U896" moved the empty sulphur trains eastward.  These unit trains were among the ugliest trains on the road.  They were sloppy, with lots of slack between each car.  One hundred cars could develop as much as sixty five feet of slack between the engine and the caboose. These trains were very heavy and required a lot of care and skill to get them up to track speed.  Getting them stopped required a lot of clear track ahead.

As well, CN didn't believe in dynamic brakes.  The majority of their locomotives were ordered without DB and many that were delivered with DB were stripped of the appliance early in their operating lives.  Dynamic brake is a combination of mechanical and electrical components that can change the traction motors into generators.  This creates a retarding force that is dissipated through large grids, similar to a kitchen toaster.  The heat that's generated in these grids is blown off into the atmosphere by fans in the body of the locomotive.  It's possible to not only control a trains speed, but in some cases, to bring a large, heavy train almost to a stop.  DB is generally used in conjunction with normal air brakes to control train speed, especially in mountainous territory.

There were two fifteen year old SD40's idling on the shop track.  Their paint was faded and worn.  And lube oil,  pushed from the exhaust stacks was left to run down the sides of the body and onto the walkways.

When the head-end man arrived on the shop track, Karen and I had already completed our shop track brake test.  As expected, our motive power for the day was not equipped with dynamic brakes.

After we had received verbal permission from the dispatcher to enter the main track, I motioned for Karen to take the seat on the right hand side...the engineer's seat.  She resisted, saying that she didn't want to make a mistake and get me into trouble.  I insisted, saying that I did not intend to let her do anything that might result in me being fired of killed; she sat down at the throttle.

We brought the engine out of the shop tracks and onto the main line.  Soon we were backing our engine onto track three.

With the engine coupled on and the air cut in to charge up the brake pipe for the brake test on the train.  The conductor called for Karen to set the brakes to begin the compulsory air brake test that was to be carried out whenever an engine was changed.  When Karen began to move the brake handle into the application zone, a rush of air exhausted into the cab.  Then the train brakes went into 'Emergency'!   Karen's hand shot from the valve handle and she looked at me in astonishment.  "It's OK", I said.  "We probably have a 'kicker' on the train."

 A kicker is a hidden problem within the brake system that causes the brakes to behave badly.  Generally, it can be traced to a sticking brake piston that can let go suddenly, causing the brakes to be applied in emergency.   Operating practice stipulate that when a 'kicker' occurs on a train, the crew is to locate the offending car and 'cut out' the brakes on that car, thus by-passing the problem and leaving the train with one less operating brake.  On sulphur trains, our experience was that one could spend hours chasing kickers around on a train until more than fifteen percent of the brakes had been cut out...only to find another kicker.

Oh, Lord how we hated those trains!  Most of us would like the CPR to be the successful bidder on the next sulphur contract!

The conductor called and asked me if I wanted to start looking for the kicker.  I thought about it for a moment and, weighing our options, made a decision.  "No", I said. "I'm willing to take 'er as she is, if you're willing to follow me".  "OK", he said.  "We've always got 'Emergency' in case we need to stop".

I called the dispatcher, whom I had known for some time and told him what we were dealing with.  He asked me if we wanted to leave the train in the yard and try to find the kicker and I told him we'd decided to take the train ... with his assistance.  I asked him to put every train that we might meet on the road into the siding far enough in advance of our arrival at the meeting place that we wouldn't have to touch the brake valve.  If we had to apply the brakes, they would go into emergency and likely would result in a train that was standing in several pieces on the mainline.  He said he would be happy to oblige us.

The dwarf signal at the west end of the yard turned from red to green and the conductor called to say that they were onboard and buckled up.

Karen released the engine brake and cracked the throttle.  The slack, which had been all bunched when the train was brought into the yard off the Ashcroft sub began to stretch and we could count the cars as they started their forward march into the canyon.

Above, is a profile of a bit of CPR track in the Okanagan Valley in BC.  Each solid vertical line represents one mile of track.  The straight horizontal line depicts sidings, yards and back tracks or storage tracks.  The wavy line with the multitude of numbers above and below it demonstrates the grades; the numbers show degrees of rise and fall from horizontal.  The other wavy line closer to the top of the image shows the curvature with attached numbers outlining the degree of curve.

As Karen had never been over this subdivision prior to today, and CN had never issued track profiles to any of its operating crews, we had to rely on my personal knowledge of the subdivision.  Trains will slow down when they go uphill and speed up when they go down hill.  Curvature will also slow a train and I explained to Karen that an engineer must always be thinking 'three miles ahead' of the train's current location.  In this way, we can use track-train dynamics to help get you over the road.  When you have a train such as this, you have to remember that when one end of your train is going uphill, the other end can be going downhill, depending on the track profile.  This means that, in order to get over the road safely, and arrive with the train in one piece, she would have to not only be thinking ahead of the train, but also where every car is and what surface conditions it is responding to.  If we had working dynamic brakes and/or working train air brakes, the job wouldn't be nearly as intense as it was going to be today.  I told her that if she could handle this.....she could handle anything.  And I meant it.

She settled right in and remained focused.  Listening attentively to the instructions I gave her, coupled with the reasons I was giving the instructions, she watched as the train responded to her slight increases or decreases in throttle, engine brake, and use of curvature and grade.

In the first fifteen miles, she had nursed that beast over Anderson Creek Bridge and through Hicks.  She crept around the curve at mile 4.9 where a locomotive could be seen lying in the rapids from a train wreck in the 60's, and eased past Hell's Gate.  Then she gently began to ease off on the engine brake and open the throttle; gently at first ... pulling out the slack just like she had done when we lifted the train out of the yard at The Bar. When she had counted as many 'bumps' in the train of slack as she could, she began to work on the throttle even harder.  The conductor called, saying that the train was now all stretched out.  This helped us a lot, because we were now on the hill and needed to get as much power working as we had available.

With the throttle wide open in the eighth notch, all 13000 tons of train were hanging on the end of the engine, held there by a ninety pound chunk of steel called a 'knuckle'.  (quote not mine)

Photo credit Michael Da Costa via

With the diesels howling, the engine dug in, pulling the train through tunnels, along narrow ledges high above the angry brown water surging through the narrowest part of the lower Fraser canyon, beneath rocky overhangs and alongside rock slide warning fences that stood as silent sentinels against the enemy above....falling rocks.  The drawbars that connected each car to the one on either end of it groaned and creaked.  Wheels squealed against rails and the ties beneath us could be heard emitting sounds much like that of wood cracking under the weight of the train.

At twelve miles per hour, we crested the hill at Komo and began to reduce the throttle as the white mile board on the telephone pole near the track came into view.  Mile 11, just another one hundred and two miles to go.

Click on the "Komo" link above and you'll arrive at Google Maps/Terrain view.  Click on "Satellite" and zoom in close.  Follow the railway track to the right of the river and you'll find Komo.  There's a unit train going through Komo...!

As the engine passed the west switch at Komo, our speed began to increase.  Karen asked me for instruction, so I suggested that she think about what was happening as opposed to what she 'wanted' to happen.  Her next question was, "What does the track profile look like from here?"  I tried not to smile, because that was exactly what she needed to know so that she could decide what to do next.  Once I told her about the downward grade from here to mile 21, a distance of ten miles, she said she thought she should reduce throttle until the train speed leveled out at about 20 miles per hour.  Right!!!!  As train speed slowly crept past 20, she began to apply a little engine brake.  As brake pressure built up at the head end, the loaded cars coming behind began to bunch up against the engine....bump, bump, bump.  We counted up to 25 or 30, then one large "push" as the rest of the train ran in on the engine.  The conductor called to say that we had the whole train bunched up.  I was glad to see that he was paying close attention to what the train was doing.  He made it a lot easier and safer to control the speed and momentum by telling us what was happening at the tail end.

The CTC signals at Stout were green, or "clear" and so too was the signal to Yale.  As we emerged from the tunnel at the east (north) end of Yale, we saw an eastbound freight in the 'hole', or siding waiting for us.  He had been there for over half an hour and wasn't happy that he'd been held there and not taken to Stout for a meet on us.  As our engine went over the switch, their head-end brakeman got off their engine and crossed over to the far side of the track to inspect our train as we passed by.

We exchanged the obligatory waves accompanied by a short toot on the horn, or a 'ding' or two on the bell, and we were continued on our way as the dwarf signal turned green and their train began to move ahead.

When our caboose had passed theirs, there were calls on the radio..."OK on the PK at Yale, extra west" and, "You're looking good on the south side, extra east".

We had come through fifteen tunnels and as many slide detector fences in the first 35 miles, and with that out of the way, we could carry on without being concerned about rocks falling on the track in front of us.

Leaving Yale, the canyon opens up a bit and the track speed increases in the timetable and the trackside speed signs.  We can now bring 'er up to 40 miles per hour and let 'er roll.  Soon, we'll be past Hope and into 50 mile per hour territory.  But we won't be going that fast, and it's not because the engine won't pull us that fast; it's all about being able to control our stopping distance should we need to come to a controlled stop.

At Hope, we came to our first level crossing.  There would be lots of them from here all the way to Westlang, a few miles outside of Port Mann.  The whistle was blown long and loud and the bell was rung to add a second level of warning to motorists.

A couple of hours and a couple more eastbounds and we were drifting toward the yard limit board at Port Mann.  With the throttle at IDLE, our speed was steadily dropping.   I called the CN control tower and asked if there was anyone in the vicinity of the east yard lead who might be able to line the switches in advance of our arrival, as we were coming in with a crippled train and couldn't risk using the brakes and breaking in two.

When we arrived, a Trainmaster had driven up to the east yard lead and had us lined into our designated track.  With the train tucked away in between switches, the brakeman reached in between the engine and the first car and, turning the angle cock, shut off the air supply to the train.  Karen pulled the engine ahead slowly and we heard the loud 'whoosh', as the air that had been bottled up inside the mile and a half long brake pipe since we left Boston Bar was finally allowed to be free.

After placing the locomotives on the shop track at Port Mann, we met in the booking-in room.  We congratulated Karen for a job well done.  On her first trip as a student locomotive engineer, she had done something that no other my knowledge had ever done...or would ever consider possible.  She had brought a Unit Train of Sulphur....U897 from Boston Bar to Port Mann, a distance of 113 miles without once touching the air brakes.

 I tip my hat to her for displaying both bravery and they are indeed, different from one another.  Bravery for conquering her fear of taking THAT train out of Boston Bar on her first day on the job, with only the engine brake and emergency brake at her disposal...and, courage for facing the wall that was, and still is... that of a pioneering "sister" entering the world of the "brother-hood".

Karen, wherever you are......'Well Done'.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Bravery and Courage Defined

Only those who have actually worked on trains can have a real sense of the dangers that might be encountered on the job.  Those same people know the measure of their own courage.  I've known railroaders who have been involved in derailments, large and small.  Some have slammed into large snow slides, rock slides or have ridden their charges over washouts where the rails were hanging in the air.  There have been head-on collisions, rear-end collisions, collisions with vehicles at level crossings, rollovers and engines that have gone over the side into the river or lake.  Not everyone survives the particular incidents that they have the misfortune to partake in; and not everyone will sustain injuries.  In thirty six years of railroading, I have experienced a number of occasions in which my adrenalin levels were elevated by the sudden appearance of the possibility of my death....or that of someone close to me.

Photo credit Peter Cox.  CN train hits rock slide at Boothroyd on Ashcroft Sub in Fraser Canyon. 

In the lives of railroaders, miners, loggers and fishermen there is an expectation of danger; an acceptance of the risk of injury or death.  Men, for the most part accept the risk as a fair exchange for the adventure, hardship and financial rewards offered by the occupation they choose.  Women, on the other hand prefer not to take risks and expose themselves to unnecessary dangers.

Let me tell you a story of exemplary courage and bravery of a different sort.

In 1972, CN was facing critical manpower shortages, especially in engine service.  They had all but run out of locomotive firemen from which they could draw to fill the locomotive engineers' ranks.  Engineers were 'doubling the road', meaning they were making a complete round trip, from home terminal to away from home terminal (average 18 to 24 hours) and, on arrival back at their home terminal, would accept another call to double back, or double through on the same train.  In many cases, the dispatcher would call the engineer when he was only halfway over the subdivision on his return trip to ask him if he'd take a call to double through.  This practice might mean that the engineer would make the equivalent of a weeks pay with little or no rest in less than three days.

Again, in 1972, CN sent emissaries to Eastern Canada in an effort to recruit engineers for the Western Region with limited success.  The decision was made to create a locomotive engineer training facility and the unused ex-RCAF air base at Gimli, Manitoba was chosen to accommodate the program.  It began pumping out engineer trainees a year later. None of the unions involved were willing to accept the new engineers outright, and CN wanted to be able to use them as multi-purpose employees; as engineers when increased traffic warranted it and as brakemen when business was slow.

Bruce at the throttle on the Okanagan Valley Wine Train in 1999...when business was good!  
Photo credit Phil Moreau ex CN Rule Instructor @ Kamloops, BC

And, when an ESB isn't set up as an Engineer, he or she works as a Conductor or Switch Person
Photo credit RBH.  Conductor Roger Befurt on Okanagan Valley Wine Train 1999

After leaving the classroom environment in Gimli, the student/recruits returned to their home terminals where they would be paired up with pre-screened and qualified locomotive engineers for an indeterminate length of time in order to gain as much experience as possible with as many engineers as possible to round out their training.  When the on-job trainers felt that the students had reached a level of proficiency that would enable them to take control of a train by themselves, the Master Mechanic in charge of the terminal would ride with the student to determine their level of competency.  Once qualified by the Master Mechanic, the student was then given his certificate and his seniority number on the Locomotive Engineer's Seniority List.  But they weren't to be called Locomotive Engineers, rather Engine Service Brakemen, or ESB's.

In 1979, CN's ESB program had been in full swing for about five years.  A sufficient number of new engineers had been trained and qualified under the terms of the negotiated Labour - Management agreements to fill the job assignments.   The rush was over!  This left a little classroom space at Gimli for the older Scoop-shovel hoggers to take advantage of a 'refresher course' of two weeks duration.

The photo above was a "class photo" taken by CN on November 2, 1979 of the Refresher Class I attended. If anyone can help me identify the men in the photo, please contact me.  Klaus Henze is third from the right in the back row and I'm first on the right in the front row.  I apologize for the lack of sharpness of focus.  The original picture was not entirely in focus.

This opportunity was not well patronized by the scoop-shovels in the Mountain Region and CN found that seats in the classrooms were going begging.  In an effort to keep the engineers at the top of their game, CN threw open the doors to anyone in engine service to attend the courses, and I applied.

I boarded an Air Canada jet in Vancouver and took my seat next to an old friend and fine engineer, Klaus Henze.  Klaus was anxious to see the Gimli Training Center, so I told him of my two month stay there, four years earlier.  Upon our arrival in Winnipeg, we caught a 'company shuttle' to Gimli, about sixty miles to the north and prepared to settle in for two weeks of intense training.

The weather was cold, especially for a couple of west coast fellows who rarely see temperatures that reach freezing.  Even though there was frost on the windows of the bus, I could see that there was definitely no fruit left on the trees between Winnipeg and Gimli.  Snow began to fall in earnest and the flakes grew larger, reaching upward at the last possible moment in front of the headlights as they tried to gain altitude to avoid a collision with the windshield.

We signed in and found our rooms, and after a shower and a change of clothes, Klaus and I met at the student's lounge.  Ordering a glass of "Gimli Goose", a locally made wine of questionable palate, we took a table near the fireplace.

The buildings were chock full of new recruits, brakemen and switch-men from all across Canada.  Well, I guess I should say the new recruits were made up of both men and women, as there were two or three women attending classes, one of whom was from the Greater Vancouver Terminal.  Her name was Karen.

One day, Klaus and I were sitting in the cafeteria with a small group of engineers (not students) from Southern Ontario.  The discussion was animated and friendly, considering that the conversation was focused on the Second World War in Europe.  One of the fellows at the table had joined the US Air Force when the war broke out; another joined the  Canadian Merchant Marine.  Still another had made his way to England to join the British Navy and Klaus...., well,  he was a youth in Germany when war broke out and he joined the Luftewaffe as a pilot-trainee.  In fact, Klaus was only a couple of days away from his first solo flight in a Messerschmitt 109 when the war ended and he was ordered to stand down...without even having made a test flight.

I sat quietly, eating my lunch and taking in the wonder of these former adversaries, now brothers in arms talking about their war experiences.  Perhaps, I thought, perhaps one day I might be able to sit down with a group of CPR guys and we'd all get along like these fellows.

A light tap on my shoulder brought me back to reality and I turned to see a man from the office of the General Superintendent of Transportation - Edmonton standing there.  He said that a group of officers would like to talk with me and could I please join them for a discussion?  Since I was all but finished with my lunch, I excused myself from the company of good friends at the table and followed the gentleman out of the cafeteria.

As we walked toward the Administration building, I asked him if he knew what this was all about.  He said they wanted to talk with me about the on-the-job portion of the engineer training program.  Ten minutes later, I was seated in an office with officials from the Mountain Region as well as the Transportation Training Center's second in command, Roy Stowe.

After we got settled into our chairs and everyone had been introduced, they began by asking me questions about the effectiveness of the program as a whole and the on-the-job part of the training.  I suspected that this was a 'fishing expedition' as there was no hiding from the fact that the Vancouver engineers were a thorn in the side of anything that the company wanted to do, even if it would benefit the engineers.  I suggested that we cut to the chase and talk about the matter that was obviously bothering them... the lack of cooperation by the scoop shovel hoggers in Vancouver!  They surprised me with their rather unconcerned response to my thrust into the conversation.  They were of the opinion that, like any forest fire, the controversial disruptions in Vancouver would burn themselves out eventually.  There was something else they wanted to address with me.

It took only a moment for them to explain the situation they were concerned about, and I understood it immediately.  The engineers in Vancouver had taken a stand.  Their executive insisted that ESB's would not be qualified until they had far more head-end experience than the time CN had felt should be adequate.  The BLE (Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers) local chairman had voiced what he felt should be the training benchmark and that should be modeled after the length of time that firemen had to serve.  Firemen, who were promoted to engineers whenever engineers were needed had sometimes been unable to achieve promotion for 15 years or more.  In some cases in Eastern Canada, firemen were still working on yard engines after 25 years of service.  Some of these were the men who had answered the call to move to the west coast to take instant promotion to the engineers list.  This conflict had been ongoing since the ESB program began in late 1972.  In 1974, I was assigned to train with an engineer on the 1600K transfer out of Lynn Creek and the engineer would only allow me to touch the throttle while the train was "inside" the two-mile tunnel under Burnaby mountain.  This was to assure him that no other engineer would know that he was "training" an ESB.
If it were discovered that he had allowed his ESB to run the engine, even to take it from the shop track to the head end of his train, he risked serious censure from the union local 945.

The purpose of this little chat in the Supervisor's office wasn't to ask me if I'd agree to train new engineers but, indeed, to ask me if I'd train their first FEMALE locomotive engineer candidate when she returned to Vancouver from the current course, now in progress.

There was no need for me to take my time in making my decision.  I had two young children at home...both daughters.  If I was to refuse to train a female student engineer, I would be denying my own children their opportunity to make career choices that might interest them when they came of age.    I knew that there would be trouble from the scoops, who for the most part would try to make my life and Karen's life miserable.  But I felt that she deserved the same opportunity that I had been given.

I said "yes".  The Master Mechanic in Thornton Yard would be advised that I was to train Karen when she returned to the Greater Vancouver Terminal.

At the end of our two week stay, Klaus and I got on the plane for our flight back to Vancouver and took our seats in the very rear of the plane...right beside the jet engine.

It was Klaus' birthday and I wanted to buy him a glass of wine, but he declined, saying that he wanted to be in the best shape possible when he got off the plane.  His new wife, Barbie was going to be meeting him and he'd been missing her.  We sat and tried to talk, but the noise was awful, so we fell into silence.

Then....I had an idea.  I excused myself from my seat and walked up to the galley.  I explained to the Stewardess that my seat mate had been in the German Airforce as a youth and hadn't gotten off the ground before the war ended.  I told her that it was his birthday and, was it possible to ask the Captain if Klaus might see the flight deck.   She asked me to wait while she stepped through the curtain onto the flight deck.

In a moment she returned and told me that the Captain said it would be OK for both of us to join them in the cockpit, but it would have to wait until after we left Regina, where we had a scheduled stop.  The Stewardess said she'd give me a little wave when it was time to bring Klaus forward.  I returned to my seat and sat down...grinning!

We landed in Regina and after a half hour at the terminal, we were airborne again.  When the aircraft leveled out, the Stewardess came partway down the aisle and motioned to me to follow her.  Klaus was sitting with his eyes closed and was about to nod off.  I tapped him on the arm and told him I had a surprise for him and that he should follow me.

We stopped outside the cockpit curtain and the Stewardess reached across and pulled the curtain aside.  Klaus still didn't understand.  Then the Captain turned in his chair and extended his hand to us ... and welcomed us into that magical little space.  Klaus and I were both spell-bound.

The Captain and his First Officer squeezed their seats forward and the Stewardess reached in and pulled two jump-seats down for us to sit on.  There was a small, triangular shaped window just above my head through which I could see the stars in the late night sky.  They seemed close enough to reach out and touch.  Looking through the front windows, we could see the clouds below us.  The earth was blanketed with a field of fluffy cotton that, illuminated by the full moon, stretched as far as the eye could see.  The only sound to be heard, other than the sound of Klaus and the co-pilot talking about locomotives, was a low hissing sound created by the atmosphere being pierced by the planes nose and running over the hull of the craft.

This was certainly a far cry from the control stand of a GP7 on a midnight transfer!

The First Officer asked us where we had been and when we told him we had been at CN's Gimli facility, he lit right up.  His dad was a CPR hogger in Revelstoke and he, himself had worked as a brakeman there while he was going to university.  We asked questions about aircraft and they asked questions about locomotives until the Captain changed radio frequencies from Regina to Vancouver and began to reduce the throttles for the initial approach.

This photo was taken by my wife, Susan while we were returning from a visit with my mom in Kelowna, BC.  The Fraser River can be seen below and Mount Baker, in Washington State can be seen through the smoke from summer forest fires in 2009.

We went back to our seats and sat down.  We both had wide grins on our faces this time.
I knew then that I was in the wrong profession.

Now what about the Bravery and Courage I mentioned in the title of this story?  You'll have to wait a little longer for that part.  It's a good one and you won't want to miss it, I'm sure.

Monday, October 3, 2011

A Day Out of the Ordinary

Four SW1200RS switchers sat outside the Port Mann shops, smoke drifting gently upward in the warm summer sky. It was mid-morning on Saturday, May 29th 1982. There wouldn’t be any prying eyes around to ask questions; knowing this, I had invited a train-crazy (foamer) friend to go for a ride with me. He eagerly accepted the invitation and we met in the parking lot near Thornton Yard’s Surrey BC diesel and car shop complex.

The job was going to be an easy one and a great opportunity to spend some time with an old friend who really loved railroading, even though he had been a truck driver until recently. The job was called with just a conductor and an engineer, aka C & E. Today, we were moving motive power around from one yard to another within the Greater Vancouver Terminal, so there would be no need to have any additional crew members to do the work that would be required of this assignment. There were four yard switchers (SW1200RS’s, GR12’s, yard engines or goats…what ever you want to call them) on the shop track that we had to take to Vancouver’s Main Yard, a distance of about 20 miles. Then we were to pick up four similar units and take them to Vancouver’s Waterfront Yard, a further three miles, and couple them up to four more GR12’s and bring all eight back to Port Mann. Easy.

After the Conductor and I had ‘booked out’ on our respective train register books, we read all the applicable train bulletins and notices that are posted almost daily in a large book in the office. The Train Order Operator was copying orders from the Burlington Northern Dispatcher in New Westminster/Sapperton that would allow us to proceed from the north end of the Fraser River Bridge all the way to Vancouver, so the conductor and I checked our watches against the standard railway clock on the wall behind the Operator’s desk. The Conductor made a couple of phone calls to the yardmasters in Vancouver and the Waterfront yard to find out if the ‘return power’ was ready to be picked up. It was. As soon as the Operator had completed copying our orders and had stapled them together, we would be ready to go out to the shop track and find the locomotives we would take to Vancouver.

It was a nice day; bright, with a high overcast sky, a light breeze coming from the east and balmy temperatures.

Photo Courtesy Peter Cox

The three of us walked over to the shop tracks, looking up and down row after row of standing locomotives.  There were a couple of consists of GP9’s ready for the afternoon transfers to Vancouver and Lynn Creek in North Vancouver.  Several single GR12’s stood ready for yard assignments on Port Mann’s west lead, east lead and north lead assignments.  On the inbound track, a couple of two-unit consists of SD40’s stood where they were left by crews who had arrived off the Yale Sub, and were waiting for shop hostlers to move them inside the shop for service.  A couple more consists of SD40’s stood ready on the outbound tracks.  These would be taken off the shop and placed by their crews on the east end of trains in the yard that had been made up on the night shift and checked over by the Carmen before being OK’d for departure. 

We found our engine, and while the conductor climbed up into the cab to call the Fraser River Bridge Operator for an update on rail and river traffic, Al and I walked around the consist, performing the shop track inspection.  Back up in the cab, the conductor and I performed the required shop track brake test, and with everything checking out OK, we were ready to go. 

We re-read the Burlington Northern orders and called the Fraser River Bridge for permission to enter the interlocking on the bridge.  The BN dispatcher called and said that we had the entire railroad to ourselves, as there was no traffic expected for at least 3 hours.  It’s a great day for a cab ride.

Isolating the lead unit so that it idled while the others worked, I opened the throttle.  This kept the noise down to an acceptable level, but I think Al would rather have the engine working harder so he could appreciate the sound of the engine exhaust barking from the tops of the twin stacks on the roof of the engine just ahead of our cab windows.  I cut the engine back in for the climb up the hill on the long timbered approach to the bridge interlocking where CN track met BN and BC Hydro Tracks.  We drifted over the Fraser River, to the sound of the GM diesel thrumming happily and the clanking of old tie plates protesting beneath the wheels and rails below us. The clean, cool smell of the Fraser river wafted through the open windows as we pulled ourselves up onto our seats and enjoyed what had to be one of the finest views of the river and the old city of New Westminster one could hope to see.  We weren’t going very fast, but as the engine was about to step onto the ends of the rails that sit on the swing span, I moved the Independent Brake handle that operates just the engine brakes over a little bit and applied just enough brake to slow the consist by a few miles per hour.  This reduces the amount of shock that’s transmitted from the span up to the bridge tenders offices high above the middle of the span.  Believe me, the Fraser river bridge was a shaky old lady, and even the movement of a few small yard locomotives could cause her to quiver noticeably.  Once off the metal works of the bridge, we drifted down past the BC Penitentiary toward Sapperton and the Burlington Northern railroad.  Whistle blowing, bell ringing, headlights on full, we came into view of the BN station where the electric train order board indicated green.  We called out “Clear Board New West” to each other and I dimmed the head light so the dispatcher could check our engine number and register our passing in his OS report.

Al took a couple of photos.

As we passed the BN office, I gave a couple of short, sharp blasts on the whistle and the dispatcher leaned into the window and gave us a wave. 

Bell ringing and whistle blowing like a trombone, I notched up the throttle as we crossed Braid street to begin the climb up to Burnaby.  Signals were all green. 

Al took another picture.

Once we entered double track at Burnaby, I throttled down, holding the four locomotive consist at 40 miles an hour.  There was a rail-fan at Piper road crossing who was taking pictures as we scooted across the crossing, once again, bell ringing and whistle blowing.  

From my collection....not exactly Piper Avenue, but a railfan nonetheless!

Al got a picture of the rail-fan.

Leaving double track, we began to descend through “the cut” to CN Junction where we lined ourselves into CN’s Vancouver yard.  As the conductor was lining the switch back behind us, I called the BN and advised him that we were now in the clear in Vancouver.  He thanked me for the report and said he’d begin to prepare our paperwork for the return trip to Port Mann as soon as he heard from us again.

We took the goats to the barn (shop track).  There didn’t seem to be anybody on duty there at the time, so we climbed onto the four engines that were ready for us to take away.  After checking them over and doing the shop track brake test, we snaked our way over the BI Line (or, Burrard Inlet Line) to the Waterfront yard where we tied on to the four units sitting in front of the yard office. 

Al took a couple of photos.

The yardmaster came out and told us that the General Yard Coordinator at Port Mann had added a pick-up to our assignment.  There were more locomotives at Lynn Creek Yard in North Vancouver that he wanted us to bring to Thornton for servicing.  This was a major detour that involved going partway back on the BN main line and backing into the two mile tunnel under Burnaby Mountain, crossing Burrard Inlet on the big lift span and running through the yard to the shop track.  I know, it doesn’t sound like such a big deal, but crossing Burrard Inlet can involve serious delays if a deep sea vessel is in the vicinity.  Marine traffic always…well…almost always takes precedence over rail traffic. 

But we were having such a good time, and everything had been going so well.  So we went without complaint. 

Al had never been through the tunnel and he enjoyed the ride quite a bit.  He got a few nice shots from the Second Narrows Bridge of Burrard Inlet and the north shore mountains. 

We went to the shop track to find that there were two yard engines waiting for us.  We were going back to Port Mann with ten locomotives!  That had to have been some sort of record, so Al got some photographs while we coupled up the engines and performed the shop track air brake test. 

We were about to leave the shop track when the yardmaster came out with a note from Port Mann.  They wanted us to take a 125 car train of empty sulphur cross hoppers back to Port Mann. We argued that we couldn’t do that because the union contract wouldn’t allow us to handle a train without a full crew.  They had a solution.  They took the utility man out of the lunchroom and put him on our crew for the return trip.

Grumbling, we put our ten unit consist on the sulphur empties, cut in the air and pumped up the train line for a brake test.  The conductor went to the caboose for the remainder of the trip.

The brakes applied and released and we got the OK from the Carman.  I called the Second Narrows Bridge Operator for instructions.  He said to proceed from track 51 and take the signal at the top of the yard.  He would take the elevator down to the bridge deck with our orders and clearance and would be in position in about 5 minutes.  I carefully opened the throttle and the train reluctantly began to follow, the slack already being stretched because the train had been standing on a fairly steep grade.

The signal out of the yard and onto the bridge glowing green, we proceeded out of the yard and onto the bridge.  It’s uphill from the yard office to the middle of the tunnel, so I had to make sure I had sufficient power to keep the train moving on the grade.  All ten units were cut in and working.  With that much power ‘on the line’, it would be easy to tear the train apart if the wheels slipped on the rails, or I mishandled the throttle and brake settings.  I focused on the job at hand and Al took a few more photos.

At the middle of the lift-span, the bridge operator appeared with our clearance and orders for the BN run.  Our head-end brakeman stepped out of the cab and went to the bottom of the steps to take the orders from the operator as the engine, roaring and bucking, pulled past him.  I felt a bit of compassion for him as the automatic sanding circuits kept cutting in whenever the wheels began to slip or spin, dumping small amounts of dry silica sand onto the rails for traction.  This immediately was ground to a fine powder by the passing wheels and was blown outward from the engine trucks by traction motor blowers.  The operator was almost obscured by the cloud of fine dust.  I couldn’t even temporarily shut off the sanders, because, without sand for even an instant the engine would slip and surge, tearing the train apart.  This would leave us sitting, straddling Second Narrows, unable to move until repairs were made and with the possibility of very large ocean-going ships approaching, themselves unable to stop.  We had to keep moving at all costs.

After giving the clearance and orders a quick check to ensure accuracy, I pulled the throttle into the eighth notch for the climb to the middle of the tunnel.  I changed channels on the radio to link with the second narrows radio and called him for a radio check.  There was no response.  The lights came on inside the tunnel, flickered and then went out.  The lights and the radio check were put in place to help crews in case of any mishap that might occur inside the tunnel, but they weren’t always 100% reliable.

By the time we reached the middle of the tunnel, the engines were getting pretty warm and the exhaust stacks were now throwing small sparks into the darkened tunnel. 

Some of these units had been sitting idle for up to 16 hours since their last working shift,  and as they got hotter and hotter, they launched massive amounts of smoke and sparks inside the tunnel.  Al took another picture.

Within a couple of minutes, blue and red alarm lights blinked brightly on my control stand and clanging alarm bells filled the cab with unwanted noise.  Our speed began to drop and I had to make a quick decision; stop inside the tunnel and try to re-start the offending units, or proceed out into the fresh air and park it on the BN mail line and hope that we could solve the problem without blocking the double track main for too long.  I kept the throttle wide open and opted for the fresh air option.

Al broke a grin and began snapping like crazy through the back window of the cab.  I looked back to see the most amazing light show….. golf-ball sized balls of flaming carbon were being thrown from the exhaust stacks!  They were going straight up, hitting the ceiling of the tunnel and dropping into the empty hopper cars behind the engine.  No harm.

I found that we didn’t have to stop the train to re-start the engines as the utility man had worked in the shops before he changed to train and yard service, and he knew how to start these engines.  He went back through the 10 unit consist and tried to start up the ones that had shut down.  A couple of the units just could not be re-started, so we left them dead and isolated. 

We continued toward the Fraser River Bridge but not without some trepidation.  If we lost another engine while on the bridge, we could be in deep trouble, as marine traffic would have to wrestle with their charges to avoid a collision with the bridge span.  The conductor called and reminded me that if we couldn’t make the bridge, we would have crossings blocked on the BN mainline as well.  I called the BN dispatcher and the bridge to tell them of our predicament.  The dispatcher said that he understood and would have the signals set for us if we decided to go for it.  The bridge operator said that the bridge was currently lined for us, but if a tug called, he’d have to open the bridge and hold us.  We gambled.  I opened the throttle to take a run at the bridge.  I advised the bridge operator that we would be approaching the bridge at a pretty rapid rate of speed, but the length of the train would slow us down to something that might resemble a “reasonable” speed for the crossing of the span.  He said he understood what I meant.  Thankfully.

Al re-loaded his camera.

While we entered the bridge interlocking at a speed that was more than twice the legal limit, we only just managed to keep the train moving as more of the train found itself climbing up the 1% grade to the bridge.  As we crept across the bridge, the locomotives roared and bucked under the strain, but they kept their feet and leaned into the load. 

Al got lots of photos. 

The engine was beginning to leave the interlocking limits and I was able to reduce the throttle a bit as the speedometer began to creep back up to 5 mph.  It was then that both the bridge operator and the BN dispatcher started calling us with some alarm in their voices.

Photo Credit R.A. Matthews.  
Taken on the Alberta Coal Branch.  Similar open top hoppers to sulphur cars.
The smoke in this case is hot brake-shoe smoke.

The damned train was on fire!  Yep…., all those golf-ball sized chunks of burning carbon had been landing in the empty sulphur cars, but apparently the cars weren’t exactly empty.  The contents had been unloaded in North Vancouver after a long trip from Alberta and some powdered sulphur had stuck to the inside of each car.  When we hauled the train out of the yard, the sulphur had dropped into the bottoms of the cars and gathered in the hoppers there.  And that’s where the burning carbon went too!  The sulphur, when burning, turns to a molten mess and drips from the cars onto the railway road bed, creosoted ties and …  BRIDGE TIMBERS! 

The bridge tender, when he heard the GN dispatcher’s call on the radio telling me that our train was on fire and dripping burning sulphur onto the tracks, immediately and excitedly told me to get off the bridge as quickly as possible.  While he couldn’t see any flames forming on the bridge, it was a reasonable assumption that there soon would be.  In order to avert a major fire, he got busy on the phone trying to alert fire fighting forces.  A train of 125 cars had a length of about a mile and a quarter.  It wasn’t going to get across the full length of the span and the timbered approaches any time soon, even if I increased the speed to an absolutely scary number like 20 or 25 miles per hour. 

First and foremost, I had to ensure that I didn’t do anything that would cause the train to derail on the bridge.  That would be the end of it.  Secondly, I had to ensure that all concerned were notified of our situation and every action were taken to ensure that there were no trains or engines blocking our way once we got off the bridge and approaches. 

Photo Credit RBH 

I changed radio channels and contacted the yardmaster at Port Mann, telling him of our situation.  With our train burning, we couldn’t risk stopping anywhere between the bridge and a secure track in the yard.  There were several industries along that stretch of track including lumber mills, manufacturers and fuel suppliers.  I asked the yardmaster to ensure that all train and yard movements in and around the west end of the yard were well clear of our route into the yard and that he arrange to have our train lined into a track that could easily be serviced by the Surrey Fire Department.

He replied that the west end of the yard was clear and there was no one available to line up our route into track 103, a long track with a paved service road nearby.

 The approach to the bridge and portions of the bridge deck were now on fire and we were ordered to get off the bridge immediately so that fire crews could respond.  Al got some shots of little wisps of smoke rising from the timbers.

Bob Huen, the on-duty Utility Man managed to get all the switches lined up for us, and with low throttle, pulled the burning train into the yard.
As the head end of our train began to enter track 103, I noticed something rather disconcerting.  The two tracks on either side of us, tracks 102 and 104 held two trains, each containing many cars of propane, butane, chlorine, gasoline and other hazardous chemicals.  What was the yardmaster thinking?  I was "ordered" to get our locomotive consist to the shop as quickly and "quietly" as possible.  I was quite concerned about the safety of the yard and of the residents living near the yard where our train had been parked.  

 Photo Courtesy Barrie Sanford from his book Royal Metal, Story of the New Westminster Rail Bridge