For my first trip back on the road, I was called at 05:30 for a drag of grain empties for 07:30, being given the standard 2-hour call. Susan got busy making breakfast while I prepared my "kit" for the trip.
While sharing a lovely breakfast together, the phone rang. The crew dispatcher, Henry Pylypiak called to tell me that the crew office was having trouble finding a train crew for this train. The crew office was canvassing a list of men who had been brought in from other regions of Canada, and not having much luck. I was advised to stay at home until they found a crew, or in the alternative..., my call would be cancelled, paying me a basic three hours pay for the day. I silently wished that they would find a crew, and sooner rather than later.
This would be my first "out of town" trip since we had gotten married and, without saying so, I was looking forward to getting back out on the mainline. I'd missed running on the high iron, and was looking forward to the excitement that I found there. As well, I also found a sense of peace during my lay-over time in Boston Bar. The sensation one experiences while riding a moving locomotive can never be explained; it has to be felt.
This is what it looks like!
|Jim Sexsmith at the throttle of ex-CNR F3A number 9000
see: Alberta Railway Museum
The weather channel had been forecasting an intense Low front that would move in from the Pacific Ocean which could affect us for the next 24 hours. The forecast was for rising winds and fluctuating temperatures, accompanied by periods of precipitation. The temperature outside was still mild, but the relative humidity seemed to be rather low. It didn't feel like rain was on the way, it felt more like snow might develop.
Susan asked me how long I would be gone. That would be a difficult question to answer with a pin-point response. There was no such thing as an average trip; we could be back home in as little as twelve hours if all went well, or twenty-four hours when the weather was misbehaving. Sometimes it wasn't the weather that determined when you might get home. A derailment three hundred miles away would block the tracks, hindering train movement. A rock slide, or a wash-out could tie up the railroad for a few hours or a few days.
When conditions deteriorated, a crew might be on the road for days, but that was quite rare. However, most seasoned railroaders working the road, carried emergency provisions that, if rationed carefully, could carry one through for a couple of days of being stuck on the road. There were worse places to be holed up in than the cab of a locomotive.
I wrote down the phone number for the operator at Port Mann. She could call and ask the operator to check with the dispatcher to find out where I was and when she might expect me to be coming home. That would be the only way she might get a reasonable estimate of my arrival at Port Mann.
I won't dwell on the matter too much, but I think it's appropriate to tell those of you who aren't familiar with 'life on the engine'a little about life in the cab of a locomotive. Conditions were spartan.
Prior to the late 1980's, there were few amenities available to CN road crews on engines. There were no toilet facilities such as the chemical toilets that today's locomotives have. Some locomotives were equipped with a toilet called "Incinolet", which was a toilet seat mounted over an electric hotplate.
|Photo compliments Ron Bowman
Chemical toilet in nose compartment of second generation diesel locomotive
This facility was almost always situated in some nearly inaccessible, unheated, dimly lit, non-ventilated and filthy equipment storage area within the body of the locomotive. Anyone who has ever had to use one of these toilets in the middle of winter, now possesses one of railroading's most unforgettable memories. Once the device was activated, it would cause the droppings to smolder for hours, or burst into flames.
Only after years of complaints by engineers, did CN reluctantly provide a half dozen "Tidy-Wipes" and two 355ml cans of water to each member of the engine crew at the beginning of each round trip.
Until the late 1980's, there was no refrigeration for food storage on locomotives, no clean, safe drinking water, and no hotplate to make a pot of coffee.
Just before 09:00, the crew office called back to say that they now had a full crew ordered and the men had promised to show up by about 10:30. Henry told me that the train crew was made up of three 'new guys' who didn't have much experience on the road. He asked my if I thought I'd be "OK" with a green crew.
"No problem," I said. "I'll look after them."
"What could go so wrong that I couldn't help these guys get over the subdivision," I thought.
I got to the yard office before 09:30 and began to pour over the bulletin books, notices, time tables, special instructions and other errata that gets pinned to the walls and taped to the windows. Since I hadn't worked the road for several months, there was a lot to catch up on, and I felt that because the crew was not familiar with the subdivision, I should be particularly sharp today.
As promised, the men arrived at 10:30. It soon became obvious that they were uncomfortable with the promise of a road trip into the canyon, as they grumbled about having been corralled into taking a call for "the road."
I did my best to assure them that I knew the territory very well and would do my best to ensure we didn't get into trouble out there. Fortunately, the fellow who would be riding the engine with me showed that he had a good sense of humor and that he was willing to get on with the job.
With all of our 'paperwork' in hand, we left the office to 'go to work.' As the brakeman and I walked over to the shop tracks to find our power, the conductor and tail end brakeman got into the crew bus for the half mile ride to the west end of the yard, where a freshly serviced caboose was waiting for them.
With the exception of myself, as engineer, the remainder of the crew were relatively new to the west coast. The conductor and tail end brakeman, who were from the same town in the Maritimes, had made a few trips on the Yale sub in the past five months, but the head end man was a newcomer to the mainline; he’d been working in the yards back east for a couple of years, but only recently relocated to Vancouver. He was planning a trip back home to be with his family for Christmas and took a call to go out onto the Yale Sub this trip only because he had an opportunity to pick up some extra money for the holidays.
He admitted to me that he was a bit edgy about the trip. He'd heard stories about long trips, dangerous canyons, and rock slides on the Yale Sub. The men who worked out there, he was told, were notorious risk-takers and lacking common sense in dangerous situations. I must admit, there was sometimes a dusting of truth in these accusations. I assured him that he was free to use the emergency brake on his side of the cab, but I would prefer that he discuss his concerns with me first, and if he wasn't satisfied with my response, he could pull on the handle and the train would stop almost immediately. That seemed to calm him down somewhat.
The Canyon, it was known, could be dangerous at any time of the year, but when the weather got bad, the Canyon became angry and combative. And the crews..., well some might occasionally exhibit a bit more false courage than might be deemed appropriate at the time.
I found myself observing this young man's readiness for the rigors of the road. He had a pair of light leather gloves, a wool sweater over his T-shirt, jeans, a pair of worn leather eight inch steel toe boots and a baseball cap. Good enough, but if it rains, he's going to get wet. If the weather takes a bad turn, he'd better hope he doesn't have to get off the engine for any reason other than to walk to the bunk house in Boston Bar. But the weather shouldn't get that cold for at least another month.
I hadn't bothered to take a look around outside the cab since we put the engine on the train, and when I realized that I had just turned on the overhead light, it occurred to me that even though it was mid-day, it had become ominously dark outside.
The sky had become heavily overcast with dark, grey cloud cover. The temperature had begun to drop and bits of paper, leaves and little funnels of dust were chasing about the ground in front of me.
Reaching for the cab heater control, I turned the switch from "off" to "low" and the fan kicked in, delivering warmth and bits of collected debris into the cab.
With the air-brake test completed the rear brakeman announced by radio that he and the conductor were ready to leave the yard. Picking up the radio handset, I called the dispatcher in Kamloops 245 miles to the east and asked for the signal to leave Port Mann.
"If you're ready to leave now, I can give you the signal", he said.
"We're ready on the tail end", said the conductor.
"And we're ready on the head end", I said.
"You've got the signal". "Have a nice trip", said the dispatcher.
|Ruel Sub. CTC Dispatcher. Photographer not known at this time.
“5286 East…all moving” came the call from the caboose. “All moving, thanks”, I answer.
|CN 5286 August 1994, Prince George, BC
Mark Forseille - photographer
Creeping out of the yard track and onto the lead, the dwarf signal at the east end of the yard came into view. Its bright, red colour indicated, with absolute authority that we are not to go beyond that point until we receive a less restrictive signal indication. Beyond that lies seventy two miles of broad Fraser River valley, and forty miles of deep, narrow Fraser Canyon.
Just as the dispatcher had promised, the dwarf signal turned from red to green, allowing our train to leave the yard. I advanced the throttle a bit more, and the engines increase their rpm's in response.
I looked forward to getting out "on the main again; we'll run free, like a herd of wild horses.
"CN Extra 5286 East, Slow Clear signal leaving Port Mann," I call out on the radio.
"Slow Clear" came the response from the caboose.
I pull the throttle out a little more and wait for the train to respond. Sliding the window open, I lean out for a look back along the side of the train. The long string of boxcars and covered hoppers that are coupled behind the locomotive heed the pull on their draw-bars, shaking off the rain-water that had been clinging in cold droplets to their sides, ladders and walkways. They seem eager to make their way back to the grain elevators of the Canadian Prairie provinces to be re-filled and sent on their way west again.
The grain harvest is in full swing in Western Canada.
As the mile board drifts quietly past, I again, pull on the throttle. The engines rev up as one; each locomotive in the consist throwing dark smoke from its stack. The speedometer creeps up a few more miles per hour.
The tail end calls out, "5286 East, we're on the high iron!"
"On the Main!" I answer, as I open the throttle up, all the way to the "money notch".
With the throttle wide open now, I pour a cup of coffee from my thermos as the train climbs the ascending grade from Port Mann up to Fort Langley. Across the cab the brakeman is checking the orders and his timetable for clues to understanding the complexities of mainline work. This is a nice change, I think. This young man was making an honest effort to figure things out on his own.
The weather continued to deteriorate rapidly. Cold began to radiate from the glass in front of me and the side windows that my right shoulder had been resting against were showing some frost which was beginning to form on the glass. I flip the switch that turns the electric windshield heaters on. Slowly, the frost disappears, and I feel a warm glow on my face.
Before we reached Fort Langley, snowflakes began to fall as the wind picks up, driving the snow first in one direction, then in another.
I wish I had tested the sanders before I left the shop track. Oh well, if the snow doesn't get too deep, I won't need sand on the rails for traction. We'll be fine.
|Chased by a winter storm. RBH at the throttle.
Photo credit Len Vandergucht of Salmon Arm
As visibility got worse, I considered reducing the throttle out of concern for motor vehicle traffic at level crossings. If I could no longer see the crossings or the vehicles, I felt sure that drivers would not be able to see me either.
I reached up with my left hand, gripping the whistle handle. I gave it a couple of short pulls, to make sure that the open bells of the whistle weren't filling up with snow, making them mute.
White whistle posts tend to vanish from the eye when the snow is flying, or in a dense fog and a train crew's nemesis is the vehicle operator who doesn't hear or see you coming. Everybody loses in a train/car collision.
The wind increased to angry proportions, buffeting the huge locomotive as it rolled along the tracks. Snow was drifting now, piling up in long snaking waves that broke into chunks when we passed through them.
photographer not known yet
If I could keep the train moving ahead, and the weather continued as it was, we would soon be plowing hard-packed snow. I was struggling with the train, trying to keep it moving, but the speedometer was telling me that I was losing the battle. The wind was fierce, and the snow was squeezing the wheel flanges against the rail heads, causing friction to develop, adding to the difficulties already present.
Perhaps we would find ourselves stalled, unable to move further; and not in a location of our choice.
I checked our train length against my time table notes to find a place where we could park 6000 feet of train without having to cut crossings. The only places on the entire subdivision that could accommodate our train were in the canyon, many miles east of us.
It would be preferable to keep it moving, if possible. But we were running out of time. I had gone 'on duty' prior to 07:30 and would be subject to mandatory rest at 19:30. With operating conditions rapidly deteriorating, I hoped that CN officials would arrange to have our train tucked away before we were brought to a halt by the weather conditions.It had already been a long day and I was feeling the weight of the circumstances. I wanted a meal and some rest.
The siding at Arnold was only eleven miles further east. We might be able to make it and get most of the train into the siding there. Arnold held only 5200 feet of train once the crossing was cut. We could take the remainder of our train to Chilliwack and put it away in one or more of the tracks there.
Excited voices suddenly burst from the radio speaker in the cab. Seven miles east of Chilliwack, a west-bound train was stopped "In Emergency!!", at Rosedale. The caboose had derailed, perhaps due to a chunk of ice falling from a rail car, becoming lodged in the flange way of the crossing. The caboose came to rest, standing upright on its wheels, between the mainline and the siding.
Being preoccupied with the weather conditions, I hadn't yet told the dispatcher that we were getting close to our hours and would need to be taken off the train for rest. With a caboose on the ground at Rosedale, the decision regarding where we would leave the train would be less complicated. It was going to be Arnold, with the over-flow going to Chilliwack.
On the Trans-Canada highway, somewhere to the south of us, CN’s mobile crane, the “Cherry Picker” had been out on a previous call doing some clean-up work near Boston Bar and was returning to its home base at Port Mann. It was travelling on Highway One when the storm struck and was now in the middle of a fifty vehicle crash, caused by a 'white-out' in blowing snow conditions.
Reaching for the radio, I switched from the road channel to the Dispatcher's Channel and pressed the "call" button. In a moment, the dispatcher answered with, "Dispatcher Kamloops, Over."
I talked with him of the situation with the Cherry Picker and then I told him that we were in the middle of the same violent blizzard. I was concerned that we might not be able to continue much farther before the weather conditions forced us to stop.
"I want to put you into the siding at Arnold", he said. "Do you think you can make it that far?"
"If we can keep moving for another two or three miles" I said, "We'll be in the lee of the mountain and it'll be easier going from there," I told him.
"Once you get into Arnold, I'll do what I can to get you a signal to run to the west end of your train to pick up your tail-end crew!" "Then you can run to Chilliwack where we'll arrange for a hotel room for you guys."
Arriving at the west switch at Arnold, we got the switch cleaned out and pulled the train into the siding. After the tail end brakeman got the road crossing cut, he made his way back to the caboose.
We finally arrived in Chilliwack and headed into the siding. After putting our engine and a few cars away in the elevator spur, we called a taxi and went to a hotel. It was after midnight.
As I warmed up in the hot shower, I thought about the track maintenance employees who had been out in this storm all day, and who might have to be out there all night as well. They had no warm cab to wait out the storm in, no toilet, no fridge or hotplate, no place to hide from the raging blizzard that now covered us completely.
During the night, the Cherry Picker crew had made slow progress. The wreckage on Highway 1 had held them up for a long time before they could make their way to Rosedale to begin setting up to re-rail the crippled caboose.
We were called for 0900.
The roads in the exposed areas of the valley had not yet been cleared and it took nearly four hours to get our crew back on the train and the crossing put back together. Once the brake pipe had been charged up to about 75 lbs, we did a number two air test and everything was in order for us to leave.
Section crews had been out almost continuously since the storm began, and all of the switches and road crossings had been shoveled out, swept and cleaned. But as soon as they moved on, the snow would be blown back in. Every switch we came to had to be cleaned out before the dispatcher could set them for our train.
Every time the engine entered a road crossing at grade, we would feel the front axle jump a bit as it entered the flange-ways. This was due to the fact that highway department vehicles and others, had passed over the crossings after the section crews had left and filled the flange-ways in with snow and ice again.
I slowed the train down before going over each road crossing, just in case.
I must admit to feeling some apprehension when the axles jumped like that. There was always the chance that just one time, the wheels wouldn't come back down on the rails, leading us into the ditch at speed.
With signals all green at both ends of the siding, and whistle blowing loud and long, we rolled through the city of Chilliwack, heading toward the the Fraser Canyon, thirty miles distant. If all went well, we might make it to Boston Bar tonight where there would be a hot meal at the Beanery and a familiar, warm bed in the bunkhouse. But for now, that was just a dream..., a faraway dream.
As we were leaving Cheam View, the dispatcher called again. Apparently, some large rocks had come down in the canyon and the main line was blocked between Yale and Stout. It would be at least 12 hours before the main line would be cleared, so we were instructed to put our train into the siding at Floods and take hotel rooms in Hope!!!
I told him I thought CN should be sending us back to Port Mann and call another crew out the next day. The Chief did not agree. I was beginning to take this "personally."
The taxi delivered us from our hotel to the train at Floods. The main line was passable and we were to proceed to Boston Bar where, I was assured..., we would be deadheaded back home on the first available Greyhound Bus.
Finally, we arrived in Boston Bar and a crew from Kamloops was in place to take over our train. We happily gave it to them and went into the station to check the bus schedule.
The operator said we had missed the bus by a couple of hours, but could catch one later that night.
I went to the bunkhouse and went to bed. My train crew did the same..., or so I thought.
In fact, they had "booked sick" and went up to the highway to hitch-hike back to Vancouver, leaving me sleeping soundly.
The next morning, I got up and got dressed. I wandered down to the station for breakfast in the Beanery, but stopped in to see the operator first. He told me that my crew had booked sick and I was being held in Boston Bar until they got a relief crew for me. As soon as they arrived, we would be called for a sulphur train that was sitting in the yard.
The relief crew arrived on the bus shortly before noon, and were happy to be getting a quick turn-around out of the yard. They had, however heard about the voyage we had been on, taking three days to travel 112 miles!!! They referred to me as "Black Cloud". I couldn't disagree with them.
After lunch, the head end brakeman - Phil Busch - and I got the engine off the shop and made our way to the west end of the yard, where we put the engine on the train.
Soon, we had completed our air test and both head end and tail end crew members were ready to go.
As the heavy drag rolled, creaking and groaning out of the yard, the sky cleared and the sun began to warm the hillsides all around.
Aside from the "expected" slack action of this miserable train, (do you remember the train that Karen took from Boston Bar to Thornton without using the brakes??? This was another one of those.) we were making good headway as we wound our way through the canyon, tunnels and slide detector fences.
Leaving mile 5, I went to work on the throttle as the train began to climb up to mile 10. The indicator in the load meter climbed past 650 amps and the speedometer showed a slight drop in speed while the engines roared in the canyon.
I opened my window wide to listen to them.
Finally, I began to unwind.
Tipping over the top of the hill at Komo, I slowly reduced the throttle, maintaining the speed at 25 miles per hour. I didn't use the air brakes, as track curvature would help to keep the speed regulated for me.
Now that the noise of the pounding diesel engines had subsided, Phil leaned back in his chair and we began to chat lightheartedly about railroading and union business.
The engine rocked a bit from side to side, and the wheels clattered as the engine passed over the west switch at Komo. I reduced the throttle by a couple more notches and we began an easy thirteen mile downhill run to Yale.
The dispatcher's voice came over the radio. He told me that my "girlfriend" was on the phone with the operator in Port Mann, wanting to know when I was going to be home!!!
My new bride had called the operator's office to enquire when I might be coming home. He told her that the information she was looking for was never given out to wives, in case the train was delayed, or the crew decided to go for a few beers before going home. This left it up to the crewmember
to tell whatever story he saw fit to cover the time away.
The operator told her the only was the dispatcher would release that kind of information was if she identified herself as "the girlfriend." So she said..., "Fine.., I'm his girlfriend." Everybody was in a good mood.
I had been calling her from the hotel rooms and the station in Boston Bar, but I suppose she was getting a bit frustrated with this whole railroadin' thing. Frankly, so was I.
She used the number I had given her and called the operator, who had used the dispatchers phone to ask about my whereabouts and perhaps, get an estimated time of arrival for my train. The Dispatcher then used the CN radio system to call me on the locomotive. In the end, it was all set up that my wife could hear the two-way conversation between the dispatcher and myself.
The operator, Ed Kowalski had joked with my wife that if he "told the dispatcher that Bruce's 'wife' was looking for him, the Code of Silence would be enacted," so Ed told the dispatcher that my 'girlfriend' was on the phone and she wanted to know when I was coming back to town.
The dispatcher asked Ed to hold on while he called me on the radio to tell me that my girlfriend was on the phone, wanting to know when she'd see me again.
That was all very sweet, and was certainly a wonderful demonstration of the advanced technical age we were living in. When asked how long it was going to take me to drive that train to Port Mann, I said
"If you can keep the signals green", "I'll be home by five o'clock today".
"The railroad's all yours, Bruce", he said. "The signals are 'green' all the way home and you're the only train on the road."
Just as he was completing that statement, the locomotive headed into the east end of the tunnel at mile 11.4. I waited to answer him, as the 548 foot tunnel would surely block any radio response I would make.
A moment passed and the engine emerged from the tunnel.
I raised the radio handset to my face to crack a joke about it being "down hill all the way"... "both ways"..., but, for just a half-second, I froze in my seat unable to process what had just happened in front of the engine.
A large rock had fallen onto the track, landing between the rails on brand new concrete ties, and it lay a scant fifty feet in front of the locomotive.
We were on top of it before I could get my hand on the emergency brake handle!
Still clutching the radio handset in my left hand, I reached across and grabbed the train brake handle with my right hand, instantly slamming it across the quadrant into the 'big hole', or emergency position. Within a half-second, using my right hand again, I grabbed the locomotive brake handle, pushing it into the 'fully applied' position.
The locomotive struck the rock, which was about three feet, by two feet by four feet, and climbed up on top of it.
|Photo credit Andy Cassidy
Large RED handle is automatic train brake
Smaller RED handle is locomotive, or engine brake handle.
Train brake is in "Released" position, while engine brake is in full "ON" position.
When we had gone less than an engine-length, the trailing truck caught one edge of the big rock and began to turn it over, between the rails.
The engine then began to jerk and pitch as the rock rolled and tumbled beneath the trailing truck..., then the ride became smooth and even, albeit the rear end of the leading locomotive was somewhat higher than the front end.
|Sometimes, when a train hits a rock in the canyon, this can be the outcome!
Photo Credit Peter Cox
Ahead of us, just a few dozen yards away, was another tunnel at mile 12.3. The train was still advancing downhill and the brakes were only just beginning to take effect.
My main concern had switched from "going over the edge into the river", to "becoming jammed inside the next tunnel" by the advancing train.
The locomotive purred softly; the only other sound being that of the rock, now being dragged beneath the locomotive and chewing and grinding up the concrete ties that held the rails together.
Phil said softly..., "Bruce, I don't think we're going to make it". "We'd better get off."
But the ground beside the track on the "mountain" side was covered in broken rock, or rip-rap; the other side of the track didn't offer much more than a quick descent into the river. Our chances were better if we stayed aboard and rode it out.
We braced ourselves by putting our boots firmly against the front wall of the cab, and waited.
The 14000 ton sulphur train behind us kept on coming, pushing the locomotive up and over the rock., the rock settling in between the two locomotives before making a quarter turn, becoming jammed under the drawbars and couplers.
|The rock, which had jammed beneath the drawbars between the locomotives, was big enough to lift the two locomotives at least 18 inches.
Photo - Author
As we slid along the rails, the engine settled in a slightly 'nose down and forward' position, while remaining upright. But it continued to slide on the rails straight toward the next tunnel at mile 12.3, only a hundred yards away.
Amazingly, the train coasted to a smooth stop, just 20 feet away from the gaping black hole that was the 418 foot tunnel in front of us.
Only then did I realize that I still had the radio handset in my left hand and I hung it back up on its cradle.
A moment or two passed before the conductor called, asking if we were OK. Phil and I just sat there, wondering how we had escaped a watery death in the canyon.
The dispatcher called next, wanting to know if we had "made it."
I picked up the handset and said, "Yes, we're OK."
Now, you'll recall that I had unknowingly held onto the radio handset while I shut down the throttle, slammed the train brakes into emergency and jammed the engine brake on full.
You'll also recall that the dispatcher had called me using the micro wave system and the operator was on the dispatchers line, and my wife was on the phone to the operator?
Well, I had inadvertantly kept the "transmit" button held down while I was desperately attending to the business of getting the train stopped; the dispatcher heard everything.
Our conversation in the cab as we hit the rock; the air brakes going into emergency; my voice telling Phil that we were going into the river...., everything had been transmitted over the radio, then over the dispatchers' phone lines and then..., via the loudspeaker in the operator's office..., over the phone to my wife, who listened in horror, as her husband of less than a month announced that his train had just hit a large rock and was in trouble in the canyon!!!!
She heard every word.
These were a few very tense minutes that were added to an already tense trip that I'm happy to have survived.
The Chief Dispatcher came on the radio, saying that we should sit right there while he tried to find the Section Foreman at Hope (it was a Sunday) and bring up some dynamite to free the engines. We could then carry on home. At that moment, I was thinking that the Chief might fail a "substance abuse" test. What the heck was he thinking???
I told the Chief that I was getting off the train and a taxi could be sent from Boston Bar to pick up Phil and myself at the Alexandra Lodge at Chapman's a half mile away down the track.
Phil and I climbed off the engine, leaving the tail end crew on the caboose as they would not be able to navigate the extremely narrow rock shelf alongside the train to get to the head end..., and the taxi.
If Phil had been a 'smoker', I think I might have asked him for a cigarette.