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

1 comment:

LOU said...


Al got lotsa pics of his " JOY-RIDE " spelled BIG TROUBLE !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!