Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Okanagan Valley Wine Train - Part One

Rumours began to circulate around CN's Okanagan property in the spring of 1999;  a private operator from Edmonton was about to announce a new tourist train that would run between Kelowna and Armstrong in British Columbia's arid Southern Interior. 

The passenger equipment that would be in service on this train was to consist of a dozen cars that had been a part of CN's original 1954 order for its new Super Continental coast to coast passenger service. 

The Wine Train at Kalamalka Lake on CN's Okanagan Sub
Bruce Harvey Photo August 1999
For over thiry years, these trains criss-crossed the country, doing yeoman service for the Canadian National Railway's traveling public. In the mi-80's, CN began to move away from passenger service, and after some political wrangling, VIA Rail was created.  By January 1990, CN and CP ceased to own and operate their passenger trains...,  the Federal Government had taken over.

As routes and schedules were deleted from the nations' railway timetables, much of the older equipment became redundant, leaving a great many of the once-proud passenger fleet of the Super Continental relegated to storage tracks, awaiting their fate. 

Some of those cars were purchased by Mr. Bob Nagel's Edmonton based Nagel Tours, which was primarily a tour-bus line, operating between Alberta and south-western American vacation spots.

Late in June of 1999, Mr. Nagel's train showed up in Kelowna yard and preparations were made to launch a first class tourist train, catering to a clientele that was craving a daylight trip through the beautiful Okanagan Valley, dinner and floor show at the turn-around in Armstrong and an evening arrival back in Kelowna.

As the day approached for the first run of the train, last minute plans were being made for an efficient operating plan.  A small station was built to handle ticket sales, flags and posters were seen everywhere in downtown Kelowna, Vernon and Armstrong.  A "dry run" was made to determine running times between Kelowna and Armstrong, and between Armstrong and O'keefe.  The round-trip had to be completed within eight hours for a number of reasons.

The passenger train schedule MUST NOT interfere with the north-south operation of CN's freight schedule between Vernon and Kamloops, or the OVR (OKAN - ex CPR), which ran betweenVernon and Sicamous, the junction with CP's mainline between Calgary and Vancouver.  Both of these trains left town just ahead of CN's northbothe Wine Train's scheduled arrival in Vernon at approximately 1800.

This forced the Wine Train to operate out of Kelowna on a late-afternoon departure, necessitating a return to Kelowna in eight hours or less.   Besides, neither the onboard attendants or the paying public wished to be on the train beyond the minimum length of time it would take to get to Armstrong, have dinner and be entertained while they dined, and return home.

If there were no delays, additional 'Slow Orders' added to the already slow track speed, or blockages caused by either CN or Okanagan Valley Railway (CP), the trip could be made within those parameters.  Murphy, however..., had a round-trip pass that was good on all trains operating in 'the valley'!  In subsequent posts in this series, we'll come to know traveller 'Murphy' quite well.

The cars, still wearing a VIA Rail paint scheme of blue with twinned yellow horizontal bands that ran just below the windows, had been upgraded to include the latest in lighting, seating, sanitation, as well as Transport Canada requirements.  A former CN/VIA Steam Generator car, numbered 15475 had been gutted and re-fitted with a 275KW/ 440 volt Caterpillar diesel genset to provide on-board power for the train.  This generator wasn't tasked with providing sufficient power to supply heat to the cars, as no provision had been made for that amenity.  After all..., the train was going to operated in the Okanagan Valley on a summer only schedule!

The following information is courtesy of
Among the cars in the Wine Train roster were:
Coaches: 5473, 5487, 5532, 5603, 5654, 5585, 5440.
Cafe Lounge: 752, 755.
E-Sleepers: 1128 Elmsdale, 1137 Enfield, 1157 Evelyn, 1159 Eldorado.
Steam Generator Car: 15475.
March 5, 1999, the following passenger cars arrived:
Coaches: 5446, 5522, 5590.
Club Galley Cars: 653 Mount Royal Club, 654 St. James's Club, 658 Boulevard Club, 659 York Club.
March 18, 1999, baggage car 9653 arrived.
With a 275KW, 480V, 3-phase Caterpillar Diesel generator now installed in the Steam Generator car, the following cars are converted for Head-end power:
All Club Galley Cars, Coaches 5522, 5585, 5603, 5654, Cafe Lounge 752, Elmsdale Sleeper 1128.
Baggage Car 9653 is used for maintenance.

Photo courtesy of Bruce Redman
The photo of 9158 is one I took and sent to you for your collection of F units. The location is Brandon North, the train is Via #4 and the date is Aug. 22, 1986

And for motive power...., well, I had expected CN to provide a nice pair of F7Au's similar to the 9158 shown above, to pull this train.  It would be the right thing to do.  But this was not to be.  When I arrived in Kelowna on the switcher, a couple of days prior to the Inaugural Run..., there sat a scurvy old GMD-1, the CN 1437.

CN GMD1 1437.
Photo taken by Mrs. Brock, (Mom) a passenger on the Inaugural Run of the
Okanagan Valley Wine Train.  I'm standing out on the front porch getting last minute instructions from my step-dad, Jim Brock.
My heart sank.  I called Mr. Hanratty, the Operations Manager for CN's operations in the Okanagan.  I asked him if the engine for the Wine Train was indeed going to be the 1437 that was in the yard in Kelowna.  He told me that CN had advised him that the engine I was looking at had been provided to Mr. Nagel as the best possible locomotive for his new business venture!! 

I called Mr. Nagel's Equipment Supervisor, George Bergson who was tasked with ensuring that the train was in compliance with all Federal regulatory requirements, and queried him on estimated tonnage of the entire train.  Once he had provided an estimate that looked reasonable, I dug out my CN and CP timetables and calculated the maximum tonnage for that unit on the grades that would have to be tackled on the round-trip run.  While the equated tonnage of the train indicated that it could be handled by the engine, I was still skeptical as the locomotive was old and the track was in poor condition.  My biggest concern was for the train and its passengers.  There were no spare locomotives available in the Okanagan once CN's Kamloops bound train left Vernon, so if we needed help to move the train, it just wasn't going to happen until the next day when the CN train returned from Kamloops.

The train had to run a total of 116 miles on CN and CP track, thirteen miles of which (CP's portion) was in very poor condition and carried numerous slow orders of ten or fifteen miles per hour.

Again, I contacted Mr. Hanratty to discuss my concerns with him.  Eventually, he agreed to supply one of the ex-NAR SD38-2's that were working on the Okanagan Division at the time.  This meant that the Kamloops bound train would have to reduce tonnage in Vernon so that we could have an extra unit for the passenger train for the Friday and Sunday runs.  It was plain that he was reluctant to do this, but I painted a pretty bleak picture for him.

He asked me to try the Armstrong hill with the 1652 isolated, using the 1437 by itself, to see if the GMD1 could handle the job on its own.  I agreed, but I really didn't think that the single unit could pull the train to Vernon, let alone to Armstrong and back. 

Finally, all was ready and I arrived at Kelowna, prepared to begin my summertime adventure on the Wine Train.  I was gratified to see the 1652 coupled up behind the 1437;  I was certain that it would come in handy.

CN GMD1 1437 and CN (ex NAR) SD38-2 1652
Photo Bruce Harvey collection

Roger and I got the power off the 'shop track' and moved it to the train, which we pulled out of the yard, backing it up to the station.  There was already an excited crowd gathering, ready to board the train as soon as it was parked in front of the station.

Mr. Nagel was surrounded by media, all trying to get a moment to talk with him about his bold new venture. All the while, Roger and I conducted the test of the air brakes. 

George Bergson, left - going over last minute checks with one of his team, Andre Bossers.
Bruce Harvey Photo

For nearly an hour, people climbed on and off the train, tour buses came and went, taxis dropped travellers off and then crept away.  TV news crews set up their video and sound equipment, interviewed Mr. Nagel, and talked with whoever looked like they might have anything to do with the new train service. 

 Bruce Harvey photo
There is a lot of excitement on the platform on the day of the Inaugural Run!
My Mom and her husband, Jim have come down to take a ride on the train.

Roger and I looked at our watches and then looked nervously at each other.  Time was of the essence and we would have to leave very soon to avoid getting caught on the road with our 12 hours expired. 

In an effort to speed things along, I gave a short blast on the whistle.  That seemed to work, because people were hustled onto the train, stepping boxes were lifted into the vestibules and the doors were closed. 

Photo courtesy Nagel Fun Tours Ltd. - Edmonton

The on-board train attendant gave the signal to leave the station and I leaned forward, turning on the bell and giving two short blasts on the horn.  The Okanagan Valley Wine Train took its first breath on CN's Okanagan subdivision, leaving Kelowna "On Time". 

I kept a low throttle until the train was away from the station and was moving northward on the main line of CN's Okanagan Sub.  

Roger Befurt, one of the CN conductors who worked the train that summer.
Bruce Harvey photo.  1999

Frank Mercuri stepped into the conductor's chair whenever Roger took time off .  Frank made many trips with me on the Fun Train

Note: as the summer wore on, several locomotives were supplied to pull the train.  Eventually, things seemed to settle out with chopped GP9's being supplied on a regular basis.

Roger was already double-checking our Operating Authority and, finding it in order he got on the cell phone, calling the CPR switcher crew that had left Kelowna just before we had brought the engine off the shop track.  We would keep in touch with them until they cleared the main track at Vernon, leaving the main line for us to use exclusively.  We had already received a call from CN train 455, to say that they were leaving Vernon and would soon be on OVR (CP) track.  We would keep in touch with them until they had moved clear of O'Keefe, just ten miles north of Armstrong. 

Leaving the little passenger station behind, Roger and I laid a friendly wager as to how long the 1437 would continue to pull its share of the load.  Together we agreed it might make it to Vernon. 

We rolled away from the yard and onto the main line. With one more road to cross prior to beginning the long, steep climb out of town, I reached for the handle to blow the whistle.  At that moment, the alarm bells began to ring and the engine revolutions dropped to idle.  Then the engine went silent altogether.  The old girl died on the highway crossing.

Photo courtesy of
The 1437 had just died, and Conductor Befurt has gone back to the second unit to bring it on line.  Roger and I were both surprised by the short life-span of CN's 'ideal' locomotive.

 Roger smiled at me and handed me the company's 'flip phone' that had been on his desk.  I called Mr. Hanratty, the Operations Manager and told him that the 1437 had just died, but we could continue with the 1652.  Then, for some reason, he told me to keep the 1437 in the consist and run it dead for at least the next week.  "OK", I said...  That meant that we would have a quiet ride on the out-bound leg of the trip each day. 

At this point, I'll bring you up to date on the condition of the track on both CN and CP mainlines that make up their respective Okanagan subdivisions.  CN's track was rated at 35 miles per hour with some stretches of 25 mile per hour, while CP's line was rated at 25 miles per hour with long stretches of 10 mile per hour track. 

I would add, that in some places north of Armstrong, CP's track could have been restricted to five miles per hour with all movements preceded by a walking flagman!  But I'll cover that in another story, on another day.

CP track near Realm, about three miles south of Armstrong. Track speed...., 10 mph.
Photo Bruce Harvey

On arrival at Armstrong, we parked the train between crossings while all the passengers detrained and boarded unique 'country transporters' to be taken to the local Curling Rink, where a lavish dinner would be served by contracted locals.  During the dinner hour, the young men and women who worked as onboard staff, changed into "Show Girl" style costumes and performed a Las Vegas routine for the enjoyment of all the guests.  Unfortunately, I didn't get any photos of the 'floor show'.

The Fun Train's People Mover!
Passengers were transported from the train to the Armstrong Curling Rink, where a sumptous meal was served while the beautiful young on-board staff members switched roles and became talented Las Vegas style show girls who entertained those in attendance.
This 'country shuttle' operated by Nagel Tours for over two and a half months before the local RCMP noticed that it was being pulled by a tractor with no license plate, by a young driver who had no drivers licence, pulling those carts that had no seat belts.  The RCMP, instead of providing a Police Escort for the business, instead ordered them off the road.  The passengers then had to walk the five blocks to and from the Curling Rink, making it tough to get into Kelowna on time. Pity.

Also during the dinner hour, we had to take the train up to O'Keefe siding, nearly 10 miles north of Armstrong on CN's mainline to Kamloops. 

Photo contributed by Phil Mason.
This was taken with the train standing on the mainline at O'Keefe while the engine is brought through the "siding" to be connected to the south end of the train for the return trip to Armstrong, Vernon and Kelowna.

Mile 64 on the CN Okanagan sub, between Armstrong and O'Keefe. About 6 fence posts to the left of the mileboard.., yes..., that's how we measure distance on the railroad..., you may be able to see a human form in pink. A local woman who lived beside the track (isn't that everybody's dream?) would get dressed up in a 'head to toe' pig outfit and come to the fence to wave at the passengers.   
Bruce Harvey photo

The Dancing Pig.... Someone's ticket for a free dinner at the Armstrong Hotel


This became a very popular event for travellers and passengers would crowd the window seats on that side of the train to catch a glimpse of this apparition.  Before the summer was over, the owner of the Armstrong hotel, the oldest hotel in BC offered a reward of a free dinner for two and a nights lodging to whoever could correctly identify the mysterious "pig".

Sorry about the quality of the picture.  I scooped it from Facebook, where you can find
The Armstrong Hotel and Rosie's Pub.  An honest-to-goodness old time experience.

The almost 20 mile round trip wasn't made with empty seats.  The Fun Train sold tickets in Armstrong through its reservation system for the short trip up to O'Keefe and return.  This trip took about an hour altogether and was a highlight of the day for passengers and crew alike. 

 Excited travellers waiting to board the train for the 20 mile round trip to O'Keefe.  One or two of those fortunate children will get to climb into the cab of the engine where they will blow the whistle, ring the bell and work the throttle. 
Passengers paid $5.00 for a round-trip ticket and almost always filled three 72-seat coaches, even happily accepting 'standing-room' only accomodation.
Bruce Harvey photo

One or two onboard staff members would make the trip to keep an eye on things and when the engine was being brought around, one of them would open the door on the (northbound) rear of the train and passengers would fill the vestibule to watch the engine being re-attached to the train on the south end.
Photo courtesy Nagel Tours Fun Train/Wine Train

 While Roger was cutting in the air and releasing hand brakes prior to conducting another air brake test, I would step down onto the platform on the nose of the engine and talk with the children gathered in the vestibule.  I carried small business cards with a stylized locomotive logo on them, and would give out a couple to children who seemed most interested in learning more about the train and engine.  On the cards, I printed instructions that would let them off the train first so that they could come up to the engine and climb aboard before a crowd gathered on the platform. Once they were safely aboard, I would let them sit in my seat, ring the bell and blow the whistle. 

In order to minimize delay to the train, Mr. Nagel arranged to have one of his service staff bring two trays of food from the dining hall to the engine for the conductor and myself.  The dinner usually consisted of roast beef, vegetables, potatoes or rice, salad and a quarter chicken, followed by a desert and a cold juice. 

D. B. Ruskin, President of the Okanagan Valley Railroad (OKAN) formerly CP's Okanagan sub joked that he was going to have to bring in a tamper and track maintenance crews to lift the track above the ever-deepening layer of chicken bones that was accumulating on the road bed.

Phil Mason photo.

Mr. Ruskin (right) seen here with his dog Puk, consulting with me on the operation of the train.  He also never failed to have a hot cup of coffee for the conductor and engineer whenever he was nearby inspecting his territory.  In this case, he had driven to Armstrong on his day off to talk with me about a problem we had been having with a small herd of cows getting through a fence and onto the track north of Vernon.  But that's a story for another day!!!

Once underway at Armstrong, we tackled the hill up to Realm and on to Larkin where the grade eased into a long, winding downhill drift into Vernon and another stop would be made to detrain passengers at the CPR station there. 

By then, darkness had overtaken our train and the engine's headlights picked out mileboards and whistle boards while the brightly lit coaches shed their light on the trees and shrubs along the right of way. 

With all the passengers off the train and clear of the platform, we pulled the train back over to the yard and put it away, under lock and key...., waiting for tomorrow, and another exciting run in the warm Okanagan sunshine.

Photo courtesy Nagel Tours

Bob and Patricia Nagel and family, Haven and Sterling - Kelowna



LOU said...


dre said...

Wow thanks nicetime was this thanks good to see this fotos thanks

dre said...

Thanks Bruce is nice to see