Friday, May 25, 2012

Dispatcher Helps To Set Up A Corn Field Meet

Train and engine crews everywhere are presented with many challenges in the performance of their duties, and one of the most 'attention getting' challenges is in dealing with pedestrians and motorists who ignore warning signs, crossing gates, wig wag signals and cross bucks.  While these actions can, and do provide for some very tense moments for those in the cab of an engine, usually there's not much that can be done..., after the fact.  You can blow the whistle a little longer than required, or shake your fist at them.  But generally, you just utter a silent offering of thanks that you didn't hit them.

If the motorist manages to make it across the tracks without losing a fender or a door to the locomotive, it is often over before one can copy down a license plate number, and a trespasser will duck out of the way and disappear into the shadows before the engine crew can even ascertain that they haven't killed him or her.

These things happen every day and on every railroad.  It's not part of the job, but is one of those things that gives most crews a terrible fright..., win or lose.

The railways do what they can.  "No Trespassing" signs are erected in all of the appropriate places.  On level crossings at grade, cross-bucks, wig-wags or gates are installed and kept in top operating condition to warn everyone of approaching trains.  Engine bells are rung and whistle signals sounded for a quarter of a mile before every public crossing, yet there are those of our species who figure that one sixteenth of an inch of stamped, painted steel will protect them from the fifteen thousand ton bullet that's about to hit them at track speed.

There are other hi-jinx that engine crews are exposed to, among them being rocks and bottles thrown at the engine, gun shots fired from darkened windows and objects that are piled on the ties between the rails, however these are less frequent.

SD60F at Vernon, BC 1998
Note large splatter of black paint on nose of engine.
Photo - Author

This is a story of one such encounter.

The summer of 1983 was a long, hot affair on the south-west coast of British Columbia.  Hot dry days stretched into weeks without a cloud in the sky and temperatures went into the mid-30's Celsius, or over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

CN was pumping new student engineers out of their Transportation Training Center in Gimli, Manitoba and I had one of the new candidates assigned to me.  Gary Ager was a good student, eager to learn and fun to have in the cab.  Without question, Gary took instruction from me, even if those instructions contravened something that he had been taught in the classroom at the Training Center.  Gimli instructors could only impart text-book knowledge in a classroom environment; whereas the instruction a student received at the side of a seasoned engineer in a field environment would be the practical tools of the trade.  When the classroom experience was used in conjunction with the field training, the result was a well-trained individual who would do a good job under all conditions and circumstances.

 As an instructor of new engineers, I insisted that the student take the controls from the very first shift on a transfer, or trip on the road.  I would have him or her conduct a shop-track inspection of our assigned power, and conduct a shop-track brake test prior to moving the engine off the shop track.  This, I believed would establish good habits and even better work ethic.  It was also important for the student to understand that much depended on the condition of the engine consist and their understanding of how everything worked.

Our train was in the yard..., 110 empty grain hoppers and one caboose.  Conductor Roy Anderson and his tail end brakeman were already in the crew bus, being driven to the caboose when we slowly idled our way off the shop track and over the cross-overs to find a clear track to run up to the east end of the yard.
Loaded westbound freight near Laidlaw, BC
September 1985

We had two standard-cab SD40-2's, coupled up back to back.  I remarked to the guys that the shop staff had even washed them for us.  Gary said he was aware of that because the seat cushion was still wet from having gone through the wash rack with the window open.  I leaned forward and pulled a handful of coarse paper towels from the rack for him to sit on, and Gary laughed.

"The rest of the student-engineers are all wet behind the ears," he said.  "But I'm wet behind my jeans!"

It was mid-morning on a warm summer Sunday and I knew that Steve Warenkiw would be on duty in the yardmasters chair.  I asked Gary to give Steve a call and ask him for a clear track to use to get onto our train.

In a moment or two, Yardmaster Warenkiw's distinctive voice advised Gary that track 36 was clear to run to the east end through. He asked Gary to tell him when we were clear of track 36 so he could bring a Lynn Creek transfer in there.

Gary and the head-end brakeman brought the engine onto the train smoothly and without delay and we were finished with our air brake test within a half hour.

When the tail end crew were ready to leave, Gary called the operator to ask for the signal to leave the yard and soon, we were on the high iron, engines in the eighth notch and wheels singing on the rails.

It was a beautiful day for a train ride!

The westernmost seventy miles of the Yale sub is generally pretty swift track with speeds averaging 50 miles per hour, if you don't count the odd permanent slow order of thirty miles per hour. But the fastest piece of track on the subdivision is shown as sixty miles per hour for freight trains between mile 63.3 and mile 77.3.

Almost in the middle of this stretch lies the City of Chilliwack with its built-up neighborhoods, level crossings complete with automobiles, pedestrians, dogs, cats and the BC Hydro Railway Interchange. (Now Southern Railway of BC)

Leaving the 40 mph permanent slow order over the Sumas River bridge west of Arnold, I asked Gary to check his timetable and let me know what he felt he should be prepared to do for the next ten miles.  Gary was a pretty sharp fellow and he gave me a serious look and said that he's already checked and he felt we could open up the throttle until we got past Rosedale and were approaching mile 63.3.  I nodded and leaned back against the electrical cabinet behind the engineers seat that Gary's butt was gradually wicking the water out of.

When the speedometer reached 60 mph, Gary looked at me again..., this time questioningly.

"Do you want to squeeze a little more out of it," I asked him?

"Well, if it's OK with you," he said.  "We were told that there was an overspeed alarm that would sound if the engine went faster than 65 mph and I'd like to be able to say I made the bells ring..., like at the circus!", he said with a huge, boyish grin

"OK", I said. "You have to learn how to recover the overspeed alarm quickly enough to avoid putting the trains' brakes into a penalty application."  "I can show you how to do that."

"But if it doesn't go off before we hit the Chilliwack mile board, you'll have to get the speed down to 60 before we're inside whistle limits for the crossing at Young street."  "If you don't get 'er down, the crossing gates will be late getting down and we could find ourselves in a very sticky situation."

Crossing protection circuits are set up so that a train approaching at time table track speed will activate the warning signals when the train enters the circuit at a point one quarter of a mile from the crossing.  This is where the white posts with the black letter "W" are placed beside the track to warn the engineer to begin blowing the whistle.

"Got it", he said, and he looked up at the speedometer and smiled.  It was edging past 60 when the signal governing the approach to Chilliwack came into view, twinkling like a mirage in the heat of high summer.

"Clear signal", he said out loud.

"Call it out to the tail end," I said.

Conductor Roy Anderson answered back with "Clear to Chilliwack, thanks."

The speedometer was nearing 65 and I got ready to show Gary what would be required of him to recover the 'over-speed' alarm while avoiding a penalty brake application.  As I bent over the control stand to set things up for him, the head end brakeman called out "There's something on the track ahead of us!"

Gary and I both snapped to attention for a look and, before I could say anything to him, Gary had his left hand on the brake valve and his right hand on the throttle.

"Good call," I said.  "Take ten pounds of air off and wait drop the throttle to the sixth notch."

There was indeed something on the track ahead of us.  A half mile away or more, a dark form emerged from the dancing haze, then disappeared, only to appear once again.

The effect of the high heat on the track and ballast was deceiving.  The object would first appear small, then large; then far away and much closer.

I was straining to determine what it was; what sort of a threat it was.

"Take another five pounds off, Gary," I said.  "And drop the throttle to the fourth notch."

The hissing sound of air brake exhaust venting inside the control stand filled the cab with the unmistakable smell of compressor oil.  The big 16 cylinder EMD 645 engines wound down from full throttle to half throttle.

As we got closer, the haze began to get thinner.  We could now clearly see that the object on the track was a pile of scrap metal, including some car parts, a transport truck wheel (rim) and other miscellaneous garbage.

I told Gary to take a 'full service' brake reduction and reduce the throttle to the second notch. He quickly moved the brake handle around as far as it would go without putting the train into 'emergency.'

"Shouldn't I put it into EMERGENCY?"  he asked.

"No," I said.  "We're going to make a 'controlled stop' because I want to back this train up ASAP."
If we put the train into EMERGENCY, it would stop a bit quicker, but we would have to go through a lengthy procedure to re-set a number of safety features that are automatically enabled when the emergency feature is used.  One of  these is the inability to move the engine or train until all of the safety features have been re-set and air pressures have been restored to the train and engine.   This would take fifteen minutes or more and I wanted to move the train backwards within five minutes or less.

The train brakes were now applying fully, but in a controlled manner.

Photo courtesy copyright hooah!
Showing brake valve handle (red) and brakes fully set

"Let the engine brake build up to 30 pounds and gradually let it off to zero just before we stop."  "Then drop the throttle to idle," I told him.

I knew that 110 empties would stop relatively quickly, but I also knew that we might also run into the pile of junk.

The speedometer showed that we were slowing down at a prodigious rate.   We would very soon be stopped, brake shoes smoking!

I took the radio handset from its receiver and called Roy on the caboose to tell him why we were stopping.

"OK," said Roy.

Before I could hang the handset back in its cradle, Gary called to me and pointed out the side window at a point on the ground near the track.  I quickly looked outside as we passed by the pile of junk, some of which was now bouncing along the track between the rails in front of the engine and saw the strangest sight!

There, lying under a ground-hugging canopy of wild blackberry bushes were two young men and a dog!

These boys had 'doubled down' on 'dumb'.  Imagine piling a whole pile of crap on the track and then laying down within fifteen feet of the site of a potential train wreck so they could get a close-up view of the whole thing.  Well, I had a surprise in store for them.

Before the train stopped, I called the dispatcher on the radio.

Sunday's were slow days and the dispatcher answered right away.  It was Jerry Griffin (JG) a friend of mine.

Quickly, I explained to him what had just happened and then told him that I wanted to back my train up about  thirty cars so I could grab these characters before they got too far away.

Now, to do it legally, we would have had to cancel our clearance and obtain a new clearance for a 'work extra' that would allow us to make a reverse movement in CTC territory.

Jerry understood the situation and said, "OK Bruce, you can back up, but don't let your tail end go past the approach signal to Arnold behind you."

At that point, Roy Anderson, the conductor got a bit twitchy about backing up without proper authority so I asked him to bear with me and keep his hand on the caboose's emergency valve.  There were two miles of nearly straight track behind the caboose and no public crossings, so he said he'd look after the caboose.

A compliant conductor can be so hard to find.  ;-]

Gary had the brakes released and began to work those engines in reverse, keeping a watchful eye on the load meter so that there would be no danger of jack-knifing the locomotive.

In a few minutes, we had backed up to the scene of the incident and the two guys and the dog were gone, but couldn't have gotten too far away.  There was only one direction they could travel in, and with so many blackberry bushes growing around there, they could only make their way towards an area of new homes which were under construction near the track.

Gary again made a very nice controlled stop.

Then he looked at me quizzically, saying "Why did we back up?" "What are you going to do now?"

"I'm going to find those clowns and hand them over to the Police," I said.

"You're going to need help!", he said, and he got up off the damp, but warm seat.

To the head end brakeman, who hadn't made a move to get up off his seat, I said... "Call the dispatcher and have him notify the RCMP (police) to meet us here at this subdivision."

"OK", he said.

In a minute or two, Gary and I ran up to a new home that was still under construction and asked the contractor there which way the two men and the dog had gone.  He said he saw them running into a forty acre corn field behind the house a couple of minutes ago.  They had tried to hide inside the house, but he had chased them out.

"Great!", I said to Gary.  "We have them trapped in a forty acre field of four-foot high corn!"

Photo obtained from Google Images.  Photographer not listed.

Gary laughed at the irony of that and commented that this was his first ever road trip and already we were involved in a "corn-field meet".  Gary had a great sense of humor that I never tired of.

I picked up a four foot long piece of 2X2 lumber and Gary did the same.

Into the cornfield we went, following the trail of bent and broken corn stalks left behind by the now frantic transgressors.

Within a few minutes of pushing through the corn stalks, we could hear the dog panting nearby, and I called out to them that we had them surrounded and they should stand up and come with us.

This, they did.

Making our way out of the cornfield, we came upon the contractor and a couple of his carpenters who were clapping and grinning.  And beyond them, there was an RCMP cruiser with an officer sitting on the left front fender..., obviously waiting for us to complete the 'easy' part of the job.

He got up and opened the back door of the cruiser and, with a nonchalant wave of his hand, he loaded the two men and the big dog into the back seat to wait for their ride downtown to the lock-up.

He asked me to write up a statement for him and I told him that I would submit one to CN's Constable Roger Bailey and he would forward a copy to the RCMP.

"Is Roger Bailey still around?" he asked, sounding surprised.

"Oh, yes," I said.  "He's very much alive and on duty at all times."

"My first posting as an RCMP officer was at Prince Rupert," he said.  "I was delayed getting away from home and was trying to make up some time on the way."

"I was barreling down the highway west of Terrace, and no sooner had I crossed the railroad tracks out there in the middle of no-where..., there were red and blue lights flashing in my rear view mirror!"

"It was CN Constable Roger Bailey."

" I explained that I was an off-duty RCMP officer and was late for my first posting in Prince Rupert."

"With a faint smile, he told me to drive carefully in the future, and he handed me a ticket."

CN Special Constable Roger Bailey
Vernon, BC  ca 1998
Photo... Author

"I always respected Constable Bailey," he said.

1 comment:

LOU said...