Monday, August 27, 2012

Just Playing By The Rules.

By the Spring of 1970, the railways were running at full capacity.  

CN was chronically short of locomotives and box cars required to move the grain from the prairies to the coast. 

Here, Trainman Jim Percy, borrowed from Kamloops, is taking his power, which included a 'rented' C&O GP9 to the shop track in Jasper.
Photo Credit RB Harvey
There were no firemen left on the board, as all had been set up on the engineers’ boards and the chronic shortage of brakemen was being addressed by the importing of young brakemen from all over Canada.   Jasper was filling up with them.

In less than an hour, the locomotives have been serviced on the shop track and dispatched westward.
Engineer Ray Ball and Trainman John Riley are about to bring the engine off the shop and onto their train.
Photo RB Harvey

The railway had been experiencing difficulties with the leased equipment, finding that the leased locomotives could not be used in a leading position in consists because they weren't equipped with mandatory "Dead Man" controls which all Canadian locomotives were mandated by law to be equipped with.  Many of the leased box cars were of an age and condition such that they really weren't suitable for mainline use, but CN did everything possible to keep them running.  

The Rocky Mountains were emerging from a winter that saw near record snowfall and an early spring, which brought warm temperatures, heavy rain and countless avalanches.

This shot shows an avalanche that covered the track to a height that reached the top of the train.  Viewed from the cupola of the caboose during a heavy downpour, avalanches were coming down in front of the engine, in the middle of the train and immediately behind the caboose.
Photo RB Harvey

The photo above, is also taken from the cupola of the caboose.  It is a 'look back' at the avalanche shown in the previous photo.  Evidenced by the wide clearing of snow to the right of the track, the snow plough and spreader have been through, pushing some of the avalanche over the bank.  It would be some time before a decision would be made on whether to bring in front-end loaders to clear away the snow on the left side of the tracks or, let the warm weather and rain take care of the job.

The above photo was taken on the same trip as the other snow shots in this post. I think it was taken near the west end of Thunder River and the snow service crew is re-railing the spreader which had derailed.
Photo RBH

Taken from inside a long tunnel, view to the rear shows the depth and number of the snow slides.
Photo RB Harvey

Many wooden boxcars had been pressed into service.  Most had outside steel bracing that gave them additional strength and stability, but some rented wooden boxcars had no bracing and would bulge severely when fully loaded with grain.  Often, the cars would have to be held together with steel bands that were wrapped around the cars to hold the doors in place until they reached the grain elevators on the coast.  When these cars were returned to the prairies to be re-loaded, they would often have their doors laying inside the cars, needing to be hung back up on their tracks before being loaded.

As well, there were a number of derailments involving grain trains and these might have been attributed to the condition of the equipment. 

Westbound grain train #841 derailed into North Thompson River 
at mile 116 on CN's Albreda Sub.  
Partially obscured behind bushes is an outside braced wooden boxcar
Photo RB Harvey

Of course, there were always fluctuations in the traffic patterns that affected the number of miles a brakeman could earn during a month.  These fluctuations were monitored by the company and the local union reps, and once a week, the total miles earned were tallied up, then divided by the number of crews working, plus the number of “spareboard” miles earned. 

This gave the railway and the unions a basis for projecting the number of employees that would be required for the coming week.  Of course, this system wasn’t foolproof, as “Murphy” was never consulted.   As a result, one could find himself sitting at home, waiting for a call that might not materialize until you finally broke down and joined a few of the boys for a few beers at the Athabasca Hotel beer parlor. 

Of course, the ‘call boy’ wasn’t supposed to call crews out of the beer parlour, but in exchange for a couple of beers shoved his way, you could get your call and head off to work.

The alternative might also take place.  The board might be set for a given number of crews, then all hell breaks loose and the railway wants to run two dozen trains a day with enough crews to run twelve because of an ambitious crew reduction on the previous board adjustment day.

Brakemen were allowed to accumulate a total of 4300 miles each month, but could work “hog miles” if they were reported to the crew office prior to taking a call for a hog trip. 

Brakemen who took a call with just under their 4300 miles and came back into town with miles in excess of 4300, would be required to “bank” the excess, or carry it over into the following month.

Where is he goin’ with this, you might ask? And that would be a reasonable question.

At the Fall Change of Card in 1972, I narrowly escaped being forced on the midnight yard at Jasper by being assigned to the Wellman Crane number 50368 on the Tete Jaune Sub for two weeks, more or less.

When the work on the Tete Jaune sub was wrapped up, I returned to Jasper and took a few days off to be with my wife, who was expecting our first child before the end of October. 

The Tete Jaune work train hadn’t been a good-paying job so I eventually wandered down to the crew office to see if there was a job I could take for a few weeks.

There was no one around the station except Joan, who was working as the crew director for the day. 

I found myself alone with my thoughts, looking at the assignment board with its name tags; green, pink and red indicating who was manning which assignments, who was booked off, and who was on vacation. 

I always enjoyed the regularity of a job working with a regular crew in Chain Gang service on the west end, but I noticed that the spareboard was currently exhausted.  However, there might be a chance to make a lot of trips, back to back and be off for miles in time for the birth of my first child. 

While I was debating my immediate future, the phone on the desk in front of Joan began to ring.  She pushed the button that put the call on ‘speaker’, and said…, “Crew office”.

The caller was Jack Flewin, the Local Chairman of the union for Jasper brakemen.

Jack was one of the successful applicants for a work train that was hauling ballast from a pit near Hinton, Alberta to the new Pulp Mill at Shaver, Alberta.  Shaver was near Grande Prairie on the newly constructed Alberta Resources Railway line which connected CN’s mainline at Swan Landing to Northern Alberta Railway trackage. 
He told her that he had his miles in, but was willing to stay out on the job if there was no one available.  She didn’t hesitate, but told him that there was a man in the office who was unassigned and who might be booking on the spareboard in a moment or two.  With that, she reached up and turned his green name tag to show that he was ‘off for miles’ and that his job was now available as a Temporary Vacancy, or TV.

He argued that he should be allowed to remain on the job, but she pointed out to him that as the Local Chairman, he should know that he wouldn’t be allowed to work his own TV. 

Jack was going to be sitting at home for three weeks before he would be allowed to return to his job. 

With that…, she looked at me and pointed to the tags on the board that held the names of the men who were working the Alberta Resources Railroad (ARR) work train. 

When it was bulletined, the seniority went so high for the conductor and two brakemen that we calculated there was more than a hundred years of seniority in that caboose.

The job was ordered to load and haul ballast from a pit near Hinton, Alberta all the way up to Grande Prairie.  The ballast was to be used in the building of the yard at Shaver, the site of a new pulp and paper mill, just south of Grande Prairie

The majority of the work involved loading and hauling the crushed rock northward, then dumping it in place on skeleton track at the mill.  The train would then run empty back to Hinton to be reloaded.

The crew was working 24 hours each day, seven days a week.  Train crew members were making their 4300 miles in less than ten days. 

Jack, and the other brakeman, Vic Sivik of Edmonton had given up their conductor’s seniority in order to take the very lucrative work train on the A.R.R.

The conductor, Vern Siga had already made his miles in very short order and had been replaced by a younger conductor, Ernie Robinson.

In the fall of ’72 I didn’t have enough seniority to hold anything but the spareboard, but that didn’t stop me from looking, longingly at the really good jobs.

Here was a ‘gift horse’ looking me in the eye.  The only men who could take a temporary vacancy on the work train was a man who was assigned to the spareboard.  All I had to do was tell Joan that I wanted to book on the spareboard and the work train was mine, provided a senior spareboard man didn’t walk into the office before Joan had a chance to “call” me for the job. 

Knowing that the crew office phone was in “open speaker” mode, I said to Joan, “Book me on the spareboard, please…, and I’ll take a call for the ARR work train”.

Joan got up from her chair and moved my name tags from the “unassigned” board and lifted Jack’s tags from the ARR work train assignment.  

I felt a rush of excitement when I saw her hang my tags on the work train peg where Jack’s had been. 

I might have nearly three weeks on this job before Jack would be able to come back on his job.  At the very least, I would be able to accumulate my 4300 mile limit in less than ten days, giving me lots of time off for the birth of my baby.

When I arrived at Hinton later that evening, the train had been loaded and was standing in the siding at Hinton, ready to leave for Grande Prairie.  I took my place on the engine with engineer Danny Fry and when the signal turned green, we were on the move, westward to Swan Landing.

Soon, we were leaving the main line at Swan Landing and, after running around the train, we were heading up a long grade; the first of several on the ARR between Swan Landing and Grande Prairie.

Winniandy Coal Mine.  Notice coal cars lined up to be loaded.
This photo is taken from the cab of the locomotive some ten miles or so from the mine. 
From it, you can get some idea of the degree of elevation changes on the Alberta Resources Railroad.
Photo RB Harvey

It was a straight haul to Grande Prairie, where we went into town to eat. After breakfast, we took our train…, twenty two cars of crushed rock to Shaver spur, a few miles south of town. 

Our power, an SD40 and a GP9 would be split up at Shaver, with the GP9 being used to push the loads of ballast into the yard to be dumped.  The SD40 was considered too heavy to be used on the new, un-ballasted tracks in the yard, but was needed to haul the loads up the heavy grades.

The Hinton Heavy Haul job with Danny Fry at the throttle.
Photo RB Harvey

Once we had emptied all of the cars on the rails and ties, the empty cars were pulled back out to the mainline, where the SD40 was once again attached to the rear of the GP9, and the caboose. 

On arrival at Swan Landing, the engine would be on the west end of the train.  In order to run to Hinton, we would need to cut the engine off and run around the train, putting the engine on the east end.  Once that was done, the dispatcher would be asked for a signal to leave the siding at Swan Landing allowing us to travel to Hinton.

On arrival at Hinton, we would leave the train in the pit to be loaded by the front end loader and we would take the engine uptown for a bite to eat and a rest.

Then the cycle would be repeated.  When the train was almost loaded, we would be notified of an estimated time that we could take over, beginning our return trip to Grande Prairie and Shaver Mill.

The wide open spaces of the ARR in the foothills of the Rocky Mountain Range
Photo RB Harvey

This was back in the ‘good old days’, prior to mandatory rest rules.  The crew was on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  The combination of long subdivision miles and accumulated time claimed while switching, loading and unloading racked up our miles in short order.

At the end of my first week on the job, I had accumulated 4300 miles.  When we arrived at Hinton, about noon on my eighth day out, I called the Jasper Crew Office from the station at Hinton. 

As it happened, Jack was in the office when my call came in and he listened as I informed the Crew Supervisor that I now had my miles in and would require relief.

The Crew Supervisor asked me if I would be able to stay out on the job, as there were no men available on the spareboard at the time.  I readily agreed, seeing an opportunity to make two months pay or more in two weeks.

Jack immediately piped up, saying that he was available and that he could drive the 45 miles to Hinton and be there in less than two hours.

The Crew Supervisor then told Jack that he wouldn’t be allowed to go back out to the job until his mileage date, which was two and half weeks away.  When Jack protested, he was reminded that under the Union Agreement, when a regularly assigned man had made his miles, the assignment became a TV, or Temporary Vacancy which could not then be filled by the man who was first assigned to that job. 

In other words, Jack couldn’t work his own job until his mileage date once again showed up on the calendar.

The job was mine, even though I would be working well over my miles.  I couldn’t be bumped from this little money-maker.

Sorry Jack, but I’ve been waiting many years to tell this story..., and I'm still smiling!

Monday, August 20, 2012

There But For The Grace of God....

With your heart pounding and your hands locked onto the steering wheel, you sit by the side of the road wondering how you managed to escape that close call with little more than a bad fright to show for it.

Have you ever heard someone say “If I’d left home just a moment sooner, I would have been the one who was involved in that accident (or what ever)?”  I’m sure that you can recall several times that you wondered the same thing.  I know I have.

On several occasions, I just narrowly missed being involved in incidents that might well have left me seriously injured, or perhaps dead.  After the fact, I would marvel at the series of events that would have had to take place to put me in the specific location, and at the exact time the incident took place.  

A few seconds, or a few meters can make all the difference in the world.  Some people can walk away from a close call and just shake it off without giving it a second thought.   Others may wonder if there wasn’t some invisible force, or intelligence that caused them to slow down, speed up, turn left or right; but in any case…, something caused them to take some small action that kept them from harm…., this time.

I’ve been aware for many years that I am blessed with the presence of a ‘spiritual guide’.  On several occasions, I’ve been steered away from immediate danger and/or been saved from my own folly.

There have been several such instances but, keeping with the ‘railroad’ theme of this blog, I’ll talk about two very specific stories that I (wasn’t) involved in.

The first one I’ll tell you about happened in 1968 on the Yale Sub, west of Boston Bar, BC.

I had been laid off in Jasper in mid-December and went to Vancouver to book on the brakeman’s Emergency Spareboard.  The Emergency Board would often provide more work for a young brakeman than he would see if he was set up on the working board.  This was due to some very convoluted union agreements that were in place in the Vancouver terminal at the time. 

I found myself in my bed in the Boston Bar bunkhouse…, fast asleep and expecting a call to take a westbound freight to Vancouver. Before going to bed, the operator told us that we would probably be called for a grain train to leave the Bar ahead of the way freight.  Usually, the way freight, a peddler that does all the line work, switching mills and moving track gangs on the subdivision would leave ahead of us, but on this day, there was supposed to be a road repair car to move from Boston Bar to Port Mann and it wasn't ready to be moved, so the grain train was going to be ordered first.

Hearing footsteps in the hallway outside my bedroom door, I woke and waited for the crew caller to knock on my door.

There was no knock, so I settled into my pillow and fell immediately back to sleep.

Sometime later, I heard footsteps once again.  The footsteps stopped right outside my door, and I lay in the dark, waiting for the knock.  When it didn’t come, I turned over to reach for the door knob to open the door, suspecting that the crew caller wasn’t sure about my room number.

There was no one in the hallway.  Closing the door, I turned back to my bed. 

Standing at the foot of my bed was a wispy, dark figure which resembled a man.  I was quite shaken by this, but the figure gave me a non-threatening gesture and, somehow gave me a feeling that I was going to alright. 

It took a while, but I eventually went back to sleep and slept until mid morning.  When I was finally called to go west, it was to deadhead on the CPR.  There had been a tragic derailment at mile 5, west of Boston Bar. 
The way freight crew had managed to convince the Chief Dispatcher that the road repair car would cause them too much delay and could be moved later in the day on a west bound freight.

CN road repair car.
Location, source and photographer unknown.
If you took this photo, please let me know for proper

The way freight quietly slipped away from the brightly lit station platform and into the early morning darkness and heavy rain on a late-winter day in the Fraser Canyon.  The road repair car, which would have been handled next to the engine, was left behind on the shop track.

Less than fifteen minutes after leaving Boston Bar, CN 4286 west, pulling a half dozen cars, a combine and a caboose, came around the sharp curve at mile 4.9 and collided with a very large rock that had fallen shortly before the way freight left the Bar.

CN Combine 7198 and caboose on service track at Port Mann car shop
Photo source and photographer unknown

The engine went over the edge and came to rest 75 feet below the track, hanging up on the rocks at the water's edge.

The engineer and fireman, Buckingham and McBeth were missing and presumed lost in the waters above Hell’s Gate, in the Fraser Canyon.

It was my twenty second birthday.

CN Way Freight similar to one derailed at mile 5 Yale sub.
note: road repair car immediately behind engine.
Rail photo John Eull

CN 4286
  • GP9, class GR-17u, built 1959
  • wrecked 27 February 1968 at mile 5 of the Yale Subdivision near Boston Bar, BC. The locomotive hit a rock slide and went into the Fraser River.
  • retired June 1968
Courtesy of Canadian National Railway Historical Association. (CN Lines SIG)

The second story I’ll tell you about has many similarities to the one above.

I had made my miles for the month of February, 1969 and family had gathered to  celebrate my birthday.  I had called the crew office on the evening of the 27th to advise them that I wouldn’t be booking on the spareboard until March 1st, due to a family gathering that included my birthday.  They said they wouldn’t call me unless they were in dire need. 

On the evening of the 28th, the phone rang and I was called for a drag east.  I asked who the crew was, and when told the name of the engineer, I declined the call.  The engineer in question was, in my opinion prone to run engines in a reckless manner and I swore to avoid working with the man at any cost.

I booked off on call, thinking I would book back on the next day.

At noon the following day, I called the crew office and booked on.  When I asked when I might expect a call, there was a lot of laughter in the crew office.

I was 48 times out, they said.  And I wouldn’t be going to work for a couple of days, at least.
You see, they said…,  engineer Curley Pegg and brakeman Paul Lawrence, who had replaced me on a short call, rode their engine over the bank and into the river at mile 39 on the Yale sub after hitting a big rock slide.  Neither was injured, but the second unit was on fire and would be lost.

I had just had my twenty third birthday.

Newspaper clipping provided by Clark Gray
The 9036 came to rest in a large, shallow back-eddy called
Dead Man's Eddy

CN 9036
  • F7A, class V-1-A-b, built June 1951
  • reclassified GFA-15b, September 1954
  • wrecked 28 February 1969 while leading SD40 CN 5011 near Hope BC; ended up in the Fraser River
  • retired 8 May 1969
Courtesy Canadian National Railway Historical Society (CN Lines SIG)

Those of you who have read all of the stories already posted on Caboose Coffee will know of a couple of other times when I was on the edge of disaster…, and made it out alive.

Now I want to take you ahead to 1990.

When the railroads accepted the Canadian Railway Operating Rules (CROR)  and abandoned the Unified Code of Operating Rules (UCOR), I was invited to take part in the program as a Temporary Rules and Training Officer, stationed at the Rules office in Port Mann.

Former Rule Instructor, Joe Klikach was my partner, as he had been brought out of retirement to conduct classes in the new rules.  There were two rule instructors assigned permanently to the office.  The junior instructor was Mike Maddison and the Instructor In Charge was Greig Henderson, formerly of Edmonton.

The job was intense, the classes full, the students nervous and the instructors worked long hours every day. 

Joe and I both understood that our jobs were temporary, so we knew that by Christmas, we would empty our desks; I would go back to “the tools”, and Joe would go back to his retirement.
Maddison was ambitious and would stay with the Rules Department as long as he could manage it.

But there was a deep unease in the office.  Greig Henderson was visibly not happy there and had several telephone conversations with his boss about conditions he found discomforting. 
One evening, after the classes had ended and all the students had left the property, I found myself alone in the office with Greig. 

He was sitting at his desk, his suit jacket hanging over the back of his chair.  His white shirt was open at the neck and his tie had been loosened.  He was holding a greeting card in his hand.

I was just about ready to leave for the weekend, and I wanted to have a minute with him to tell him that I felt that I had a good week and I asked if he had a good week too.

He looked up at me and motioned me to sit down in the empty chair near one corner of his desk.
When I had made myself comfortable, he handed me the card he was holding.  He didn’t say anything, he just handed it to me and gave me a small nod.  I opened the card and read the hand-written note inside.

It was a personal note…, a very personal note from his wife, Susan.  

She wrote words of encouragement, words of love and words of understanding.  Just before her name appeared at the bottom of the note, she wrote that she had tried to get comfortable in their new city, but her heart was in Edmonton and she wanted him to know that she wanted them to make their way back home.

Feeling like I had been allowed to look into their hearts, I handed the card back to him.  He silently took it from me and got up from his desk.  He walked over to a credenza nearby and opened a drawer, pulling out a small bundle of similar cards. 

All the cards he held in his hand were the same, he said.  His wife was very unhappy.  And so was Greig.  He was unhappy with the money he was being paid.  He was feeling trapped between his commitment to his love of the railroad and his family commitments.

When I asked him what he was going to do about the situation, he shrugged his shoulders.  He told me that he loved being a rule instructor, but he didn’t feel that his efforts were sufficiently appreciated by his superiors. 

What he’d really like to do, he said…, was to go back to the tools where he could run engines on the Wainright Sub, east of Edmonton.  Out there, he said, I can make more money and do it at sixty miles an hour. 

There was only one thing that was keeping him away from the throttle, he told me.  And that was a dream that he kept having, over and over.
In the dream, he was running a fast freight on the prairie and right in front of his engine, a tanker truck, loaded with fuel turned off the main road and pulled in front of his train.  His terrible dream always ended with him waking in a hot sweat, his breath coming in quick, short bursts.

Then he asked me if I believed in dreams.  I told him that I believed that a person could receive messages of warning, or strong advice in a number of ways.  I didn’t offer any advice, but told him that if he felt that the dream was a warning, he should pay close attention to it.

He rose from his chair and lifted his jacket off the back of his chair. 

Turning off the lights and locking the door, we went to our vehicles and went in separate directions, going home to our respective wives.

When the CROR courses wrapped up, we were hosted to a nice little dinner by Tim Urbanovitch, Greig’s boss.  With Christmas just around the corner, we all said our goodbyes and disappeared into the night.

Early in the new year, 2002 I learned that Greig had gone back to Edmonton, to run engines on the Wainright Sub.

The next time I heard about Greig was in the evening TV news.

Greig's worst nightmare had come to him in real life.  His train, running at track speed on the prairie hit a fuel truck that had left the main road and crossed in front of his engine. 

Every one on the engine was killed, as was the truck driver.

 CN SD40-2 5130 after the collision - Drew Toner photo

CN 5300 near Boston Bar BC before the wreck Photographer not known

CN SD40-2W 5300 after the collision - Drew Toner

I think, perhaps Greig Henderson, my friend, my mentor..., believed in dreams, and weighed those fears against his strong convictions of honesty and fair play; the two conditions he found in the cab of his locomotive.

The following was sent by Butch Whiteman, former CNR Assistant Superintendent, Edmonton.

This latest story about Henderson being involved in this crossing accident hits pretty close to home for some of us.

I don't think many people know the other peculiar aspects of it, but it was Henderson's first trip back on the tools here in Edmonton after coming back.

And I know the brakeman (bcc'd on here as you are) that pulled the plug on his telephone that night so he'd miss the call because he didn't want to go to work (and he missed a stat holiday ticket for doing so) which led to the next guy on the spare board to be called.  So he also says "there but for the grace of God go I".