Sunday, December 22, 2013

CN's Christmas Train - 1984

It was the night before Christmas, and all through the house
Not a creature was sleeping, not even the .... mouse?

I had worked on the spareboard the whole year through,
Rolling up the miles, like all good hoggers do.
All my vacation time used up, I had no paid days remaining.
The family was packing, suitcases were straining.
Warm socks and sweaters, mittens and slacks.
Our plans were all made; there were no cracks.

I had worked extra shifts, racking up the miles.
We were going away for Christmas.  Look at those smiles!
We gather for dinner, excited at last,
For tomorrow we leave, not driving too fast.
Granny's for Christmas, it's been our plan all year.
Kelowna's our goal, the road's good, I hear.
One more night and we'll be away for a week.
So, off to bed kids!  Have a good sleep.
We want to leave early..., get a jump on the crowd.
What's this? The phone is ringing; it's ever so loud. 
'Tis time for the 'Board Change'. But I have  nothing to fear.
For I have my miles in. I've put in my time for the year.
Should I answer it? It continues to sound.
The crew office perhaps..., I pick it up in one bound.
My mileage date is the 28th, and I'm good to that date.
What lies beyond that, I will accept as my fate.
Be it spareboard or midnight goat
I'll be the hogger and that's all she wrote.
But not just now.  We're off to see Gran.
Gifts are all wrapped. That is the plan
That could be the Crew Office calling to tell me I've been bumped off my spareboard job and onto a yard assignment.  I'm not concerned though.  I have my miles in and it won't hurt to take a few days off to spend Christmas with family.

My hunch, based on countless phone calls coming only minutes before the 18:00 cut-off on Friday evenings, the hour of the weekly board change, was correct.   It was the crew office.  I wasn't being bumped...., it was worse!!!

I was being promoted!  One of the engineers assigned to passenger trains 1 & 2 had taken a leave of absence at the last minute, and I was to take his turn for two weeks or more. 

I tried to beg off, but there was no one else available who had been qualified on steam generators.  I tried to get out of it, but when the Assistant Superintendent came on the line, I knew my appeal had hit the wall!

I told him that we had made plans to spend Christmas with family and couldn't change the arrangements we had in place. 

"Just do what you gotta do," he said.

In a flash, the solution came to me.  "... Do what you gotta do...?"

The next day, December 24th, 1984 found me climbing up the side ladder and into the cab of a CNR FP9a on the head end of number 2 in Vancouver, BC.

In the 2nd engineer's seat, Mark Liggins was looking through the pile of train orders, clearances, bulletins and instructions that would cover our movement over BN track to Sapperton, then CP track to Mission, across the Mission Bridge and onto CN track at Matsqui.  After that, we'd be on home territory to Boston Bar.

Passengers are moving up and down the platform, looking for their assigned car numbers; baggage carts are tranferring baggage and express into our head-end cars; trainmen and porters are standing close to their orange stepping boxes, assisting passengers with their onboard luggage.

The carmen call me to ask for a setup and I apply the brakes for our brake test.  Soon, the brake test completed we get the OK to leave Vancouver.  The train is now on it's way to Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal. 

I had taken the Assistant Superintendent's advice and did what I had to do.  I announced to everyone at the dining room table that our plans had changed and, starting tomorrow, we would spend some of our Christmas Holiday as travellers on the Canadian National Railway's crack 'Holiday' passenger train.  They would get a chance to dine in the fine dining atmosphere of the dining car; would see sights along the way that too few people ever get to see and, would share in an experience at the end of the line that even fewer people could even dream of.   They would spend a night or two sleeping in the bunk house at Boston Bar.  However, because of the change in plans, it was agreed by all, and at the children's request, that the kids would spend Christmas with their father, and would come with us on the New Years run.   We're good to go!

During that two week period, the second engineer, Mark Liggins invited his father to join us on occasion.  Even so, the cab, which had three seats, never seemed to be crowded. 

Train Number Three, standing on the main at Boston Bar is waiting for orders which were being changed, due to a minor derailment somewhere to the west.
 Left to right, Bruce, Mark, Susan and Mr. Liggins Sr.

Number Four, meeting Number One at Mission.  Until later modifications were made to the operation, all trains moving over the crossovers west of CP's Mission station were governed by train orders, block indicators and manually operated switches.  Later developments saw the installation of CTC signals and powered, remotely controlled switches.   Here, our head end brakeman, Lorne, walked up and checked the block indicators, lined the switches and gave us a proceed signal by hand when everything was ready for the train to move westward.  


 In this photo, Number Four is headed by FP9a 6531.  Note, the strobes on the roof of the cab.  this was an eastern modification, and not often seen in the mountains.

Here, Assistant 2nd Engineer-in-training, Susan Harvey is watching for hand signals from the engine watchman who has been filling the engine's water tanks.

The weather had been typical for the south west slope.  It was cool, wet and sometimes foggy.  There were rumours that it could change to snow in a week or so, but for now..., it was to be a wet Christmas. 

On arrival at Boston Bar, the houses above the rail yard were lit up with strings of lights..., white, green, red and blue.  With no traffic on the highway, and only foot traffic on the narrow side-roads, Boston Bar appeared to be hunkered down for a long winter's nap. But, with a large planer mill in operation there, it wouldn't be long before logging trucks, fork lifts and log loaders would be rolling up and down every avenue again. 

But on this night, on Christmas eve, the gentle lights of quiet celebration served up shards of  coloured lights on the snow covered ground.

As we approached the station, bell ringing, the bare incandescent lights that hung under the eaves over the platform created a pool of daylight in the endless darkness.  The baggage cart waited just beyond the express office doors and the lights in the beanery showed up every empty table. 

After spotting the day coaches in front of the station, Mark, Susan and I stepped off onto the platform and walked back to the station where we wished the operator a Merry Christmas.  He told us that we were the only CN crew in town for the night, and the beanery was being held open so we could have dinner before retiring for the night.  Since all of the eating establishments in town were closed for Christmas, we were grateful to CN and the beanery staff for making this service available to us.

Regrettably, I can no longer recall their names, but the man and woman who operated the beanery in those days were fine folks who worked hard to provide good, home-cooked meals on short order and at fair prices. 

When we entered the brightly lit dining area, we found ourselves alone, so chose a table and sat down.  The lady came to our table and told us that we could have whatever we wanted from the menu, at the posted prices; however...., there was a fresh roasted turkey in the kitchen and we were welcome to share in the feast with the staff...., at no charge.  In fact we could eat our fill until midnight and wouldn't have to pay a dime.  And we did.   We had a wonderful dinner, replete with home made half pound butter tarts!!!!

Leaving the beanery, we walked over to the bunkhouse where we found the two storey building lit up, warm, clean and inviting..., but empty.   Therefore, we booked into our rooms and eventually turned in for the night.

Marks father drove to Boston Bar a took Mark home for Christmas, planning to bring him back before train time in the morning.

In 14 days, I made 7 round trips.  On four of those trips, my wife travelled with me. On the New Years trip, the kids came along too.

On the trip prior to New Years Eve, Delores, the woman who was in charge of the bunkhouse told me that the towns-people had invited us to join in the New Years festivities in Boston Bar.   I told her that I was grateful, but that we would have the children with us on that night, so would stay in the bunkhouse.  Delores told me that the ladies were aware of that and had arranged for a baby sitter to be available for us.  Wow!  Thank you Delores, where ever you are.

When we left Vancouver on New Years Evening, Mark was staying in the bunkhouse and he volunteered to keep an eye on the children so that Susan and I could go to the New Years Eve dance at the community center.

It had been snowing hard all day and the news was getting worse with each passing hour.  Only the passenger trains were being kept moving.  The highway was closed both east and west of Boston Bar.  

With driving snow skidding over growing drifts, we set out from the bunkhouse and turned up the hill toward the community center.  After only a couple of hundred feet of plowing through the drifing snow, we heard the voice of a man calling out to us.  Standing in the open doorway of a nearby house was Phil Moreau, one of the CN operators.  He waved to us and invited us in for an appy.  We were happy to join Phil and his lady for a visit.   When we got inside their house, we saw that they were prepared for a much larger party, but we were the only ones there.  Phil said that they had planned their New Years Eve party for months and were to be joined by friends who would drive in from Kamloops and beyond.  The snowstorm now in progress had changed their plans.  No one was coming and the table and sideboards were heavily laden with goodies.  We thought we would be doing a good turn by staying to ring in the New Year with Phil and his lady.

The next morning, with snow still falling heavily, we set out on Number 1.  With the train drifting lazily down the gentle grade out of Boston Bar, and large snowflakes seemingly hanging in the air, we listened to the thrumming of the 567's, easy exhaust sounds and steam escaping from uncountable leaks and vents.

By the time we left Yale, 27 miles from Boston Bar, Mark, Susan and I had been joined by a variety of senior CN officers who were enjoying a mid-winter break, coupled with a head-end ride on the old FP9's.   Lorne had brought them up from the coaches, and he also brought tall, strong coffees and warm muffins for the engineers.  He knew that I could use one after last night's revelry at Phil's house.  Thanks Lorne.

None of them questioned the presence of my wife in the cab and I wasn't concerned that they might.

After all, I was just obeying an order from my Assistant Superintendent when he said that I must "do what you gotta do."

There have been a lot of changes since 1984.  The FP9's don't pull passenger trains on CN main lines any more.  Stations and their beaneries have vanished, passenger service in Canada has nearly gone the way of the dinosaurs.  But, for now, and at least for the foreseeable future we still have Christmas, the winter Solstice and the new year.

Thank you, good friends, for sharing with each other throughout the year.  And thank you for reading Caboose Coffee's stories, which are my gift to you.

In closing, please accept my humble offering of a wish for a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.


Mark Liggins sent an email with his recollections of our time together on the passenger train (backed up by his trip notes of the day).  I added his email to this blog in the "comments" section, below.