Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Lulu Island Branch (Part One)

In the 60's, 70's and 80's, the city of Richmond BC was attracting more and more light and heavy industry.  Warehousing, small and medium manufacturers, re-packaging and freight forwarding companies were thriving.

Richmond, being built on a large, flat island composed mostly of peat bog and sand called Lulu Island, had lots of room to expand and CN Rail was there to service the needs of industry.  CN's access to Lulu Island was via a steel swing span that straddled the North Arm of the Fraser River just west of New Westminster.

One of the things that made working trains in the Greater Vancouver Terminals fascinating, was the geography that one traveled in the course of a day's work.  Westbound trains arriving in Port Mann/Thornton yard after their trip through the Rocky Mountains and the Coastal Range, down the Thompson and Fraser River canyons and the seventy two miles of Fraser Delta would still have a long and interesting route to take before reaching their ultimate destination.

As an engineer, I might begin my day at Port Mann and take a train to North Vancouver, through the two mile Thornton Tunnel, or by-pass the tunnel and proceed into Vancouver itself.  We might have been required to take a train to the CP interchange at Sapperton, then pick up a train at Sapperton and go to North Vancouver, deliver it to the BC Rail interchange at Lonsdale, then pick up a train from the BCR and take it to Port Mann.

At times, we were sent out of Port Mann with cars for New Westminster and Lulu Island, or from Port Mann to Tilbury Island where we would pull and spot the rail barge from Vancouver Island.  

Photo credit unknown.   Likely Seaspan source.

In short, there was never a dull moment, especially when working the spare board, from which we could be called to go to any number of places that CN serviced.

Occasionally, I would need to take a break from the helter-skelter of the spare board life and I would take a job that had regular hours and predictable days off.  Especially attractive were the jobs that started and finished on Lulu Island.  As a rule, those jobs were self-administered.  There was a yardmaster on duty in the modular yard office at Mile 7 on the Lulu Island Branch Line, and motive power was kept on a small, open shop track nearby.

While the switchmen changed into their work clothes, retrieved their radios from their lockers and had a chat with the yardmaster, the engineer would bring the engine off the shop track.

The most senior men on the seniority list could be found working the Lulu Island jobs.  There were a number of reasons for this.  First, there was usually only one job working on the whole island at one time, so there was little chance of getting in someone's way; second, the crews weren't bothered by front-line officers who spent the majority of their time at Port Mann.  And last, but certainly not least...,  the crews knew that unless things went seriously awry, they would be "off duty" within a very short time after having gone "on duty".

The men who worked Lulu Island were very good at their jobs.  They knew the rise and fall of every meter of track, they knew how well cars would roll and where they would stop after they let them go, free rolling.

Within a half hour, they would have their train made up, air charged up in the train line and brakes checked, usually on-the-fly.  Soon enough, the train could be seen leaving the yard with the sun at its back; the cars swaying from side to side as they made their way between cranberry fields and blueberry fields; between low, wet peat bog and fast moving muddy brown waters of the Fraser River.

Andy Cassidy has come up with another gem for us!  This photograph is of the Lulu Island Yard, looking west.
As you can see, the engine and crew have left the yard, leaving only the birds and crickets to keep the yardmaster company.
The yardmaster could then lean back in his chair, put his feet up on the edge of a desk drawer that he'd pulled out a bit..., and open up the morning newspaper for a couple of hours of uninterrupted peace and quiet.

Occasionally, the conductor would call in, asking him to phone a particular industry that was supposed to have the switch unlocked, or the warehouse door opened, but had failed to do so.  The yardmaster at Port Mann would usually call at least once to find out what tracks might be clear in the yard at Mile 7 so he could put together a train for the 22:30 Port Mann to Lulu Island Tramp to deliver that night.  But, otherwise, it would be a quiet day on the Island.

Well before lunch, the crew would call in on the radio and tell the yardmaster that they would be back in the yard in about a half hour with X number of cars.  The yardmaster would give them a track to pull their train into and then lift the phone to call the crew office, who would order up a taxi to take the crew back to their respective pick-up points.  The taxi agreement came about due to a 1969 re-distribution of work between the trainmen/conductors and the switchmen.  The company agreed to provide free, or almost free taxi transportation to employees going to and from work almost anywhere in the Greater Vancouver Terminal.

(Yes, I realize there's more to the Taxi Agreement than that, but I'll save that story for another time)

The crew would pull into the yard, cutting off their train in an empty track and take their engine directly to the
shop track.  If they had a caboose on the train, they would leave it on the tail end for the next shift to pick up.

Most days, these jobs would tie up with less than three or four hours on duty, being paid for eight or more.

No one seemed to be concerned about this, for during this time most yard assignments were working on a "quit" system, where they would put in five hours without taking a break (ostensibly) and then be released to go home, or to take another shift at time and a half.

Above photos credit Bruce Harvey.   Occasionally, there were casualties of the "Quit System"

In the case of Lulu Island, it had been set up so that there would be a "clean up" job on Saturday mornings, and this was part of my assignment.  I worked four days at Port Mann and one day at Lulu Island.  On Saturday, we were tasked with cleaning up any last minute spots that might not have been completed by the third shift on Friday.  Once that had been done, the locomotive had to be taken to Port Mann and traded off for fresh power which we would bring back to Mile 7.  To avoid having to bring cars back to the island from Port Mann yard, we would turn off the headlight and move slowly onto the shop track from the west end of the shop complex so that we wouldn't be seen by the yard supervisors in the control tower to the east of the shops.   Once on the shop track, we would lock up the locomotive, as per the regulations and slowly sneak away from the shop with the replacement locomotives, using the same route.

Photo credit - Bruce Harvey.   

This is Neptune Terminals and, as we used to refer to or maybe still, the East Leg.  The phosphate rock silos are on the right and Seaboard Lumber is on the extreme left in the photo. The tall building in the middle is the Phosphate Rock load-out building equipped with a track scale. This is where the Phosphate Rock unit trains used to be loaded..  Clark Grey...North Vancouver

A quick call to the Operator of the New Westminster rail bridge and we would be off to New Westminster and Lulu Island.., and home.

On one such Saturday morning, I picked up my girlfriend, Susan at her North Vancouver apartment and headed out to Lulu Island for an easy "train ride".  As she slid into the front seat of my 67 Ford Fairlane 2-door hardtop, I couldn't help but smile.  While I hadn't been very specific about dress code that might be required for a ride on a freight train, I assumed that she would find a pair of jeans and a sweat shirt.   But no..., she was wearing lovely white slacks, with a white, fine wool sweater and white sneakers.

Oh well, there was no time to waste, so I said she looked fine and we were off!

It was a beautiful sunny day out on the island.  The only sounds were those of the songbirds in the birch trees, and the lovely throbbing of a pair of EMD SW1200RS class road switchers, which were sitting on the shop/service track just west of the yard office.  Susan stood, wide-eyed and excited taking it all in.  The crew foreman and his helpers had just arrived, and came over to introduce themselves.

The yardmaster had our switchlist ready and it showed that we would have a pretty light day.  There were ten cars in the yard to pick up and deliver to the CPR at New Westminster.  We were then to go over to Port Mann and change power at the shops.  The YM had called Port Mann Diesel Shop for the engine numbers that we would be bringing back to the Island, and had checked with the yardmaster at Port Mann to see if there was any traffic to be picked up in the yard for delivery to the island.  Apparently there were a half dozen cars in the yard to be taken to Lulu Island, but we knew there would be a 22:30 Tramp out of Port Mann on Sunday night and they could bring the cars to New Westminster and leave them there.  The 0700 Lulu Island yard job would be able to pick the cars up in New Westminster on Monday morning.  In short, if we could avoid it, we would not be bringing the cars with us out of Port Mann.  The rationale for this decision was this; four days of each week, we were the cleanup crew in Port Mann yard.  We never went home in less than six hours on duty, while all the other crews left work after five  hours.

On Saturday's, we expected to take a little back, and we generally did.  Sometimes, we'd plan a lunch and have a  "tailgate picnic" on the caboose after parking the train on an industrial track.

While the crew was strapping on their radio belts, I took Susan out to the shop track and helped her get aboard the engine.  Soon, we were pulling out onto the "main line", actually Rule 105 territority, and heading for the Fraser River rail bridge over the North Arm of the Fraser.

This is a plate steel swing span, with long timber trestle approaches and is operated by a bridge operator who is a CN employee.  At the time, it was a fellow named "Tony" who worked the assignment on Saturdays.  Tony was a Maintenance of Way guy who was one of the senior employees in his craft.  Saturdays were an easy day for Tony and gave his family a little extra income each payday because it was an overtime shift.

Tony began his day at 0700 and finished at 1500, when the next man came on duty. Unless closed to allow a train to cross the river, the bridge remained open for marine traffic.  To get across the span, the engineer would call the bridge operator on a yard frequency, telling the operator where the train was, how many cars it had and when it was expected to return, if it was going to be going back before the shift change.  As you can see in the Andy Cassidy photographs below, the bridge operator worked from a small cabin on the swing span in the center of the bridge.

 The Fraser river, for many miles upstream was classed as "Tidal Water".  During flood tides, or when the tide was rising, the flow of water in the river was "upstream", and when the tide was ebbing, the flow returned to its normal out-flow course.  However, when the tide was in ebb mode, all the water that had been pushed upriver by the rising tide for nearly 40 miles, now came rushing out of the valley in a dash for the ocean.  For railroaders, it was a fact of life that trains would often be parked somewhere, waiting for tugs and barges to pass beneath or through the swing and lift spans around the Lower Mainland of British Columbia.  Marine traffic had superiority over rail traffic.

On this particular Saturday, I called Tony and sounded one long blast on the whistle in accordance with Rule 14 M (1).  When he answered, I told him we had left mile 9 and were coming toward him.  He said he could see the smoke from the diesel engines' stacks and would close the bridge as there was no river traffic in sight.  Rolling up onto the trestle, I reduced the throttle and let the train's speed reduce to ten miles per hour.

"You comma da stoppa sign, eh?"  "I heara onea river boat onna da radio".  "OK", I answered.  "We'll stop at the stop sign".

Within minutes, the bridge began to swing to the closed position and, when it was secured, Tony called to tell us it was OK to cross the bridge.

The morning air had been quite warm and it promised to be a hot day as the sun was getting higher in the sky, lighting up the highrises on the skyline to the north.  We had been running with the windows open and the cab forward configuration of the two SW1200RS's, coupled nose-to-nose placed us in a position where we had a full wall of glass in front of us.  The view of the forest and the river was unimpeded by either oily car-body or clouds of yellowish white smoke coming from the stacks.  The scent in the air changed dramatically as we climbed up onto the trestle.  We were leaving the warm air of the peat fields and birch trees and gliding over the cold, muddy brown water of the river, rushing below us.   With the change in temperature came a distinctive smell of the river.  It wasn't a bad smell, just different from that of the wild fields we had left only moments before.

Once we were off the bridge, shut the throttle off completely and controlled our speed on the trestle with the engine brake.  The two helpers on the crew retired to the second unit, leaving the foreman, Susan and I in the leading locomotive.

The music of the railroad filled the inside of the cab.  Radio traffic between CN freight trains operating on the Burlington Northern tracks between the New Westminster rail bridge and Vancouver could be heard.   Port Mann yardmasters were calling yard engines with changes in their switch lists, while crews on different trains in the area called each other to make arrangements to watch for each other, or to help each other fit between road crossings.  The engines danced along the tracks, in tune with the clickety-clack of the wheels on the rail joints. All the while, the sound of air being released from the brake valve and the diesel engine throbbing inside its steel jacket created the underlying base for the symphony.

Soon we were gliding down the hill toward the New Westminster docks.  I picked up the radio and, changing channels, called the New Westminster bridge operator to advise him of our impending arrival.  I told him that we would be setting out some cars at the dock and would like to "run light engine" over to Port Mann.

We were advised that the bridge was open for marine traffic and, would close to allow two trains across, after which he would have to open it again for more marine traffic.  He expected that it would be at least 90 minutes before things would begin to thin out, but we could come up to the signal on the CN highline in case there was a break in the traffic.

I told him we'd take our time in New Westminster and call him in an hour or so.

I suggested to the crew that I knew of a place where we could get a nice breakfast and everyone agreed that it sounded like a great idea.

Bringing the train to a stop on an empty track in the small yard on the docks, we locked up the engine and walked over to an older one-story building just across the road from the tracks.

Photo Credit - Andy Cassidy
A lot has changed over the years, but the track hasn't moved, and the "pink" building across the street may be the location of the old "Farmer's Market" of the early 80's.  RBH

Inside, was the regular Saturday morning Farmer's Market where one could find just about everything home-grown..., and..., a free...all you can eat...pancake breakfast!!!  Just a perfect storm for a bunch of railroaders and a stowaway girlfriend, wouldn't you think???

After we had filled ourselves with pancakes, syrup and coffee we walked about the market for a look at what folks had brought to sell or trade.  The only thing I bought was a half pound bag of home made pepperoni, which I stuffed into a deep pocket in my overalls.

We wandered back out to the engine and let ourselves in, where we called the bridge operator again.  Much to our surprise, he had a short spell between vessels and was wondering if we would like to take advantage of it.  We said we would and that we would be up at the signal in five minutes.  He said he'd take us if we could get there quickly, otherwise we would be waiting for more than an hour.  Being a light engine movement, we were able to scurry along the dock and cross the CPR and BC Rail tracks to get onto our highline.  Just as we pulled up to the signal, it turned from red to green.  I whistled off and released the brakes.  We were on our way.  There was a ten mile per hour slow order on the bridge, but when the bridge tender asked me to make sure we didn't cause any delay to the ocean-going barge that was already getting close, I opened up the throttle and we scooted across the bridge in very short order.

Once off the bridge, we had to find our way onto the shop with our engine, and leave the shop with the replacement engine without being noticed by the yardmaster in the tower nearby.

We decided to creep onto the shop from the west end, out of sight of the tower and creep off the shop at the east end, in full view of the yardmaster.  I believed that if we moved slowly enough, we wouldn't draw attention to ourselves and would stand a good chance of escaping from the yard without having to spend a couple of hours switching out boxcars for Lulu Island and other destinations.    You see, if the yardmaster got hold of us, he could keep us in his yard for several hours before releasing us to go back to our starting place.

This was to be avoided if at all possible.

Photo credit Bruce Harvey
CN F7A's at Port Mann on their way to the US ca 1980
We got onto the shop track just fine.  But getting off the shop track with our new power might prove to be a bit more difficult.  We could see someone standing behind the large glass wall panels in the upper offices of the tower, holding field glasses to his eyes.

Photo Bruce Harvey
Tramp job dropping their caboose into the cab track
Port Mann Control Tower - center rear

He was scanning the New Westminster rail bridge and the tracks leading from the bridge to the yard.  He had probably heard us calling for the bridge while at the docks and I knew he would love to get us into his yard for a few hours of switching.

Photo credit - Bruce Harvey
SW1200RS waits for fresh switch lists as the crew foreman consults with the yardmaster in the top floor offices of the control tower.

But we held to the plan and moved the locomotive at a snail's pace out of the shop track and then back out the way we came in.  I made a quick call to the bridge tender to tell him we were coming at him with two units and no cars.  He said he could close the bridge for us if we hurried.  We were already hurrying, so that wasn't going to be the issue.

Photo Credit Andy Cassidy.  Track to New Westminster dock is seen on right.

Photo Credit - Andy Cassidy

We had to get across the bridge before it became apparent to the yardmaster that we were gone...

Breathing a big sigh of relief, and knowing that we'd have to pay the piper in the coming week in Port Mann, we worked our way through the maze of tracks on the dock and back onto the CN line to Lulu Island.

A mile from the Fraser River Bridge, I laid on the horn once more....one long blast.  I hoped that Tony would hear the whistle and close the bridge.  I didn't want to use the radio, for the yardmaster at Port Mann would, by now be looking for us.

A half mile out, I blew the whistle again and slowed to ten miles per hour as the engine began its ascent up the timber approaches to the span.

"You comma da stoppa sign, OK?" Tony called..., loudly.

"Damn", I thought.  But it was too late now, anyway.  We were now too far away to be called back now.

"I gotta da tug-boat comin', but I takka you first".  "You gotta comma now!"

Photo Credit - Andy Cassidy

"OK, Tony", I said.

"And, by the way Tony"..., "I have something for you".  "OK", he said.  "I meeta you onna da bridge."

As we were nearing the end of the timber structure and about to roll onto the last stationary structure, we could see the river clearly in both directions.  To the east, the river was clear of traffic for a mile or so.  To the west however, there was a tug and barge approaching the bridge on a flood tide.  The tug had reeled in its tow line and was furiously backing into the oncoming barge in an attempt to slow it down or impede its progress altogether.  When the tug captain was satisfied that he had his stern against the hull of the barge, he reversed his engine, causing the stern of his vessel to be pushed under, leaving the winch and bitts awash.

Photo Credit - Andy Cassidy

I slowed the engine to a crawl as we passed the bottom of the ladder where Tony stood, smiling.  Reaching out the cab window, I dropped the bag of pepperoni into his waiting hands.  Raising the bag to his nose, he closed his eyes and took a long sniff of the contents.  As a broad grin spread across his face, Tony gave us a big wave and climbed back up into his cabin, high above the Fraser River.

On arrival in the office at Mile 9, the yardmaster was trying to be serious, trying not to laugh as he told us that the General Yardmaster was driving out from Port Mann to give us a piece of his mind and we were to wait for him.  That certainly wasn't going to happen.

We left the property, satisfied with our Saturday railroad adventure and eager to begin our two day weekend.

1 comment:

LOU said...


That usual ' IFFY-TINDGE-by-BRUCE ' suspence keeps you go'n-til-the-end !!!! Great Pix add INTEREST,also.

Suggestion: could add ( A Railroader's Court'n )to the title w/ Susan's comment added at end !!!!!!!