Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Runaway Super-Dome

Working as a switchman on the 0800 yard crew at Jasper in the summer of 1966, was a nice break from being on call 24/7 as a road-freight brakeman. 

My crew worked well together and we functioned like a railroad pocket watch..., never more than 30 seconds late for our lunch break.  Billy Rea was the foreman, Bob Stewart was the field man and I was assigned to the engine's footboard, relaying hand signals to George Kohar, our engineer.  The day job, as it was called..., did most of the clean-up work around the yard.  This included making occasional changes to the consist of train number 9, the Rupert Rocket, switching reefers to the ice-house track, digging cabooses out of the cab track to put on the tail end of 'Trunkers' destined for the Tete Jaune sub, where cabooses were still assigned to the conductors working that subdivision.  If there was a car for the 'house track' we would spot it up for unloading, or retreive an empty from there and take it to the yard to be marshalled into a train to be hauled to where ever it would be needed next.  There was also some OCS (On Company Service) work that took us into the service tracks at the shop.  BO's or Bad Order cars had to be spotted at the RIP tracks (Repair In Place) for minor repairs and occasionally, cars would arrive in town with placards on their doors which read "UNLOAD OTHER SIDE," and the switch list would request that we take the car around the wye so that it would be spotted with the correct side exposed to the unloading dock. 

All of the work we did was by the use of hand signals only, since there were no radios assigned to yard crews at the time.  I found it really interesting taking part in the 'ballet' that was performed by yard crews operating on hand signals.  There was a different hand signal for every track, every command and every move.  It was similar I suppose, to watching a speech on TV where the speaker is at the microphone and an interpreter is standing nearby, repeating what the speaker is saying, only using 'sign language' for the hearing impaired.

These, and other small chores would keep the crew busy, but not commited to larger jobs, such as marshalling 100 cars grain trains, or weighing, one car at a time..., 85 car coal trains.  The fact that we were tasked with a number of smaller jobs meant that we could keep moving until the eastbound SuperContinental passenger train was due to arrive. 

Like all good railroaders of the day, we checked our watches often to monitor our progress against the expected arrival time of the eastbound "Super" from Vancouver, for there was one switch that had to be made on that train every day.  The ex-Milwaukee Road Super Dome had to be taken off the train and moved to a service track to wait until the westbound Super was due to arrive later in the day.  At that time the Super Dome would be switched into the consist of the train for the return trip to Vancouver.

When the Super Continental was due to arrive, Billy and Bob would make their way over to the depot to wait for hte arrival and I would take the engine, with George at the throttle to the west end of the yard, stopping just clear of the red dwarf signal to wait for the passenger train to pull down the main and stop clear of the west mainline power switch. 

When the train arrived, pulled down and stopped at the depot, I would get on the dispatcher's phone at the west switch and call the dispatcher in Edmonton to request permission to use the power switch on hand throw.  After receiving permission, I would take the switch off "power" and put it into "hand" position.  Then, swinging my arm in a big circular motion, I would give George the signal to back out of the yard and onto the main line. 

Soon, I'd step onto the front ladder of the engine and George and I would gently bring the engine up behind the train and softly tie on to the rear car, where I would cut in the air. 

In the meantime, the carmen had uncoupled the steam lines and un-hooked the curtains inside the diaphrams between the Super Dome and the car to the east of it.  Billy would call George on a radio he had borrowed from the yard office for this move.  Radio was used here for a couple of good reasons.   First, the use of radio would ensure that the occupied passenger equipment would be handled with a maximum of care and precision and, secondly, when the tail end of the train was pulled west of the west switch, George and his locomotive would have begun to go into a long curve, taking him out of sight of any hand signals that we might give him.  While it would be possible to make this move on hand signals alone, Billy wanted to be able to remain on the platform while the dome car was set off to the yard lead. 


The Super Dome, coupled mid-train at Jasper Station
Photo source and photographer unknown

After the slack had been taken, Bob would pull the pin and we'd pull the rear portion of the train toward the west switch.  Billy would remain on the platform and Bob would remain at "the cut" to make the joint between the head end portion of the passenger train that we'd left on the main, and the tail end portion that we'd pulled away to put the Dome car towards the yard, temporarily.

85 feet long, and more than 224,000 pounds, the Super Dome was a car to be reconned with.  The first time we had been tasked with setting the Super Dome off the yard, we hadn't shoved it back far enough before we cut it off, leaving it on a slight curve.  When we returned to couple on to the car, the drawbar and coupler wouldn't swing over far enough for the locomotive's coupler to connect with it, so we had to get a length of chain from the Jasper Auxilliary's Idler Car and pull the Super Dome, after chaining it up to the locomotive, to straight track so that we could couple on to it.

I wouldn't make the same mistake a second time.  Billy Rae would become Billy "Rage" whenever I made a mistake, so I was very careful not to poke him the wrong way.

Bearing all that in mind, I lined the main line switch toward the yard and, giving Billy a "go ahead" signal by raising and lowering my right arm vertically, I climbed onto the short ladder at the leading end of the dome car.  George whistled off and we began to move gently onto the west yard lead, and away from the main line.

The track which entered the yard from that point eastward was built on a long gentle curve..., the same curve that had caused so much trouble once before when I cut the dome off too soon.  I judged that the nearest piece of straight track that would accomodate an 85 foot long car was about 25 cars east of the switch..., so that's where I stopped the forward movement and walked back to make the cut on the dome car, leaving it on the lead. 

Under the railroad's direction, all onboard employees were supposed to have vacated the dome car prior to the yard crew making its first move to set the car off the train.  However, the Steward was usually still cleaning up his galley and wiping tables when it was time to make the cut, so we would just let him know we would be moving him so that he could brace himself for the movement. 

Once the Steward was finished his work inside the car, he was to leave it securely locked while it was sitting "on spot" in the terminal awaiting the westbound train. 

As an aside to this story, I'll mention that when railroads order new rolling stock for their use, they must take into account certain standards which are mandated by various agencies, most notably the Association of American Railroads (AAR).  These standards deal with such obvious matters as wheel gauge, coupler height, brake equipment, hand rails and stirrups..., and hand brakes.  And while all cars must have a hand brake of some description, not all hand brakes are the same; neither are they placed, or mounted in a location that is standardized from one railroad to another.

Such was the case with the ex-Milwaukee Super Domes.

On the Super Domes, the apparatus that either applied or released the handbrake was mounted just inside the end door on one end of the car.  On CN's 1954 Super Continental passenger equipment which was built specifically for the CNR, the hand brake levers or wheels were all installed on the outside ends of the cars, making them accessible, if not tricky to get at when time was short, or snow and ice had built up.


Brake lever similar to the type that might be used on a Super Dome

I climbed up the short ladder and carefully stretched across the end of the car, reaching for the door handle to enter the car so that I could apply the hand brake.  The door was locked.  Peering through the door, I couldn't see the Steward, so I assumed that he had completed his work and left the car.  I couldn't get to the hand brake lever to set the brake.  I would then have to rely on the air brake which would apply when I pulled away from the car, leaving it on the lead, near the top of the gentle grade and ran both east and west from that point.

Closing the angle cock on the car closest to the engine, and leaving the angle cock on the dome car open, I pulled the cut lever to release the lock on the coupler's knuckle.   I looked toward Billy and, seeing that he was watching me, I gave him a "back up" signal, which he relayed to George, using the radio at his side. 

As the engine moved westward, the diaphrams began to creak and groan, the drawbars relaxed and the knuckle opened.   With a blast of air, the train line hoses parted and the dome car was left behind, being held by the air brakes which were applied in an "emergency" application.

There she sits, brakes applied, in emergency waiting for the yard engine to pick her up and put her away in the service track.

Photographer and source unknown

Several minutes later, I was easing the tail end of train toward a joint on the east end of the train.   The two portions were now only ten feet apart when I brought the movement to an obligatory stop before making the final approach to coupling the train up and cutting in the air.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed movement over in the yard, near where I had left the dome car.  Since there were no other yard engines working, and no freight trains ordered, I immediately looked to Billy and, making eye contact with him, I gave him a "washout" signal, indicating STOP.

I jumped between the two halves of the train and ran across the siding and passenger tracks toward the ice house where I saw what I feared the most.

The dome car was moving eastward toward the yard ... all by itself ... and it was gaining speed. 

From Transport Canada website re: 1999 collision in Jasper Yard.
Note:  text box indicating 'accident location' is the location where I cut the dome car off on the yard lead.   Also, note the overpass at the east end of the yard that I reference later in the story.

The last move we had made before making our way to the west end to switch the passenger train, was to clear off track nine in readiness to receive a westbound grain train that might get into town before the passenger left, or might be held at Henry House for the passenger, depending on how long it took for us to commplete this move. 

I knew where that dome car was headed...., straight for track nine..., a clear track and the derail at the east end of the yard.  If the dome car got as far as the derail, it might be moving at about 15 or 20 miles an hour and that might be enough to launch it over the derail, and onto the highway below the overpass. 

I ran like a deer to try to catch the car, all the time knowing that the Steward had left the car and it was locked up tight.  Well, I had a set of keys attached to my belt and about 125 car lengths to get the door open and the brake applied.  I might make it!

Continuing to gain speed, the dome car and I were in a race for my job.  I was gaining on the car, but losing room and time.

I was young and healthy; the dome car was old and well lubricated. 

On we went..., the car seemingly laughing at me, taunting me.  Meanwhile, I ran like a deer..., spitting yard ballast out from behind my brand new leather boots.

The car had made it past the yard office and as I ran by the rear door, I noticed two men standing, hands buried deep in their pockets, watching as I gamely chased after my prey.

One of the men was Bernie Edwards, the day shift yardmaster and the other was Ernie Worsfold, a Jasper conductor who had just been promoted to Trainmaster.  The two men watched dispationately, as the "Keystone Cops" scenario unfolded in front of them.  Showing no expression whatever, they both shook their heads slowly, from side to side. 

Win or lose..., I was going to be "talking with the typewriter,"  but that was the least of my concerns just now.

As the 85 foot car entered the turnout at track three, it seemed to lean a bit to the left.  Soon it would enter the heaviest grade in the yard and would be out of reach for me.  In desperation, I gave it all I had, and before the car went by the track six switch, I had one of the hand rails in my grasp.

I leaped and pulled simultaneously, getting both feet into the stirrup.  Swinging up onto the end of the car, I clambored past the greasy diaphragm that jutted from the end of the car. Hooking one elbow into a crevice near the door frame, I pulled my railroad keys from my belt with the other. 

Spreading my keys out in the palm of my hand, I looked at the keyhole in the polished stainless steel door and I looked at the handful of brass keys.  None of them matched!

In anger and fear, I pounded on the glass in the door, half hoping that it would break, or fall out, allowing me to reach inside and unlock the door. 
I could see the hand brake lever just to the inside of the door, but I couldn't get to it.

I was going to add a strongly worded sentence or two to my official disciplinary statement, just before Mr. Worsfold pulled himself to attention, folded his hands on his desk and told me that my services would no longer be required on the Canadian National Railway System.

I tried to get a look at the track ahead.  Perhaps the grain train was already headed into track nine and the worst that would happen would be a head-on collision that would destroy the dome car and likely take a couple of locomotives out of service for six months while they were repaired at great expense.

All I could see was an empty track nine.  The derail was waiting for me, and in two or three minutes I'd be there.

The 'Derail' is designed for a specific purpose and it does the job well.
Photo courtesy Wikipedia

While I was still looking around the corner at the end of the car, I heard a familiar sound..., the sound of a passenger car door being unlocked...., and opened!!! 

Snapping back to attention, I was looking into the face of the Steward, who had been in the galley, changing into his street clothes and had been completely unaware of the drama that was unfolding around him. 

Having no time to explain, and despite his protestations, I pushed past him and spun around, and like the old folk song by The Kingston Trio (The Ballad of Desert Pete), I took a grip on that handle and I pumped it like there was a fire!!!

Sweat was running freely down my face, neck, chest and back.  I must have looked like the tall glass of cold beer that I was going to be quaffing later today. 

The steel brake chain wrapped slowly around the steel post that I was turning with that handle.  And when the chain got tight enough, and I could hear the brake shoes coming against the wheels..., the chain slipped, releasing the brake just enough so that the shoes let go of the wheels.  I pumped even harder.

The Steward stood back in shocked silence, finally understanding that some sort of danger was about.

Finally, and I mean..., FINALLY..., the chain held and the car began to slow down.  I wanted to run to the other end of the car to see how far away we were from the derail, but I was reluctant to leave my station for fear of the chain slipping once more.  If I was at the other end of the car when that happened, it would be all over for sure.

The big dome car finally came to rest and I stood, shaking, with my head against the glass in the door.  I didn't have the strength to let go of the wall.  The Steward touched me on the shoulder and, without uttering a word, handed me a tall glass of cold ginger ale.  He had one for himself as well.  We sat down at one of the table in the lounge and drank our cold beverage in silence.  Only then did I tell him how close we had come to overturning at the bottom of the yard.

TrainMaster Worsfold arrived in his car and 'offered' me a ride back to the yard office.  I refused, saying that I would stand guard on this runaway until my crew showed up with the engine.  Then I would make my own way over to the yard office.

Billy and the boys arrived shortly and we coupled onto the car and put it away in a service track after the Super Continental left for Edmonton and points east.

Yes, there was an investigation during which all concerned were duly interviewed and re-interviewed.  For a while, it was looking pretty dire for me, as all concerned felt that, without any doubt at all, the incident was entirely my doing.  Certainly, I had not told the truth about the doors being locked and the car left with emergency brakes applied and....on and on.

Discipline, in the form of demerits, or "brownies", were assessed and I was notified that there would be a form I would have to sign to accept my punishment. 

But before that could take place, someone decided to test the emergency brake function of the Super Dome in question. 

When the brakes were applied in "emergency", they behaved normally.  The brake shoes grabbed the wheels in a death-like grip, holding on tightly.  But wasn't normal is what happened after five or more minutes had elapsed.  

The air pressure that held the brakes in the emergency application ... suddenly, and without apparent cause.... bled off, releasing the brakes on the car completely!!

The disciplinary process came to an immediate halt, the paperwork was all called in for review (and shredding) while a study was made on a modification that had been made on some seemingly insignificant part or module in the dome-fleet's braking systems.

I've often wondered which glass of beer was the best one that I've ever tasted in my lifetime; I think I have it narrowed down. It was the one I had after work that day. 


Andrew said...

That was an excellent story Bruce! Thanks!

Bruce said...

Hi Andrew. I received an email from Jim Thompson of Jasper who recalls the incident. It made for an exciting day in the yard, for sure. I visited your blog recently and see that you're making good progress on your layout. Nice!


Unknown said...

I always look forward to your stories. Reminds me of my time on the spare board with CPRail in the late 70's out of Nelson & Revelstoke.

Bruce said...

Hi Joe,

Ahhh, the seventies! That was our 'golden age'. Great trains, lot so fantastic motive power, lots of old-timers still around listen to..., and not much interference from Transport Canada...yet.

LOU said...


Unknown said...

That was a real nail-biter...I loved the surprise ending! Thanks for sharing this.