Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Snow service and freight movement in CN's Mountains 1970

Western Canadian farmers were harvesting the  crops which were making their way to the Pacific grain terminals. Fall had come early and the first snows of Autumn were beginning to settle on mountain ranges and hill tops of the eastern slope of the Rockies.  Even before the red and gold leaves had fallen to the ground in the great boreal forests,  the water that stood in the sloughs carried a fragile sheet of ice.  The rivers that had their beginnings in the high mountain passes, only to end up in the Pacific or Arctic Oceans were showing ice formations among the round stones that lined their shores.

The last of the migrating geese had been seen winging their way toward warmer waters.  A few ducks worked the remaining open water where streams continued to empty into small lakes, forming ever-shrinking patches of open water where the ducks could gather and feed.  Mountain Sheep, Deer and Elk were moving down from the alpine meadows and high country ridges into the valleys below where the snows had not yet arrived to cover the now-dry grasses and bushes they would rely on for winter forage.

Snow flakes began to fall.  Slowly, at first...just a few, being tossed about by the jittery breeze that brought winter to the valley.   The warm south and westerly breezes of summer had changed direction and tone.  Now the relentless east wind now scoured the Athabasca River valley, bringing freezing temperatures that drove life away, scurrying into the ground before freeze-up.  The east wind came, carrying the snow across the frozen ground, bending the grasses and filling the prints of the hoofed animals where they were left on the ground by passing herds.

The railway was overwhelmed by the amount of grain traffic being handled through the mountains to the coastal ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert.  Westbound trains were loaded to the tonnage ratings of the locomotives that pulled them.  Train and engine crews worked on a mileage basis; train crews could work a maximum of 4300 miles in a month and engineers and firemen were allowed 3800 miles each month.  Each round trip could average between 225 and 350 pay miles and take from eighteen to thirty six hours to execute.  When you do the math...you find that crews who are on call every day, work almost every day of the month. At least, when traffic demands are high, it certainly seems like we work every day.  During this particular period, there were many trips in which I only got off the engine after arriving in Jasper from Blue River just long enough to run across the street to buy a sandwich before getting back into the cab to begin another round trip to Edson, Alberta and back.  That was called "doubling the road" or "doubling through".

The CNR had only just begun to take possession of new higher horsepower SD-40 locomotives and were hauling larger, heavier trains.  As the new SD40's arrived on the scene, they were mixed with motive power that was nearing 20 years of age in an effort to relieve the power shortage.  In fact, there were shortages everywhere.  In addition to staff shortages, the company found itself searching for cars in which to carry the grain to ports for shipment to overseas customers.  Some cars of questionable vintage that were in rather deplorable condition were acquired from sources in the United States.  Many of these cars were built of wood during the early 1940's and had outside framework of light steel.  When loaded with grain, their sides bulged so badly that the doors had to be bound with steel straps to hold them in place for the journey through the mountains and down to the sea.  These older cars were pressed into service and were in such poor condition that they sagged under the strain of too much wheat, barley, oats and rape seed (canola) being loaded in their old carcasses.  Grain leaked from their worn out bodies all the way from the elevators where they were loaded to the grain terminals at sea level.  Every mile of railroad track,  marshaling yards and sidings across the land were littered with grain. Where ever grain trains were left standing for any length of time, the escaping grain would fall to the track, laying sometimes to a depth of three feet or more.  Sometimes, section crews were called out to shovel the grain out of the way so that trains could be moved from where they had been standing.  

Train crews, when walking from one end of their train to the other,  remained on the lookout for journal box covers that might not be closed tightly, or which have been inadvertantly been left open after having been oiled at some terminal or other along the route from the prairies.  An open journal box cover would soon allow the journal box to fill with grain, ensuring a hot box, or burned journal bearing somewhere along the line.  At worst, this could cause a derailment when the journal became overheated and the contents burst into flame.  Once the oil in the box had burned away, the journal would get white-hot, melting the Babbitt bearing resulting in a burned-off journal, dropping the car onto the track.  At best, the vigilant crew would spot the smoke or the fire and stop the train in time to clean out the journal box and re-pack it with cotton waste or a journal pad and fresh oil.  

When I was first introduced to the 'brakeman's life', I was given instruction on many aspects of train movement that new employees today would never consider.  My Instructor, Mr. Doug Corrigan (Capreol, Ontario) marched us all over to the rip track at Capreol.  He had the Car Department fellows show us how to jack up a car, change out a set of wheels, change out journal bearings and re-shoe a truck.  Train crews were expected to know how to perform these tasks when breakdowns occurred "on the road".  Today, the railroad is much more mechanized and no such requirement exists; in fact, the tools and parts that once were standard issue on trains are no longer provided to trains.

As the snow deepened, many landmarks disappeared. Switches had to be dug out in order to allow trains to meet and pass each other.  Road crossings, warning signs, air, water and fuel facilities needed to be kept snow and ice-free and in working order despite the inclement weather. 

Then one night the wind stopped blowing and the air cleared.  For the first time in several days, the people of Jasper could see the snow covered mountains across the Athabasca River.  A hole opened up in the clouds somewhere west of town just as the sun was setting and this lit up the tops of the mountains to display a red-orange blanket of snow that hid all but the most prominent of details. 

Nearly two and a half feet of snow had fallen during this early winter storm.   I went to bed early as I was expecting to be called out to work sometime in the night off the spare board.

Around 03:00, I was called for an extra west and, after getting the engine off the shop track we spent two hours trying to get enough air to the caboose for a brake test and then we were on our way.  We found ourselves bucking eastbound trains all the way to Blue River.  Every switch had to be shovelled clear of snow before we used them, and after the opposing trains had passed us by, the switches had to be shovelled and swept out again.  Shovelling and sweeping switches during and after snow storms was a part of our job without actually being outlined in our job descriptions.  Therefore, we didn’t get paid for the time spent cleaning switches and this could amount to well over an hour at each siding where trains met.  Sometimes, after a really heavy snow fall, we would find ourselves almost “nose to nose” with another train while the head-end brakemen of both trains worked to clean the switch so that one could pull into the siding to let the other continue on its way.  But that wasn’t the end of it!  After the first train had pulled into the siding, the head-end brakeman would then have to clean the switch out all over again because the first train in had dragged snow and ice back into the switch points, clogging the whole thing and making it useless until it was once again cleaned.   Some of the places where switches were located were among the most dangerous on the railroad.  On a section of the railroad where tunnels, slide detector fences, towering mountain faces and sheer drops to the valley floor far below, the brakemen worked to get their trains moving again.

Bruce Harvey Collection.  Photo courtesy of Len Vandergucht of Salmon Arm.  CN SD40 5211 & SD40-2

After slogging it out for 12 or 14 hours and covering 132 miles, we pulled our train to a halt in front of the station at Blue River, which lies not too far north of Revelstoke (CP Main Line)  Revelstoke is well known for the heavy deposits of snow received each winter and Blue River, while not as well known, lies in the same snow belt. 

The rail yard in Blue River was recognizable as a rail yard only due to the long lines of boxcars standing in rows across from the station.  A column of thin diesel smoke rose slowly from F7’s, SD-40's and GP9’s parked over by the old roundhouse and a couple of cabooses stood silently at the ready on the cab track.  We hoped against hope that we would be called “main and change” for our return to Jasper.  To be called “out of the yard” meant that every switch on the east end of the yard would have to be dug out just to get the engine off the shop track and the caboose out of the cab track.  The cab would have to be taken to the west end of the yard and tacked onto the train and the engine brought back to the east end to begin pumping air and breaking the train out of the deep snow.  This was done by pulling ahead until all forward movement stopped and then backing into the train, again until all movement stopped.  Once again, the reverse lever would be moved into the forward position and the throttle opened.  The engine pulled on the cars and we could feel them coming...one at a time.  The wheel slip light would begin to flash on and off and the sanders would come on...dumping a  sprinkle of fine sand onto the rails in front of the slipping wheels.  This procedure was repeated until finally, someone on the caboose called out on the radio…..”you got ‘em all”!  This was part of what's known as "seat of your pants" railroading.  If you pull too hard on them, the cars will tear apart, causing damage and serious delay.  If you don't pull hard enough ... you won't get the train broken out of the snow that's holding it captive and you'll stay where you are. You just "felt" when it was appropriate to give it another notch of throttle, and when to shut the throttle off and back into them once again.  

We were psyched up to do this...we were ready to go out there and fight to break a train out of the yard and go home.  However, this was not to be.  Instead of being called in freight service,  were called to ‘spread the yard’.  For those of you who have no idea what that entails…let me tell you how it worked.  

Photo Credit Don Jaworski

Using just the locomotive and an ancient contraption called a Spreader, the crew, along with a group of track maintenance workers, pulled cars out of tracks until a track was clear.  Then the engine and spreader would go into the track and begin to shove snow off to the side.  The spreader operator let compressed air into big black cylinders and the wings extended full width, pushing snow even further to the side of the track, leaving a smooth, flat surface that was just above the level of the rail head.  This process would be repeated until all tracks in the yard had been cleared and all the boxcars had been returned to their respective tracks.  

Photo Credit Wesley Bridge - Spreading the Yard at South Parry yard (Parry Sound, Ontario)

We worked at it all day.   When the work was complete, we booked a few hours rest, then retired to the bunkhouse to shower and clean up.  Then came the inevitable decision to hike up to the hotel for dinner and a few glasses of beer.  After devouring a hot meal and some cold beer, we walked to the bunkhouse and a comfortable, warm bed.  I fell asleep as my head was settling into the pillow.  

There was a soft knock at my door and a man's voice said..."Mr. Harvey, you're called for the grain empties out of the yard for 0630.

The assigned snow service crew was ordered eastward from Blue River to Jasper for 0700.  

The Snow Service crew arrived for duty about the same time as we did.  They would be leaving town with two GP9’s, a snow plough, a spreader and a caboose with orders to plough the mainline, all sidings and wyes from Blue River to Red Pass, then run to Jasper to tie up.  Our orders were to follow the snow train leaving Blue River and we would not be allowed to pass the snow plough train at any point on the subdivision.  This seemed punitive, as the Snow Service Train was going to have to clear nearly every track for ninety miles.  Unknown to us, another storm had brought a substantial amount of snow to the Rockies west of Valemount and it was thought that the snow plough should run ahead of the drag.  CN had run Number Two, the Super Continental eastward that morning and it had nearly been delayed by snow slides in the area of Mount Robson between Valemount and Red Pass Junction. 

They had assembled their train and were ready to depart Blue River within an hour.  Our train was coming in from Kamloops and would be a "Mainline connection"....my favourite kind.  We were ready to follow the snow plow eastward out of Blue River.  The sun was finally shining again.  

We had gone to Blue River with Emil Miller at the throttle, and Emil had been called as second engineer on the morning passenger train, leaving us with the first engineer arriving from the east.  This was a fellow named Eugene Lhykun.  Our conductor was Lorne Howard and the head end brakeman was Don Barr.

 The snow train was comprised of only the plow, engine and caboose was making pretty good time.  The first meet on the subdivision was to be at Albreda, mile 91.6, some 40 miles east of Blue River.  We were in Automatic Block territory which provided track occupancy indication signals and train orders.  The dispatcher told us via the operator that the meet at Albreda would be with the westbound piggy back train and he'd be at Albreda for both the snow train and us.  A double meet for him and clear sailing for us.  

All went well and we left open valley and headed into the hills.  We passed Red Sand, Pyramid and Lempriere at a pretty good clip of nearly 30 miles an hour.  We listened in as radio conversation between the snow plow train and the speed train began to take up the airwaves.  The westbound "speed" was at Canoe River and they said they would be in the clear ... in the siding at Albreda before the snow plow arrived.  Since Albreda had a spring switch at both ends of the siding, it was an easier place to get in and out of than many others, even allowing for the fact that it lay at the summit of Albreda Pass within sight of Albreda glacier.  

Then, a call from the snow service train as the engineer called out to their caboose...."we've just hit a moose".  "Do you want to stop and take a look?"   The conductor said, "No" "We'd only hold up the 217 and the train behind us".  This, he said in direct violation of an Order directing all trains hitting large animals to stop and ensure that the carcass is removed a safe distance from the track.  this directive was in place to ensure that the animal had not caused any part of the train to de-rail.  The conductor then said..."Oh yeah, the plow must have thrown it clear of the main, because it's way up the bank."

Photo taken from a post card.  Photographer unknown

Twenty minutes later, our engine came around the curve and struck the animal which was laying in the middle of the track....dead.  The conductor instructed the engineer to continue on without stopping.  I mentioned to Lorne that we should stop and inspect the train as per the Order.  He declined, saying that it wouldn't be necessary.  

Without saying a word, I got out of my chair and climbed down from the cupola. Walking to the back door, I opened it and stepped out onto the rear platform and waited.  

Soon enough, bits of moose hair, bloody snow and shredded hide, meat and bone began to emerge from beneath the caboose and fall quickly to the rear of the train.  The next thing that I saw caused me to realize that we were likely derailed.  We were only a mile away from the spur at Gosnell and what we were fast approaching was a facing point switch.  If we did indeed have wheels off the rails, we would hit that switch at 30 miles an hour and spill empty grain cars all over the lumber mill there.

Bruce Harvey Collection..RBH Photo

I called to Lorne to tell him to stop the train because there were wheel marks in the snow indicating we were derailed.  He refused.  Sensing that time was running out and being less than a few hundred yards from calamity, I took the conductor's air valve in my hand and yanked it open.  The train's brakes applied in an emergency application and more than a hundred empty boxcars lost their speed and momentum and stopped on the snow-covered mountain side alongside the North Thompson River.

All hell broke loose!  Lorne leaped from the cupola.  He berated me for causing us to have to spread the yard, he blamed me for him being late for dinner and probably for the snow on the ground too.  This was totally unlike Lorne, but I had to make the decision at that  instant or risk the lives of workers at the mill.  I looked at him coldly as I took the portable radio from the wall bracket and went outside.  "I'm going to find that pair of derailed wheels," I said.  "And don't even think about closing that valve until you hear from me!"  

I climbed up onto the roof of the car immediately ahead of the caboose and began the long walk toward the head end.  Our head-end brakeman called and said he would begin walking 'over the top' toward the caboose and we'd meet somewhere in the middle.  At that point, I was sure that I was the only man on the crew who believed that we had stopped in emergency for good reason.

Every time I crossed from one car to another, I looked down at the snow between the rails and I saw the same thing....two grooves in the snow...one about a foot inside the south rail and one about a foot outside the north rail.  The two unbroken marks in the snow were exactly 4' 8 1/2" apart....the precise distance between two rails and two wheels.  

Eventually, I met Don about twenty cars from the engine.  He said that there were no derailed wheel sets to be found....and I hadn't found any either.  Lorne called for an update and when I told him what Don had said and what I hadn't found, he threatened to turn me in to the Assistant Superintendent for delaying the train.  

I KNEW there had to be a pair of wheels off....there just HAD to be!  

When I had walked all the way to the engine, I climbed down off the last car and dropped into the waist deep snow.  The snow immediately behind the engine was undisturbed, so I began to wade through the deep snow, working backward toward the caboose.  Don was astounded.  He couldn't believe that I wouldn't give up my (foolish) search for derailed wheels that couldn't be found....so far!  I got to the third car and looked underneath.   And there, sitting in the snow and clearly derailed, a pair of wheels.  

With a deep sense of relieved satisfaction, I keyed the microphone and called Lorne.

"We're on the ground," I said.  "Here's the car number...are you ready to copy?"

"I can't believe it", he said.  "I'm on my way up"

"Bring some tools", I said.  We'll drop the re-railers and get them in position."

Soon, Lorne showed up and when he saw the derailed wheel-set, he told me he was sorry he had treated me so badly.  He told me that I was now the conductor as he was demoting himself for the day.  I was sent to sit on a log nearby and coordinate movements with the chief dispatcher.

Credit cnrphotos.  All attempts to contact failed.

The Chief Dispatcher ordered up the Big Hook out of Jasper, but I suggested that he hold the wrecking train at Red Pass Junction, because it looked like we wouldn't be too long getting this pair of wheels back on the rails. This he did.  The re-railer kept slipping, but the wheels finally came up and settled on the rails....High Fives all around.

Then....when I got Eugene to back the train up so that we could try to re-load the heavy re-railers back onto the engine, another car came by, and it too, had a pair of wheels off.  This was the first car behind the engine.

We were not finished yet, but what we had learned from the first derailed car...we applied to the second one and we were soon underway.

All through this exercise, Eugene whined that he had 25 years in and was fearful of losing his job or getting some 'brownies' ((demerit points)).  "Don't worry, Gene....I know people in high places", I said jokingly.  It didn't settle him down...he was jittery.

As we started to pull away for the meet at Albreda with the speed train, I called the dispatcher to tell him that it was all cleaned up.  I had done a quick check of the track, rails and gauge and told him that there didn't appear to be any track damage, but suggested a 10 mile per hour slow order until the Road Master had a chance to look it over.  

The upshot....our entire crew got 5 MERIT points which were delivered in a special ceremony that took place in Jasper!   


LOU said...

YOU " MOUNTAIN-MEN " definatly are ' MADE-SPECIAL " as outstanding performance definately was demanded in your routine duties. Our winter-stories of highway-clearing in NW-IL even w/ the ' BLOWER ' can't come close to your situations !!!!!!

Again I must commend you on such great talent in your descriptave presentations !!!!!!

LOU said...

HEY-THERE-BRUCE-----My 2nd trip with those GREAT-PICS was even 'UNDERSTANDING-SO-OUSTANDING'--------------THANK-Y'ALL-KINDLY !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!