Saturday, October 15, 2011

Bravery and Courage Defined - Part Two

Karen, the young lady I spoke of in my last post was going out with us for her first trip as a student engineer. I expected to be called for an eastbound freight to Boston Bar, but when the call came, it was to deadhead by bus to Boston Bar.

Once we had our bus tickets in hand, a taxi was ordered to deliver us to the Greyhound Bus depot in Sapperton.  The ride to the Bar was long and tedious, with the bus taking the most circuitous route through every major center in the Fraser Valley.  Eventually, we stopped in Hope for a twenty minute break and then back onto the bus for the last forty miles through the canyon.

Getting off the bus at Cog's Hotel in Boston Bar, we walked down to the bunkhouse and went inside.  The train crew went to the station to find out what we were lined up for and how long our layover might be.   I showed Karen how to book a private room and where to find the kitchen and washrooms.  She was a bit disconcerted to discover that the company had made no alterations for female employees who would have to use the facilities in the bunkhouse.  It had been a male-dominated occupation since the first rails and ties had been laid here ca. 1913.  For Karen....this was going to be a problem.  For CN, it was going to be a major headache.

When we arrived at the station,the operator was preparing the orders for the train we would take back to the coast.  There was a westbound train sitting in track three, the only train in the yard.  I glanced at the train lineup hanging on a nail near the train register and saw that other than the train in track three, the next westbound freight would not arrive in The Bar for at least eight or nine hours.  It became obvious that there would be no room for bargaining with the Chief Dispatcher for a better train.   This was the only one available and it was something special; it was one hundred and twelve cars of Northern Alberta sulphur, loaded in thirty year old open-top three bay hoppers.  Westbound sulphur was shipped in unit trains carrying the designation "U883 and U897".   "U882 and U896" moved the empty sulphur trains eastward.  These unit trains were among the ugliest trains on the road.  They were sloppy, with lots of slack between each car.  One hundred cars could develop as much as sixty five feet of slack between the engine and the caboose. These trains were very heavy and required a lot of care and skill to get them up to track speed.  Getting them stopped required a lot of clear track ahead.

As well, CN didn't believe in dynamic brakes.  The majority of their locomotives were ordered without DB and many that were delivered with DB were stripped of the appliance early in their operating lives.  Dynamic brake is a combination of mechanical and electrical components that can change the traction motors into generators.  This creates a retarding force that is dissipated through large grids, similar to a kitchen toaster.  The heat that's generated in these grids is blown off into the atmosphere by fans in the body of the locomotive.  It's possible to not only control a trains speed, but in some cases, to bring a large, heavy train almost to a stop.  DB is generally used in conjunction with normal air brakes to control train speed, especially in mountainous territory.

There were two fifteen year old SD40's idling on the shop track.  Their paint was faded and worn.  And lube oil,  pushed from the exhaust stacks was left to run down the sides of the body and onto the walkways.

When the head-end man arrived on the shop track, Karen and I had already completed our shop track brake test.  As expected, our motive power for the day was not equipped with dynamic brakes.

After we had received verbal permission from the dispatcher to enter the main track, I motioned for Karen to take the seat on the right hand side...the engineer's seat.  She resisted, saying that she didn't want to make a mistake and get me into trouble.  I insisted, saying that I did not intend to let her do anything that might result in me being fired of killed; she sat down at the throttle.

We brought the engine out of the shop tracks and onto the main line.  Soon we were backing our engine onto track three.

With the engine coupled on and the air cut in to charge up the brake pipe for the brake test on the train.  The conductor called for Karen to set the brakes to begin the compulsory air brake test that was to be carried out whenever an engine was changed.  When Karen began to move the brake handle into the application zone, a rush of air exhausted into the cab.  Then the train brakes went into 'Emergency'!   Karen's hand shot from the valve handle and she looked at me in astonishment.  "It's OK", I said.  "We probably have a 'kicker' on the train."

 A kicker is a hidden problem within the brake system that causes the brakes to behave badly.  Generally, it can be traced to a sticking brake piston that can let go suddenly, causing the brakes to be applied in emergency.   Operating practice stipulate that when a 'kicker' occurs on a train, the crew is to locate the offending car and 'cut out' the brakes on that car, thus by-passing the problem and leaving the train with one less operating brake.  On sulphur trains, our experience was that one could spend hours chasing kickers around on a train until more than fifteen percent of the brakes had been cut out...only to find another kicker.

Oh, Lord how we hated those trains!  Most of us would like the CPR to be the successful bidder on the next sulphur contract!

The conductor called and asked me if I wanted to start looking for the kicker.  I thought about it for a moment and, weighing our options, made a decision.  "No", I said. "I'm willing to take 'er as she is, if you're willing to follow me".  "OK", he said.  "We've always got 'Emergency' in case we need to stop".

I called the dispatcher, whom I had known for some time and told him what we were dealing with.  He asked me if we wanted to leave the train in the yard and try to find the kicker and I told him we'd decided to take the train ... with his assistance.  I asked him to put every train that we might meet on the road into the siding far enough in advance of our arrival at the meeting place that we wouldn't have to touch the brake valve.  If we had to apply the brakes, they would go into emergency and likely would result in a train that was standing in several pieces on the mainline.  He said he would be happy to oblige us.

The dwarf signal at the west end of the yard turned from red to green and the conductor called to say that they were onboard and buckled up.

Karen released the engine brake and cracked the throttle.  The slack, which had been all bunched when the train was brought into the yard off the Ashcroft sub began to stretch and we could count the cars as they started their forward march into the canyon.

Above, is a profile of a bit of CPR track in the Okanagan Valley in BC.  Each solid vertical line represents one mile of track.  The straight horizontal line depicts sidings, yards and back tracks or storage tracks.  The wavy line with the multitude of numbers above and below it demonstrates the grades; the numbers show degrees of rise and fall from horizontal.  The other wavy line closer to the top of the image shows the curvature with attached numbers outlining the degree of curve.

As Karen had never been over this subdivision prior to today, and CN had never issued track profiles to any of its operating crews, we had to rely on my personal knowledge of the subdivision.  Trains will slow down when they go uphill and speed up when they go down hill.  Curvature will also slow a train and I explained to Karen that an engineer must always be thinking 'three miles ahead' of the train's current location.  In this way, we can use track-train dynamics to help get you over the road.  When you have a train such as this, you have to remember that when one end of your train is going uphill, the other end can be going downhill, depending on the track profile.  This means that, in order to get over the road safely, and arrive with the train in one piece, she would have to not only be thinking ahead of the train, but also where every car is and what surface conditions it is responding to.  If we had working dynamic brakes and/or working train air brakes, the job wouldn't be nearly as intense as it was going to be today.  I told her that if she could handle this.....she could handle anything.  And I meant it.

She settled right in and remained focused.  Listening attentively to the instructions I gave her, coupled with the reasons I was giving the instructions, she watched as the train responded to her slight increases or decreases in throttle, engine brake, and use of curvature and grade.

In the first fifteen miles, she had nursed that beast over Anderson Creek Bridge and through Hicks.  She crept around the curve at mile 4.9 where a locomotive could be seen lying in the rapids from a train wreck in the 60's, and eased past Hell's Gate.  Then she gently began to ease off on the engine brake and open the throttle; gently at first ... pulling out the slack just like she had done when we lifted the train out of the yard at The Bar. When she had counted as many 'bumps' in the train of slack as she could, she began to work on the throttle even harder.  The conductor called, saying that the train was now all stretched out.  This helped us a lot, because we were now on the hill and needed to get as much power working as we had available.

With the throttle wide open in the eighth notch, all 13000 tons of train were hanging on the end of the engine, held there by a ninety pound chunk of steel called a 'knuckle'.  (quote not mine)

Photo credit Michael Da Costa via

With the diesels howling, the engine dug in, pulling the train through tunnels, along narrow ledges high above the angry brown water surging through the narrowest part of the lower Fraser canyon, beneath rocky overhangs and alongside rock slide warning fences that stood as silent sentinels against the enemy above....falling rocks.  The drawbars that connected each car to the one on either end of it groaned and creaked.  Wheels squealed against rails and the ties beneath us could be heard emitting sounds much like that of wood cracking under the weight of the train.

At twelve miles per hour, we crested the hill at Komo and began to reduce the throttle as the white mile board on the telephone pole near the track came into view.  Mile 11, just another one hundred and two miles to go.

Click on the "Komo" link above and you'll arrive at Google Maps/Terrain view.  Click on "Satellite" and zoom in close.  Follow the railway track to the right of the river and you'll find Komo.  There's a unit train going through Komo...!

As the engine passed the west switch at Komo, our speed began to increase.  Karen asked me for instruction, so I suggested that she think about what was happening as opposed to what she 'wanted' to happen.  Her next question was, "What does the track profile look like from here?"  I tried not to smile, because that was exactly what she needed to know so that she could decide what to do next.  Once I told her about the downward grade from here to mile 21, a distance of ten miles, she said she thought she should reduce throttle until the train speed leveled out at about 20 miles per hour.  Right!!!!  As train speed slowly crept past 20, she began to apply a little engine brake.  As brake pressure built up at the head end, the loaded cars coming behind began to bunch up against the engine....bump, bump, bump.  We counted up to 25 or 30, then one large "push" as the rest of the train ran in on the engine.  The conductor called to say that we had the whole train bunched up.  I was glad to see that he was paying close attention to what the train was doing.  He made it a lot easier and safer to control the speed and momentum by telling us what was happening at the tail end.

The CTC signals at Stout were green, or "clear" and so too was the signal to Yale.  As we emerged from the tunnel at the east (north) end of Yale, we saw an eastbound freight in the 'hole', or siding waiting for us.  He had been there for over half an hour and wasn't happy that he'd been held there and not taken to Stout for a meet on us.  As our engine went over the switch, their head-end brakeman got off their engine and crossed over to the far side of the track to inspect our train as we passed by.

We exchanged the obligatory waves accompanied by a short toot on the horn, or a 'ding' or two on the bell, and we were continued on our way as the dwarf signal turned green and their train began to move ahead.

When our caboose had passed theirs, there were calls on the radio..."OK on the PK at Yale, extra west" and, "You're looking good on the south side, extra east".

We had come through fifteen tunnels and as many slide detector fences in the first 35 miles, and with that out of the way, we could carry on without being concerned about rocks falling on the track in front of us.

Leaving Yale, the canyon opens up a bit and the track speed increases in the timetable and the trackside speed signs.  We can now bring 'er up to 40 miles per hour and let 'er roll.  Soon, we'll be past Hope and into 50 mile per hour territory.  But we won't be going that fast, and it's not because the engine won't pull us that fast; it's all about being able to control our stopping distance should we need to come to a controlled stop.

At Hope, we came to our first level crossing.  There would be lots of them from here all the way to Westlang, a few miles outside of Port Mann.  The whistle was blown long and loud and the bell was rung to add a second level of warning to motorists.

A couple of hours and a couple more eastbounds and we were drifting toward the yard limit board at Port Mann.  With the throttle at IDLE, our speed was steadily dropping.   I called the CN control tower and asked if there was anyone in the vicinity of the east yard lead who might be able to line the switches in advance of our arrival, as we were coming in with a crippled train and couldn't risk using the brakes and breaking in two.

When we arrived, a Trainmaster had driven up to the east yard lead and had us lined into our designated track.  With the train tucked away in between switches, the brakeman reached in between the engine and the first car and, turning the angle cock, shut off the air supply to the train.  Karen pulled the engine ahead slowly and we heard the loud 'whoosh', as the air that had been bottled up inside the mile and a half long brake pipe since we left Boston Bar was finally allowed to be free.

After placing the locomotives on the shop track at Port Mann, we met in the booking-in room.  We congratulated Karen for a job well done.  On her first trip as a student locomotive engineer, she had done something that no other my knowledge had ever done...or would ever consider possible.  She had brought a Unit Train of Sulphur....U897 from Boston Bar to Port Mann, a distance of 113 miles without once touching the air brakes.

 I tip my hat to her for displaying both bravery and they are indeed, different from one another.  Bravery for conquering her fear of taking THAT train out of Boston Bar on her first day on the job, with only the engine brake and emergency brake at her disposal...and, courage for facing the wall that was, and still is... that of a pioneering "sister" entering the world of the "brother-hood".

Karen, wherever you are......'Well Done'.


Susan said...

Well, she had her "Big Girl Panties" on that day for sure!

She was also lucky to have you by her side. It may not have been such a pleasant start if she had any another engineer.

I met Karen as you know and she was a unique woman. I hope she is doing well...

Da Wife

LOU said...


And another ' ON-EDGE ' ride w/ "TEACHER-BRUCE" & "STUDENT-KAREN" & whatta-great-job-well-done-by-BOTH !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Bruce said...

Wow, what a great memory you have. I love the technical details and the links....a good read.

This comment was left by Lynnette, but I was unable to "publish" it normally due to a sign-in glitch.
So I've done a 'cut and paste' of her comment. Thanks Lynnette. I'm glad that you enjoy the stories, so I'll keep writing them for you until I've exhausted them all.