Friday, September 30, 2011

Fraser River Rail Bridge vs. The Swiftsure Prince. Barge 1, Bridge 0

Bill was a hogger for CP when I met him.  He introduced himself as "Scrap Iron".  

Scrap Iron didn't brag about it, but he knew the exact mileage of every drawbar and knuckle that had broken under his throttle hand; the benchmark of a locomotive engineer's prowess being the number of knuckles and drawbars he or she added to their un-official record. The object was, of course, to acquire as few as possible. Yes, even I have a couple to my credit. 

A testament to his unforgettable character is that I still remember working with him in the mid '70's while CN and CP were sharing track during a major traffic disruption.  CN was detouring over CP track for a number of months while the Fraser River Bridge was being re-built after being struck by a runaway barge during a very thick fog on the morning of December 26, 1975.

Do you have a few minutes for a 'short story' about that fateful morning? Yes??!! we go then.

In December of 1975, I was an engineer working a midnight yard job in Port Mann (Thornton Yard). Like nearly all assigned jobs in the terminal, the 2400 West Lead had been cancelled for Christmas and Boxing Day. However, CN's westbound speed train, 217 arrived at Port Mann after midnight and CN decided that they wanted it taken to Vancouver before the sun was over the yardarm. The only engineer in the terminal who answered the call was yours truly...(the kids needed new shoes). We were ordered for 0530 with the caboose still on the cab track and engine on the shop track. The property seemed to have been abandoned as there was not a soul to be found. There were written instructions pinned to our orders and clearance outlining the engine numbers, caboose number, track number, pick up and set out, etc. The shop buildings were dark, the control tower was empty and there were no Carmen on duty.

Seemingly to set the tone of the day, our conductor had been pulled from an all-night party and was carried, protesting, aboard the caboose and put to bed on the cot before we were even off the shops.

In the dark, the head-end brakeman and I got the power and the caboose to the yard with the power, found the train and got the switching done. The ever-present marine fog began to thicken as we pulled the train from the yard track and onto switching pullback no. 4 for the air test. There were no Carmen on duty, so the head-end brakeman performed a number two brake test and I called the Fraser River Bridge and the BN dispatcher for permission to leave Port Mann.

Photo Credit  Andy Cassidy

Both said that we could leave and when the brakeman climbed up into the cab, I whistled off and began to pull. We didn’t have much of a train...perhaps 40 cars and two SD40-2's. We called the conductor, but didn't get a response and we hoped that he had stayed where he was when the air test had been completed.

The fog deepened as we climbed up onto the Fraser River Bridge and it was thick enough that I had to extinguish the headlights and ditch lights to see the Interlocking signals on the bridge.

When the train was just past the middle of the span and the engine entering the curve near the old cannery, the bridge tender/operator called us on the radio. There was tenseness to his voice as he told us that he could see the superstructure of a large barge above the fog moving toward the bridge. Thinking that it was under the control of a tug, he called on the marine radio channel, but got no response. Then he told me to "get that train off the bridge" as fast as I could, because it was obvious to him that we were about to get hit by a runaway barge. At that time, there was a permanent 5 mph slow order on the old bridge, but this was an emergent situation and required a controlled response. I began to open the throttle as the head-end brakeman started calling the conductor to ensure that he was aware of what was coming. After all, we knew the engine was going to make it, but because of the heavy fog, we couldn't tell how close the barge might be to the bridge and, if it was really close, the caboose might still be on the span when the collision occurred. There was no response to our calls.

Photo Courtesy Barrie Sanford author of ROYAL METAL Fraser River Rail Bridge

With the head end of the train off the bridge and descending the steep grade off the approach bents, and the train speed now approaching 20 miles per hour, the conductor's shaky voice boomed from the radio speaker and filled the cab with ... "HARVEY....SLOW THIS #@*"&^ TRAIN DOWN OR I'M GONNA PULL THE *&#$%^ AIR!!!!"  If that happened, we'd stop in less than an engine length with the caboose sitting on the swing span.  Not a good end to the conductor's day.

On the head end, we looked at each other and I handed the radio handset to the brakeman. "You'd better talk him down off his windmill, or he's going swimming!", I said. Only when Glen Cadno, the bridge operator intervened, did the conductor get off the radio and climb into the cupola to watch the whole thing take place.

I had a light brake on the train and was pulling in the sixth notch to keep the train stretched and secure on the tight curve coming off the bridge.  With the exception of the sound of the diesels and the chirping of brakes on wheels and squealing flanges on rails, all was hushed in the early morning fog.

 Photo Courtesy Barrie Sanford

 The conductor called to say that the caboose was off the swing span, so I released the train brakes and reduce the throttle by one or two notches.  

The bridge was struck by the barge, Swiftsure Prince and the Fraser River Bridge was wrecked and remained out of service for months.

Photo credit - Barrie Sanford

CN trains were detoured over CP  between Coquitlam, Sapperton and Mission, and many train and engine crews made a lot of 'overtime' money in the process. Young engineer Bruce Harvey made the leap from the junior assigned hogger, working the 2400 West Lead (a really shitty job), to the engineer's spareboard..."the money machine". At the same time, CP experienced shortages of crews as they had to provide 'pilots' for all the CN trains detouring over their track.  And Bill, who was no stranger to high mileage jobs, was one of those pilots handling our trains over his track.  We spent many hours together sitting on CP track waiting for clearance to get through Coquitlam and onward to Sapperton.

And that's how I met "Scrap Iron".

Photos and notes by Claude Prutton

Note:   Your will read, in almost every account of this disastrous event that the barge, The Swiftsure Prince was blown from its moorings at Pacific Coast Terminals by a strong wind.  I can assure you that while it might be reasonable to assume that 'wind' was the culprit, I can assure you that was an unlikely scenario.

In fact, the air was calm at the time the barge slipped from its moorings and it was the incoming tide that carried the barge into the New Westminster Rail Bridge and not the wind, for there was no wind blowing.

There were only four people on the bridge at the time of the incident; the bridge operator; Benny, the conductor; Cecil, the head end brakeman and myself, the engineer.

At the time, there was a very thick blanket of dense fog lying at a depth of approximately thirty feet.  Above that, the air was clear and and the bridge operator could see the superstructure of the vessel as it was coming upriver, towards the span and he was able to warn us of the approach in time to get the train off the doomed span.

Bruce Harvey

The following is from an email that I recently received from Claude Prutton, via Mark Forseille.

To say the least, I am extremely grateful to Mark, for taking the initiative to forward Claude's email to me, and especially to Claude (for taking the attached photos).

Caboose Coffee and its readers are all the richer for their efforts.

From Claude:

 Here are some Oldies of a different sort. The pictures depict probably the worst disruption of Rail traffic the lower mainland has ever endured.

On Dec. 26th 1975 a log barge broke loose from it's moorings at Pacific Coast Terminals during a strong windstorm & blew up stream smashing out the main fixed span on the New Westminster Railway Bridge. This caused a major disruption .r CN, BN & BC Hydro, Railways.

CN had to divert westbound traffic destined for North Vancouver over the Tete Jaune & Fraser Subs to Prince George & then down the BCR to North Vancouver. Local transfers into Vancouver went East to Mission & then onto the Mission Bridge & then down CP's Cascade sub to the Sapperton Interchange & then from there on to BN's 4th sub into Vancouver.

BN for the most part entered Vancouver by using their Sumas Sub to Huntington & then CP's Mission Bridge & then on to Vancouver from there.

BC Hydro used the same route to get to their New Westminster Yards & Shops. They had a long trip however to service the industries across the river a distance of about half a mile required a trip of about 70 or so miles out to Mission & back on the opposite side of the river..

With in a short time after the accident Plans were drawn up & a new section was constructed on the south side of the Fraser River. By Mid April 1976 the new span was ready for installation. A couple of barges were ;placed under the span at the start of the Flood tide & once the structure was off it's piers the barges were towed over to the bridge & the span lowered on the Ebb tide. 

To me that sounds like incredible precision. It went off without a hitch .

See pictures attached.

Claude Prutton

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Snow service and freight movement in CN's Mountains 1970

Western Canadian farmers were harvesting the  crops which were making their way to the Pacific grain terminals. Fall had come early and the first snows of Autumn were beginning to settle on mountain ranges and hill tops of the eastern slope of the Rockies.  Even before the red and gold leaves had fallen to the ground in the great boreal forests,  the water that stood in the sloughs carried a fragile sheet of ice.  The rivers that had their beginnings in the high mountain passes, only to end up in the Pacific or Arctic Oceans were showing ice formations among the round stones that lined their shores.

The last of the migrating geese had been seen winging their way toward warmer waters.  A few ducks worked the remaining open water where streams continued to empty into small lakes, forming ever-shrinking patches of open water where the ducks could gather and feed.  Mountain Sheep, Deer and Elk were moving down from the alpine meadows and high country ridges into the valleys below where the snows had not yet arrived to cover the now-dry grasses and bushes they would rely on for winter forage.

Snow flakes began to fall.  Slowly, at first...just a few, being tossed about by the jittery breeze that brought winter to the valley.   The warm south and westerly breezes of summer had changed direction and tone.  Now the relentless east wind now scoured the Athabasca River valley, bringing freezing temperatures that drove life away, scurrying into the ground before freeze-up.  The east wind came, carrying the snow across the frozen ground, bending the grasses and filling the prints of the hoofed animals where they were left on the ground by passing herds.

The railway was overwhelmed by the amount of grain traffic being handled through the mountains to the coastal ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert.  Westbound trains were loaded to the tonnage ratings of the locomotives that pulled them.  Train and engine crews worked on a mileage basis; train crews could work a maximum of 4300 miles in a month and engineers and firemen were allowed 3800 miles each month.  Each round trip could average between 225 and 350 pay miles and take from eighteen to thirty six hours to execute.  When you do the find that crews who are on call every day, work almost every day of the month. At least, when traffic demands are high, it certainly seems like we work every day.  During this particular period, there were many trips in which I only got off the engine after arriving in Jasper from Blue River just long enough to run across the street to buy a sandwich before getting back into the cab to begin another round trip to Edson, Alberta and back.  That was called "doubling the road" or "doubling through".

The CNR had only just begun to take possession of new higher horsepower SD-40 locomotives and were hauling larger, heavier trains.  As the new SD40's arrived on the scene, they were mixed with motive power that was nearing 20 years of age in an effort to relieve the power shortage.  In fact, there were shortages everywhere.  In addition to staff shortages, the company found itself searching for cars in which to carry the grain to ports for shipment to overseas customers.  Some cars of questionable vintage that were in rather deplorable condition were acquired from sources in the United States.  Many of these cars were built of wood during the early 1940's and had outside framework of light steel.  When loaded with grain, their sides bulged so badly that the doors had to be bound with steel straps to hold them in place for the journey through the mountains and down to the sea.  These older cars were pressed into service and were in such poor condition that they sagged under the strain of too much wheat, barley, oats and rape seed (canola) being loaded in their old carcasses.  Grain leaked from their worn out bodies all the way from the elevators where they were loaded to the grain terminals at sea level.  Every mile of railroad track,  marshaling yards and sidings across the land were littered with grain. Where ever grain trains were left standing for any length of time, the escaping grain would fall to the track, laying sometimes to a depth of three feet or more.  Sometimes, section crews were called out to shovel the grain out of the way so that trains could be moved from where they had been standing.  

Train crews, when walking from one end of their train to the other,  remained on the lookout for journal box covers that might not be closed tightly, or which have been inadvertantly been left open after having been oiled at some terminal or other along the route from the prairies.  An open journal box cover would soon allow the journal box to fill with grain, ensuring a hot box, or burned journal bearing somewhere along the line.  At worst, this could cause a derailment when the journal became overheated and the contents burst into flame.  Once the oil in the box had burned away, the journal would get white-hot, melting the Babbitt bearing resulting in a burned-off journal, dropping the car onto the track.  At best, the vigilant crew would spot the smoke or the fire and stop the train in time to clean out the journal box and re-pack it with cotton waste or a journal pad and fresh oil.  

When I was first introduced to the 'brakeman's life', I was given instruction on many aspects of train movement that new employees today would never consider.  My Instructor, Mr. Doug Corrigan (Capreol, Ontario) marched us all over to the rip track at Capreol.  He had the Car Department fellows show us how to jack up a car, change out a set of wheels, change out journal bearings and re-shoe a truck.  Train crews were expected to know how to perform these tasks when breakdowns occurred "on the road".  Today, the railroad is much more mechanized and no such requirement exists; in fact, the tools and parts that once were standard issue on trains are no longer provided to trains.

As the snow deepened, many landmarks disappeared. Switches had to be dug out in order to allow trains to meet and pass each other.  Road crossings, warning signs, air, water and fuel facilities needed to be kept snow and ice-free and in working order despite the inclement weather. 

Then one night the wind stopped blowing and the air cleared.  For the first time in several days, the people of Jasper could see the snow covered mountains across the Athabasca River.  A hole opened up in the clouds somewhere west of town just as the sun was setting and this lit up the tops of the mountains to display a red-orange blanket of snow that hid all but the most prominent of details. 

Nearly two and a half feet of snow had fallen during this early winter storm.   I went to bed early as I was expecting to be called out to work sometime in the night off the spare board.

Around 03:00, I was called for an extra west and, after getting the engine off the shop track we spent two hours trying to get enough air to the caboose for a brake test and then we were on our way.  We found ourselves bucking eastbound trains all the way to Blue River.  Every switch had to be shovelled clear of snow before we used them, and after the opposing trains had passed us by, the switches had to be shovelled and swept out again.  Shovelling and sweeping switches during and after snow storms was a part of our job without actually being outlined in our job descriptions.  Therefore, we didn’t get paid for the time spent cleaning switches and this could amount to well over an hour at each siding where trains met.  Sometimes, after a really heavy snow fall, we would find ourselves almost “nose to nose” with another train while the head-end brakemen of both trains worked to clean the switch so that one could pull into the siding to let the other continue on its way.  But that wasn’t the end of it!  After the first train had pulled into the siding, the head-end brakeman would then have to clean the switch out all over again because the first train in had dragged snow and ice back into the switch points, clogging the whole thing and making it useless until it was once again cleaned.   Some of the places where switches were located were among the most dangerous on the railroad.  On a section of the railroad where tunnels, slide detector fences, towering mountain faces and sheer drops to the valley floor far below, the brakemen worked to get their trains moving again.

Bruce Harvey Collection.  Photo courtesy of Len Vandergucht of Salmon Arm.  CN SD40 5211 & SD40-2

After slogging it out for 12 or 14 hours and covering 132 miles, we pulled our train to a halt in front of the station at Blue River, which lies not too far north of Revelstoke (CP Main Line)  Revelstoke is well known for the heavy deposits of snow received each winter and Blue River, while not as well known, lies in the same snow belt. 

The rail yard in Blue River was recognizable as a rail yard only due to the long lines of boxcars standing in rows across from the station.  A column of thin diesel smoke rose slowly from F7’s, SD-40's and GP9’s parked over by the old roundhouse and a couple of cabooses stood silently at the ready on the cab track.  We hoped against hope that we would be called “main and change” for our return to Jasper.  To be called “out of the yard” meant that every switch on the east end of the yard would have to be dug out just to get the engine off the shop track and the caboose out of the cab track.  The cab would have to be taken to the west end of the yard and tacked onto the train and the engine brought back to the east end to begin pumping air and breaking the train out of the deep snow.  This was done by pulling ahead until all forward movement stopped and then backing into the train, again until all movement stopped.  Once again, the reverse lever would be moved into the forward position and the throttle opened.  The engine pulled on the cars and we could feel them at a time.  The wheel slip light would begin to flash on and off and the sanders would come on...dumping a  sprinkle of fine sand onto the rails in front of the slipping wheels.  This procedure was repeated until finally, someone on the caboose called out on the radio…..”you got ‘em all”!  This was part of what's known as "seat of your pants" railroading.  If you pull too hard on them, the cars will tear apart, causing damage and serious delay.  If you don't pull hard enough ... you won't get the train broken out of the snow that's holding it captive and you'll stay where you are. You just "felt" when it was appropriate to give it another notch of throttle, and when to shut the throttle off and back into them once again.  

We were psyched up to do this...we were ready to go out there and fight to break a train out of the yard and go home.  However, this was not to be.  Instead of being called in freight service,  were called to ‘spread the yard’.  For those of you who have no idea what that entails…let me tell you how it worked.  

Photo Credit Don Jaworski

Using just the locomotive and an ancient contraption called a Spreader, the crew, along with a group of track maintenance workers, pulled cars out of tracks until a track was clear.  Then the engine and spreader would go into the track and begin to shove snow off to the side.  The spreader operator let compressed air into big black cylinders and the wings extended full width, pushing snow even further to the side of the track, leaving a smooth, flat surface that was just above the level of the rail head.  This process would be repeated until all tracks in the yard had been cleared and all the boxcars had been returned to their respective tracks.  

Photo Credit Wesley Bridge - Spreading the Yard at South Parry yard (Parry Sound, Ontario)

We worked at it all day.   When the work was complete, we booked a few hours rest, then retired to the bunkhouse to shower and clean up.  Then came the inevitable decision to hike up to the hotel for dinner and a few glasses of beer.  After devouring a hot meal and some cold beer, we walked to the bunkhouse and a comfortable, warm bed.  I fell asleep as my head was settling into the pillow.  

There was a soft knock at my door and a man's voice said..."Mr. Harvey, you're called for the grain empties out of the yard for 0630.

The assigned snow service crew was ordered eastward from Blue River to Jasper for 0700.  

The Snow Service crew arrived for duty about the same time as we did.  They would be leaving town with two GP9’s, a snow plough, a spreader and a caboose with orders to plough the mainline, all sidings and wyes from Blue River to Red Pass, then run to Jasper to tie up.  Our orders were to follow the snow train leaving Blue River and we would not be allowed to pass the snow plough train at any point on the subdivision.  This seemed punitive, as the Snow Service Train was going to have to clear nearly every track for ninety miles.  Unknown to us, another storm had brought a substantial amount of snow to the Rockies west of Valemount and it was thought that the snow plough should run ahead of the drag.  CN had run Number Two, the Super Continental eastward that morning and it had nearly been delayed by snow slides in the area of Mount Robson between Valemount and Red Pass Junction. 

They had assembled their train and were ready to depart Blue River within an hour.  Our train was coming in from Kamloops and would be a "Mainline connection" favourite kind.  We were ready to follow the snow plow eastward out of Blue River.  The sun was finally shining again.  

We had gone to Blue River with Emil Miller at the throttle, and Emil had been called as second engineer on the morning passenger train, leaving us with the first engineer arriving from the east.  This was a fellow named Eugene Lhykun.  Our conductor was Lorne Howard and the head end brakeman was Don Barr.

 The snow train was comprised of only the plow, engine and caboose was making pretty good time.  The first meet on the subdivision was to be at Albreda, mile 91.6, some 40 miles east of Blue River.  We were in Automatic Block territory which provided track occupancy indication signals and train orders.  The dispatcher told us via the operator that the meet at Albreda would be with the westbound piggy back train and he'd be at Albreda for both the snow train and us.  A double meet for him and clear sailing for us.  

All went well and we left open valley and headed into the hills.  We passed Red Sand, Pyramid and Lempriere at a pretty good clip of nearly 30 miles an hour.  We listened in as radio conversation between the snow plow train and the speed train began to take up the airwaves.  The westbound "speed" was at Canoe River and they said they would be in the clear ... in the siding at Albreda before the snow plow arrived.  Since Albreda had a spring switch at both ends of the siding, it was an easier place to get in and out of than many others, even allowing for the fact that it lay at the summit of Albreda Pass within sight of Albreda glacier.  

Then, a call from the snow service train as the engineer called out to their caboose...."we've just hit a moose".  "Do you want to stop and take a look?"   The conductor said, "No" "We'd only hold up the 217 and the train behind us".  This, he said in direct violation of an Order directing all trains hitting large animals to stop and ensure that the carcass is removed a safe distance from the track.  this directive was in place to ensure that the animal had not caused any part of the train to de-rail.  The conductor then said..."Oh yeah, the plow must have thrown it clear of the main, because it's way up the bank."

Photo taken from a post card.  Photographer unknown

Twenty minutes later, our engine came around the curve and struck the animal which was laying in the middle of the track....dead.  The conductor instructed the engineer to continue on without stopping.  I mentioned to Lorne that we should stop and inspect the train as per the Order.  He declined, saying that it wouldn't be necessary.  

Without saying a word, I got out of my chair and climbed down from the cupola. Walking to the back door, I opened it and stepped out onto the rear platform and waited.  

Soon enough, bits of moose hair, bloody snow and shredded hide, meat and bone began to emerge from beneath the caboose and fall quickly to the rear of the train.  The next thing that I saw caused me to realize that we were likely derailed.  We were only a mile away from the spur at Gosnell and what we were fast approaching was a facing point switch.  If we did indeed have wheels off the rails, we would hit that switch at 30 miles an hour and spill empty grain cars all over the lumber mill there.

Bruce Harvey Collection..RBH Photo

I called to Lorne to tell him to stop the train because there were wheel marks in the snow indicating we were derailed.  He refused.  Sensing that time was running out and being less than a few hundred yards from calamity, I took the conductor's air valve in my hand and yanked it open.  The train's brakes applied in an emergency application and more than a hundred empty boxcars lost their speed and momentum and stopped on the snow-covered mountain side alongside the North Thompson River.

All hell broke loose!  Lorne leaped from the cupola.  He berated me for causing us to have to spread the yard, he blamed me for him being late for dinner and probably for the snow on the ground too.  This was totally unlike Lorne, but I had to make the decision at that  instant or risk the lives of workers at the mill.  I looked at him coldly as I took the portable radio from the wall bracket and went outside.  "I'm going to find that pair of derailed wheels," I said.  "And don't even think about closing that valve until you hear from me!"  

I climbed up onto the roof of the car immediately ahead of the caboose and began the long walk toward the head end.  Our head-end brakeman called and said he would begin walking 'over the top' toward the caboose and we'd meet somewhere in the middle.  At that point, I was sure that I was the only man on the crew who believed that we had stopped in emergency for good reason.

Every time I crossed from one car to another, I looked down at the snow between the rails and I saw the same thing....two grooves in the about a foot inside the south rail and one about a foot outside the north rail.  The two unbroken marks in the snow were exactly 4' 8 1/2" apart....the precise distance between two rails and two wheels.  

Eventually, I met Don about twenty cars from the engine.  He said that there were no derailed wheel sets to be found....and I hadn't found any either.  Lorne called for an update and when I told him what Don had said and what I hadn't found, he threatened to turn me in to the Assistant Superintendent for delaying the train.  

I KNEW there had to be a pair of wheels off....there just HAD to be!  

When I had walked all the way to the engine, I climbed down off the last car and dropped into the waist deep snow.  The snow immediately behind the engine was undisturbed, so I began to wade through the deep snow, working backward toward the caboose.  Don was astounded.  He couldn't believe that I wouldn't give up my (foolish) search for derailed wheels that couldn't be far!  I got to the third car and looked underneath.   And there, sitting in the snow and clearly derailed, a pair of wheels.  

With a deep sense of relieved satisfaction, I keyed the microphone and called Lorne.

"We're on the ground," I said.  "Here's the car number...are you ready to copy?"

"I can't believe it", he said.  "I'm on my way up"

"Bring some tools", I said.  We'll drop the re-railers and get them in position."

Soon, Lorne showed up and when he saw the derailed wheel-set, he told me he was sorry he had treated me so badly.  He told me that I was now the conductor as he was demoting himself for the day.  I was sent to sit on a log nearby and coordinate movements with the chief dispatcher.

Credit cnrphotos.  All attempts to contact failed.

The Chief Dispatcher ordered up the Big Hook out of Jasper, but I suggested that he hold the wrecking train at Red Pass Junction, because it looked like we wouldn't be too long getting this pair of wheels back on the rails. This he did.  The re-railer kept slipping, but the wheels finally came up and settled on the rails....High Fives all around.

Then....when I got Eugene to back the train up so that we could try to re-load the heavy re-railers back onto the engine, another car came by, and it too, had a pair of wheels off.  This was the first car behind the engine.

We were not finished yet, but what we had learned from the first derailed car...we applied to the second one and we were soon underway.

All through this exercise, Eugene whined that he had 25 years in and was fearful of losing his job or getting some 'brownies' ((demerit points)).  "Don't worry, Gene....I know people in high places", I said jokingly.  It didn't settle him down...he was jittery.

As we started to pull away for the meet at Albreda with the speed train, I called the dispatcher to tell him that it was all cleaned up.  I had done a quick check of the track, rails and gauge and told him that there didn't appear to be any track damage, but suggested a 10 mile per hour slow order until the Road Master had a chance to look it over.  

The upshot....our entire crew got 5 MERIT points which were delivered in a special ceremony that took place in Jasper!   

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Super Continental - Part Two

If you've read my post of September 5, you'll know that we're on board the Super Continental passenger train eastward from Vancouver.  It's been snowing heavily and the train was late getting away from the station.  After climbing up the steep "cut", we gained the top of the hill.  Soon, the speedometer reached 55 mph, and Engineer Frank Snyder eased the throttle off.  Within minutes, the train brakes went into emergency application, the train lurched and came to a shuddering halt.  That's all I'm going to tell you.  If you haven't read the previous post....go there now and read it....we'll wait for you to catch up.

You're back... Ok...

After receiving the 'all clear' from everyone concerned....even the police officers who by now had gathered to make fun of their brother-in-arms who had caused his cruiser to lose its rear bumper, we slowly began to move again.  A roll-by inspection was performed and, with everything in good order, and all of the crew members back on board, Frank 'whistled off'  and opened up the throttle.

I went back to work checking baggage tags and express receipts, counting mail bags and making a pot of coffee on the coal stove beside my desk.  It had grown dark and I turned on the lights over the desk and turned off some of the overhead lights in the car.

All's well that ends well, they say.

After a short stop at the Great Northern station in New Westminster, the long train moved up onto the Fraser River Rail Bridge that spanned ...of course, the Fraser River between New Westminster and Surrey.  The bridge, built in 1904 had many bruises and broken bones from a multitude of mishaps with marine traffic as well as rail traffic.  As a result, the speed limit for trains on the bridge was 10 miles an hour while the train was on the bridge or its approaches.  The crossing was a good time to open the big side doors on a baggage car and let the cool river-scented air clean out the stale smell of baggage, mail sacks and piles of cardboard boxes filled with 'who-knows-what'.

Soon, we were up to speed and coursing through the Fraser Valley at 65 miles an hour.  I was already beginning to feel a bit tired and poured a cup of strong coffee after swiping baggage dust out of a cup I found tucked into a 'pigeon hole' above my desk.  I decided to let the fire die down, for if I kept it stoked up as it had been, it wouldn't be long before I would lay down on a couple of sacks of Royal Mail and take forty winks.  With no flag-stop at Fort Langley this day, we should make Chilliwack in about forty minutes.  The next stop would be at Hope, but only if there was a green and white flag hanging in its bracket near the door to the waiting room at the station.  I wanted everyone to stay home, but it seemed that everyone had somewhere else to be and they brought with them every bit of luggage they owned.  I had all of it in the baggage car and had to check it, tag it and pile it neatly so that it could be found quickly as the passengers detrained at their destinations.

It was clear sailing all the way to Floods, a siding just a short distance west of Hope.  There we took the siding for a west-bound freight train that hadn't yet left Trafalgar, the siding east of Hope.  I wondered why the dispatcher hadn't put the freight train into the siding at Trafalgar and kept us coming, as was the practice especially when the Super was running late.

We got tucked away in the clear and waited...and waited.  After half an hour, I heard a diesel whistle blowing and, when it got closer, I opened up the side door and carefully stuck my head out just far enough to see the approaching train.   It was still snowing, and at first all I could see was the bright headlight illuminating the track in front of the freight train.

The westbound was coming on fast, and that wasn't unusual at Floods.  The forty mile stretch between Hope and Boston Bar was slow and dangerous.  There, the track crawled through tunnels, rock sheds and along slide detector fences, always within a stone's throw of the raging waters of the Fraser.  Railroaders working "The Canyon" were, for the most part a very cautious group.  Every one of them was aware that somewhere up above was a large rock with their name on it, and one day it would come calling.  It was just a matter of time.  There were numerous spots where you might spot a smear of locomotive paint on the cliff beside the track, or long scars in the concrete inside a tunnel.  Depending on the level of the water in the river, you knew where to look for a boxcar that had fallen into the river and washed up on a sandbar a mile or two downstream; or the exposed belly of a GP9 diesel locomotive that had hit a large rock in the fog at mile 4.9, killing all aboard.  There was a steam locomotive laying in shallow water, but stuck in wet clay when it had been carried into the river by a mud slide after stopping to inspect a trestle in a heavy downpour.

The sight of these reminders, the names of the fallen and the stories told by the old-timers kept younger generations on their toes on a night like this.

So when the westbound finally left Hope, grateful to have emerged from the canyon, the engineer pulled the throttle out into the eighth notch and the crew sat a bit further back in their seats, breathing a silent sigh of relief.  Silent, because no matter how often you traversed "the Canyon", anytime you got through unscathed, you quietly counted your blessings.

Just as the westbound's engine was about to pass by the front of ours, Frank snapped the head light on, ever so briefly....just as motorcyclists greet each other with a 'lift' of their fingers, and truck drivers push a hand toward the train crews will extinguish their headlights while approaching another train, but give a quick flash of the headlight just before passing by.

In the brief flash of bright light from our headlight, I caught a glimpse of the front of the freight was buried in hard-packed snow obscuring the number lights, the front door and the middle windows above the locomotive's nose.  The hand rails that ran across the front of the platform were bent and pushed back against the nose and both ditch lights and one headlight lens were gone.

In that briefest of moments, I also saw that the snow that impacted the engine had broken trees and branches in it, but no rocks that I could see.  This was a favourable observation.

I walked back to the coaches to find the conductor so that I could tell him what I'd seen, but he was already aware and was wearing a bit of concern on his otherwise stoical brow.

"Well, it's been snowing for 24 hours straight," he said.  "We've got to expect that some of it is going to come down in the canyon."  I nodded and went back to the baggage car to put some coal on the fire and fill the kettle with water.

Hope is at mile 40 on the Yale Sub and, leaving Hope, the track begins to move closer to the river.  Within a mile or so, you're hugging the bank and, in the winter the track is pretty close to the water's edge for the next twenty miles.  After that, it climbs gradually until the river is nearly two hundred feet below the level of the rails.

At Yale, the speed zone decreases to twenty five miles per hour for freight and thirty miles per hour for passenger....on a good day.  This wasn't a good day, and even though we were running hopelessly late by now, Frank wasn't one to push his train to the limit just so that the clerks in Montreal could write in a ledger that the train came in on time.

At the (railway) east end of Yale there is a long, straight tunnel that is the gateway to the real canyon.  Things get very "picturesque" beyond the tunnel.  In the winter rainy period, the spring freshet and times of high snow melt, the river turns muddy brown and tears at the ballast near the edges of the ties that support the rails.  It can pull ballast into the canyon, leaving rails exposed and trains at risk.  The track is patrolled at regular intervals, but there's always the very real chance that the track could fail "after" the track inspectors have passed by, leaving the train and its crew at risk.  This has happened too often with sometimes tragic results.

The snow flakes grew larger, swirling and darting about in the penetrating bright head and ditch lights of the 6511.  And even though the westbound freight had passed this way about an hour earlier, the snow had built up to a depth of about eighteen inches over the rail head.  Our engine was throwing a 'bow wave' of snow which, while dramatic and beautiful at the same time, it also spoke of the potential for extreme danger, for when snow is released from the mountain side high above, even if it fell as fluffy, soft will become very hard and compacted as it tumbles and slides down the mountain, gathering speed, branches, trees, mud and rock on its way to the track below.

At mile 18.9 on the Yale Sub, there is a short tunnel blasted through the rock; and close to it is a concrete flume that, in the mild months, carries substantial amounts of water off the mountain and over the tracks into the river a hundred feet directly below.  In the winter, the tumbling water freezes and creates the most beautiful ice-waterfall you might behold anywhere.  Tonight there was something else that caught the attention of Engineer Snyder and his fireman.  A hundred feet or more beyond the flume a very large snow slide lay across the track.  It was fifteen feet high and about a hundred feet long.  Frank stopped the train and made an assessment of the slide which he gave to the conductor over the radio.

The slide, he said was too long and too well packed to try to ram through.  In addition, there was a significant amount of unidentifiable debris in it.  There were tree branches and some small tree trunks sticking out of the packed snow, and in Frank's considered opinion, it was likely that the engine, or some part of the train could be derailed in one of the most dangerous spots in the canyon.  This was a place where the mountain was almost always in motion, with water sometimes seeping and sometimes squirting out of fissures and cracks.  Rocks could always be encountered rolling down the scree slope and CN had tried unsuccessfully on more than one occasion to move the track away from the mountain, only to find the mountain following the track closer and closer to the edge of the drop-off.

With the track blocked ahead of us, the only option we had remaining was to back up to Yale and wait for the railroad to bring in big cats and other heavy machinery to clear the mainline.  Depending on how long that would take, the train might have to return to Hope where passengers would be transferred to buses and taken to Kamloops where they might resume their train trip.

Arrangements were made with the train dispatcher for a reverse movement that would take our train at least as far as Yale, and perhaps to Hope.

The rear flagman, a crewman we scarcely saw during the trip, except for station stops called on his portable radio to say that he was in position on the rear platform of the last car and the route was clear.

This time, Frank did not whistle off out of concern that the sharp whistle sound might dislodge more snow and create an even greater problem for the passengers and crew.  The flagman called out on the radio, saying..."Frank....we're all moving back here".

"Yes....very good, thank you", said Frank.

As the baggage car moved slowly, smoothly out of the tunnel, the train brakes suddenly applied in an emergency application.  The train jerked to a halt.

The flagman called out excitedly, "Jeez, Frank....a great big slide just came down right behind the train".  "We're not goin' anywhere tonight!"

The dispatcher overheard the conversation and said that he hoped we could find a place to hide for a while, and that the Chief dispatcher had ordered up snow removal equipment to be loaded on flat cars at Hope.  A work extra was ordered at Port Mann to run to Hope caboose hop  (engine and caboose only) to bring up the dozers so that we could be freed from this trap.

It took nearly five hours, but 'dozers and backhoes were unloaded and began to pull and push the snow slide away.  While the work was going on to the rear of the train, another slide came down in front of us, making the original slide ten feet deeper and fifty feet longer.  In addition, there were periods of time when the roof of the baggage car would be alive with the sound of small rocks and other debris that fell from the mountain.

People wandered in and out of the baggage car, stopping in for a cup of coffee or to chat.  Some were looking for toiletries in their luggage, or a change of clothes to start their day in.  Everyone wanted to know all the details of the slide, wanting too, to open up the doors for a look at the slide.  I had to move mail and express to block the doors on the "mountain" side of the car so that no one could open them up to the possibility of a slide coming down the mountain and sweeping right into the car, or worse...right through it.

Soon enough, we were making our way to Hope where passengers were taken aboard buses to be taken to Kamloops, one hundred and seventy miles to the north-east while I got to work getting their luggage ready to be loaded into a truck,  hired for the same purpose.

A relief train crew arrived in a couple of hours and we piled into the Greyhound for the trip back to Vancouver, leaving the Super Continental standing at the station in Hope, quietly steaming as the snow turned to rain in the gathering light of dawn.

Monday, September 5, 2011

A Grueling Voyage Through the Coast Mountains on The Super Continental


February 1972…  I had been called for the baggageman's job on Number two.  It was a short call, meaning that number two was due out of Vancouver in just over an hour when I got the call, and it was a 40 minute drive from my home to the station at Main and Terminal on a good day.  The crew office begged me to take the call, as they had gone through the entire spareboard and couldn't get anyone to take the call.  I suppose the fact that it had been snowing for several hours might have had some bearing on the reluctance of spare board men to accept the call.  When it snows two inches in Vancouver, motorists behave as if there was four feet of the white stuff on the ground!  

Equally daunting was the fact that when a brakeman took a call for number two, he could expect to be away for two days or more.  The train crews ran from Vancouver to Blue River, nearly 400 miles of mostly dangerous mountain and canyon territory.

Bruce Harvey collection....Photographer unknown

That assignment ran over three subdivisions where the speed averaged about 35 miles per hour.  Running time averaged over 12 hours one way...., on the summer schedule!  This trip was likely going to be somewhat longer than that.

The heavy snow would add another dimension to the difficulty that a crew would encounter on the road...that of snow and rock slides.  Avalanches were quite common in the Fraser and Thompson canyons at this time of year, and a late snowfall such as this would almost certainly ensure that we would be hitting several of them.

Bruce Harvey Collection....Photographer Unknown

I took the call, explaining that I would get there as soon as I possibly could, but would most likely be a bit late. They promised that they would advise the conductor.

  We left Vancouver a bit late due to heavy snow.  The train was loaded to near capacity and everyone seemed to be in good spirits.  The baggage car was loaded to the roof with baggage, mail and express so I was going to be kept busy for most of the 12 or more hours that we'd be aboard.

After climbing out of 'the cut', the train entered Great Northern's double track main line where Frank could 'let the shaft out', getting No. 2 up to speed.  

I could hear the whistle sounding for each of the road crossings, felt them as the passed beneath the baggage car.  

I loved this job!

The train entered a broad S-curve,  whistle blowing for Boundary Road…. 

A Vancouver police car had been dispatched to the scene and a tow truck had been summoned to remove a 1966 Chevrolet that was stuck in deep snow between the north and south tracks of the Great Northern main track near Vancouver.  The tracks cross four lanes of Boundary Road which separates the city of Vancouver from the city of Burnaby.  The Chevy had tried to make a U turn over what looked like a wide-open space.  In fact, it was actually the railroad tracks, now covered with snow.  

The tow truck dispatcher advised the police that due to the heavy snow that blanketed the entire city, there would likely be a three hour wait before a tow truck could get there.  Not wanting to wait for the truck to arrive, the officer decided to take matters into his own hands.  He ordered the four occupants out of the car and tied one end of heavy rope to the police cruisers bumper and the other end to the Chevy.

The police car, with red lights flashing was trying to pull the car off the median with a rope tied between the two cars.  

The Super Continental, with engine 6511 in the lead, was running downgrade as it emerged from the S-curve beneath the twin spans of the Trans Canada Highway.  Engineer Snyder pushed the bell valve lever over, activating the roof-mounted bell, and at the same time, he pulled on the whistle cord.  Blowing whistle signal 14L for the four lanes divided Boundary Road, he spotted the flashing emergency lights and the two cars which were engaged in a futile struggle with each other.  Snyder grabbed the automatic brake valve handle and threw it right across the quadrant into the “big hole”, putting the engine and train brakes into emergency.  A few seconds later, the Chevy disappeared from view and the engines' drawbar slammed into the side of the Chevy at fifty miles per hour. 

Hearing the train whistle, the officer leaped out of the squad car and, running around the end of his cruiser, he raised his arm, holding his hand up gesturing to the train with all the authority he could muster.

The impact caused the rope to part, but not before ripping one end of the squad cars' bumper from the frame.  The officer leaped aside, slipped on the wet snow and fell to the ground as the engine carried on down the track.  As the train slowed and stopped, I watched from the open baggage car door as the officer, slipping and stumbling, got to his feet.  Grabbing his hat out of the snow and jamming it on his head, he went to the rear end of his cruiser. Lifting the shredded rope from the ground, he examined the bent bumper on the back of the cruiser.

While the fireman checked the steam and air connections at the front of the engine, Frank climbed   down from the engine and stepped into knee-deep snow to make his way back to the crossing.  When he got to the scene of the collision, the police officer issued a citation to Frank for failing to stop when the officer held up his hand ordering Frank to immediately stop the train.  

Frank laughed at the officer’s ridiculous protestations advising him to serve the ticket to CN's Superintendent of Transportation in the depot on Terminal Avenue

The conductor and head end brakeman came into the baggage car along with Engineman Snyder, the police officer and the four young occupants of the Chevy.  The officer, making a supreme effort to calm himself, asked it the train could be moved off the crossing, or if it could be separated (cut) to allow traffic to move.  The fireman then came into the baggage car and told us that the steam line had been damaged and was now jammed under the pilot.  We couldn’t move the train until help arrived from Vancouver Diesel Shop to clear the damaged steam line.

At that time, a Vancouver tow truck arrived.

After a short consultation with the police officer, the driver got back into the cab of his truck … and drove away!  The officer went to his cruiser and made a call on his police radio; then he came to the train to tell us that, because the car had been on the Vancouver side of “Boundary” Road when the police had called for a tow truck, a Vancouver tow truck answered the call.  However, the impact with Number 2 caused the car to be thrown across the boundary into Burnaby, so the driver refused to hook onto the Chevy … it was a union agreement thing.  We learned that a new call had to be made to a Burnaby towing company in order to get the car moved to an impound yard.

Within a half hour, CN’s shop staff arrived with the necessary tools to remedy the problem with the steam line; a tow Burnaby tow truck arrived and moved the remnants of the car away from the side of the train.  Meanwhile, CN had dispatched two carmen from the Vancouver Car Department  to inspect the train.  After a thorough examination, we were cleared to depart. 

I closed the big sliding door as Frank whistled off and released the brakes and began notching up the throttle.  The train moved quietly away from the scene as snow flakes began to fall once more.  I lifted another scoop of coal from the metal bin beside my desk and tossed it into the cast iron stove nearby.  

Part two to follow in my next post.