Wednesday, January 18, 2012

An Enriched Version of the Runaway Log Cars.

Once I had published the story of the log car that escaped from the train crew on the hill, several readers contacted me with a number of different versions of the same story.  The original version, as submitted by Ray Matthews, contained all of the essential components of the story, and I commend Ray for being able to pull all of those details from his memory.  However, two readers have supplied details that enabled me to present to you a much more detailed rendition of the events of that day.

There were, however a number of significant facts that could not be substantiated using the limited resources at my disposal.  Without these additional facts, the story would be quite short, while the epilogue would be lengthy.

In order to 'flesh out' the story so that everyone, from the seasoned railroader to the accidental tourist would be able to feel entertained and enlightened, I have re-written "Runaway Log Train" story.  In doing so, I've taken liberties which can be referred to as writer's license.

After compiling all the information that readers have offered on the subject, I believe I have enough to re-construct the events, perhaps not as they actually happened, but what might have happened, based partly on anecdotal evidence from my readers and information gleaned from official CN documents such as CN Timetable Number 25, which took effect at 24:01 Sunday, April 28th, 1963.  This is the only timetable in my possession that I felt would closely approximate the time frame of the incident, since none of my readers could recall the year in which it occurred.  And, since I have had personal experience switching out loads and empties at this log loading facility in the mid-60's, I will also include what would most likely have been the operating practices of the crew on that day.  Any reader might, after reading the story from end to end, argue comfortably that it really didn't happen that way; or might equally argue that the author told the story so close to the reality of the day that one might swear that he was an eye witness to the event.

The names of the crew members on train number 559 & 560, the Albreda Sub Wayfreight, and the inside story regarding the handling of the case by CN's Senior Management was supplied by Jim Munsey, then CNR Regional Rule Supervisor, based in Edmonton.  As such, Mr. Munsey was directly involved in the case, as cause and effect must be determined in order to assess discipline, where necessary, and to ensure that measures might be taken to eliminate the possibility of a re-occurrence of a similar incident.

After discussing the location issue with Bob Milne, a recently retired, yet long serving CN engine service employee who spent many years running trains out of Jasper, and having studied the timetable (see below) to determine "time and distance", I have come to the conclusion that the runaway train began it's descent of the hill from Gosnell, and not Clemina.

Details of "the chase", that I will include in the story are provided by Butch Whiteman, who gave us the Fish Story in the previous post, Jim Munsey, and of course, Ray Matthews who was the original contributor.

Details of the aftermath of the events in the story have been taken from a collection of stories , entitled

"I've Been Working On The Railway" - A Collection of Stories About The Railway And It's Employees in Western Canada (as yet unpublished - 2003) by Jim Munsey.

It is with gratitude that I acknowledge these gentlemen for their contribution to this story.

There are many stories of runaway trains, exploding locomotives, collapsing bridges and trestles and catastrophic derailments.  All of them are dramatic in their own right and some of them are terrible in the loss of life they brought to those who found themselves too close to the railway track when all hell broke loose.

This is one of the ones that ended rather happily.  No one died.

Trains 559 and 560 were regularly scheduled trains, listed in the timetable as fourth class trains operating on the Albreda Sub between Jasper and Blue River.

559 operated westbound and was scheduled to depart Jasper at 08:45 on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  It's scheduled arrival time at Blue River was 14:45.

In Jasper, no matter how much attention the General Yardmaster, the Yardmaster or the switch crew on the midnight yard engine paid to their "marshaling" instructions, the way freight crew would show up in the morning and invariably re-arrange at least a few of the cars on their train which was made up on one of the short tracks in the yard; sometimes on the ice house track and sometimes on the scale track.  In any event, it could take 45 minutes to get the train marshaled in such a way that would minimize the amount of unnecessary car handling at each of the stops along the road.

The way freight handled all the general work on the subdivision.  If there was a small gang of outfit cars to be moved, it was given to the way freight.  When a 'bad order', or defective car had been set out on line with a burned axle bearing, defective draft gear, failed brake rigging, wheels that had been skidded flat, the Jasper Road Repair car would be dispatched to effect repairs.  (see below: typical CNR Way Freight with road repair car next to locomotive)

Photo courtesy John Euill photographer

The way freight also did all of the smaller OCS (On Company Service) jobs along the line.  If there was machinery to load, or unload..., say dozers or backhoes working in areas where slides might have come down.

But the real bread and butter of this assignment was the forest products mills that dotted the countryside along the way.  Redpass Jct. would likely be the first stop for the westbound train 559, and only if there were cars left there by an earlier train, a Trunker, off the north line perhaps, or an eastbound that had cars for a mill that wasn't ready for them when the freight train passed by.

The next stop might be Dominion Tar and Chemical and Hedburg Veneer, which shared the trackage at mile 77.5, 3 miles west of Valemount and less than a mile east of Cedarside.  This spur was 'double-ended' which meant that there was a switch at both the east end and the west end, so the industry could be serviced by either 559 or 560, depending on whether the loads were going to eastern destinations, or western ones.

Other than the Canoe River pit, the next industry that had a switch that opened on the west end was Blue River Sawmills, at mile 124, just 8 miles east of Blue River.

On arrival at Blue River, there was generally a few hours of switching in the yard to be performed.  Eastbound and westbound traffic that had been picked up on line and any that had been held in the yard there had to be marshaled for furtherance on the next appropriate train in that direction.

Now tired and hungry, the crew would retire to their quarters, clean up and have a meal before turning in for the night.  (I'm leaving out the obligatory beers at the hotel, for obvious reasons.  Thank you for your understanding)

Next morning at 0600, there would be a knock on the door and the most junior CN employee in service at the station would stick his head into the darkened room and softly announce, "Train 560 for 08:00 - engine off the shop".  "Will you take the call?"

After breakfast, the crew would gather in the train register room, or "booking-in" room to read the latest bulletins, sign the register and check their watches against the Standard Clock that was kept in accordance with the rules, by the train order operator on duty.

Once each crew member had checked his watch against the standard clock, he must then compare his watch with every member of the crew to ensure that the time on all their watches showed the same time.  This was one of the most important pre-trip functions to be performed prior to pulling ones train out onto the main line at any initial terminal.  So much depended on an accurate display of the time.

The conductor was an experienced man, and a rock solid railroader.   He checked the train register for overdue superior trains, and saw that number 81, an opposing superior second class passenger train was not due at Blue River until 16:05.  Ian knew that Number 560 would have Number 81's timetable schedule to buck.  The timetable provided for a scheduled meet at Yellowhead at 12:33 pm, but that was only if both trains were "On Time".  In all likelihood, one or both of these trains would be running a bit late and, in that case, the dispatcher in Kamloops would have to put out an order dictating the meeting place and information as to which train would take the siding and which one would 'hold the main'.

Knowing that train schedules are in effect for 12 hours after their scheduled time at each location shown in the timetable, Ian flipped the page on the train register to the previous day and saw that Number 1 had arrived at 21.35, signals nil.  Number 81's schedule was now dead, so needn't be noted on the train register check.

Checking now for Superior Trains in the same direction, he ran his finger down the columns on page 5 of the current timetable that was pinned to the wall beside the glass partition between the train crews office on one side, and the operator's office on the other.

On the bottom of the register check, he wrote, "#82 - due in at 0920 & due out & 0935.  He pinned the register check to the train orders and handed the sheaf of papers to the engineer.

The fireman and the head end brakeman brought the engine off the shop track and into the caboose track to dig out their combine and caboose, which they took to the west end of the yard and onto the tail end of the train.  The brakeman connected the air hoses, opened the angle cocks and checked for hand brakes before pulling the pin on the caboose's rear coupler.  Giving the fireman  hand signals, he brought the engine back to the east end of the yard and onto their train where he coupled up the air hoses and opened the valves allowing pressurized air into the brake pipe.

Number 82, the second class eastbound passenger train was running a few minutes late, but not enough for the dispatcher to put our a run-late order on him.  Conductor Ian MacRae and engineer Herb Peters agreed that if they left Blue River in the next ten minutes, they could stay ahead of the passenger train's schedule, perhaps as far as Albreda, 40 miles distant.  As they had completed most of the switching between Albreda and Blue River on the previous day, leaving only a pick up and set out at the back track and spur at Gosnell, they had a pretty good shot at it.

Stepping out of the office and onto the platform, Herb turned left and made for the engine while Ian turned right and headed for the caboose.

Herb sat down at the controls and glanced at his watch.  It was almost 09:05 and number 82 was due into Blue River from the Clearwater sub in fifteen minutes.  There was no time to lose.  He told the fireman and the brakeman that they were going to leave ahead of number 82's scheduled departure time of 09:35.  Since the maximum speed limit for passenger and freight was nearly identical over most of the subdivision, they should be able to maintain the 20 minute block between trains that was necessitated by the rules.   Ian had told Herb to pull the train right up the main at Gosnell so that he could get on the phone to the dispatcher to check on number 82's progress while the crew began the switching in the log spur.

At 09:15, the tail end brakeman grabbed the handrail of the caboose and leaped onto the rear steps, giving  Herb a 'high ball' signal with his free hand.  Two short blasts on the whistle, and smoky exhaust shot from the stacks on top of the engine.  With diesel engine working full throttle, the way freight disappeared from view as Number 82 appeared, drifting down the mainline west of the station, preparing to change train and engine crews, take water and wait for its advertised departure time.

Normally, the way freight would head in at the west end of Gosnell.  On this day, Conductor McRae decided that he wanted to get on the dispatcher's phone at the east switch and try to ascertain whether there might be a few extra minutes on number 82's time that they could use to get over to Clemina, or Albreda before having to clear the passenger train's time in the timetable schedule.  He had asked Herb to pull the train right up the main, drop him off at the switch and then back up, while he talked with the dispatcher.

On arrival at the east switch at Gosnell, Herb slowed down while watching over his shoulder for hand signals from the caboose.  He saw Ian step off and walk over to the phone box that was attached to a railway tie that  was partially buried in the dirt near the switch.  As he opened the door of the phone box, he gave Herb a back-up signal.  The head-end brakeman had dropped off near the fouling point and swung Herb down as the empty log cars that were to be set off here came to a stop in front of him.  Reaching in, he turned the angle cock on the nearest log car and left the angle cock on the remainder of the train open.  Giving Herb a 'proceed' signal, the cars parted with a loud 'whoosh' as all the air in the brake pipe of the standing rear end of the train rushed to the freedom of the atmosphere.  The brakes on the tail end of the train were now in 'emergency' application and would hold the train fast on the hill until they had finished their work and returned to couple the train back up again.

Bringing the engine and a half dozen or so empty log flats into the siding, they found that the tail end brakeman had cleaned the debris out of the log spur switch and lined it so that the loads could be picked up.  It was more expedient to hold onto the empties while picking up the loads, thereby reducing the number of moves that would be required to complete the operation.  Hang onto the empties, grab the loads, set the loads over to the siding, come back into the spur with the empties, cut them off and tie them down, come back to the siding, pick up the loads and go to the main where the rest of the train would be waiting.  Simple enough.

Shoving into the spur, they connected with the loads, cut in the air and removed all the handbrakes.  Once this was done, the loads, the empties and the locomotive all emerged onto the siding track.  The loads were shoved onto the siding until they were clear of the spur switch and the angle cock was turned, cutting off the air supply to the loaded cars, and the operating lever pulled to separate the loads from the empties and the locomotive.  Again, there was a loud 'whoosh' as the brake pipe air escaped, leaving the brakes on the loads set in an 'emergency' application.

Pushing the empties back into the log spur took just a few minutes, and while the tail end man tied handbrakes on the empties, the head end man brought the engine back to the siding to pick up the loaded log cars ...
but they were no longer there!!!!  The siding was empty.  The flat cars, loaded with logs were gone.

It took only a second to figure out what had happened.   The air brakes had bled off, or had not been sufficiently charged up with air to enable an emergency brake application when the crew had left them on the siding.  From Gosnell, it was downhill all the way to Thunder River, just over nineteen miles.

The engineer on Number 82 checked his watch as the engine drifted past the white, trackside board that read, "Thunder River, One Mile".  The mile board on the telephone pole read "115" and he glanced at the speedometer which was bouncing between 32 and 37 miles per hour.  These speedometers had never worked well, right from the day they came from the factory, but as long as the speed could be averaged, they would suffice.  After all, the steam engines of just a few years earlier had no speedometers at all.  You used your watch and the mile boards, and that's all.

Another mile and he would open up the throttle and begin the run on the hill.

Conductor McRae, realizing what had happened while he was on the phone with the dispatcher, looked at his watch.  It was obvious to him what he had to do.

Using hand signals, he ordered his crew to leave immediately and give chase to the log cars.  They must be caught and stopped before they hit the oncoming passenger train!

The crew understood and took off after the runaways, and Conductor McRae ran back to the dispatchers phone to tell him what had happened at Gosnell.

Believing that it would be much easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission Ian had sent his crew on the chase.  But, for the record, he asked the dispatcher for permission to chase after the runaway logs.

Recognizing the urgency of the situation, the dispatcher immediately consulted with the Chief Dispatcher who, sticking his neck out, agreed to give the way freight crew verbal permission to run westward in pursuit.  This, of course was in complete violation of the rules, as 560's operating authority was in one direction only, eastward.  However, the Chief felt that, under the circumstances there was no alternative.

Two Way Radio Communication between the dispatchers offices and trains enroute was a relatively new technology on CN.  There were 'dead spots' in a variety of areas over the subdivisions in the mountains.  When the dispatcher depressed the "Transmit" button at his desk mounted radio, he was concerned that this call might fall into one of those dead zones.  But, as luck would have it..., the engineer on train number 82 heard the dispatcher's call and immediately felt a chill when the dispatcher's worried voice came in over the speaker on the engineer's control stand.

Train number 82 had just passed the east mileboard at Thunder River and was now more than a mile beyond the switch.

When the engineer had heard the reason for the call, and the dispatcher's orders to get into the clear at Thunder River, the engineer felt that if he stopped the train and returned to Thunder River, the oncoming runaway cars would overtake the passenger train, leaving a collision imminent. He told the dispatcher that it would be quicker to run to Pyramid and take the siding there.  It was left in the engineer's hands to get the train into Pyramid safely.

At Lempriere, which lies about three miles west of Gosnell, the section man's wife was taking advantage of the fact that her husband was attending Rule Classes at Red Pass along with all the other section men in the area.  The Regional Rule Instructor had come all the way from Vancouver and was holding re-qualification classes at the station there.  The lady was hanging her laundry on the line when a string of loaded log cars went singing past her front door.

Realizing that something was terribly amiss, she ran inside and grabbed the CN phone from its cradle on the wall in the living room.  When the dispatcher answered, she said, as calmly as she could that some cars had just gone by the section house with no engine on them.  And a couple of minutes later, an engine went by the section house with no cars on it.  The dispatcher thanked her and called the engineer on number 82 to give him an update.  Lempriere was 8 miles from Pyramid and that distance was shrinking fast.

In the early 1950's, a new signal system had been introduced to the Albreda sub.  It was called Automatic Block System, or ABS.  The ABS system was made up of interconnected circuits that would give an "occupancy" indication of a block of track by changing the colour of the lights on metal light standards placed at siding switches and intermediate points along the way.  If there was a car or engine in the block ahead of you, the light would be red.  If the car or engine was in the second block ahead of you, the colour would be yellow, and so on.  On this day, the engine crew on CNR train number 82 was paying very close attention to the colour of the signals as they approached them.

The approach signal, or the last intermediate signal west of the west switch at Pyramid was green, which meant that there still might be time to get the west switch lined and pull the passenger train into the siding before the log cars arrive..., if all goes well.

Not daring to look at the speedometer in the cab, the engineer on number 82 was sitting on the edge of his seat, back straight, with the throttle in his left hand and the brake valve in his right.  The sign which read "Pyramind, One Mile" appeared, just a quarter mile ahead.

Meanwhile, Herb Peters, the engineer on the 560 was doing his best to make up as much time as possible; going flat out on straight track and grabbing the brakes on curves, not knowing whether or not the log cars might slow down to a crawl due to curvature and  wheels binding on rails.

Both engineers were racing toward each other, whistles blowing and hearts pounding.

Like the professional that he was, the engineer brought 82 to a smooth station stop at the west switch while the fireman ran for all he was worth to line the switch so the train could pull into the clear.

The light on the mast at the west switch was yellow.  The block beyond the east switch was "occupied!"  There was no time to spare.  The siding at Pyramid held only 61 cars..., just slightly over one half mile.  If the runaway cars were travelling at 40 miles per hour, they could cover that distance in less than a minute.  He still had to exercise great care in bringing the passenger cars over the switch and into the siding.  The rules stipulated that a speed of 15 miles per hour not be exceeded.  There was never a good time to have a derailment, but a derailment now would be disastrous.

Within a few minutes, the passenger train was stopped, in the clear and the west switch had been lined and locked for movement on the main track.  The signal at the top of the mast was red.  The two engineers were now talking with each other by radio and the tension in the air seemed to dissipate, allowing the sun to shine once more.

CNR Super Continental near Laforest, ON. Mile 30, Ruel Sub
Photo Credit Don Jaworski

Shortly, the log cars drifted into view and passed lazily over the east switch at Pyramid.  A couple of trainmen from the passenger train's crew were on the ground, dressed in their passenger uniforms and wearing polished black leather shoes, yet gamely prepared to try to stop the cars if they could.

Engineer Peters and his brakemen pulled up behind the cars and coupled onto them, cutting in the air and breathing a huge sigh of relief that could be heard all the way to Blue River, all the way to Kamloops and, all the way to the office of the Vice President.

CNR train number 82 pulled out of the siding, and the brakemen on CNR train number 560 gave them a "pull by inspection".  When the last vestibule pulled past the east switch, the brakeman on the ground called out to the brakeman in the vestibule..., "OK on the PK".

While arrangements were being made to have the west switch at Gosnell repaired, the dispatcher was busy putting out orders to all trains on the road that train number 82 would run 30 minutes late from Albreda to Red Pass and 20 minutes late from Red Pass to Jasper.

The following is paraphrased from a story by Jim Munsey, author of "I've Been Working On The Railroad"..., a collection of stories about the railway and its employees in Western Canada.

The good people of Blue River, hearing the news that the runaways had been caught at Pyramid, began to dismantle the barrier they had built on the mainline east of the station to stop the cars if they came that far.

This incident, while potentially disastrous, resulted in no damage, other than the west switch at Gosnell had been run through when the cars left the siding.  However, there were a number of serious rule violations that would require the attention of management.

CN's System Officers and Officers of the Railway Transport Committee of Ottawa would necessarily review the incident, so Jim Munsey was assigned the task of ensuring that the investigation would withstand scrutiny.

Invited to attend a meeting in the offices of the Vice President, Jim, as Regional Rule Supervisor, the General Superintendent and the Senior Personnel Officer sat in chairs in front of the VP.

When a letter from the Area Manager in Vancouver was produced, condemning the Chief Dispatcher, as well as other investigating officers for authorizing, and/or failing to raise the issue of the unauthorized engine movement by 560's engine and crew, the VP demanded to know if there was agreement in the room on whether or not the Chief Dispatcher was guilty.  No one spoke up, except Jim Munsey, who said that the Chief should not be criticized under such emergent circumstances.  He acted quickly and decisively.

The VP, after a long, strained pause replied that Jim was right.  The Chief had acted appropriately and would not be disciplined for his actions.  The crew, on the other hand would receive a different verdict.

ADDENDUM:   April 19, 2012

This story has initiated much discussion among railroaders and rail historians alike.  It would appear that while the story-line, the era and most of the details are correct, there is one glaring deficiency that I feel must be addressed herein.

The majority of those readers who submitted comments regarding this story have caused me to reconsider the location at which the runaway began.  I used "Gosnell" as the location the car or cars ran away from, and new reader testimony has the car or cars beginning their westward run from "Clemina", 6.3 miles east of, and uphill from  "Gosnell".  

Hence, the way freight crew would have had to chase the runaways that much farther than I had initially believed.  

I want to thank each of the rail men who took the time to contact me with their memories of this event.