Thursday, June 13, 2013

My ride left without me

Train number Nine, The Rupert Rocket stood on passenger track two in front of the beautiful stone and stucco station at Jasper, Alberta. 

Number 1 had just pulled away from its position on the main line, it's engine passing over the west switch, not with the expected clatter of steel wheels on steel frog and switch points, but instead the muffled creaking of frozen ties being pressed down by the weight of the locomotives and cars as they passed from the Edson sub to the Albreda sub.     

I stopped walking and stood in the cold night air to watch the westbound Super Continental as it forced its way into the darkness,  wearing a train-length skirt of swirling snow and escaping steam.
Soon, the creaking sound made by the departing train gave way to the sound of three FP9's that were now well into the climb to Yellowhead Summit of the Continental Divide about seventeen miles to the west.

The flickering red 'markers' and the dim glow of the vestibule light showed off the wagging tail of steam that emerged with a throaty hiss from the partly opened steam line at the rear of the last car; and it was gone.

Turning toward the station, I continued walking the last half block to the station where I would join my crew to discuss our night's work over a cup of coffee..., if the beanery was still open.

The scheduled departure time for train number 9, The Rupert Rocket was set in the timetable as 21.00.  Number 1 had been running over two hours late due to intensely cold temperatures and blowing snow on the prairies and, fortunately for us, had managed to get out of Jasper before our scheduled departure time.  If it had not, we would likely have been held until after number 1 had departed, so that passengers, mail and express traffic could be loaded on 'the rocket' for destinations on the north line.

I crossed the street and rounded the west end of the station to see my conductor having a conversation with the brakeman who had booked onto the job a couple of trips earlier.  This fellow had taken the job of "Flagman" on the crew and his first two trips showed that he really didn't know much about protecting the rear of the train from following trains.  His uniform was not standard issue and consisted of black jeans, a filthy (used to be) white shirt, a stained passenger trainman's vest and badly scuffed brown leather boots.  On both of the previous trips, he had been admonished by the conductor to clean himself up and come to work properly attired for the job, or get off his crew. 

As I rounded the end of the station, I saw, illuminated by platform lights and under-the-eaves lighting, the conductor and the 'scruffy' brakeman standing face to face, having a discussion.  Actually, it was the conductor who was doing all the talking.  The brakeman listened.

I had expected this, as the conductor had told me on arrival in Jasper that same morning, to come to work that night, prepared to work the tail end, rather than my regular job in the baggage car.  At first, I was upset with his directive, as I really liked the independence afforded by the more private spaces with the baggage and express cars.  But knew that every conductor had the right to place his crew men where ever he felt best suited him.

I was wearing my passenger trainman's dark blue uniform; pants, vest and jacket with my soup pot trainman's hat secured within my travel bag.  I was also wearing black stockings and polished black street shoes inside my heavy black rubber snow boots.  The brakeman who was being spoken to by the conductor was wearing jeans, runners, shirt and a quilted vest for those times when he would be forced to open the doors of the warm baggage car to the frozen night air of the CN North Line in BC's isolated interior.

I will admit that I was pouting, even though I had been assured that my name would be shown as the baggage man on the trip ticket to ensure I received the two or three dollars more that was paid to the baggage man over the trainman, under the collective agreement.

After receiving his verbal 'dressing down' by the conductor, the brakeman picked up his 'grip' and walked over to the leading day coach and climbed aboard.  In a moment, I watched as he passed by the lighted doorway, stopping to toss a scoop full of coal into the stove near 'his' desk.

 He was understandably nervous, for he had taken a pretty angry lecture from the conductor before he got on the train.  I wasn't made party to the discussion, except that I was told that I was not to offer any assistance in the baggage car unless instructed to do so by the conductor.  The chill that was in the air outside, was nothing compared to the chill in the air that surrounded my normally jovial and convivial conductor.

"Shrug it off", I told myself.  "It has nothing to do with me", I thought.

It was obvious to me that we wouldn't be meeting for a friendly cup of coffee, so I greeted my conductor and we had our pre-departure briefing in the crew's booking in room while we read the clearance and train orders that would take us from Jasper to Red Pass Junction. These orders had just been copied and repeated by the operator, from the dispatcher at Kamloops.   At Red Pass, we would obtain fresh orders, dispatched from the dispatchers desk in Prince George, which handled traffic on the North Line.

The trip from Jasper to Prince George was uneventful, except for two or three screw-ups on the part of the baggage man. Each time he made an 'error in judgement', as he called it..., the conductor was all over him like snow in a blizzard.  This just made him more nervous, and further prone to screwing up again at the earliest opportunity. 

Now...., this particular brakeman was a nice enough guy.  He just had a whack of personal habits that many would find socially unacceptable.  Yes, I know there are some among my readers who will know immediately who this fellow was..., even though I'm not going to use his name.  And I know you will agree with my observations of this fellow.  The mistakes he made were never made intentionally; it was just who he was that made him do it that way. 

06.00 couldn't come soon enough for our erstwhile baggage man. That was the time that number 9 was due to arrive in Prince George and Pappy Howard, our engineer from McBride to Prince George brought her in on time.

Prince George was a demarcation point for CN's passenger service on the North Line.  Number 9 was a conventional passenger train, with conventional, mostly heavy-weight cars, pulled by freight locomotives and a steam generator car that provided steam heat to the train.

At Prince George, the service went to Budd Rail Diesel cars for the remainder of the trip to Prince Rupert.  The RDC's left Prince George about an hour and a half after the arrival of our train from Jasper.
Upon  our arrival, the flagman helped with the unloading of passengers and took down the markers to be stored for the return trip.  The front trainman waited until the car men had cut off the steam line to the train, then he guided the engine to the shop track.

Number 10 was due out of Prince George at 23.00 and we gathered at the station to prepare for the train's departure.  With the engine and steam generator in place, the passengers were ushered out onto the platform be entrained.  The day coach passengers were assisted onto the platform stepping boxes and, with a quick look at their tickets, were told to turn left or right at the top of the stairs where they would enter the well-lit passenger coaches to look for the seats that were indicated on their tickets.

Seating was allocated so that 'short-haul' passengers were seated so that those who would be detraining first, would be seated closest to the front door of the leading coach.  People getting off at the second station down the line would take up seats next, and so on.

Usually, the lead coach was almost completely occupied by people who were travelling to points within the first 45 miles from Prince George.  On some nights, Saturdays in particular, every seat in the car would be filled, and there could be several people who had to stand until a seat became vacated by someone who was leaving the train.  At times like these, we were forced to lock the rear door in the last day coach to prevent standing passengers from wandering back into that part of the train that was reserved for overnight travellers who had purchased sleeping car accommodation.  It was the established practice of passenger train crews on this run to keep the door locked until the majority of the 'short-hauls' had been let off the train.  Only then was the flagman, other duties permitting, allowed to wander up to the head end to assist with head-end duties, or to enjoy a cup of that famous baggage-car coffee that was always on.

The reason the flagman stayed at the rear of the train for that long was that the fourth class freight train operating as number 848, or first 848 was due to leave Prince George at 01.30, just two and a half hours behind number 10 and due to the fact that we were operating in 'dark' territory, or train orders and timetable schedules, we had to be watchful that 848 didn't overtake us without being protected against by the flagman. 

It's true that if everything went according to schedule, 848 would leave the station two and a half hours behind the passenger train.  What must be remembered is that, at times, a hundred or more passengers would have to be found (they often went walk-about to help their friends, who were seated in some other part of the car, drink a bottle of lemon gin).  The conductor and the head end brakeman had to pick up the 'hat checks' that had been tucked into the bottom frame member of the pull-down window blinds where each person was sitting.  Then the passengers had to be mustered toward the door with their baggage in tow.  There were numerous non-time table flag stops, as well as station stops and scheduled flag stops in the first 45 miles and the train made very slow headway.  The scheduled running time between Prince George and Hansard (46 miles) was 2 hours and 48 minutes!  That was likely based on the train making track speed and accounting for only the scheduled station stops.  More often than not, the train would be running late by the time it reached Giscome, only 24 miles after beginning the run.

Occasionally, the dispatcher would include, in the sheaf of orders attached to our clearance, a copy of
a Form E time order instructing 848 to run late on its schedule.  For example, the order might read:

No. 848, engine 9042
run 40 minutes late Prince George to Giscome (mile 122.4) and
30 minutes late Giscome to Longworth (mile 79.4)

This was a 'run late' order and gave us some protection against following trains within the times and locations specified in the order. 

Another order, Form U was similar in effect, but worded somewhat differently.

It was know as a Rear Protection' order, or "RP" which gave the train running ahead of the train named in the order, protection from having to flag that train while standing on the main line up until the time specified in the order.  The downside to this order was that it was a timed 'hold' order and could only be issued to a train at one location at a time.  While it was 'second best', it was still better than leaving Prince George with no help from the dispatcher at all.

And this was the case when read the orders issued for our return trip.

There was no "RP" and there was no "Run Late" issued to 848. 

What we had was a meet on 423, a westbound fast freight that ran as an extra, but was treated better by the dispatchers than the passenger train.  We were given an order that read something like this:

No. 10 eng. 9036 meet Extra 9128 west at Willow River.
No. 10 take siding Willow River.

423 was due into Prince George at 24.10 and was running pretty close to the track line-up.

This order added considerable challenge to an already tension-laden run.  We had over 90 short-haul passengers to unload; most of them had spent the hours leading up to train time by drinking as much alcohol as they could consume before making their way to the station, where they leaned against anything that was upright to wait for the signal to enter the waiting train. 

To make matters worse, the temperature was dropping dramatically, threatening to reach minus 35.  This really didn't have too dramatic an effect on the train itself, but when detraining passengers stepped out of the warm coach into the biting frost of the open vestibule, they seemed to be less willing to step into the deep snow found at most of the flag stops along the route.  Physical encouragement was sometimes necessary to keep everything moving along.

Every man on the crew, the conductor, the brakemen, the fireman and the engineer needed to be on the ball this night.  The fireman had agreed to line the switch at Willow River to head us into the siding, and again to leave the siding, while I would return the switches to the normal position after the last car of the train had gone through the turnouts.

We were running a bit late, and I thought that 423 might be at the meeting place before us, meaning that the head end brakeman on the freight would likely line us into and out of the siding at the west end, leaving only the east end of the siding for us to handle.

This wasn't to be, however and, so sure was I that it would be otherwise, I had delayed putting on my heavy over-boots and coat.  I'd left it too long and now I was going to have to get off the train and line the switch back wearing only my uniform and city shoes.

The fireman wasted no time at all getting the switch lined and he stepped back onto the ladder to climb into the cab as Pappy edged the throttle open.  The train moved quickly and smoothly into the siding while I stepped out onto the rear platform and opened the door. 

I stepped down to the bottom step and took a solid grip on the cold steel hand rail.  Leaning out a bit, I saw the flickering red oil lamp on top of the switch stand and gave a signal with my lantern to the fireman, who was watching me from his open window in the engine. 

Holding my lantern high, I 'tipped' it three times to indicate three coaches to the switch.

Then two, and one.  The train slowed to a crawl and I stepped off into the same intense cold and deep snow that our passengers were experiencing when they detrained.  I shivered, and understood their natural reluctance to abandon the warmth of the coach for the hostile night that awaited them. 

I flipped the lock out of the switch-lock keeper and grabbed the handle giving it a hard pull.  The points came over relatively easily and I ran to the rear of the train that had by now stopped just clear of the mainline. 

From the glow of head light on the snow laden trees beside the track, I knew that 423, the extra 9128 west was pulling down the main.  I opened the upper door on the opposite side of the car and leaned out to identify the train we were expecting by engine number and to give the head end crew a wave.

423's power quickly notched up to full throttle and they were speeding away into the night as we drifted through the siding at 10 or 15 miles per hour. 

I stepped into the rear car to keep warm until it was once again time to get off and line the east switch back when we re-entered the main line.

When our train stopped, I went to the rear vestibule platform and watched as the fireman, illuminated by the strong ditch lights of the engine, hurried up to the switch.  Soon he had it lined and turning toward the engine, he gave the engineer a 'proceed' hand signal.  A couple notches on the throttle and our two locomotives came to life and started pulling the train back out onto the 'high iron'.

When the train was about halfway out of the siding, the engine leaned into a left hand curve and soon disappeared from my view.  This didn't concern me, as our astute baggage man (remember him) had swung the big door open and had taken up a position where he could relay my signals to the fireman who would, in turn, relay them to the engineer.

I gave him 'three cars', 'two cars', and 'one car'.  The train slowed to a crawl and I stepped off into the snow while giving a big 'stop' signal.

Gingerly stepping through the snow to the switch, ( I didn't think it would be necessary to struggle into my heavy clothing and boots just to line the switch back) I was shocked to hear the engines revving up! 

I turned in time to see the baggage door closing, closing, closed; and the train pulled away into the darkness.

My mind was racing.  It was already too late to try to catch the train.  It was already going a good clip and I was wearing slippery soled shoes.

I could be in a lot of trouble here.  How far away was 848?  Could I survive until 848 arrived?  Would the crew notice me if they got here before I froze to death?  How long would the battery in my lantern last in the intense cold?  When did I replace it last? 

I knew if was less than five miles to Giscome, and it was a train order office where I might find refuge.  I looked around for one of the dispatcher's line phones that are usually placed near the switches at sidings and other locations.  I couldn't see one.

My ears were really stinging now, and my toes were numbed to painfulness.

Then, I heard a faint, high pitched sound, like a squeal of some unknown origin. Like a dog who thinks he's just heard his kibbles being brought out, I cocked my head and listened for more.  Then, I heard it again!  It was louder, and closer! 

In a few moments, I was happily surprised to see the back end of no. 10, gaily led by those flickering red markers backing up the main line towards me....., against every rule in the book!!! 

The conductor was standing in the vestibule, operating the 'back-up' whistle.  I couldn't have loved that man more than I did at that moment.

There was my conductor, my friend..., Marvin Schwartz coming back to get me after learning that the baggage man had only 'assumed' that he had given me enough time to line the switch back and get aboard the train before he gave the fireman a 'highball' signal.

After learning of this from the baggage man, Marvin hurried to the tail end, his baggage man in tow where he found my compartment empty, my heavy weather coat and boots still inside,  and the rear doors open.  He knew that I had been left behind, and that would never do on his watch.

When I had struggled up the steps I saw that Marvin had the baggage man by the throat and was holding him against the bulkhead of the car.  There was a darkness, a determination about him that I hadn't seen before.  The young man swore to Marvin that I had given him a 'highball' signal and he had relayed it to the fireman.  Marvin told me to step inside the car and get warm, while he had a chat with the baggage man 'in private'.

The baggage man bid another job and wasn't seen on "our crew" again.

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