Friday, December 30, 2011

There Will Be A Reckoning

To quote the late John Denver who wrote...,  "Hey, it's good to be back home again".

After two and a half days of  blood tests, cultures, x-rays and 'hallway medicine', I was released from the hospital yesterday to return home.  Initially, I had reservations about this, as my symptoms hadn't improved to a point that I felt I was on the mend.  However, all the test results came back negative, and a change in drug treatment was prescribed.  

I came home to my own bed, home cooking, my loving wife and a very happy dog.    I'm feeling better today than I have in many weeks.  

Our thanks and gratitude go out to all of you, and there are many who sent messages of concern, your prayers, and strength for us both. 

I too, wish you a very Happy New Year!


It was bound to happen!

I wrote a story that appeared in the last installment that was not entirely accurate.  The story was based on something that was shared with me over 45 years ago by an old-timer from the mountain country of the headwaters of the North Thompson River.

I realize that the odds of my source being unsure of the details are virtually non-existent, so..., the error must be mine.  And there is more than one error in the story of "the runaway log car".

The good news is that a number of readers have been thumping on the tom-toms and I now have a pretty good idea what really happened out there on that fateful day.  Information, recollections and theories have been pouring in for a couple of days and I will work on a re-write which should appear within the next few days. (It's New Years, after all)

Many thanks to those of you who have taken the time to fill in the blanks in my story, and many apologies to those of you will have to go back and read the even-more-exciting story a second time.

Let me take this opportunity to wish each and every one of you a very happy New Year.  From the warmth of our caboose to you in your homes, we wish you a very healthy and prosperous 2012.

The Harvey Family

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

As Promised, Three Stories by Guest Story Tellers.

When I arrived in Jasper in 1965, I found the majority of the men I was called to work with were quite willing to share their extensive knowledge of, not only railroading, but also all of the local and regional history, color and culture.  At that time, many of the communities west of the BC/Alberta border were accessible only by rail, river or air travel.  The major roads and highways that one finds on today's maps either didn't exist, or were traveled only during the dry months.

Some of those who shared their stories with me were sons of the early settlers who came to the area, either with the railway construction crews just after the turn of the last century or..., were pioneers in their own right.

The following story, as related to you by Ray Matthews, a retired CN conductor, and later, an officer of the railroad is one that was told by one of those early pioneers, a son of an early settler family and CN locomotive engineer named Ken Cook.  Ken's family lived and worked in a small town named Gosnell, deep in BC's central interior.  Ken was born at Gosnell circa early 1900's.

During Ray Matthew's many years of working in the mountain territory of BC and Alberta for CN, he heard many tales from men like Ken Cook, so when a photograph came to me via an email chat group, it stirred up a memory of a story that Ken Cook had briefly described to me forty-six years ago.  It was a tale of high adventure, riveting anxiety and 'seat of your pants' railroading.

CNR T4b Class Steam Locomotive number 4326 at Gosnell, BC   1953
From the collection of Thom Cholowski:  Saskatoon

Feeling that I was rather short on details for this story, I emailed Ray to ask him to fill in with any details he might have at his disposal.  The following is provided by Ray:

Hi Bruce, You’re right on all counts. Ken Cook was born there (Gosnell)  and often talked about the area. I think he had a trap line around there and he told me he had walked up toward the headwaters of the North Thompson river, about 40 miles. I think his trap line ran up that way.

You are right about the runaway log cars as well. I really can’t recall enough to be really sure, but I think the west mixed train, 391, was switching at Gosnell. They had kicked a load of logs onto the train, and went back into the log spur with the engine. The joint didn't make, and the car of logs started to roll westward. It ran thru the spur switch and Ian MacRae, who was the rear trainman found he couldn't get the flatcars' handbrake applied because of the logs overhanging a bit. So away it went with the mixed train’s locomotive in pursuit.

They called the dispatcher, who I think was Arden Dixon. He in turn called No. 4 which was just east of Thunder River. He told them to stop and get off the engine, but the crew figured they could get into clear at Pyramid. The just made it when the car came around the corner at what they figured was around 40 mph. The mixed train’s unit got in touch with No. 4, told him to stay at Pyramid, and continued after the logs. I am not sure whether or not they caught up with the car or if it stopped, but it all ended somewhere west of Thunder River. No idea of discipline, or even the date for sure, but it was certainly after radios were in practice, and ABS in operation. That's all I can tell you for sure, and some may be quite incorrect. After all, it was around 50 years ago.

Ray Matthews - Mission, BC


Our second story is one that is offered by Jim Munsey, of Edmonton Alberta.  Jim's career covered many years with CN where he got his start as a train order operator in western Alberta.  During the course of his lengthy career, Jim rose through management to hold very responsible positions in major CN centers across Canada.  He was the son of a Telegrapher and grew up living in stations where his father worked and spent his own lifetime working for CN Rail. Through his career on CN, he was an Operator, Dispatcher, Rules Officer, Superintendent of Transportation and Manager of Safety and Accident Prevention.
This is one of Jim's reminiscences, about one young brakeman's early experience working on the Alberta Coal Branch.

Setting up retainers on the coal branch was a fairly frequent occurrence and as I remember, it was mostly done on the run. I admired the guys who would brave the dangers of walking along the top with their brake club and I doubt if I would have had the courage to do the same. Your story reminded me of one you might enjoy.

When my buddy Bob Reynolds first hired on as a trainman on the coal branch working out of Edson, he made his usual three student trips and was placed on the spare board. Without much experience, he was called as the head end trainman on a Cadomin turn with Harry Wilson as the hoghead with a Santa Fe engine.    They picked up a full tonnage train for a 4300 at Cadomin which as I remember, would have been about 48 loads of coal.

CNR 2-10-2   CN T4a Class Steam Locomotive Also known as a Santa Fe class engine
From the collection of Bruce Harvey

When they left Cadomin on their way back, it was a New Years eve. In those days you worked when you were called and there was no consideration for statutory holidays. Before starting down the hill from Mercoal to Coalspur, Harry decided he needed some retainers on the head end. Being a close friend of Bob's dad, fellow hoghead Freddy Reynolds, and knowing Bob was a greenhorn, Harry didn't have the heart to send Bob back on the move in the dark so he stopped at Mercoal. With brake club and lantern in hand, Bob started back cross the top and soon heard what sounded like rife fire. He assumed it was firecrackers being set off by holiday revelers. When he got back to the engine they took off and continued their trip home.

A few days later, Don Weeks, who had also hired on as a trainman about the same time as Bob, was having a beer or two with Bob and I.  He told us that while in the beer parlour at Coalspur a few days earlier, he overheard a fellow telling his friends about a wild New Year's party he attended in Mercoal.  Evidently, someone spotted this strange light bobbing up and down moving southward in the pitch black about 20 feet off the ground. Someone offered a bottle of whiskey to anyone who could shoot the light out with a hunting rifle.

Surprised,  Bob realized that what he heard was real gunfire!  He thanked his lucky stars that nobody was good enough, or was too dunk to hit his lantern or any part of his body.

Harry Wilson was a real character. He had a brother living in Jamaica and every Christmas, his brother would hollow out two loaves of bread, shove a bottle of 100% over proof rum into the each cavity and wrap them up as Christmas presents. Bob and I decided to pay Harry and his wife a Christmas morning visit and I recall Harry taking the lid off one of these bottles, walked to the back door and after opening it, he threw the lid as far as he could onto the snow in his back yard. Bob and I had a couple of swigs and left to attend a 11:00K church service as he had promised his mother he would do . We arrived late and the church was nearly full so the usher took us down the aisle to the front row. Bob's dad was sitting on the aisle near the front and was we passed him, he was winding his railway pocket watch. He was so surprized to see us;  with a startled look in his eyes, he immediately quit winding his watch and put it in his vest pocket.

Jim Munsey - Edmonton, AB


Beginning in 1974 and 1981, (W.C.) Butch Whiteman worked as a Trainmaster for CN in the Mountain Region.  In 1978 I went to Red Deer as the Trainmaster as I said. From there I went to Prince George in 1981 as Ass't Supt. for the Northline. Then I spent 2 years in Montreal as a system operations control officer, coming back to Edmonton in 1984.

I've either personally worked or have had responsibility on virtually every subdivision on the Mountain Region including Vancouver Island. And there isn't a subdivision that I haven't been over - either by train or on a hi-rail. Some of it is a little more familiar than others, but I've been on them all - including a lot that have been abandoned for years.

Butch Whiteman writes the following for our third story:

This story dates back to the Fall of about 1960 when CN still had wooden cabooses. It was just after radio was installed in the Dispatching offices and equipped on engines. In the wooden caboose days, each train crew was assigned a caboose as it became their home at the turn-around point. My father was a Conductor working out of Kamloops Jct. at this particular time and was assigned to the Freight Pool on the Ashcroft Sub.

Kamloops Jct. is located about 5 highway miles from the city of Kamloops. Because of the distance and because few people owned cars at that time, CN operated a bus service from the CN Station on Lorne Street in Kamloops to the Junction where crews reported for duty. The Dispatching office was located in the Station on Lorne St. and if a person walked to the station and was there ahead of the bus, it was common practice for road employees to drop into the office to see what was happening on the road, and get an idea of when they were coming back home.

Business was not all that brisk on CN in 1960. This was a time before any type of unit trains like lumber, coal, sulphur or potash were running. There was the odd long train of grain and grain empties operated, but we didn't have long sidings yet to accommodate long trains in both directions on the same day, so they were infrequent. Intermodal traffic was still years away and not even a pipe dream at that time.

CN operated about 4 - maybe 5 - trains a day each way in addition to the two transcontinental passenger trains. Our eastbound speed train was called No. 420 and it followed passenger train No. 4 out of Vancouver everyday except Monday.

I was a young brakeman still living with my parents at home at this time. I was called one morning for No. 420 and was going to be on the crew going on the Clearwater Sub. from Kamloops to Blue River. I walked down to the Station and because the bus still hadn't arrived from the Jct. to take us there to work, I went into the Dispatching office to see what was going on. When I entered the office, I recognized the Ashcroft Sub. Dispatcher standing in the middle of the front office talking to the Asst. Chief Dispatcher.

As soon as I entered the door, he looked at me and said: "This is the Conductor's kid.... we better tell him what's going on." I didn't know what the problem was, but I knew my Dad was coming from Boston Bar to Kamloops on the Ashcroft Sub. this day and no doubt whatever it was, had something to do with him.

They told me that the R.C.M.P. had received a report that fish were seen being loaded "into the cab of the hot-shot" at Boston Bar. Fishing of salmon going upstream to spawn is illegal except for the Native population for their own use. The purchasing of such fish is illegal. The Fisheries Dept. wanted the train stopped, the caboose searched and to confiscate any fish found, and charge the employees with poaching. Of course, the Railway was obligated to comply with whatever instructions the police gave.

When this report was given to the CN Dispatching office, the train still had not reached Lytton which is about 25 miles east of Boston Bar. As Lytton was the closest place from Boston Bar where the train could be stopped and the search done, the police wanted the train stopped there so they could make their inspection. The Company complied with the request by giving the train a red train order board which requires the train to come to stop for orders. The R.C.M.P. intended to get on the caboose at the moment the train stopped and instruct the crew not to leave until they completed their search.

Because the Dispatcher didn't have any orders for the crew, the Clearance showed 'orders nil'. Now by rule, only the engine has to stop at the train order signal..... not the caboose. When the Engineer read the Clearance and saw that there was no restrictions to his train at that location, he released the brakes and pulled out of town, picking up speed as he departed.

The police were not in position to get on the caboose when the train stopped and as it picked up speed too quickly for them to get on while it was moving, they lost their chance to make their inspection there. The Police Officer did yell at the tailend crew on the caboose as it passed him (presumably to stop), but they thought he was just yelling hello, so they yelled hello back to him and continued on their way.

The CN rail line is not all that accessible to any roads on the Ashcroft Sub, so the police decided to wait until the train got to Kamloops Jct. to make their inspection. 

Showing inaccessibility of CN's Ashcroft subdivision
Photographer not known.  From the collection of Bruce Harvey

When this part of the story was related to me in the Dispatching Office, I naturally wanted them to get in touch with the crew on the radio and tell them what was going on. But at that time, radio was brand new to us, and no one was sure just how much monitoring was being done by the Railway Transport Committee or even the R.C.M.P., so nobody would take a chance on 'going public' with a warning of this nature. However, they did tell me that they had tried to get a warning to my Dad via the Engineer on Passenger Train No. 1.

Like me, the outgoing Engineer on No. 1 that night had stopped in to talk to the Dispatcher while waiting for the bus. After the situation was explained to him, he said he would call the crew on the radio and tell them that the machinist had left a monkey wrench on the engine at the Jct. and he was going to throw it off to them at the switch, and ask them if they would take this wrench back for him. But instead of it being a monkey wrench, it would be a fusee with a note attached to it advising the crew that the police would be waiting at Kamloops to inspect the caboose for fish. They told me that this was the very best they could do.

Shortly after being advised of all this, the bus arrived and I got on to ride over to the Jct.

At the Jct., the bus stops at the Engineers booking-in room before it goes on down to the Yard Office where I was going. When the bus stopped there, I glanced across to the yard and saw that No. 4 had just arrived on the main line and the outgoing Engine crew was climbing up into the cab of the engine. This told me that the train had just arrived.

After I got off the bus and walked over to the yard office, I saw two uniformed R.C.M.P. constables standing near the beanery door watching the passengers move about. They looked inconspicuous enough, but I knew the real reason of why they were there. My Dad's train still hadn't arrived at that point in time.

I decided to walk down the yard and around the curve toward the west switch where the train entered the yard, and where the police couldn't see me get on the caboose. I did this and when I got on, I told my Dad that the police were there to take any fish you might have. Dad looked at me strangely and said "we haven't got any fish".

With that exchange, I detrained from the caboose and walked back toward the yard office, watching as my Dad and his tailend brakeman got off the moving caboose opposite the yard office. The police jumped on as both the tailend brakeman and my Dad got off, but they couldn't get in as the caboose door was locked. I was in the yard office when the police came in and made the Brakeman go back with them to open the caboose and wait for an inspection of it. I had to attend to my duties going out on the outbound train, so that was the end of it as far as I was concerned.

When I got back from my trip to Blue River, I found out what really happened: It was true that neither my Dad nor any of his crew knew what was going on. The police turned that caboose upside down looking in every cupboard, the coal bin, the water tank and under the mattresses for fish, but of course, couldn't find anything.

My Dad told me that when their train started moving at Lytton, the tailend brakeman was on the back step and in position to retrieve their orders on the fly at the station. Both my Dad and the brakeman had seen the police at Lytton and heard him yelling at them, but with the noise of the moving train, they thought he was just yelling hello, so they yelled hello back and carried on.

The message attached to the fusee thrown off at the switch at the meeting point was meaningless to the headend brakeman on Dad's crew. He knew they didn't have any fish on either the engine or the caboose so he didn't even pass the message back to the tail end, leaving my Dad and his tailend brakeman totally in the dark about what was going on.

At this point, I started thinking about the passenger train and what was going on with the engine crew trading off opposite the Engineers booking-in room at the Jct.   No. 4's out-going engine crew was climbing up the ladder into the cab of the engine which is normal, but the incoming engineer and fireman were back at the doorway into the engine compartment of the engine which is not so normal. 

Photo credit Bruce Harvey

My uncle happened to be the Engineer on the in-coming passenger train.

The Fireman was passing down garbage bags which turned out to be bags of fish that my Uncle had obtained from the Natives at Boston Bar. This was going on right on the mainline and in plain view of everyone including the police, but their focus was not directed to anything on the passenger train. What turned out to be "the cab of the hotshot" wasn't the caboose of No. 420, but rather the Engine of No. 4.

My Mom ended up with a sockeye salmon to bake and I have to admit, this one did seem to taste especially good! 

Butch Whiteman - Edmonton, AB

Great stories gentlemen!!   Thanks for sharing them with us.


Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas Arrives on the Albreda Sub.

For weeks, the railroad has been working 24 hours each day in an effort to clear a backlog of traffic.  A couple of major snowstorms that have blown in from the Arctic closed the rail line temporarily.  Crews battled the elements as the snow filled trackside ditches and formed deep drifts across the landscape.  In places where the wind was kept away by steep mountain terrain, the snow fell, and gathered where it lay.  Fir and cedar trees became laden with heavy snow while the roofs of section houses, motor car sheds and telephone cross arms carried great caps of snow that seemed to flow like slowly melting ice cream.

Snow plow crews, working around the clock became exhausted; as the snow continued to fall, it became ever more difficult for the plows and spreaders to throw the snow over the tops of the increasingly higher snow banks along the track.  Eventually, the snow that the plow threw up the bank slid back onto the tracks as the caboose passed.

Trains following the plow tried valiantly to keep moving up the steep grades, pushing through snow and ice. Far too soon, the pipes that delivered dried sand to the rails in front of the driving wheels became plugged with snow, stopping the flow of sand.

Well aware of this, we had spent nearly an hour using hammers, pipe wrenches, fusees and lengths of wire coat hangers to clear all of the sand pipes on every engine in our consist before we left Blue River.

The plow train is running ahead of us and has a thirty-five minute head start.
Photo Credit: Phil Mason - CP equipment is similar to CN's

All is ready and we pull ahead slowly while the tail end crew does a run-by inspection of the train.  Once they're on, the throttle is opened up and the exhaust stacks bark with the determination of a dog-sled team leaning into their load.  We leave Blue River behind us as we head east, and home.

Photo Credit:

Roaring through Red Sand and Thunder River, we throw ourselves at the steep grade ahead.  As we begin our ascent, the staccato barking of the exhaust changes its tone, the high pitch of steel wheels running on steel rails changes its song, lowering its voice to match the low groan of the big diesel engine behind the electrical cabinet at the back of the cab.

Now we wait while the locomotive does it's work.   I pour my first cup of hot coffee, cream and sugar from my Thermos bottle.  The engineer takes a half-smoked cigar from a pocket in his over-all bib where the gold chain is attached to his pocket watch and to a button hole in the bib.  Clenching the cigar between his teeth, he strikes a wooden match against the control stand and lights the remnants of his cigar.

Photo credit: RBH.  Engineer Clarence Neis and brakeman Spike Hudson

The old time children's song comes to mind as the sound of wheels on rail joints makes a clickety-clack sound.  The wheels are saying..., "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can".

Opening the window and listening to the sound of the wheels on the rails, I can hear the driving wheels slip and chatter as they fight to maintain their grip on the snow covered rail head.  Inside the cab, a white light flashes brightly in front of the engineer.  Every time one of the locomotives wheels slip, the 'wheel slip' warning light flashes 60 watts of light into the engineers eyes.  The engineer pulls a paper cup from the holder beside the water bucket.  He carefully pulls at it, spreading it out on his lap as the cup's folds yield to his efforts.  In no time, he has flattened the cup into a white, waxed paper disc.   He pushes the round paper into the recess in the control stand dash board in front of him.  We know the wheels are slipping, so there's no need for the continuously flashing warning light in the cab.  The sanders are left on, despite the wheel slip warnings.  Perhaps one or more of the sanders on trailing units are not yet plugged.  We have to keep the train moving; to stop in this area might mean not being able to re-start it on the hill.  It occurs to us that we might have to "double the hill" if we stall before reaching the crest at Albreda.

The speedometer is dropping, just a little.  Snow on the rails, blocked sanders and a tonnage train were taking their toll on our progress.  The speedometer needle settles in, bouncing between 8 and 10 miles per hour.  The radio crackles with the conductor's voice.  He's been thinking the same thing as we have..., will we have to double the hill?  If we stall, the tail end brakeman will have to go flagging in accordance with Rule 99; handbrakes will have to be set on the tail end portion of the train to hold it in place while the engineer and I take thirty or forty cars up to Albreda, leave them secured in the siding and return for the remainder of the train. This could necessitate a change in our train order authority and would result in a serious delay to our train and any others that would be on the subdivision, whether moving eastward or westward.

I believe this photo is of an ex-CNR F7A in Prince George's railway museum.

We told him that we were holding at 8 mph and would let him know the minute that a change was noted.  I think he breathed a sigh of relief, simultaneously with us.

Night was falling, and the temperature was dropping.  The rails grew colder, and as they did, they became drier.  The wheel slip light did not flash as frequently as it had.  The speedometer picked up a couple of miles per hour.  The conductor called saying, "That feels better"!

The rail gods were smiling on us, and we knew it.

Soon, the engine rattled over the spring switch at the west end of Albreda siding.  The speedometer continued to climb.  The little white station building came into view and, above it the semaphore train order signal stood erect, displaying a bright green light against a clearing winter sky.

Picking up the radio handset from its cradle, I pressed the mike button and called out..."Clear board Albreda!"

"Clear Board Albreda", replied the tail end brakeman.

Photographer unknown.  Photo depicts a typical train order board that was used to inform crews on trains of the presence of updated train orders, or instructions governing the movement of their train relative to other trains operating in their territory or on their subdivision.  

With the speedometer now passing 25 miles per hour, he notches the throttle down a bit and taking the automatic brake valve in his hand, he makes a reduction in brake pipe pressure to activate the train's brakes.  We're tipping over the top of the hill to begin our descent from Albreda to Cedarside and Valemount.

The worst of the trip now seemed to be behind us.  The snow wouldn't be quite as deep on the hill between Jackman and Red Pass, and from Red Pass to Jasper, it would be pretty easy going, being relatively flat or, at worst, a few miles of gentle descending grade from the Yellowhead Pass, where water flows both east and west, to Jasper.

As our engines clattered and rumbled across the steel bridge over the headwaters of the Fraser River, another "clear board" welcomed us at Red Pass.  Like Albreda and Valemount, the train order office was darkened.  The only light in the darkness was the green light on the semaphore signal.

One more train order board to Lucerne, and we'd be home free for our final run to Jasper.

With the train order board at Lucerne bearing "green", now several miles behind us, the engineer called the yardmaster at Jasper for instructions.

"Yard your train in track three", he said.  "And put your power to the shop...if you can find room for it!"

There was just one clear track left in the yard when we arrived and it had been kept that way in anticipation of our arrival.  We were the last train on the road, and once we had tucked it away, put the power to the shop track and delivered the bills to the office.... everybody was going home; in time for dinner, family and friends.

It was Christmas Eve.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Spotting the Tilbury Island Rail Barge

The 1900K Tilbury Island Turn isn't the worst job a spare board hogger could be called for on a Saturday night in December.  When I called the crew office at 1500K, I was told that they were going to order at least five extra yards for Port Mann, one for Vancouver's downtown Main Yard, one for Lynn Creek and a number of Transfers between Port Mann, Vancouver and Lynn Creek.  It was only a couple of weeks before Christmas and rail traffic was quite heavy.  The plant was working to capacity in order to get the yards cleaned up so that westbound trains wouldn't have to be set out on line over the holidays.  Can you imagine the security concerns that would be placed on CN's Police Force of two officers with authority over territory from Prince Rupert to Vancouver?

Catching a yard assignment, or a transfer wouldn't be all that bad, but when there are so many crews working in the Greater Vancouver Terminal at the same time, a certain chronic problem could develop.  CN had purchased  Motorola 8-channel radios for their train and engine crews to conduct their railway business on.  "Railway Business" was actually a pretty broad paint brush that included end-to-end communications between head end and tail end crews on transfers, train-to-train communications between transfers and road freight engines while they were in the yard, communications between the control tower in Port Mann and every job that was working anywhere on the south side of the Fraser River, all communications between transfers and tramp jobs, with the New Westminster Rail Bridge, and communications with the Burlington Northern Dispatcher at Sapperton/New Westminster.

Photo Credit....Forums-Radio

Some nights,  the radio traffic became so intense that many trains and engines came to a halt while they waited for a break in the transmissions so they could try to get instructions or to broadcast their locations, etc.  At night, all yardmen used electric hand lanterns to give signals to each other and to their engineers, but at a distance of 20 car lengths or more, and two or more crews working on adjacent tracks, it became very difficult to determine if the signal you were seeing in the dark was meant for you, or for the engine near you.

Some crews would occasionally resort to raiding a caboose for fusees which they would use, just so that their signals would be unique.  On one occasion, my foreman and his helpers pulled out their "fog whistles" and we worked on whistle signals until radio traffic settled down.  Oh, yes...."fog whistles".... Port Mann yard could get pretty foggy, so crews would use whistles, similar to those you might envision a traffic cop having clenched between his teeth.  If there were too many crews working in close proximity, the same problem arose.  I'd be hiked up on one "cheek" with my left foot braced against the base of the control stand and my head pushed out of the window, listening for signals from my crew.  If I was in reverse and moving backward, I would stop on a single blast...then would hear two or three 'back up' signals and a stop....all at the same time.  In that case..., everybody would come to a halt until things got sorted out.

This would be one of those nights for the crews working the lead jobs in Port Mann, but I was going to Tilbury and would be out of the fray for several hours.

After checking our watches with each other, reading and signing the Bulletin Books, checking our BN orders and clearance and gearing up for a wet night, we headed out the door and into the wet, blustery mercury vapor lights that illuminated the shop tracks.

We soon found our assigned locomotives; a pair of 4200 class GP9's of 1957 vintage.  They were coupled up, back to back with their long hoods leading and their rain-streaked steel bodies glistening in the yellow-orange light from the big overhead lamp standards.  A big low-pressure front had moved in from the Pacific and it hadn't weakened as it climbed over Vancouver Island to the west.  The wind caught the diesel exhaust from twenty locomotives, tearing it from the spark arrestors tucked snugly against their roofs and whipping it away into the darkness beyond the shops.

The waters of Georgia Strait would be ugly tonight.  The wind had continued all day from the south-west, swinging through the south-east and back again.

MV Shelley Ann II.  Our home for nearly five years.

Our boat, the Shelley Ann II had been lunging at her lines most of the day and all evening and the Coast Guard had been broadcasting warnings of gusts that might reach 90 knots at Vancouver International Airport, just a few miles downriver from Port Mann yard and even less from Tilbury Island.

We knew that it would be difficult for the rail barge, the Seaspan Greg to come up the river from Steveston to the rail barge slip at Tilbury, and even more difficult to place the barge in a position where we could pull and spot it.  Tonight's operation would be a delicate one.

On our way from the shop tracks to the yard, we reached into the caboose track and pulled a serviced caboose out to put on the east end of our 12 car train that had been made up in the yard and left on the number three switching pull-back at the west end of the yard.

There was just enough room to shove the caboose onto our little train and still clear Sullivan street, a small, local access road that crossed over the main line, the by-pass tracks and the four pullback tracks.  CN vehicles and local gill-net fisherman who tied their boats up by the log booms at the edge of the river were the only users of this road.

Once the engine was coupled on to the west end of our train, the car men were called out to conduct our air test.  Within ten minutes, we had the 'all clear' from the car foreman and we crept out of the yard.  Soon we were on the westbound "main", part of a two track entry/exit for traffic moving to and from the New Westminster rail bridge and traffic to and from Townsend, Brownsville and Tilbury.  We passed the Gyproc plant where we stopped to line a switch that would take us beneath the easterly, or southern approaches to the New Westminster rail bridge on a route that would parallel the Fraser river toward Delta and Tilbury Island.

First, we had to get permission from the BN Dispatcher to enter the BN signaled siding at Brownsville and from there, enter the BN main line for a short run to the Tilbury Branch line that would take us eventually, to the rail barge slip.

Once we had left the BN main line, we were back on CN track which carried us slowly and carefully across the Burns Bog, a huge, environmentally delicate peat bog where the peat beneath the track is many dozens of meters deep.  On the Branch, the ride smoothed out noticeably, as if the railroad had been built on a huge mattress.

On arrival at the end of track, we found the small, three track yard empty, an empty ferry slip and a barge slip attendants' shack that was completely dark.  The conductor and rear-end trainman walked up from the caboose and climbed into the cab.  In the time it took to walk the length of our short train, their boots were soaked, their mitts were dripping and their black rubber rain suits looked as if they had just stepped out of the showers, which they had.  After a short discussion, it was decided that we should call the control tower at Port Mann and ask them if they had an update on the ETA of the Seaspan Greg which had not yet arrived at Tilbury.  After three or four attempts, we gave up trying to dig a hole in the crammed radio chatter on channel four, the only channel that the tower would be monitoring.  The conductor thought he knew where the attendant's shack key might be hidden, so he and the tail end man left to see if they might find it and let themselves in, light a fire in the stove and wait for the barge to show up.

Within and hour or so, some red, white and green navigation lights emerged from the storm just in time to welcome the barge slip attendant and his helper who arrived about the same time.

The photo above, represents a modern barge system which has been adapted to carry the large amount of truck traffic that has replaced most of the rail traffic between Vancouver Island and the greater Vancouver area.  Rail traffic on Vancouver Island has dwindled in recent years due to economic conditions as well as deteriorating track and infrastructure conditions.
After nearly an hour of manouvering; driving the barge toward the open slip, then being blown off the mark and pulling back to try again, the vessel finally got it timed just right and rammed the hull into its slot.  It then took a little while for the slip attendants to lower the ramps down far enough to lock them in place with the open deck of the barge which was pitching and rolling in the furious storm.

It was decision time.  While the barge was securely fastened to the ramps, and the ramps were secured to the lead track, the whole thing was in a state of constant, confused motion.  It was too dangerous to try to reach out onto the barge with the light skeletonized flat cars that were stored in the yard for that purpose.

It was considered safer to wait for a lull in the storm and take a look at the situation then.

We cut the engine off the train and ran back through a clear track to come against the half dozen or so 'reachers' that were in track three.  If we did get a short break in the storm, we would be ready to shove ahead and perhaps pull the cars from the barge before the next round of screaming wind and rain.

The photo above was taken by Doug Wingfield, and presents CPR's rail barge system, typically found operating on British Columbia's large interior lakes.  These barges, powered by freshwater tugs, carried rail cars, locomotives and cabooses..., the whole train, from one point to another.  This was necessitated by topography that had proved too difficult to support track and roadbed.  It became more economic to transport rail traffic around the geographic obstacles.  Note:  the cars next to the locomotive are flat cars that are used as "reachers" that enable the locomotive to pull or shove cars on and off the barge without tipping it too far one way or the other.

Back at Tilbury, the head-end guy and I got the engine in position and settled in to wait.

Channel four had now become so jammed up with radio traffic that we decided to turn down the volume so that we couldn't hear the racket.  I called the conductor to tell him that if he wanted me, all he had to do would be to flash his electric lantern at me and I'd come back on the radio for instructions.

In the cab, we were warm and dry.  The cab lights were on and the heaters were pumping out enough heat to evaporate all of the water that had followed the crew in from the outside.  I pulled off my water proof jacket and got up to stretch my legs and hang the jacket on an electrical cabinet door latch.

Photo credit...the author's wife, Susan Harvey

We began to talk, to share stories, to bitch and complain and to generally draw up a plan with which we would change the way the railroad was being run, including who we would keep and who we would fire.

Soon, the conversation elevated to things like our favourite watering holes and animal husbandry.

Of course, I had a real life experience that I recalled from my high school days when a friend called me one winter night and asked me if I could give him a hand feeding the pigs at his fathers farm, a few miles outside of Sudbury, Ontario.

It was minus 30 degrees F. when we arrived and he and I let ourselves into the barn.  I had never been inside a pig barn and was interested in everything that I could see.  My friend was willing to tell me all about it.
Then...., he told me that there was a young sow in the barn that had just gone into her first heat and should be bred by one of the boars before much more time had passed.  Then he went outside into the night and came back five minutes later, pulling a huge boar behind him.

The boar knew exactly what was expected of him and the sow seemed to be rather inclined to hide under a bale of straw.  But this was not to be.  My friend pointed out to me that the boar was so large that if he was allowed to do what was about to come naturally to him, his great weight would crush the little sow.  So..., we were going to have to each take one of the boar's front legs and carry as much of his weight as we could while he ....well...., you know what I mean.

In the telling of this story, I did what I do best... I used my natural talent as a raconteur relating the entire tale without missing a single, curly detail.

I had only just reached the end of the story, when I noticed a pair of automobile headlights pitching and yawing along the muddy, pothole riddled road as it rapidly approached the locomotive.

A moment later, the General Yardmaster burst into the cab and, reaching for the radio handset that was cradled in its holder on the side of the radio, just within my reach....he released the "TRANSMIT" button that had been stuck in the  'open' position ever since we had put the locomotive on top of the reachers.

For over an hour, every railway radio receiver within twenty miles had picked up my  dissertation on the re-organization of the railroad and the story animal husbandry....LOUD AND CLEAR.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Northern Ontario Extra Gang - 1962

My earliest memories are of trains.  Our house in Capreol, Ontario was within sight of the CNR mainline to Ottawa, Toronto and Winnipeg.  Every train that traveled across Canada, went right past the front of my house.

In 1940's and 50's, the highway systems were not as widespread or efficient as they are today. People and goods moved primarily by rail, whether it was across the county or across the country and almost everyone knew the train schedules as well as they knew the names of their closest relatives.  Train time would invariably find many people gathered at the station to meet someone who was arriving on the next train, or to see someone off on the train.  Many just came to be part of the excitement of the arrival and departure of the passenger trains.

I was born into a railway family, in a railway town and in a railway country.  When friends and families got together, the women would gather in one room and talk about their planned train trip to Toronto to shop at Eaton's  or the impending arrival of a sister from Winnipeg.  They made their plans around what jobs their husbands could hold and what their scheduled days off might be for the next few weeks.

The men would gather in another room where one of them was telling of his most recent trip where he had been running on number 4's time and just barely got into clear at Tionaga, due primarily to the fact that the brakeman climbed up on top of the boiler, with half the train still hanging out on the main, and flagged the trans-continental passenger train with a burning red fusee as it came across the west switch doing track speed.  Do you recall that trip, Mooch???

The railroaders told their stories to each other in such animated fashion that, in order to completely describe the story, they had to set their bottles of beer, or glass of whiskey onto the floor beside their chairs while they reached into clear air and grabbed for the brake valve, pulled the Johnson Bar up a few notches, or pulled the backhead throttle back as far as she'd go.

Sitting quietly on the floor beside my father, I listened to these stories....many of them told for the umpteenth time.  Occasionally, when I was sure no one was looking in my direction, I pulled my dad's beer bottle to my lips and took a pull or two, setting it back exactly where I had found it.

During one such session, I had been listening to my father and Greg Coulson telling each other of their exciting escapades.  When there was a short lull in the conversation while they washed the dryness from their throats, I decided to tell a story of my own.

"I have a story to tell," I said, my five year old's imagination working overtime.

"Oh yeah?" said Mr. Coulson.

"Yes," I said.  I then proceeded to tell them about exploring in the tall grass behind our back fence where I found a dinner plate sized, flat stone.

"What then?" asked my father.

"Well, when I turned the stone over....I found underneath it.....a moose and a frog!!!!"

I had probably wanted to say that I had found a 'mouse' and a frog, but it came out 'moose' and a frog.  But since I figured they were stretching the facts a little in their stories, I let mine stand.

Mr. Coulson downed the last of his beer and said to my father...."Since neither one of is going to be able to 'top' that story, I guess it's time to go home".

As soon as I was released from the school room at the end of June 1962, I hurried on down to the CNR offices at the west end of Young Street to ask for a job.  I was just four months into my sixteenth year and was excited about the prospect of having a job, ...a real job that culminated in a regular pay check every two weeks.  Apparently, I didn't have any problem with leaving my familiar surroundings; my clean bed, a summer at the cottage spent fishing, picking blueberries, swimming and being with my grandparents.

CNR was hiring men for summer work in Northern Ontario, and I was filled with the need for adventure.
Before I left the CNR offices, I had the job and was given an envelope with a rail pass and a formal introduction addressed to the foreman of the gang that was already working near Sudbury, less than 30 miles from home.

I went straight to Drago's Men's Wear on Young Street where I explained to Rudy Mazzucca, the proprietor that I was leaving to work on the gang and needed some work clothes and boots.  Rudy opened my very first credit account and walked around the store with me while I picked out work socks, a couple of shirts, some underwear, a pair of boots and a new pair of green Hush Puppy shoes.  Yep, they were green.  Well, I thought they looked nice!  And besides,  I knew that we'd be travelling all across Ontario and have lots of opportunities to get into towns and go to dances and meet lots of girls, and well,....'nuff said, eh?                                                                     
Before I knew it, I was on my way to an Extra Gang on the Bala sub, just south of Capreol.

An extra gang in the early 60's was made up of from twenty to forty track workers, supervised by a foreman, a couple of assistant foremen, enough kitchen staff to look after the culinary needs of the gang, a bull cook, who did all of the menial housekeeping chores on the outfit cars and a timekeeper who, as the title implies kept track of the hours each man worked, the charges he might incur against the company in the way of purchases at the company store, or commissary.

It was also the Timekeeper's duty to provide tables and chairs, along with suitable  appies and ashtrays for the poker game that was held, in complete contravention of the company's rules every Sunday, our only day of rest.

Our gang was comprised of about seventy five men, all told.

The gang was changing ties and I went to work with a shovel, tamping the new ties into place using broken slag from the nickel smelters.

Photographer unknown

It was the hardest work I'd ever done, and before the day was over, my hands and feet were bleeding and I was laying under a tarp on a push car.  I had drunk too much ice water from the wooden barrel that was brought to the workers every half hour and I was suffering from sun, heat, and excessive ice water ingestion.

The next day, the gang was moved to Drocourt where it was more temperate and there were a couple of rivers nearby where one might cool off at the end of the day.

There was an empty field beside the track, and on Sundays, a bunch of the fellows would set up a baseball diamond and play ball for a few hours.  Frenchy, the smallest man on the gang was awesome with a spike maul.  He never missed the spike and would sink the spike right to the tie plate with no more than four swings.  He was also the strongest hitter on the ball field.  When it was his turn at bat, outfielders would sink back past the edge of the field and take up positions in the forest; not so that they might catch the ball and put Frenchy "out", but just to be able to see where the ball went as it disappeared into the branches of the big pines and maples.

It was while searching for the ball one Sunday that a cabin was discovered along a narrow, little used trail in the woods.  I found fishing line and hooks in the cabin, which had not been equipped with a lock, as was the custom in those days.  The following Sunday, instead of playing baseball, I borrowed the fishing gear and walked to the Magnetawan River where I caught some nice pickerel.  We cooked them up in the cabin and had a nice feed of fresh fish.

Shortly, we were told that we were to be moved up north for a large tie program somewhere near Nakina.

The next morning a few men stayed behind while the rest of us went out to finish off the last of the work that was to be done at Drocourt.  The men who stayed behind gathered up and secured hoses, cables and other gear that had been used during our stay and put it all away in 'stores' cars.

The last thing to be loaded onto a flat car was our two out-houses and they stayed in place until just before the north-bound freight that was due to pick us up....arrived.

Off we went on a long, slow trip that lasted all day and all night.

When dawn broke, we were being shoved to a spot in a siding called Caramat.  It was really pretty country, but many miles from the nearest electric light...let alone the nearest single young woman!!!

Life at Caramat was much the same as life at Drocourt, except that a bunch of fresh recruits arrived soon after we got settled.  A couple of them were from Frontier College and, after putting in a 12 hour day on the track, would teach basic literacy by candle light to some fellows at the end of our bunk car.

A few of the other new guys were tough fellows from Toronto who were just there to get enough time in to go back to the city to collect Unemployment Insurance.  There were three in particular who were bad seed and they were led by a man named "Blackie".  If you've ever watched the movie "Shawshank Redemption" with Morgan Freeman and Timothy Robbins, you're familiar with "the girls"...three really badass cons who liked to brutalize other men.  Meet Blackie and his buddies.

One night, Blackie paid an unwelcome visit to a young man in his bunk and, holding a knife to his throat was about to ask a favour.  At that moment, two young men from Sudbury, Larry Hautamakie and Richard Buyarski walked into the bunk car and, recognizing that something bad was afoot, pulled Blackie out into the darkness and beat him to a pulp.

The next day, Blackie took a swing at the gang foreman with a shovel and was immediately fired.

When we returned to our bunks at the end of the day, several of us found that we had been robbed and it was obvious who had done it.

My green Hush Puppies were missing!!!!  

I ran to the foreman's bunk car and told him that our stuff had been ransacked and much was missing.  He said it was too late because Blackie and his buddies had caught the train to Toronto that afternoon.

I figured if it took us all day and all night to get up here, they would take that long to get back, so I asked him to notify CN Police in Capreol that they were on the train with stolen goods, and I would be on the next train to lay charges against them.

To this, he answered that I would likely lose two weeks pay by the time it got to court and I got back to the gang.  My ire was up, so I asked him for a travel pass and got ready to board the next train east.

CN Police officers met Blackie and the boys at Capreol and took them into custody.  When confronted with my complaint that they had stolen my shoes, they denied it, saying that they had bought them in Toronto before going out to the gang.

The officers asked Blackie, who was wearing the green Hush Puppies to remove them and he did.  The officer turned them over and....exactly where I had said they would find them...were my initials carved into the soles of both shoes.

Blackie was convicted and I returned to the gang with my shoes.  And there must have been some sort of mix-up as well, because my paycheck wasn't short a single dime.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

My First Trip As A Vancouver Brakeman

In the fall of 1967, rail traffic seemed to dry up.  Grain trains were still running, but the rush was over.  Brakemen were gathering at the crew office in Jasper to watch as the crew supervisor moved name tags around on the assignment board.  It was discomforting to see new names appearing on regular assignments, displacing Jasper men.  Each man who was displaced by newcomers had to be notified that he had been 'bumped' from his job and he had 24 hours to place himself on another job.  The fallout from this process meant that every man on the assignment board whose seniority fell below that of the newcomer would be getting a phone call from the crew office and would hear the same message..."You've been bumped, and have to place yourself".

But for the younger guys, myself in particular, there was another... unforeseen factor; the men from Edmonton, Kamloops, Prince George and Edson who showed up at the crew office, their clearances in their hands showing that they had been released from their former home terminals to try to find work in a terminal somewhere else on the seniority district.  If they dropped their clearance in Jasper, and were senior to me...and most everybody was...that meant I would be less likely to have a job for the winter.

Within a few days, it was clear that I would be left out of the running for a Jasper assignment, and when everyone had finally placed themselves, I was out of a job.  After being notified of that fact, I went to the crew office to pick up my clearance from my supervisor.  He told me that my seniority was exhausted on the Mountain Region.  I couldn't hold a job anywhere.

I packed up the contents of my small suite behind Bud Bader's Shell station at the west end of Patricia Street, and loaded everything into my '65 Chevy.   After filling the gas tank, I headed west.  The Yellowhead Highway didn't yet exist, but there was a rudimentary road that would get me to Kamloops and Vancouver.

Arriving in Vancouver, I left my clearance with the Crew Office and began to search for a job and an apartment.  My fiancee and I had made plans to be married, and guests were scheduled to arrive in a few weeks.  I went to work with Shell Oil on a part time basis, leaving me with a three day weekend each week.

I informed CN that I would cover weekend work, especially short calls on Friday or Saturday nights.  I was encouraged to learn that if they ran short of men, I might make at least one round trip on weekends.

Then, one evening, between Christmas and New Years I was called for an 18 o'clock  (6:00PM) extra east out of Vancouver.  It was already growing dark when the phone rang at 16:30 and I hurried to put together my warm clothing for the trip.  Not knowing if I would be working the head end, riding the engine..., or riding the caboose on the tail end of the train.  I packed for either contingency.

Arriving at the low brick structure on Terminal Avenue, I found the yard office and went in to introduce myself.  A rather indifferent conductor advised me that I would be the tail end brakeman, then he turned his back to me.  OK, I thought.  We don't have to be friends.  The important thing here is.....I'm working, and I really needed the money.  I had only been married two weeks and hadn't seen a pay check from Shell Oil yet, so a second source of income was going to be appreciated.

The conductor handed me a switch list showing that our train was all empty grain boxes and was in three tracks in the yard.  We would have to put the train together by doubling one track on top of another and cut the air in before the yardmaster could send the car men out to begin the brake test.  The head end brakeman was Perry Guloien, a brakeman I knew from Jasper. It was his first trip out of Vancouver too.  We had worked together while in Jasper, so we stepped outside to hatch a plan for getting the train put together.  Admittedly, we were going to take more time to get the double-over completed than an experienced crew would, but the job would be done well.

While Perry went to meet the engine crew and bring the engine off the shop track, I walked to the west end of the yard to find the caboose, get the stove lit and put the kettle on.  When I got to the caboose, I was surprised to find another brakeman there.  He explained that he was part of a dead-head crew.  When he learned that neither Perry nor I were familiar with the yard, he offered to help us get the train together.

He introduced himself as Ed MacDonald,  the head end brakeman on the deadhead crew.  He told me that the the engineer was Ron Nicks and the Fireman was Albert Prins, although I hadn't met them yet.

I walked to the top of the yard and found Perry coupling the engine onto the east end of a track that was chock full of empty boxcars. Perry left to line up the lead so that we could begin to double this track to the next one.  In Vancouver, the yard tracks were relatively short, holding about thirty five cars.  In order to leave with a full train, crews had to double two or more tracks together and would leave with at least one hundred cars.  Tonight, we would double the first track on top of the second one, then pull both tracks out and double them onto the third one.  At the west end of the third track, the deadhead crew would be arranging chairs around the galley table, putting on the coffee and getting out a deck of cards to begin the inevitable four handed game of cribbage that would last for several hours.

The conductor's and trainman's collective agreements stipulated that when a deadhead crew was ordered to travel on a freight train, a second caboose will be provided and will be placed in the train immediately ahead of the working caboose.  We had only one caboose on the train, so the deadhead conductor called the yardmaster to tell him that he needed to have his own caboose added to the train before he would leave the yard.

A 'working' conductor would often act as the host for the card game that promised to be a welcome break from the usual monotony of a trip on the tail end of a Yale Sub freight train.

The only serviced caboose that was available, was one that was set up to leave on the transcontinental 'speed train', 218 ... due to leave at midnight.  Reluctantly, the yardmaster pried his yard crew out of the lunch room to dig out 218's caboose and take it to the west end of the yard for the deadhead crew.

Double-overs complete, I hiked back to the caboose where I hoped to find a pot of  hot coffee on the stove.

A dirty orange pickup truck, bearing the CN 'noodle' logo on the door, pulled up behind the caboose and a car man stepped out into the lightly falling rain.  As per Federal Transportation Rules, all trains of the day had to have an air brake test to determine that all the brakes applied and released.  The minimum requirement was that at least 85% of the trains' brakes must be operative leaving the initial terminal.

When the air gauge in the caboose settled at 80psi, the car man asked me to call the engineer and ask him to set the brakes on the train.  He turned and stepped out onto the rear platform and, switching on his lantern, began to inspect the cars to ensure that the brakes were working.

Within an hour, we were on our way, the brake test complete and the Great Northern dispatcher notified of our departure.  Our engine, a lash-up of F7's and GP9's leaned into the hundred car train and dragged it up the single track GN mainline through the Grandview Cut.  At the top of the hill, we rolled onto double track, keeping to the right.  As the cadence of steel wheels hitting alternating rail joints increased, I climbed into the cupola and opened the window a bit to smell the moist, night air and listen to the train as it sped through Vancouver and Burnaby on its way to the New Westminster rail bridge over the Fraser river to CN's biggest west coast rail yard....Port Mann.

Arriving in Port Mann yard an hour or more later, our train was put into a long track.  We were instructed by the yardmaster to 'drop' the train and make our way over to another part of the yard where we would find cars in three tracks that were ready to be doubled together for the trip to Boston Bar and eastward.

As the rain began to fall harder, I walked to the east end of the yard to help Perry put our train together.  Port Mann was a really big yard for a couple of boys from Jasper.  Unlike today, the yard was unlighted and many of the switch targets didn't carry identifying numbers defining the tracks they governed.  Beneath the huge arches of the Port Mann bridge which carried vehicular traffic across the river, I saw the dim lights under the skirts of our locomotive shining on the wet ground.  All around were the green and yellow oil lamps of the switch lamps, flickering in the darkness like one-eyed soldiers standing at attention, each one protecting a hand-throw switch.

Photo Credit:  Photographer and Source Unknown.

We began our search for the first track that we were to tie onto and couldn't find it.  We went to the cab of the locomotive and asked the engineer and the fireman to draw us a crude map on a paper towel, which they did.

Back outside, we shone the light of our lanterns on our map and made a plan.  Giving the engineer a 'proceed' signal, we brought the engine out onto the lead from which we could make our way down the long line of coloured switch lamps to the track we were looking for.

Finding the appropriate track, we brought the engine on top of the cars and cut the air in.  When the engineer was ready, we began to pull the cars out of the track.  According to our switch list, the track held forty five cars.  Less than ten came out of the darkness!  Swinging our lanterns, we stopped the movement and I climbed up onto the ladder on the end of the last car.  Together, relaying hand signals to the engineer, we went back into the darkness to find the rest of the cars.  I found that the track had not been coupled together by the yard crew when they threw our cars into the track.  The yardmaster had assured us that the tracks had been properly set and our double-overs would be relatively uneventful, but this was not the case.

After finally getting the first track all together and pulled out onto the east yard lead, I pulled my dirty, wet leather mitts off and reached into my jacket pocket for the paper towel map that the fireman had drawn for us.  I had only had to handle it a couple of times, so there was no understandable reason for it to be soggy, dirty and falling apart.  With the engine nearly fifty cars away, I resolved to find the next track on the switch list by using my powers of reasoning...guesswork!

Observing switch targets, I reasoned that the track I needed to find lay along the lead that lay closest to the river, so I gave signals to bring the engine and head-end forty-odd cars back along the lead while I looked for the proper target.

There were very few portable radios in service by train crews, so we had to rely on the old methods of relaying signals.  This night, we were using electric lanterns.  Because of the length of the train we were handling, and curves and bad weather, Perry had 'go wide' so that he could relay my hand signals to the engineer.  Most of the time we were out there, I couldn't see Perry or the engine, but I could see the little white light from Perry's lantern.  A few years later, I learned that yard crews working in the fog of Vancouver's yards used whistles to give signals.  Can you imagine what that was like, with three or four crews within ear shot of each other....all giving whistle signals to their engines??

Before we had gone twenty cars, I realized that we had made the wrong decision, as the track number we required was not on this lead at all.  I swung my lantern in a wide arc and Perry did the same.  The cars came to a stop.  Lifting an lowering my lantern, I gave the signal to proceed ahead.  The cars began to move eastward.

A CN truck came bouncing up the service road and skidded to a stop beside me.  In the light of the single remaining headlight on the front of the truck, a mix of the truck's exhaust and faint mist hung in the air.

A man's voice from within ordered me to back our cars into the track we had just vacated and wait for a westbound that was on its way in from Westlang, the first siding east of Port Mann.

We climbed up the ladder and into the cab of the engine to wait for the westbound.  The engineer reached up to a light switch mounted on the ceiling of the cab and turned on the overhead light.

The engineer seemed to be a little disturbed and told us that the conductor had called him from the yard office to complain about the length of time it was taking to make up our train.  Feeling personally responsible for the fact that we were several hours late and not yet on the road, I began to apologize the engineer and fireman.  They both chuckled, saying that they were fine with it because the delay might put us all on 'switchmen's rate of pay'.  This is only achieved when a road crew spends five hours or more performing switching on a road trip.  This seemed to be small consolation for me; I was wet and cold and already becoming tired.

Too soon, the westbound arrived and rolled into a clear track.  With the westbound finally in the clear, we pulled ahead to try again.

After a half  hour or so, and a few more false starts, we managed to find the second part of our train, buried deep in an unlit yard track.  We'd had some difficulty with this track because, although we found the correct track, it had the wrong car numbers in it.   Finally, after much searching out alternatives, I walked down the track, checking numbers and finally discovered that someone had thrown a cut of about twenty cars on top of our double-over.  The yardmaster was obviously not informed of this and wasn't able to write it up on our switch lists.  After calling the yardmaster for instructions regarding the extra twenty cars, he decided to drive up from the office to the east end of the yard and give us a hand.  We were grateful to him for helping out.

Actually, he was probably correctly thinking that if he didn't pitch in and help, we'd never get out of his yard.  He might have been right about that, too.

Eventually, the train was all together and the air was cut in.  I walked back to the caboose that the yard engine had taken from our first train and placed on the rear of the new train.

I drew a deep breath of resignation when I realized that we had already been on duty much longer than most crews working anywhere I had previously worked.  I resolved to ask Ed if it was common practice to make up a long train of east traffic in Vancouver, take it to Port Mann and exchange it for another long train of east traffic.  I had only been on the job in this terminal for less than one shift and I was already questioning the way things were done here.

I thought it over and, feeling that the worst must be over, I continued to march steadily toward the caboose.

My boots were beginning to drag in the ballast as I walked.

All that remained to be done was wait for the car men to complete their air test and call the dispatcher to ask for a CTC signal out of the yard.

CTC, or Centralized Traffic Control is controlled by a train dispatcher who determines the movement of trains.  This method of control over-rides the older system of train orders and timetable method of train movement.

The train was rather long, considering the year that this took place; it was over a mile in length, including the engine and caboose and would use up every available foot of most of the sidings on the Yale sub.

Pulling off my dripping wet jacket, I closed the caboose door behind me.  The expected noise of a rousing game of cards was totally absent and  I immediately realized that the dead-head crew was not aboard.  The cribbage board was gone and the chairs had been put back in their places.  Typically, the dishes were left stacked in the sink.

I asked the conductor where they  had gotten to, but he was in a dark mood and didn't look up at me.  He would only say that his 'green brakemen' had taken too long to get the train put together and CN had decided to put the dead-head crew into a taxi and drive them to Boston Bar where a westbound potash train was waiting in the yard for them.  A yard crew had already yanked the deadhead caboose off the train had taken it to the cab track.

 At last, one of the car men entered the caboose, telling the conductor that the air test was complete with all cars cut in and operable.  Placing the air test completion form on the conductor's desk, he turned and stepped out into the driving rain to return to his small, warm office for a cup of tea and a sandwich from his lunch box.

The hard-wired railway radio speakers, mounted on the wall above the conductor's desk came alive when the operator called to say that the dispatcher has been notified that we're ready to depart and he will line up the mainline switch and give us the light to leave the yard.  I called the engineer and told him we were both on and ready to go.

Not wanting to stir up the conductor with idle chat, I quietly climbed into the cupola, opened the window a bit and put my feet up on the hand rail in front of me.  I was still in my wet jeans and shirt, but my jacket was hanging on a wire above the big oil stove in the galley.  Once we were out on the road, I'd take off my shirt and jeans and hang them from the plastic-coated stainless cable that was suspended in eye-bolts from the ceiling and which extended from one end of the caboose to the other.  The intended use of this cable was so that crews could hold on to the cable and move about safely while the train was in motion.

Wrapping myself in a scratchy woolen blanket that I'd rescued from the emergency locker, I thought about Perry, huddling, wet and chilly on the wobbly third seat in the old F7A diesel locomotive.  The only thing one might find in the "emergency" locker on that engine would be a one gallon can of coal oil for the lamps, some old flares, some air hose gaskets, an extra air hose and a pipe wrench.  The toilet, it one was provided at all, was basically an electric hot plate on which one let fly one's waste and hit the "fry" switch.  Then, for the next several hours, it would smolder and smoke until finally, the lump had been reduced to a black cinder.
Drinking water was provided for through the use of a three gallon galvanized bucket with a lid on top and a spigot on the bottom, where all the sediment and green slime formed.  Crews would often stop their trains at any location where relatively clear water might be found beside the track to rinse and re-fill their water pails.  This, I was certain was a plan put in place by CN's Pension Board designed to reduce the number of potential claimants.  It wasn't until twenty years had passed that CN followed CP's lead and provided canned water to head-end crews.  At Port Mann, a total of six 350 milliliter cans of water were allocated for each three man crew leaving town on a 12 hour trip into the canyon.  While the cabooses had electric refrigerators, the engines had none.

The tail end crews had a collective Union Agreement that provided very well for them.  They actually had it pretty soft with electric lights, bunks and bedding, a working chemical toilet, a fully equipped galley with stove, utensils, pots and pans...and a butcher knife, the lack of which seemed to keep more trains waiting (on pay) in Port Mann yard than anything else.  But on this night, I was riding the caboose instead of the engine.

The long freight crept slowly out of the yard, boxcars waddling, out of sync, like elephants...tail and trunk.

Once on the main, I picked up the radio mike and called out, "Extra east is on the main at Port Mann".

The engineer answered with "On the main...."

The towns and villages with no names seemed to stream past my window.  The lights from buildings, street lights and automobiles lit up the interior of the cupola like many coloured flash bulbs.  The sounds of rails and wheels changed each time the caboose shot over a public crossing.  The normal clickety-clack sound became, momentarily, a crashing rumble that collided with the ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding of the crossing protection bells and flashing red lights as the caboose rushed by.

Eventually, the train slowed to half of its previous speed as it entered the canyon.  The engine crew called out the  trackside signals when they came into view, and I answered by repeating the colour of the signal and the station name that it governed.  "9086 East, clear to Trafalgar", came the broadcast from the engine crew.  "Clear to Trafalgar", I answered.

Peering into the darkness, I strained for a glimpse of the fabled Fraser Canyon I had heard so much about.  It seemed that whenever trains were delayed, it was because of something major occurring in the Fraser of Thompson canyons.  All I could see from the cupola were the trees that grew closest to the track on either side.  The mountains pressed much too close to the tracks on the right hand side, while the river was shrouded in fog on the left side.  Looking to the rear, I could see the tracks speeding away from us in the light from the single track inspection light that was mounted above the conductors window at the rear of the caboose.  The rain that had been falling with intensity throughout our transit of the broad valley, now fell as a heavy mist in the canyon.

"9086 east, Clear to Yale!" came the call from the engine.

"9086 east, Clear to Yale." I responded.

A moment after the caboose had cleared the east switch at Yale, we dove into the middle of a mountain.  I was caught off guard by the sudden gust of wind, the immediate change in the sound of the wheels, the screeching wheels and the smell of diesel exhaust that was still trapped inside the bore hole.

Looking back, I watched the tunnel entrance behind us grow smaller, as bits of trackside trash, wood chips and dirt rolled and tumbled along with us, as if trying to catch up, but falling behind once again.

While still inside the 2104 foot tunnel, the little brass whistle that was mounted on the wall of the caboose above the couch sent out a short, shrill cry.  This was the tail end crew's warning that the engineer had just set the air brakes.  It was a signal that allowed the crew time to brace themselves against the inevitable slack action that would cause a train to bunch up or stretch out, sometimes with alarming force.  I put my feet up against the hand rail in the cupola and pressed myself back into the chair.

The slack ran in, but without much of a jolt; then it ran back out again.  This time, the spring-loaded draft gear that connected the caboose to the rest of the train caught the bulk of the shock and we felt the train surge ahead a bit as it settled down and adjusted to a further speed reduction.

I had noted in the timetable that the track speed for freight trains was 25 miles per hour from Yale to Boston Bar.  The engineer had already taken liberties with the speed limit, because we should have been down to 25 well before the engine entered the tunnel, but the track was in great shape and mostly straight for another mile or so, and we'd been on the road far too long already, so......  "he let the shaft out", as they say.

Soon, he called out "9086 east, approach to Stout!"

"9086 east, aproach to Stout", I answered.   We were either going to meet a westbound here, of perhaps wait for a track patrol to get clear of the mainline.

My conductor picked up the radio and asked, "Have you heard from a westbound?"

"Yes", he answered.

"He just called the signal to Komo, so we'll be here for a while", he said.

"Well, put your feet up and get a little shut-eye" the conductor said.

I found my eyes drooping as my head began to sink slowly toward my chest.

It seemed like it was just a few seconds before I woke to "Extra 5086 west, clear to Stout".

He would be coming by the caboose in a few minutes.  Time to see if my jacket was drying out.

I climbed down from the cupola and took my warm, dry jacket from its perch above the stove.  Putting it on, I felt a little shudder of pleasure, like I was getting dressed in front of the clothes dryer at home...pulling clothing out of the still hot dryer and putting them on.

Stepping into the light from the conductors desk light, I decided to test the water with him.  I asked him how he was feeling now that we were less than twenty miles from the bunkhouse in Boston Bar.

He turned and looked directly at me.

"I suppose you're the kind of guy who will want to book rest and tie up the crew, are ya?"

Not exactly what I had expected, but not really out of character, I found.  I figured that after more than 16 hours on duty, the old man might want to get a few hours of rest before heading out for another run at the railroad.  Quietly, I was beginning to become concerned that I might lose my job at the Shell Oil station if it took the same amount of time to go home as it had taken to travel this far.

The radio suddenly came to life.

"Ron"!!!!   "Are you guys alright?"   "Ron!!  Come in."  "Ron!! Are you all right??"

There was no response.

Our head end crew called to the tail end of the westbound to tell them that they had just witnessed their engine emerge from the tunnel at the east switch at Stout, on it's side.

The westbound, led by three new SD40's had hit a big rock slide that completely covered the entrance to the tunnel at Stout - East.

All three units of the westbound was on their sides, pushing rails, ties and ballast in front of it.

The engines followed each other through the tunnel, held, one behind the other by the concrete liner inside the tunnel.  As the locomotives were pushed through the tunnel, they pressed against the sides of the tunnel, sending showers of sparks tumbling over the locomotives.

As the locomotives emerged from the tight confines of the tunnel, the lead unit swerved toward the river, which lay somewhere below the track and very close by.  On the east end of the tunnel, big cylindrical hoppers, loaded with potash were twisting and turning, fighting for space on the narrow shelf that was the railway's roadbed hung on the side of the mountain.

The units kept coming, as if in slow motion toward the edge of the roadbed and the black emptiness and the icy rushing waters below.

At the last possible moment, the engines stopped sliding in the dirt.  The cab of the lead unit, which was still on its right side, teetered precipitously above the river, the couplers between the first and second unit keeping it from falling into the river.

The engine crew climbed out through the fireman's side window and scrambled cautiously along the upturned side of the locomotive until they reached a place where they could be helped to the ground by our engine crew.

IN the dim grey light of dawn, I searched for the dispatchers line phone which had been plowed under by the derailed diesel and finally found it in the dirt under the fuel tank of the second unit.  It was still working, so I called the dispatcher to tell him of the derailment and to ask for help.

He said that emergency help would be on the way and asked if the crew had survived.  I told him the crew was OK.  He said he wanted us to give them one of our locomotives and send them on their way.  Then he wanted to talk with our conductor, because the Chief Dispatcher had just told him we were to be turned into a work train to help with the emergency in progress.  We were going to be held out there for at least a week.

Good bye, gas jockey job, I thought.

Oh, by the way...the head end crew on the derailed potash train was Ron Nicks, engineer, Albert Prins, fireman, and Ed MacDonald, brakeman.  These were three of the five men that had been taken from our caboose in Port Mann and sent to Boston Bar by taxi.

If Perry and I hadn't been so "green" and taken so long to get our double-overs completed in Vancouver and Port Mann yards, we would likely have been the crew that struck the rock slide that blocked the east end of the tunnel at Stout.

Unknown to me, at the time....Someone in the crew office in Vancouver had called in the dark hours of early morning to tell my bride of two weeks that my train had hit a rock slide in the canyon and the engine had gone into the river.  To add a little icing to his ugliness, he told her that they were unable to locate the crew and the company had no idea when they'd be able to start looking for survivors, if any were to be found at all.

As an aside to this post, I've added the link below.  Some of you will have seen this film by Canada's National Film Board, and it is worth watching.  Granted, it is of a time a few years before the above story, but it will give you a real good idea what mountain railroading was like in the 50's and 60's.

Railroading in the mountains hadn't changed appreciably in the dozen or so years between when the NFB filmed their coverage and when my story occurred.
 It's good.  I know you'll like it.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Air Brakes on the Alberta Coal Branch

This story was published a year ago on another blog that I maintain. I'm re-posting it
here today because I received an email from a gentleman who was commenting on the use of "retainers".

It was nearly 20 below on a cloudless November night, We had picked up our train of limestone at the mine and were making about 25 or 30 mph along the undulating track of the Alberta Coal Branch. The fireman leaned forward and told me to lace up my boots and get my parka and mitts on.
"You gotta go back and put up the retainers", he said.

I smiled, and said, "I'll be ready to go when the train stops".

"You don't understand, kid" he said, "Get your gear on now..., and get going.” “The train isn't going to stop".

"It will stop if there's going to be any retainers put on," I said.

I have done some pretty scary things in my career, but going 'over top' from one cross-hopper to another while putting up retainers ranks among the most frightening things I could imagine. There are no handrails up there…just an eight inch wide, frost-covered steel cap on the side walls of the open top cars that were waddling along in the dark, Rocky Mountain Foothills.

The photo above was taken by Ray Matthews has been published In CNLines SIG.

***The smoke was common on trains descending long grades. The brake shoes got so hot they'd turn the wheels blue. Sometimes, we'd have to stop for twenty minutes to let them cool down so the wheels wouldn't fracture and break up.***

I soon realized that perhaps I was just being a 'chicken'. If was really true, as the engine crew insisted that brakemen had been putting on retainers 'on the fly' on The Branch for years and not a single fatality had been reported. Well, none had been reported, but there were a few old Edson railroaders around who were missing some fingers. Slim Amundsen told me once that he had lost his putting out a short flag on the passenger train. He was putting down the torpedoes when the engineer on his train released the brakes, and the slack ran out, taking off three of his fingers!!!

I'd figure it out, I thought as I stepped out of the warm cab into the frozen night. Flipping the switch on my trusty trainman’s lantern, I stabbed the feeble light into the darkness looking for the best way to get myself from the rear platform of the locomotive and onto the ladder on the end of the car. Shaking off the vision of my body laying between the rails in numerous pieces after I had fallen from the top of one of those bouncing, twisting, rocking cars, I leaned out and grabbed at the nearest hand rail.

My hand found a hand rail on the car and held on tightly. Swinging across the void between the engine and the car, I planted my boots on a ladder rung and immediately "gave thanks."

I knew how retaining valves, or “retainers” worked….sort of. Lots of railroaders had mentioned them; told stories about using them on steep grades long before the advent of modern brake systems.

Please note: Retaining valve mounted on the end of the car immediately to the left of the hand brake wheel.
Photo source unknown. BH Collection

They always finished their stories with "But, you know...we don't have to use 'em anymore since they got the new 26L brake valves on the engines". Well, here I was trying to keep my balance on the top of a pile of crushed rock in an old steel open-top hopper that was jolting down the track in the middle of nowhere. Where were those old railroaders with their stories now?

26L brake valves incorporate a 'pressure maintaining' feature which is designed
to hold, or maintain the pressure in the brake pipe and its associated brake valve components on each car in the train.

The braking system of each car is made up of many components such as pipes, fittings, rings, gaskets, pistons, cylinders and much more. At every fitting, there is the potential for air to escape from the system and since train air brakes are kept in the release position when the system is fully pressurized, any loss of air pressure will allow the brakes to be applied. Therefore, system leakage, if not kept under control will cause the brakes to apply and...if there is too much leakage, and the brake control valve in the locomotive cab cannot replace the air at a controlled rate, the train will stop and can not be moved safely.

All right!!! Now I know that the highlighted link below is going be an eye-opener for many of you. The readers of this blog range from the very young to....well, those of us who have gone to seed! Some are railroaders and some used to be railroaders. But you wouldn't be here if you didn't have the "bug". The link below will give all of you an idea what it was like to be an engineer in the days before the advent of 'second generation' diesels. There were many of the older locomotives in service in the era that was my favourite and the time when I earned my engineers certificate. And, yes grandpa, I had to know and understand every component you'll find at that link, and much more! Enjoy.

The predecessor of the 26L brake valve was the 24RL brake valve. Initially, the 24RL did not have a pressure maintaining feature, but I understand that in the few years prior to its demise, a pressure maintaining feature was introduced in the 24RL. Some CN enginemen used a tricky 'engineer magic' thing they called Feed Valve Braking,where they utilized the 24RL brake valve and the supply valve that controlled the amount of air, or total pressure that the brake valve was able to pressurize the train air brake system to. The use of Feed Valve Braking was frowned upon by the railroad and was not allowed by Transport Canada, but it worked.

Retaining valves are just a little piece of equipment. They’re a small metal valve with a smallish diameter pipe coming out of the bottom and running to somewhere in the brake apparatus within the steel framework that supports the end of the car above the trucks that house the big steel wheels that carry the whole thing on the rails. On the side of the valve, is a small handle that pivots and can be set at “exhaust”, “low” or “high” pressure settings.

Its function is to trap a bit of air in the air brake system so that, when the brakes have been applied and then released, a small amount of “brake effort” is retained on that individual cars’ brake system until it's released by returning the valves handle to the "off" position once again. Retainers were used when heavy trains, such as aloaded Rock trains like this one from Cadomin Alberta could be safely brought down long steep grades by maintaining some brake effect on the train all the while recharging the air in the train's brake pipe and reservoirs. The idea is to keep the train speed under control, thus preventing runaways that would result in demerits being handed out to the crew, or worse.

Normally, the train would be stopped a safe distance from the top of the hill prior to descending the grade. At this time, the trainmen would start out from both ends of the train, climbing each ladder in turn, to the brake platform and setting the retainers. Generally, this meant a delay of from twenty minutes to three quarters of an hour depending on the length of train, weather conditions, etc. The same thing would happen at the bottom of the hill after safely descending the grade. The train would be stopped and the trainmen would return to their respective ends of the train, all the while replacing the retainers handles to the normal, or “off” position.

This procedure was what the Uniform Code of Operating Rules called for. This procedure was what any mother would want her son to do under the circumstances. But this was not what this Coal Branch crew did. They “put up” and “took down” retainers “on the fly” no matter what the conditions, the time of day or the season. On the fly!... I have to tell you that I was terrified and was quite sure that I would not survive the night; because I had fallen from the top of a wildly swaying car.

I desperately clung to the frozen steel of those cars with phosphate dust burning my eyes and frost stinging my ears. Fumbling in the dark, and focusing on getting this job car at a time, I eventually came upon the tail end brakeman. He had completed his share of the job and was standing on the drawbars in between the cars, holding onto a grab iron with one hand while he smoked a cigarette with the other. I huddled in silence in the blowing snow and dust, choking on the thick brake smoke and the tail end brakeman hooked one arm over the end of the car and casually smoked a cigarette while we waited for the train to snake its way to the bottom of the hill.

Once there, we parted company, that brakeman and I; he headed off through the thick brake-shoe smoke toward the caboose, removing retainers from each car as he went. And I headed back toward the engine, doing the same.

Not a word was spoken in the cab for the remaining hours and miles back to the yard in Edson.

After yarding the train, I put the engine on the shop track. Gathering my kit from the floor of the cab, I headed across the rail yard toward the office.

The conductor stood silently watching me as I entered the booking-in room at the station. I set my grip down on the bench and stepped gingerly up to the operator's wicket to check the train register and the train lineup for the trip back to Jasper.

Pulling himself up to his full height of six foot three, and leaning a bit in my direction, he said "If you're not goin' to cooperate with me son, you needn't bother takin' a call for the 'Branch' again". “You Jasper boys aren’t welcome here 'cuz you don’t want to do as you’re told”, he said as he turned his head and spit a long black streak of tobacco juice toward the trash can in the corner, narrowly missing my arm when he let fly. Tobacco juice and saliva, resembling a minor oil spill ran in a jagged track over the papers and cold cigarette butts that had been discarded there.

“I won’t be back if I can help it”, I said, coldly.

"That's for damn sure". he said. A blast of icy, winter air brought snow scurrying into the room as if trying to escape the minus 25 degree Edson winter. The door closed behind him.

I felt sure that it would be better to be laid off and taking unemployment benefits than to take a call to join his crew on the Branch again.

Checking my watch, and bemoaning the fact that the town of Edson had rolled up the sidewalks, effectively closing every eatery within walking distance, I sat down on a long, hard bench in the passenger waiting room.

With at least a couple of hours to wait before the first westbound freight might show up to take me back to Jasper and my warm bed, I took a deep breath and closed my eyes.

I thought of my family back home in Ontario.