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.


Hogger Blog said...

Hi Bruce Great blog.
Just a short note retainers are still used today on every Cadomin Rock train at the loading and unloading locations. Inland Cement uses air to load and unload via a 6ET type brake valve and use retainers along with gravity to move the cars. The rock is limestone not phos, and I worked with Yorky also.

Bruce said...

Hi Hogger Blog...

Thanks for catching my error on the phos-rock vs. limestone. I knew it was limestone, but....well, I'm old!
And thanks for the update on the Cadomin rock train. I haven't been up there for over 40 years, much has changed...except the 6ET brake valve and retainers.


LOU said...

2nd TRY !!!!!!!

MAN !!!!!!!!!there's alotta-details I never realized in your risky-business and out in that kinda-weather is " FRIGHTFUL " !!!!!!!!!!!!!

Gotta-GOOGLE this one, too. Thanks for the ride, but we stayed-in-the CABOOSE !!!