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.

1 comment:

LOU said...

HEY-THERE-BRUCE !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

You really keep us on the-edge-of-our-seats !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

AND-WE'LL-BE-BACK-FOR-MORE !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!