Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Difference Between A Locomotive Engineer And A Hog Head.

There had been a rush of traffic as CN's Mountain Region pushed to clean up all the traffic that was stretched across hundreds of miles of track.  It had been a very busy season for everyone involved.

For weeks, brakemen, switchmen, engineers and conductors were free to work all the overtime they wanted.  Train and engine crews were doubling the road so much that they had made their monthly mileage allotment in two weeks or less.  Yard crews, including yard foremen and switchmen were working three, and sometimes four shifts in a 24 hour period by overlapping their times by as much as five hours.  Under the union agreement, switch crews would work the first shift at straight time,  and would be paid eight hours pay, whether they were actually on duty for a full eight hours or less.  In many cases, the crew would be allowed to  'tie up' and go home after as little as two or three hours if they had completed the work they were given.  This was OK'd by the company as long as the crew members made themselves available for another shift at some point within the 24 hour period.  Most did, and many would work up to 4, and in the odd case, even 5 shifts in 24 hours.  As I said, the first shift was at straight time..., all the rest that day would be paid at time and a half.

The company and the unions decided to set aside the mileage limitation agreement, temporarily in an effort to get the rail traffic cleared away. There were some pretty fat Christmas cheques being prepared for these men.

The clock was ticking, as Christmas was now only days away.  We were still hard at it..., working day and night,  but the job was nearly done.  Men were looking forward to the Christmas break when most assignments would be cancelled for a few days including Christmas, and again at New Years.

All trains handling grain, coal, potash, sulphur and forest products were being dropped in yards across the territory.  Yards and storage tracks were being used to hold all bulk commodity traffic until after the holidays.
The grain elevators, coal unloading facilities and other bulk operations prepared their plants for the shutdown and the longshoremen drove their cars and trucks through the automatic wash rack as they left their parking lots.

As operations along the waterfront slowed to a stop, ocean going freighters dropped their anchors in the
outer harbor which became a parking lot for ships.  At night, the ships displayed all their lights, extending the city limits from shore to shore across the harbor.

The last train on the line-up was 217.  The westbound speed train was made up of shipping containers, truck-trailers piggybacked on flat cars and box cars with mechanical refrigeration units keeping temperature sensitive cargo from getting too cold, or too warm.  It had been expected to arrive in Vancouver 24 hours earlier

The train crew gathered in the booking-in room at Port Mann.  No one on the four man crew figured on getting a call on Christmas Eve day, but the crew caller told them they were dead-heading to Boston Bar to bring 217 back.  At least it promised to be a quick trip.  Three hours to dead-head to the Bar on the Greyhound bus, and four hours to bring 217back meant they'd all be home for Christmas Eve..., if all went well.

On arrival at Boston Bar, the bus driver let the crew off in front of the bunk house.  They dropped their gear off in the crew lounge and walked over to the station where the operator on duty told them that 217 would arrive in 20 minutes.  Their orders were already made up and waiting for them on top of the open train register book.

The train booking read 5086-5127, 34 loads and 1 empty (the caboose).

The engineer hiked up his sagging, shiny trousers to the bottom of his pouching belly, then pushed back his yellowing hair.  With a big grin, he turned to the tail end brakeman and told him that he should get up into the cupola and fasten the seat belt, hinting, not so subtely that it was going to be a very fast ride back to Port Mann.  As this hog head was well known for his blatant disregard for the posted speed limits, the brakeman had no doubt that the hogger meant what he said.   The "brakie" also knew that if he wanted to avoid an angry tirade, he would keep his mouth shut, buckle up, brace himself and hang on.

It was well known by all, including CN's front line managers that this engineer was a 'highballer'.  For the most part, he seemed to be able to avoid getting into trouble; and when he did find himself in the middle of it, he always came out smelling like roses.  Strange, how that works.

As the operator had predicted, 217 eased to a stop at the crossing in front of the bunkhouse.

The hogger got on the engine and was pulling slowly down the mainline as the head end brakeman came out of the station and stepped aboard the leading steps of the 5086.

An east-bound speed train, likely 218, meets a west-bound drag of sulphur sitting on track one in Boston Bar, BC.  Photo Credit - S.L. Dixon via

A few minutes later, the Kamloops crew stepped off the caboose and the Port Mann crew climbed on.  The tail end brakemen saw that the brakes on the caboose had applied and he called the engineer on the radio and told him to release the brakes.  When the brakes released and the air pressure gauge in the caboose showed the return of normal air pressure, he said "The brakes have applied and released on the tail end." "We're both on and OK to go."

Without answering, the hoghead pushed the independent brake handle against the full release position and, as the engine's air brake pressure escaped into the cab, he pulled out the throttle.  Sitting in the cupola, the brakeman heard the slack being pulled out of the train.  The caboose, with it's draft gear groaning leaped ahead, trying to keep up with the train.

With no other trains on the road, there was an expectation that every signal along the way would be green.

The sky was overcast, as it had been for two weeks.  There had been lots of rain, especially in the past couple of days, and there had been a number of small rocks falling off the mountains and onto the tracks.  The slide detector fences had all been hit by falling rocks, activating the brilliant white warning lights that were placed in advance of the fences to warn crews that a rock, tree or avalanche had hit the fence.

The railways' Signals Department had already given up trying to keep the fences repaired, and the warning lights, we knew, would flash steadily until early summer, at which time the maintenance crews would go into the canyon and repair all of the broken wires.  The train crews complained to the Trainmaster, wanting the fences repaired; but I didn't fault the maintenance crews.  I wouldn't want to risk my life hanging wire in the canyon during the winter months when rocks of all sizes fell almost continuously onto the tracks below.

Photo Credit - Peter Cox
West-bound tonnage on Anderson Creek Bridge with two SD-40's

Leaving the empty rail yard behind, the red and black steel caboose clung to the rails as it scooted across the big Anderson Creek bridge and past the east switch at Hicks.  Within minutes, the engine dove into the curve at mile 5 where the track rested on a narrow shelf, high above the raging river.  A hundred feet above the roiling water, and but a couple hundred feet from the CPR mainline halfway between North Bend and China Bar.  At this point on the Yale sub, the large rock had long since been cleared away, and the track had been repaired.  But when the water level in the river dropped to its lowest point in the dry, hot summers..., you could look almost straight down to the edge of the river and see the underside of a wrecked GP9 number 4286, which had hit a large rock on the track and gone over the side, taking engineer Macbeth and fireman Buckingham to their deaths.

GP9 class locomotive running as an extra west.  Note white flags and class lights.
Photo Credit - Peter Cox

The following information regarding  GP9, CN4286 is credited to CNRHA (formerly CNLines SIG)
  • 4286, GP9, class GR-17u, built 1959
  • wrecked 27 February 1968 at mile 5 of the Yale Subdivision near Boston Bar, BC. The locomotive hit a rock slide and went into the Fraser River.
  • retired June 1968
For most head-end crewmen running on the Yale sub, this place served as a silent, somber reminder that their names were written on a rock somewhere high above, and one day they might meet their rock, lying between the rails, waiting for them.  Most..., but not all.  There were a few who laughed in the face of Fate and ran as if they had a personal guarantee from God that they would never meet their end out here..., riding a locomotive toward the cold, rushing water of the Fraser River.

On many cold, wet and foggy winter nights I rode in the cabs of F7's and GP9's, staring at the brilliant white glare of headlights and ditch lights reflecting back off the dense fog, and seeing nothing but thirty feet of glistening rail and roadbed in front of the engine.  On those nights, I silently wished that I had another twenty five years of seniority so that I could be the one in the caboose, drinking coffee and having my lunch while sitting at a table, not balancing a half eaten sandwich on my knee.  I thought about how nice it would be to be talking with my fellow caboose rider in a normal voice, not having to shout above the noise of hammering 567's and barking exhaust.  My turn would come, I thought..., in time..., if I lived that long.

When the caboose entered the curve at mile 5, it lurched against the outside rail, rattling the dishes in the cupboard above the sink.  The kettle clattered on top of the oil stove, spilling hot water on the hot surface which made a hissing sound.  The brakeman, who was sitting in the cupola, the highest point above the center of gravity felt a sharp pain in his rib cage as he was thrown against the steel armrest of his chair.  He lifted his feet off the foot rest under the chair and jammed them into the corners of the tempered glass window in front of him.  He pushed his hips into the backrest and rubbed his bruised ribs.

There would be no fresh coffee made today, and no lunch taken at the table in the cabooses kitchen.  It was too dangerous even to get out of one's chair and walk from one end of the caboose to the other without risk of being tossed against the wall, or to the floor.

The 'maximum' posted speed limit through the canyon was twenty five miles per hour and the tail end crew knew that the trains was travelling well beyond that.  The conductor had already shaved nearly thirty minutes off of the 'Terminal Time' that they would normally have claimed as compensatory delay.  He needed to put the thirty minutes into 'running time' so that it would appear to the company officers that the train had been traveling at a speed somewhat closer to the allowable for the subdivision.

Other than the dead head on the bus, which was paid at the lowest rate possible, and 113 running miles, there wasn't going to be much money made on this trip!

Running downgrade, 217 scooted through Komo, at mile 10 and Stout at mile 18.  In another couple of miles, the railway right of way would get wider, with broader curves, no more slide detector fences and only a couple more tunnels to pass through.  By the time they got to Trafalgar, just 4 miles north of Hope, they would have encountered nine slide detector fences for a total of 6055 feet and fifteen tunnels totaling 9883 feet.  At Trafalgar, they would leave the canyon.  At Hope, the posted speed limit would almost double from that in the canyon.  After Hope, there would be different risks to face.

But for now, there was only one more curve that presented a challenge for 217 today..., the 'S' curves at mile 24.3.  There, a stream ran under the track through a timber trestle and into a back-eddy in the river where the natives from Rosedale came to fish for salmon.  After crossing the stream, the track took a sharp turn to the right, then eased into a long right-hand curve that passed under large broad-leafed Maples.  From there, one could see through the 2104 foot Yale tunnel.  Yale sub crews knew that the curve at 24.6 was made more dangerous because of the fact that it was hard to resist opening the throttle while all of part of the train had yet to navigate the curve; and..., the curve had not been super-elevated to allow for a higher rate of train speed. It  was as flat as the surface of the back-eddy that held the natives' nets during the Salmon spawning season.

The weather had held so far.  The rain had stopped a couple of hours earlier, but a fine drizzle had begun to accumulate on the window in front of the tail end brakeman.  Soon, he thought..., the train would shoot out of the canyon and into the head of the more forgiving Fraser Delta.  He would allow himself to leave the cupola and go below to relieve himself, wash up and make a pot of tea.

The drizzle turned to rain.  He leaned forward to clear away the rainwater with the windshield wiper.  Gripping the air-operated wiper valve, he gave it a turn and the wiper blade came to life, swinging across the width of the window and...., the "air went!"  The unmistakable sound of the train going into an emergency brake application made him look wonderingly at the windshield wiper valve he had just opened.

The train surged.  The caboose, traveling at about 40 miles per hour ran up against the flat car loaded with a highway trailer.  Then, the tail end of the train ran out toward the rear and back again, into a screeching, jumbled pile of wreckage that was tilting and twisting in every direction.  Boxcars ahead of the caboose were seemingly trying to avoid the catastrophe that was being created in front of them.  They turned off to both  sides of the track and, like blindfolded creatures, they leaped into the deep ditches and over the bank toward the river.  One or two made it past the ditch on the mountain side of the track and stopped, upright, nearly one hundred  and fifty feet from the track.  The others, however, became twisted and mangled wreckage that came to a stop in a great heap all over the roadbed.

When everything had come to a stop, and the only sound was the rain, now falling heavily on the steel roof of the caboose, the conductor took the radio handset from its cradle on the wall beside his desk.  Keying the mike, he said..."Are you guys OK up there?"  He didn't really expect an answer.  The wreckage was terrible.

At least there was nothing burning..., yet.

Then, came a crackle over the radio speaker in the caboose..., "yeah, we're OK....did you pull the air?"

"No, we didn't pull the air", said the conductor.  "But the train's all piled up in a heap on the curve".

"Well, you'd better get your bedroom slippers off and lace up your boots."  You're going to have to walk the train to see if we've got any cars on the ground".

Shaking his head, the conductor muttered something just barely audible about the hogger's mental capabilities.

After calling the dispatcher in Kamloops to report the derailment, the conductor and the tail end brakeman started walking toward the head end.  They didn't have to go very far to see that, with the exception of the caboose and a few cars on the tail end, the whole train was in the bush!  Across the big natural depression alongside the tracks that was partially filled with derailed cars, they could see the head end brakeman who yelled out..., "It was a big washout."  "The track was hanging in the air, and both units went across alright."  "Both units are upright and standing on the rails!!!"

The tail end crew went back to the caboose where the dispatcher was on the radio wanting a situation report.  He was told that most of the train was derailed, the track was impassible and the engine was safe on the west side of the derailment.

The Chief dispatcher gave them instructions to protect the rear of the train, lock up the caboose and make their way to the engine, where they could run light engine to Port Mann/Thornton Yard.

Among the first to arrive after the crew had left was a contingent of CN Police officers who were posted to protect the contents of the derailed cars, one of which was a shipment of freshly minted coins, destined for Vancouver and area distribution.

The line wasn't re-opened until close to New Years, so everyone, except the CN Police Officers, got an extended holiday.

Once the line was open, rail traffic resumed on a priority basis as the wrecking train, the Thornton Auxiliary, picked up the wreckage.

Photo Credit

Train 217, being a high-value commodity train had lots of interesting cargo on board.  Besides the car of money, there were cars loaded with very expensive food stuffs, such as European chocolate and cheeses, wines, clothing and such.  One car contained a shipment of goods going to pharmacies on the BC coast.  It contained, among other things...., birth control pills which several brakemen gleefully salvaged from the mud to give to their girl friends as belated Christmas gifts!

With permission from the on-duty police officer, I took 25 gallons of industrial paint remover and opened a small furniture re-finishing shop in my garage.


LOU said...

GLAD-NO-LOL(LOSS-OF-LIFE) & LOH(LOSS-OF-HOLIDAY) for the train-crews !!!!!!!!!

The more time I spend w/ y'all, the more amazed I am of your existance, and thoughly-grateful for how much we all are BLESSED-FROM-ABOVE, not only past but daily & BEYOND !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

BEST-TO-Y'ALL & YOURS !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Linda W said...

Just in to say hi Bruce and Susan. You have a terrific blog and great pictures and fantastic stories with well written words!
Hope your health is much better.
All is well here!
Love Linda and Tom