Friday, June 21, 2013

The Bunkhouse As An Ever-changing Community

The operator at Boston Bar has given us track one at 'The Bar'.  A mile west of the yard, the engine, a brace of SD40-2's rolls onto the Anderson Creek bridge, a long, high, curved trestle spanning the Anderson River.  
Westbound over Anderson Creek - Peter Cox - 1970

One who is not familiar with the high's and low's of seasonal weather-related water levels might not appreciate that during the late summer and fall, the Anderson River becomes Anderson Creek.

With the onslaught of the West Coast rainy season, which usually arrives just in time for Hallowe'en, it becomes a river once again.

The high-mast signal at the east end of Hicks had displayed an "Approach Signal", or yellow over red, so I reduced the throttle to allow the gentle grade to bring the train's speed down to just under 15 mph.  The next signal, at the west end of Boston Bar was displaying a "Restricting Signal", or red over yellow.

Beyond the CTC controlled main line switch, the hand-operated switches leading to each of the storage tracks in the yard, now came into view.  The brakeman rose from his seat, and as he reached for the handle on the front door, he said "Track one's against us......, don't stop, I'll run for it."  I notched the throttle even further, and the speedometer responded by dropping to 10 mph.
SD40-2 and SD40-2W, perhaps westbound near Floods, west of Hope, BC
Photo credit Gordon Hulford

When the leading truck of the locomotive began to leave the mainline, heading into the turnout that would take us into the yard, I kept a close eye on the brakeman as he dropped from the step at the bottom of the ladder.  He covered the 75 feet to the switch with ease, and with one motion, he flipped the open switch lock out of the keeper, letting it swing on the end of its steel chain.  Lifting the handle, he pulled it over and pushed it into the opposite slot.

He replaced the lock into the keeper then took a good look at the switch points to ensure that the points had made proper contact with the stock rail.  Once he was satisfied that all was as it should be, he turned to face the approaching engine and gave me a proceed signal.

I opened the throttle and the speedometer began to climb again.

I checked my watch and thought of the conductor who would be doing the same.  Our pay structure changed the moment the engine moved over the switch.  We were now on hours instead of miles, although the time spent while yarding the train and putting the engine to the shop track would be converted to miles on the basis of 12 1/2 miles per hour.  With 100 miles constituting a basic days' pay, the yard, or terminal time could add 25 miles (pay) or more to each trip.

As the engine neared the east end of the yard, the tail end brakeman began to call out the distance to the clearance point in the west end of track one, where our train was to be parked until CN was ready to run it further east.  Sometimes a train would be stored like this for a matter of a few hours, waiting for a connecting crew to become available.  At other times, a train might rest in the yard for days, waiting for some unforeseen obstruction, or 'hold order' to be lifted.

As the train was slowing to a stop, I set a light brake on the train.  The front brakeman had dropped off the engine and stood nearby, waiting for me to give him a 'nod', indicating that he could now step in between the trailing unit and the leading car to cut off the air and lift the pin to separate the engine from the train.
SD40-2W's waiting in track 2 at The Bar.
photo credits photo by Ralph Mintze (sp)

When the train had come to a complete stop, with brakes firmly set on the train, I release the engine brake and let the engine settle gently back against the standing train.  Then, I gave him a nod and, reaching out the side window and using both hands in a chopping motion, I indicated that it was now safe to 'go inside' to make the cut.

Leaning on my elbow, I sat with my body twisted waiting for him to emerge from behind the engine.  With the familiar 'clank' that is caused by the operating lever lifting the pin to free the engine from its compliant followers.  Holding the operating lever up, he gave me a 'proceed' hand signal; I pulled out the brass knob that started the bell ringing, and moved the engine forward.

Soon, with the engine running backward, we rolled westward on the mainline to pick up the tail-end crew, who had locked up the caboose and were waiting in the sunshine for their 'ride' to arrive.

The head-end brakeman drops off as the engine slowly rolls past the east shop-track switch, and when the engine has passed the points, he lines it for the shop.  The engines will sit on the shop track, patiently waiting for their next assignment.

Behind the old steam locomotive tender, which had been converted to a 'Fire Fighting Tanker', lies the shop track.  There had been a turntable, which by 2012 at the time of this photo had been removed.
Photo credit, Gordon Hulford.

Stopping in front of the yard office I wait for the tail end guys to get off with their 'grips', and then turn to see the head end man giving me a back-up signal, swinging his arm in a wide circle, at right angles to the track.   With the bell ringing, I back the engine up until it's well clear of the main, and then I secure it, or 'tie it down'.

After registering our arrival on the train register at the station, we wander over to the bunkhouse.  Stepping inside, we look at the green chalk-board on the wall.  Each of the small bedrooms in the bunkhouse are numbered, and we see that there are a few men in town from the Ashcroft sub, as well as a one or two crews from the Yale sub.

Seeing that room #9 is vacant, I pick up a piece of chalk, and print "HARVEY - 1 HOUR CALL PLS".

With a dozen or more men waiting for a call that will put them on a train to take them back home, I walked into the recreation area where CN and the Unions had installed a pool table, card tables and a ping pong table.  That facility had become a healthy alternative to the only other place in the village of Boston Bar, the beer parlour at Old Cog's Hotel.  Of course, railroaders still visited Cog's water hole because, as many are aware, a fast game of ping pong can create quite a thirst!

The railroad bunkhouse is more than just a place for crews to lay over; it's a meeting place, a place where crew members catch up on the happenings at the other terminal, to share their thoughts on matters that range from sports to fishing, from weather to rail traffic and, most often ..., Labour/Management issues.  It's the latter that generated the most heated of debate, almost always resulting in universal condemnation of every officer in the company's management roster.

Away-from-home dining offered several options in 'The Bar'.  One could choose from the menu at Cog Harrington's dining room or coffee shop.  The pub in the same building offered a variety of nutritious choices from their pub menu, or one could stay with appetizers, such as pickled eggs and pepperoni sticks which you could purchase from the bar tender and carry back to your table.

Or, one might walk a block to the grocery store where the makings of a meal could be purchased and brought back to the large kitchen in the bunkhouse.

When the CNR Beanery, which was housed in the west end of the station was open, the food and prices were quite acceptable.

Most crewmen didn't wander too far from the bunkhouse when they were on the usually short-term layovers.  Others would cross the tracks (literally) and walk down the narrow road that led to the aerial car ferry that carried cars and pedestrians from Boston Bar, on the east side of the Fraser River, to the west side, where the CP terminal formed the anchor for the village of North Bend.

The CPR Beanery in North Bend offered good food too, and was a good place to sit near their mainline, hoping to see a set of MLW/ALCO C630's pulling past with a long coal train from BC's south-eastern interior.  CN didn't operate similar locomotives in Western Canada, preferring to stick with GM/EMD products.

Sooner or later, the car checker would arrive at the bunkhouse and, with a piece of white chalk taken from the tray under the green board with the room numbers on it, wrote down a call time next to a crew-member's name.  He would then check all the usual places; the lounge, the recreation room, the kitchen, the room that the member had marked up for himself and..., if all else fails, he would walk up the hill to Cog's beer parlour in case the fellow had dropped in for a bit of pepperoni and 'a brown', or glass of beer.

Yes, we all knew that we were in violation of Rule G, which banned the use of alcohol and/or drugs while on duty, or while subject to duty.  However, the company's field managers chose to overlook these minor infractions, knowing that most of the crews who did take a sip now and then, did it responsibly.  The others, who might abuse the oversight, would one day 'switch themselves out', ending up in re-hab, or being fired.

Once a crew was called, they became active as paperwork had to be arranged for at the station.  Train orders had to be collected, checked and discussed.  Most often, the wig-wags and bells were activated on the road crossing near the front of the bunkhouse.

Within minutes, the Kamloops engine crew are climbing down the ladder where the incoming engineers and brakemen will exchange information about how the train was behaving, any mechanical difficulties that might have rafter leaving the initiating terminal and any other piece of information that might be considered pertinent.

After climbing the ladder, step into the cab, taking a look around to ensure that all the necessary tools and supplies are on-board.  The brakeman will check the flagging kit.

With everything in order, I sit down, and lifting the radio handset from its cradle, I call the incoming trains tail end.  They're on the caboose and ready to be pulled down to the station where the entire scene we had played will be re-enacted by the Kamloops crew, page and chapter.

With the brakes now released, I ease the throttle up and the train begins to move forward.

CN train 'pulling down' at Boston Bar.  
photo credit, Gordon Hulford

In fifteen minutes, the tail end crews have exchanged places, with the Yale crew settling into the caboose and the Ashcroft crew talking with the operator who is calmly advising them that they'll be getting called to go home in a couple of hours, or perhaps will be dead-heading back to Kamloops on the bus.

We conduct a quick brake test and ask the operator, by radio to call the dispatcher for the signal to leave Boston Bar and enter the Yale sub.

The crew is on, the brakes are released and the Yale sub lies ahead
Photo credit Gordon Hulford

The train is  moving slowly on the slight down-grade westward.  The signal comes into view and it's a "clear signal", green over red.

Meanwhile, a bunkhouse attendant would be discreetly making up our rooms for the next person. The bathrooms would be checked and the kitchen tidied up.

When that was all done, he or she would put the kettle on for a cup of tea and a couple of biscuits, to be consumed, alone in a corner of the kitchen eating area.  They were the stalwarts of the bunkhouse and, I'm sure...., they didn't receive the recognition they deserved for the silent service they performed.

If the second half of the trip goes as smoothly as the first half, I'll be home in time to read the kids a bed-time story and tuck them into bed.

Thank you, Delores and the others who kept my home-away-from-home so comfortable, clean and homey.

You are not forgotten.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

My ride left without me

Train number Nine, The Rupert Rocket stood on passenger track two in front of the beautiful stone and stucco station at Jasper, Alberta. 

Number 1 had just pulled away from its position on the main line, it's engine passing over the west switch, not with the expected clatter of steel wheels on steel frog and switch points, but instead the muffled creaking of frozen ties being pressed down by the weight of the locomotives and cars as they passed from the Edson sub to the Albreda sub.     

I stopped walking and stood in the cold night air to watch the westbound Super Continental as it forced its way into the darkness,  wearing a train-length skirt of swirling snow and escaping steam.
Soon, the creaking sound made by the departing train gave way to the sound of three FP9's that were now well into the climb to Yellowhead Summit of the Continental Divide about seventeen miles to the west.

The flickering red 'markers' and the dim glow of the vestibule light showed off the wagging tail of steam that emerged with a throaty hiss from the partly opened steam line at the rear of the last car; and it was gone.

Turning toward the station, I continued walking the last half block to the station where I would join my crew to discuss our night's work over a cup of coffee..., if the beanery was still open.

The scheduled departure time for train number 9, The Rupert Rocket was set in the timetable as 21.00.  Number 1 had been running over two hours late due to intensely cold temperatures and blowing snow on the prairies and, fortunately for us, had managed to get out of Jasper before our scheduled departure time.  If it had not, we would likely have been held until after number 1 had departed, so that passengers, mail and express traffic could be loaded on 'the rocket' for destinations on the north line.

I crossed the street and rounded the west end of the station to see my conductor having a conversation with the brakeman who had booked onto the job a couple of trips earlier.  This fellow had taken the job of "Flagman" on the crew and his first two trips showed that he really didn't know much about protecting the rear of the train from following trains.  His uniform was not standard issue and consisted of black jeans, a filthy (used to be) white shirt, a stained passenger trainman's vest and badly scuffed brown leather boots.  On both of the previous trips, he had been admonished by the conductor to clean himself up and come to work properly attired for the job, or get off his crew. 

As I rounded the end of the station, I saw, illuminated by platform lights and under-the-eaves lighting, the conductor and the 'scruffy' brakeman standing face to face, having a discussion.  Actually, it was the conductor who was doing all the talking.  The brakeman listened.

I had expected this, as the conductor had told me on arrival in Jasper that same morning, to come to work that night, prepared to work the tail end, rather than my regular job in the baggage car.  At first, I was upset with his directive, as I really liked the independence afforded by the more private spaces with the baggage and express cars.  But knew that every conductor had the right to place his crew men where ever he felt best suited him.

I was wearing my passenger trainman's dark blue uniform; pants, vest and jacket with my soup pot trainman's hat secured within my travel bag.  I was also wearing black stockings and polished black street shoes inside my heavy black rubber snow boots.  The brakeman who was being spoken to by the conductor was wearing jeans, runners, shirt and a quilted vest for those times when he would be forced to open the doors of the warm baggage car to the frozen night air of the CN North Line in BC's isolated interior.

I will admit that I was pouting, even though I had been assured that my name would be shown as the baggage man on the trip ticket to ensure I received the two or three dollars more that was paid to the baggage man over the trainman, under the collective agreement.

After receiving his verbal 'dressing down' by the conductor, the brakeman picked up his 'grip' and walked over to the leading day coach and climbed aboard.  In a moment, I watched as he passed by the lighted doorway, stopping to toss a scoop full of coal into the stove near 'his' desk.

 He was understandably nervous, for he had taken a pretty angry lecture from the conductor before he got on the train.  I wasn't made party to the discussion, except that I was told that I was not to offer any assistance in the baggage car unless instructed to do so by the conductor.  The chill that was in the air outside, was nothing compared to the chill in the air that surrounded my normally jovial and convivial conductor.

"Shrug it off", I told myself.  "It has nothing to do with me", I thought.

It was obvious to me that we wouldn't be meeting for a friendly cup of coffee, so I greeted my conductor and we had our pre-departure briefing in the crew's booking in room while we read the clearance and train orders that would take us from Jasper to Red Pass Junction. These orders had just been copied and repeated by the operator, from the dispatcher at Kamloops.   At Red Pass, we would obtain fresh orders, dispatched from the dispatchers desk in Prince George, which handled traffic on the North Line.

The trip from Jasper to Prince George was uneventful, except for two or three screw-ups on the part of the baggage man. Each time he made an 'error in judgement', as he called it..., the conductor was all over him like snow in a blizzard.  This just made him more nervous, and further prone to screwing up again at the earliest opportunity. 

Now...., this particular brakeman was a nice enough guy.  He just had a whack of personal habits that many would find socially unacceptable.  Yes, I know there are some among my readers who will know immediately who this fellow was..., even though I'm not going to use his name.  And I know you will agree with my observations of this fellow.  The mistakes he made were never made intentionally; it was just who he was that made him do it that way. 

06.00 couldn't come soon enough for our erstwhile baggage man. That was the time that number 9 was due to arrive in Prince George and Pappy Howard, our engineer from McBride to Prince George brought her in on time.

Prince George was a demarcation point for CN's passenger service on the North Line.  Number 9 was a conventional passenger train, with conventional, mostly heavy-weight cars, pulled by freight locomotives and a steam generator car that provided steam heat to the train.

At Prince George, the service went to Budd Rail Diesel cars for the remainder of the trip to Prince Rupert.  The RDC's left Prince George about an hour and a half after the arrival of our train from Jasper.
Upon  our arrival, the flagman helped with the unloading of passengers and took down the markers to be stored for the return trip.  The front trainman waited until the car men had cut off the steam line to the train, then he guided the engine to the shop track.

Number 10 was due out of Prince George at 23.00 and we gathered at the station to prepare for the train's departure.  With the engine and steam generator in place, the passengers were ushered out onto the platform be entrained.  The day coach passengers were assisted onto the platform stepping boxes and, with a quick look at their tickets, were told to turn left or right at the top of the stairs where they would enter the well-lit passenger coaches to look for the seats that were indicated on their tickets.

Seating was allocated so that 'short-haul' passengers were seated so that those who would be detraining first, would be seated closest to the front door of the leading coach.  People getting off at the second station down the line would take up seats next, and so on.

Usually, the lead coach was almost completely occupied by people who were travelling to points within the first 45 miles from Prince George.  On some nights, Saturdays in particular, every seat in the car would be filled, and there could be several people who had to stand until a seat became vacated by someone who was leaving the train.  At times like these, we were forced to lock the rear door in the last day coach to prevent standing passengers from wandering back into that part of the train that was reserved for overnight travellers who had purchased sleeping car accommodation.  It was the established practice of passenger train crews on this run to keep the door locked until the majority of the 'short-hauls' had been let off the train.  Only then was the flagman, other duties permitting, allowed to wander up to the head end to assist with head-end duties, or to enjoy a cup of that famous baggage-car coffee that was always on.

The reason the flagman stayed at the rear of the train for that long was that the fourth class freight train operating as number 848, or first 848 was due to leave Prince George at 01.30, just two and a half hours behind number 10 and due to the fact that we were operating in 'dark' territory, or train orders and timetable schedules, we had to be watchful that 848 didn't overtake us without being protected against by the flagman. 

It's true that if everything went according to schedule, 848 would leave the station two and a half hours behind the passenger train.  What must be remembered is that, at times, a hundred or more passengers would have to be found (they often went walk-about to help their friends, who were seated in some other part of the car, drink a bottle of lemon gin).  The conductor and the head end brakeman had to pick up the 'hat checks' that had been tucked into the bottom frame member of the pull-down window blinds where each person was sitting.  Then the passengers had to be mustered toward the door with their baggage in tow.  There were numerous non-time table flag stops, as well as station stops and scheduled flag stops in the first 45 miles and the train made very slow headway.  The scheduled running time between Prince George and Hansard (46 miles) was 2 hours and 48 minutes!  That was likely based on the train making track speed and accounting for only the scheduled station stops.  More often than not, the train would be running late by the time it reached Giscome, only 24 miles after beginning the run.

Occasionally, the dispatcher would include, in the sheaf of orders attached to our clearance, a copy of
a Form E time order instructing 848 to run late on its schedule.  For example, the order might read:

No. 848, engine 9042
run 40 minutes late Prince George to Giscome (mile 122.4) and
30 minutes late Giscome to Longworth (mile 79.4)

This was a 'run late' order and gave us some protection against following trains within the times and locations specified in the order. 

Another order, Form U was similar in effect, but worded somewhat differently.

It was know as a Rear Protection' order, or "RP" which gave the train running ahead of the train named in the order, protection from having to flag that train while standing on the main line up until the time specified in the order.  The downside to this order was that it was a timed 'hold' order and could only be issued to a train at one location at a time.  While it was 'second best', it was still better than leaving Prince George with no help from the dispatcher at all.

And this was the case when read the orders issued for our return trip.

There was no "RP" and there was no "Run Late" issued to 848. 

What we had was a meet on 423, a westbound fast freight that ran as an extra, but was treated better by the dispatchers than the passenger train.  We were given an order that read something like this:

No. 10 eng. 9036 meet Extra 9128 west at Willow River.
No. 10 take siding Willow River.

423 was due into Prince George at 24.10 and was running pretty close to the track line-up.

This order added considerable challenge to an already tension-laden run.  We had over 90 short-haul passengers to unload; most of them had spent the hours leading up to train time by drinking as much alcohol as they could consume before making their way to the station, where they leaned against anything that was upright to wait for the signal to enter the waiting train. 

To make matters worse, the temperature was dropping dramatically, threatening to reach minus 35.  This really didn't have too dramatic an effect on the train itself, but when detraining passengers stepped out of the warm coach into the biting frost of the open vestibule, they seemed to be less willing to step into the deep snow found at most of the flag stops along the route.  Physical encouragement was sometimes necessary to keep everything moving along.

Every man on the crew, the conductor, the brakemen, the fireman and the engineer needed to be on the ball this night.  The fireman had agreed to line the switch at Willow River to head us into the siding, and again to leave the siding, while I would return the switches to the normal position after the last car of the train had gone through the turnouts.

We were running a bit late, and I thought that 423 might be at the meeting place before us, meaning that the head end brakeman on the freight would likely line us into and out of the siding at the west end, leaving only the east end of the siding for us to handle.

This wasn't to be, however and, so sure was I that it would be otherwise, I had delayed putting on my heavy over-boots and coat.  I'd left it too long and now I was going to have to get off the train and line the switch back wearing only my uniform and city shoes.

The fireman wasted no time at all getting the switch lined and he stepped back onto the ladder to climb into the cab as Pappy edged the throttle open.  The train moved quickly and smoothly into the siding while I stepped out onto the rear platform and opened the door. 

I stepped down to the bottom step and took a solid grip on the cold steel hand rail.  Leaning out a bit, I saw the flickering red oil lamp on top of the switch stand and gave a signal with my lantern to the fireman, who was watching me from his open window in the engine. 

Holding my lantern high, I 'tipped' it three times to indicate three coaches to the switch.

Then two, and one.  The train slowed to a crawl and I stepped off into the same intense cold and deep snow that our passengers were experiencing when they detrained.  I shivered, and understood their natural reluctance to abandon the warmth of the coach for the hostile night that awaited them. 

I flipped the lock out of the switch-lock keeper and grabbed the handle giving it a hard pull.  The points came over relatively easily and I ran to the rear of the train that had by now stopped just clear of the mainline. 

From the glow of head light on the snow laden trees beside the track, I knew that 423, the extra 9128 west was pulling down the main.  I opened the upper door on the opposite side of the car and leaned out to identify the train we were expecting by engine number and to give the head end crew a wave.

423's power quickly notched up to full throttle and they were speeding away into the night as we drifted through the siding at 10 or 15 miles per hour. 

I stepped into the rear car to keep warm until it was once again time to get off and line the east switch back when we re-entered the main line.

When our train stopped, I went to the rear vestibule platform and watched as the fireman, illuminated by the strong ditch lights of the engine, hurried up to the switch.  Soon he had it lined and turning toward the engine, he gave the engineer a 'proceed' hand signal.  A couple notches on the throttle and our two locomotives came to life and started pulling the train back out onto the 'high iron'.

When the train was about halfway out of the siding, the engine leaned into a left hand curve and soon disappeared from my view.  This didn't concern me, as our astute baggage man (remember him) had swung the big door open and had taken up a position where he could relay my signals to the fireman who would, in turn, relay them to the engineer.

I gave him 'three cars', 'two cars', and 'one car'.  The train slowed to a crawl and I stepped off into the snow while giving a big 'stop' signal.

Gingerly stepping through the snow to the switch, ( I didn't think it would be necessary to struggle into my heavy clothing and boots just to line the switch back) I was shocked to hear the engines revving up! 

I turned in time to see the baggage door closing, closing, closed; and the train pulled away into the darkness.

My mind was racing.  It was already too late to try to catch the train.  It was already going a good clip and I was wearing slippery soled shoes.

I could be in a lot of trouble here.  How far away was 848?  Could I survive until 848 arrived?  Would the crew notice me if they got here before I froze to death?  How long would the battery in my lantern last in the intense cold?  When did I replace it last? 

I knew if was less than five miles to Giscome, and it was a train order office where I might find refuge.  I looked around for one of the dispatcher's line phones that are usually placed near the switches at sidings and other locations.  I couldn't see one.

My ears were really stinging now, and my toes were numbed to painfulness.

Then, I heard a faint, high pitched sound, like a squeal of some unknown origin. Like a dog who thinks he's just heard his kibbles being brought out, I cocked my head and listened for more.  Then, I heard it again!  It was louder, and closer! 

In a few moments, I was happily surprised to see the back end of no. 10, gaily led by those flickering red markers backing up the main line towards me....., against every rule in the book!!! 

The conductor was standing in the vestibule, operating the 'back-up' whistle.  I couldn't have loved that man more than I did at that moment.

There was my conductor, my friend..., Marvin Schwartz coming back to get me after learning that the baggage man had only 'assumed' that he had given me enough time to line the switch back and get aboard the train before he gave the fireman a 'highball' signal.

After learning of this from the baggage man, Marvin hurried to the tail end, his baggage man in tow where he found my compartment empty, my heavy weather coat and boots still inside,  and the rear doors open.  He knew that I had been left behind, and that would never do on his watch.

When I had struggled up the steps I saw that Marvin had the baggage man by the throat and was holding him against the bulkhead of the car.  There was a darkness, a determination about him that I hadn't seen before.  The young man swore to Marvin that I had given him a 'highball' signal and he had relayed it to the fireman.  Marvin told me to step inside the car and get warm, while he had a chat with the baggage man 'in private'.

The baggage man bid another job and wasn't seen on "our crew" again.