Monday, August 19, 2013

How Many Hand Brakes Are Enough?


It had been snowing heavily for days, with only short respites now and again when the dark grey, overcast sky took time out to build yet another arsenal of large, heavy snowflakes.  Then the sky would close in again and the air would go still, in anticipation of the next big dump. 

East of Jasper, on the Edson subdivision, there was also a lot of snow, but the icy winds that blew down from the Arctic Ocean, the northern prairie and into the Athabasca Valley, all the while reaching for the Columbia Ice Fields, kept the ground scoured almost clear of built up snow. 

All things in nature huddled against the bitter, cutting wind; snow packed tight against the lee side of the rails.  Large numbers of Elk and deer had long since left the Rocky Mountain Foothills and moved into the forest closer to Jasper where the snow was deeper, but the temperature was not so severe.  A herd of Big Horned Rocky Mountain Sheep took refuge inside the 735 foot curved Brule tunnel at the east boundary of Jasper National Park.  Most of these animals would meet a tragic end, under the wheels of an eastbound freight train, unable to stop in time due to limited visibility.

West of Jasper, where the railroad left the wide, flat-bottomed valley of the Athabasca river, and plunged into closer quarters with the mountains to follow the Fraser river, the weather was affected more by the Pacific Ocean than by the Arctic Ocean.  Air, warmed by warm ocean currents from the equator brought moisture-laden air to Canada's west coast, and from there it was pushed deeper into, and over the mountains toward the Rockies.  On the way to the prairies, much of the moisture is lost in the form of rain or snow. 

During this particular winter, circa 1969, the falling snow had been relentless.
 
The build-up of snow on the steep mountain-sides along the Albreda subdivision caused train and engine crews to keep a watchful eye on the snow chutes, or avalanche alleys that were evidenced by long ribbons of open rock and cliff faces above the track.  These had been swept clear of all but the the mountains themselves by repeated avalanches, year after year. 

Most of those avalanche paths were relatively small and the snow that they deposited on the track during an active 'slide' weren't usually large enough to derail a locomotive, but occasionally, a seemingly harmless snow slide might bring down a large tree, or a rock that could cause the engine crew some concern.  When that happened, the first indication given that there was a rock or a tree trunk inside the slide was that loud thump, or banging sound that was created when the light, steel pilot was torn from beneath the drawbar and coupler, exposing the wheels and undercarriage of the lead locomotive. 

The next couple of seconds would determine if you were going to stay on the track....., or...., not.

I had been called off the spare-board at Jasper as the head-end brakeman on an extra west to run to Red Pass.  Once there, we were to pick up a 'live outfit' from Albreda 2, an interchange track where cars were routinely set out and picked up by trains going to and from the Tete Jaune sub, or 'the Trunk', the last remaining mileage of the former Grand Trunk Pacific. 

The outfit was made up of very old, outside braced, single sheathed boxcars that had been converted to bunk cars, foreman's bunk, cook car, tool car, water car, a flat car with miscellaneous equipment and a refrigerator car.  All in all, the outfit was about 30 to 35 cars. 

We didn't need to do any switching on this outfit, as it was merely being moved from Rearguard, on the Tete Jaune sub where it had been cleaning up after an avalanche that had come from above the Albreda sub a couple of weeks earlier.

Leaving our caboose hop standing on the main track behind the station at Red Pass, our crew, including Walter Kortzman, conductor, Bill Russel, rear trainman, Ed Poelzer, engineer and myself gathered inside the warm office of the operator to arrange for our clearance and train orders and to discuss our strategy regarding the placement of the outfit we were charged with moving.

Because the outfit was being moved "live", meaning that the cars were occupied by members of the gang, we waited for the gang foreman to arrive with his instructions and an assurance that the gang was ready to move, with all wires, water lines, or other obstructions tucked away and secured for movement. 

We already had a copy of a 'message' from the Chief Dispatcher instructing us to move the gang from Red Pass to Foster, and to leave it in the siding at Foster with room at both ends for maintenance of way equipment.

Wally decided that Bill should ride the head end with Ed and me to Foster and, when we were in the clear, with room to spare, Bill and I would tie down the train with more than enough handbrakes to keep the train from moving out of the siding and onto the main line, where it would run westward all the way to Valemount, unless it hit something, or derailed due to excessive speed.  The story of the runaway log cars of a few years earlier was still fresh in every Jasper railroader's mind. 

The gang foreman arrived at the station and, after stomping his feet and brushing his pant legs to shake off the snow that was by now above his knees on hte ground, he gave Wally the OK to tie on to the outfit and take it away.

The operator had cleared us as a work extra, working between Albreda and Red Pass which would allow us to use the main line in both directions between those two points and within given time perameters, which I no longer remember.  Foster is just over seven miles from Red Pass, so we didn't have far to travel, but the heavy winter conditions would certainly create serious delays to our progress.  We felt we had sufficient time to do what we were required to do under the Chief's message and make it back to Red Pass for fresh orders, but we would likely be on the road for several hours, putting us beyond our dinner hour.   To this, the foreman said that he'd speak to the cook and arrange for us to have a hot meal once the gang was tied up and the labourers had been fed.

"It's a deal", we said.

Thinking ahead, Bill suggested that we take a couple of pick handles, or track hammer handles from the tool car to use as 'brake bats' on the ancient 'stem-winder' hand brakes of the ancient outfit cars.

Brake bats used to be carried on all cabooses and, I would think, all steam locomotives for the purpose of cranking on a good, hard brake which operated on a "pawl and ratchet" principle.  The brake systems that were still being used on those old maintenance of way cars had been around for over fifty years, not because they were considered effective, but because the railroads planned to scrap the cars eventually, and didn't see where the considerable expenditure required to upgrade the brake systems to more modern standards would be economically feasible.  So, Bill and I prepared ourselves to climb to the top of every car, tie on each hand brake until we couldn't turn the wheel anymore, and then feed the brake bat into position and with both hands gripping the hammer handle tightly, lean into it until we had squeezed every last "click" out of the brake chain and pawl-and-ratchet. 

We left the warmth of the station and went outside into the gathering afternoon gloom.  The snow was letting up a bit, we agreed.

Bill closed the angle-cock behind the engine as Ed climbed into the cab of the engine and sat down at the controls.  I pulled the pin on the caboose and, with a raised hand, gave Ed a proceed signal. 

The engine, which had been idling outside the station on the Tete Jaune main line for about forty five minutes rumbled and shook off the snow that had fallen on the hand rails.  As it moved ahead, I gripped the handrail and stepped onto the trailing footboard for the ride to the west end of the Omaha interchange.

The section crew assigned to Red Pass had already cleaned out the switches and I easily backed the engine on top of the outfit and cut in the air.

While the brake pipe was charging up, I walked back a few cars to check for handbrakes and, finding several, I climbed to the top of the ladders and released them, letting the slack ease against the locomotive. 

When the brake pipe had charged sufficiently, we called Bill to tell him we were ready to back out onto the caboose and shove back into the siding for our brake test. 

Once that was completed, we eased out onto the mainline of the Albreda sub and listened as Wally gave us 'car lengths' to the switch where he dropped off, lined and locked the switch for the main and got back on the caboose. 

After we got away from the station, across the steel bridge over the Fraser river and approaching the mileboard, Ed set  the brakes to test their effectiveness. 

They didn't set up like more modern cars would.  This was expected.  In fact, they didn't seem to want to set up at all!  We weren't moving very fast, and Ed reduced the throttle a bit.  We hadn't yet tipped over the top of the grade, so if the train had to be stopped, Ed could manage it with the help of the engine brake. 

Then, with a bit of minor slack action, the brakes began to take hold.  The brake shoes had likely been covered in snow and needed to warm up a bit before being able to grip the wheels. 

Bill and I shared a smile, acknowledging that we had both been thinking the same thing.  If the brakes didn't work well using air, then they sure wouldn't be very effective as hand brakes either. 

Bill asked Ed to use the train brakes often enough to keep snow from building up between the brake shoes and the wheel treads as we head into the siding at Foster.

A great deal of snow had fallen west of Jasper.  It seemed to be heaviest around Red Pass, but as we started down the hill on our seven mile run to Foster, I noticed that the signal huts at trackside were carrying mushroom shaped caps that were about five feet tall and they were cocked at crazy angles, much like that seen in "The Cat In The Hat" drawings.   The cross-arms on the line side telegraph poles were heaped high with snow and even the wires, strung between those poles were sagging under the weight of the snow.   This was the reason this gang had been brought to the Albreda sub.  They were going to be clearing snow away from important infrastructure, such as poles and wires, signals, tunnel mouths and snow sheds.  It was dangerous work.  Very dangerous.

Ed set the brakes more than a mile from the east switch and we waited for speedometer to show a decrease in speed.  Gradually, the train slowed and we glided to a very nice stop about three car lengths from the switch. 

Bill and I got off and retrieved the tools, a shovel and a broom, from their place near the dispatchers phone box by the switch.

After ten minutes or more of digging, scraping, sweeping and shoveling, we were finally able to line the east switch at Foster, checking to see that the points had completely closed against the stock rail.

Confident that the switch had been properly cleaned and the points tightly secured, I hung up the switch broom and shovel on the up-ended railroad tie that had been put near the switch for that purpose. Then, I gave a 'proceed' hand signal to the engineer.  I was looking forward to climbing back inside the cab of the engine, a 1954 EMD 4200 class GP9.  Bill was already aboard.

The siding at Foster hadn't been used for several hours and snow lay a foot deep over the rails.  When we were halfway into the siding, Ed put a light brake on the engine and the train to warm up the brake shoes, ensuring he could get the train stopped where he wanted it to stop.

Conductor Kortzman got off the caboose at the east switch and lined it back for the main after cleaning out the switch points of snow that had been dragged into the switch by the passing cars.

Bill and I dropped off the engine as Ed brought it to a stop and we started climbing ladders to the hand brake wheels that were accessible from the tops of each of the cars.  Ed stayed with the engine, waiting for our signals to pull or push against the brakes we had set as a test of their efficiency.

Finally, after about fifteen minutes, Bill and I had cranked on ten hand brakes.  We gave Ed a 'proceed' signal and he began to open the throttle to pull on the train and the ten hand brakes we had applied. 

He had only opened the throttle about one third of the way when the train began to move.  We swung him down at the same time as he put the brakes back on.  He know we hadn't put enough brakes on the outfit. 

We put on another ten hand brakes and tested once more.  Once more, the train moved, easily toward the west switch..., and Valemount. 

If we put on another ten hand brakes, we'd have a brake on almost every car on the train!!  So, off we went and fifteen minutes later, we had every car tied down.   We couldn't see Ed any more, as it was now getting dark and snow was beginning to fall again. 

Bill went to the caboose and called Ed on the radio, asking him to pull on the train again.  He did.  It moved! 

After talking it over, and refining our plan, Bill and I stepped in between the rails on the mainline, (remember, this was train order territory and we held a work clearance, giving us exclusive occupancy of the track) and we walked back to the head end. 

We went up into the cab and told Ed we were going to take our spike hammer handles and 'go high' to crank those brakes down hard with brake bats.    Ed chuckled, and reminded us that we weren't going to get any supper until we had finished the job.  We were motivated, and Wally was already in the cook/dining car having hot coffee and a slice of pie, we were sure.

After two hours of wading through 'watch-pocket deep' snow, climbing up onto the tops of rickety old wooden cars and bending the brake bats, we finally got the train secured.  Ed was no longer able to move it using the locomotive. 

Of two things, we were supremely confident.  One..., the train wasn't going to roll away on its own, and two...., whoever would be given the job of picking this outfit up and moving it to its next layover spot would be P.O.'d with the crew that tied this outfit down so tight that it couldn't possibly be moved without an effort that would be the equal of ours in getting it that way.

The smell of fresh-baked bread, home made stew and apple pie filled our heads as we sat down for our long-awaited meal in the diining car.  As she brought food to the big table, the cook let us know that she was glad that we finally stopped pushing and pulling the darned outfit back and forth in the siding.  I began to explain what we had been doing, and why we were doing it, but when I caught the smile on Wally's face, I understood that he had done his best to keep the old girl calm for the past two hours!!!  

I shut up and started in on my bowl of soup.

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