Saturday, November 26, 2011

Northern Ontario Extra Gang - 1962

My earliest memories are of trains.  Our house in Capreol, Ontario was within sight of the CNR mainline to Ottawa, Toronto and Winnipeg.  Every train that traveled across Canada, went right past the front of my house.

In 1940's and 50's, the highway systems were not as widespread or efficient as they are today. People and goods moved primarily by rail, whether it was across the county or across the country and almost everyone knew the train schedules as well as they knew the names of their closest relatives.  Train time would invariably find many people gathered at the station to meet someone who was arriving on the next train, or to see someone off on the train.  Many just came to be part of the excitement of the arrival and departure of the passenger trains.

I was born into a railway family, in a railway town and in a railway country.  When friends and families got together, the women would gather in one room and talk about their planned train trip to Toronto to shop at Eaton's  or the impending arrival of a sister from Winnipeg.  They made their plans around what jobs their husbands could hold and what their scheduled days off might be for the next few weeks.

The men would gather in another room where one of them was telling of his most recent trip where he had been running on number 4's time and just barely got into clear at Tionaga, due primarily to the fact that the brakeman climbed up on top of the boiler, with half the train still hanging out on the main, and flagged the trans-continental passenger train with a burning red fusee as it came across the west switch doing track speed.  Do you recall that trip, Mooch???

The railroaders told their stories to each other in such animated fashion that, in order to completely describe the story, they had to set their bottles of beer, or glass of whiskey onto the floor beside their chairs while they reached into clear air and grabbed for the brake valve, pulled the Johnson Bar up a few notches, or pulled the backhead throttle back as far as she'd go.

Sitting quietly on the floor beside my father, I listened to these stories....many of them told for the umpteenth time.  Occasionally, when I was sure no one was looking in my direction, I pulled my dad's beer bottle to my lips and took a pull or two, setting it back exactly where I had found it.

During one such session, I had been listening to my father and Greg Coulson telling each other of their exciting escapades.  When there was a short lull in the conversation while they washed the dryness from their throats, I decided to tell a story of my own.

"I have a story to tell," I said, my five year old's imagination working overtime.

"Oh yeah?" said Mr. Coulson.

"Yes," I said.  I then proceeded to tell them about exploring in the tall grass behind our back fence where I found a dinner plate sized, flat stone.

"What then?" asked my father.

"Well, when I turned the stone over....I found underneath it.....a moose and a frog!!!!"

I had probably wanted to say that I had found a 'mouse' and a frog, but it came out 'moose' and a frog.  But since I figured they were stretching the facts a little in their stories, I let mine stand.

Mr. Coulson downed the last of his beer and said to my father...."Since neither one of is going to be able to 'top' that story, I guess it's time to go home".

As soon as I was released from the school room at the end of June 1962, I hurried on down to the CNR offices at the west end of Young Street to ask for a job.  I was just four months into my sixteenth year and was excited about the prospect of having a job, ...a real job that culminated in a regular pay check every two weeks.  Apparently, I didn't have any problem with leaving my familiar surroundings; my clean bed, a summer at the cottage spent fishing, picking blueberries, swimming and being with my grandparents.

CNR was hiring men for summer work in Northern Ontario, and I was filled with the need for adventure.
Before I left the CNR offices, I had the job and was given an envelope with a rail pass and a formal introduction addressed to the foreman of the gang that was already working near Sudbury, less than 30 miles from home.

I went straight to Drago's Men's Wear on Young Street where I explained to Rudy Mazzucca, the proprietor that I was leaving to work on the gang and needed some work clothes and boots.  Rudy opened my very first credit account and walked around the store with me while I picked out work socks, a couple of shirts, some underwear, a pair of boots and a new pair of green Hush Puppy shoes.  Yep, they were green.  Well, I thought they looked nice!  And besides,  I knew that we'd be travelling all across Ontario and have lots of opportunities to get into towns and go to dances and meet lots of girls, and well,....'nuff said, eh?                                                                     
Before I knew it, I was on my way to an Extra Gang on the Bala sub, just south of Capreol.

An extra gang in the early 60's was made up of from twenty to forty track workers, supervised by a foreman, a couple of assistant foremen, enough kitchen staff to look after the culinary needs of the gang, a bull cook, who did all of the menial housekeeping chores on the outfit cars and a timekeeper who, as the title implies kept track of the hours each man worked, the charges he might incur against the company in the way of purchases at the company store, or commissary.

It was also the Timekeeper's duty to provide tables and chairs, along with suitable  appies and ashtrays for the poker game that was held, in complete contravention of the company's rules every Sunday, our only day of rest.

Our gang was comprised of about seventy five men, all told.

The gang was changing ties and I went to work with a shovel, tamping the new ties into place using broken slag from the nickel smelters.

Photographer unknown

It was the hardest work I'd ever done, and before the day was over, my hands and feet were bleeding and I was laying under a tarp on a push car.  I had drunk too much ice water from the wooden barrel that was brought to the workers every half hour and I was suffering from sun, heat, and excessive ice water ingestion.

The next day, the gang was moved to Drocourt where it was more temperate and there were a couple of rivers nearby where one might cool off at the end of the day.

There was an empty field beside the track, and on Sundays, a bunch of the fellows would set up a baseball diamond and play ball for a few hours.  Frenchy, the smallest man on the gang was awesome with a spike maul.  He never missed the spike and would sink the spike right to the tie plate with no more than four swings.  He was also the strongest hitter on the ball field.  When it was his turn at bat, outfielders would sink back past the edge of the field and take up positions in the forest; not so that they might catch the ball and put Frenchy "out", but just to be able to see where the ball went as it disappeared into the branches of the big pines and maples.

It was while searching for the ball one Sunday that a cabin was discovered along a narrow, little used trail in the woods.  I found fishing line and hooks in the cabin, which had not been equipped with a lock, as was the custom in those days.  The following Sunday, instead of playing baseball, I borrowed the fishing gear and walked to the Magnetawan River where I caught some nice pickerel.  We cooked them up in the cabin and had a nice feed of fresh fish.

Shortly, we were told that we were to be moved up north for a large tie program somewhere near Nakina.

The next morning a few men stayed behind while the rest of us went out to finish off the last of the work that was to be done at Drocourt.  The men who stayed behind gathered up and secured hoses, cables and other gear that had been used during our stay and put it all away in 'stores' cars.

The last thing to be loaded onto a flat car was our two out-houses and they stayed in place until just before the north-bound freight that was due to pick us up....arrived.

Off we went on a long, slow trip that lasted all day and all night.

When dawn broke, we were being shoved to a spot in a siding called Caramat.  It was really pretty country, but many miles from the nearest electric light...let alone the nearest single young woman!!!

Life at Caramat was much the same as life at Drocourt, except that a bunch of fresh recruits arrived soon after we got settled.  A couple of them were from Frontier College and, after putting in a 12 hour day on the track, would teach basic literacy by candle light to some fellows at the end of our bunk car.

A few of the other new guys were tough fellows from Toronto who were just there to get enough time in to go back to the city to collect Unemployment Insurance.  There were three in particular who were bad seed and they were led by a man named "Blackie".  If you've ever watched the movie "Shawshank Redemption" with Morgan Freeman and Timothy Robbins, you're familiar with "the girls"...three really badass cons who liked to brutalize other men.  Meet Blackie and his buddies.

One night, Blackie paid an unwelcome visit to a young man in his bunk and, holding a knife to his throat was about to ask a favour.  At that moment, two young men from Sudbury, Larry Hautamakie and Richard Buyarski walked into the bunk car and, recognizing that something bad was afoot, pulled Blackie out into the darkness and beat him to a pulp.

The next day, Blackie took a swing at the gang foreman with a shovel and was immediately fired.

When we returned to our bunks at the end of the day, several of us found that we had been robbed and it was obvious who had done it.

My green Hush Puppies were missing!!!!  

I ran to the foreman's bunk car and told him that our stuff had been ransacked and much was missing.  He said it was too late because Blackie and his buddies had caught the train to Toronto that afternoon.

I figured if it took us all day and all night to get up here, they would take that long to get back, so I asked him to notify CN Police in Capreol that they were on the train with stolen goods, and I would be on the next train to lay charges against them.

To this, he answered that I would likely lose two weeks pay by the time it got to court and I got back to the gang.  My ire was up, so I asked him for a travel pass and got ready to board the next train east.

CN Police officers met Blackie and the boys at Capreol and took them into custody.  When confronted with my complaint that they had stolen my shoes, they denied it, saying that they had bought them in Toronto before going out to the gang.

The officers asked Blackie, who was wearing the green Hush Puppies to remove them and he did.  The officer turned them over and....exactly where I had said they would find them...were my initials carved into the soles of both shoes.

Blackie was convicted and I returned to the gang with my shoes.  And there must have been some sort of mix-up as well, because my paycheck wasn't short a single dime.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

My First Trip As A Vancouver Brakeman

In the fall of 1967, rail traffic seemed to dry up.  Grain trains were still running, but the rush was over.  Brakemen were gathering at the crew office in Jasper to watch as the crew supervisor moved name tags around on the assignment board.  It was discomforting to see new names appearing on regular assignments, displacing Jasper men.  Each man who was displaced by newcomers had to be notified that he had been 'bumped' from his job and he had 24 hours to place himself on another job.  The fallout from this process meant that every man on the assignment board whose seniority fell below that of the newcomer would be getting a phone call from the crew office and would hear the same message..."You've been bumped, and have to place yourself".

But for the younger guys, myself in particular, there was another... unforeseen factor; the men from Edmonton, Kamloops, Prince George and Edson who showed up at the crew office, their clearances in their hands showing that they had been released from their former home terminals to try to find work in a terminal somewhere else on the seniority district.  If they dropped their clearance in Jasper, and were senior to me...and most everybody was...that meant I would be less likely to have a job for the winter.

Within a few days, it was clear that I would be left out of the running for a Jasper assignment, and when everyone had finally placed themselves, I was out of a job.  After being notified of that fact, I went to the crew office to pick up my clearance from my supervisor.  He told me that my seniority was exhausted on the Mountain Region.  I couldn't hold a job anywhere.

I packed up the contents of my small suite behind Bud Bader's Shell station at the west end of Patricia Street, and loaded everything into my '65 Chevy.   After filling the gas tank, I headed west.  The Yellowhead Highway didn't yet exist, but there was a rudimentary road that would get me to Kamloops and Vancouver.

Arriving in Vancouver, I left my clearance with the Crew Office and began to search for a job and an apartment.  My fiancee and I had made plans to be married, and guests were scheduled to arrive in a few weeks.  I went to work with Shell Oil on a part time basis, leaving me with a three day weekend each week.

I informed CN that I would cover weekend work, especially short calls on Friday or Saturday nights.  I was encouraged to learn that if they ran short of men, I might make at least one round trip on weekends.

Then, one evening, between Christmas and New Years I was called for an 18 o'clock  (6:00PM) extra east out of Vancouver.  It was already growing dark when the phone rang at 16:30 and I hurried to put together my warm clothing for the trip.  Not knowing if I would be working the head end, riding the engine..., or riding the caboose on the tail end of the train.  I packed for either contingency.

Arriving at the low brick structure on Terminal Avenue, I found the yard office and went in to introduce myself.  A rather indifferent conductor advised me that I would be the tail end brakeman, then he turned his back to me.  OK, I thought.  We don't have to be friends.  The important thing here is.....I'm working, and I really needed the money.  I had only been married two weeks and hadn't seen a pay check from Shell Oil yet, so a second source of income was going to be appreciated.

The conductor handed me a switch list showing that our train was all empty grain boxes and was in three tracks in the yard.  We would have to put the train together by doubling one track on top of another and cut the air in before the yardmaster could send the car men out to begin the brake test.  The head end brakeman was Perry Guloien, a brakeman I knew from Jasper. It was his first trip out of Vancouver too.  We had worked together while in Jasper, so we stepped outside to hatch a plan for getting the train put together.  Admittedly, we were going to take more time to get the double-over completed than an experienced crew would, but the job would be done well.

While Perry went to meet the engine crew and bring the engine off the shop track, I walked to the west end of the yard to find the caboose, get the stove lit and put the kettle on.  When I got to the caboose, I was surprised to find another brakeman there.  He explained that he was part of a dead-head crew.  When he learned that neither Perry nor I were familiar with the yard, he offered to help us get the train together.

He introduced himself as Ed MacDonald,  the head end brakeman on the deadhead crew.  He told me that the the engineer was Ron Nicks and the Fireman was Albert Prins, although I hadn't met them yet.

I walked to the top of the yard and found Perry coupling the engine onto the east end of a track that was chock full of empty boxcars. Perry left to line up the lead so that we could begin to double this track to the next one.  In Vancouver, the yard tracks were relatively short, holding about thirty five cars.  In order to leave with a full train, crews had to double two or more tracks together and would leave with at least one hundred cars.  Tonight, we would double the first track on top of the second one, then pull both tracks out and double them onto the third one.  At the west end of the third track, the deadhead crew would be arranging chairs around the galley table, putting on the coffee and getting out a deck of cards to begin the inevitable four handed game of cribbage that would last for several hours.

The conductor's and trainman's collective agreements stipulated that when a deadhead crew was ordered to travel on a freight train, a second caboose will be provided and will be placed in the train immediately ahead of the working caboose.  We had only one caboose on the train, so the deadhead conductor called the yardmaster to tell him that he needed to have his own caboose added to the train before he would leave the yard.

A 'working' conductor would often act as the host for the card game that promised to be a welcome break from the usual monotony of a trip on the tail end of a Yale Sub freight train.

The only serviced caboose that was available, was one that was set up to leave on the transcontinental 'speed train', 218 ... due to leave at midnight.  Reluctantly, the yardmaster pried his yard crew out of the lunch room to dig out 218's caboose and take it to the west end of the yard for the deadhead crew.

Double-overs complete, I hiked back to the caboose where I hoped to find a pot of  hot coffee on the stove.

A dirty orange pickup truck, bearing the CN 'noodle' logo on the door, pulled up behind the caboose and a car man stepped out into the lightly falling rain.  As per Federal Transportation Rules, all trains of the day had to have an air brake test to determine that all the brakes applied and released.  The minimum requirement was that at least 85% of the trains' brakes must be operative leaving the initial terminal.

When the air gauge in the caboose settled at 80psi, the car man asked me to call the engineer and ask him to set the brakes on the train.  He turned and stepped out onto the rear platform and, switching on his lantern, began to inspect the cars to ensure that the brakes were working.

Within an hour, we were on our way, the brake test complete and the Great Northern dispatcher notified of our departure.  Our engine, a lash-up of F7's and GP9's leaned into the hundred car train and dragged it up the single track GN mainline through the Grandview Cut.  At the top of the hill, we rolled onto double track, keeping to the right.  As the cadence of steel wheels hitting alternating rail joints increased, I climbed into the cupola and opened the window a bit to smell the moist, night air and listen to the train as it sped through Vancouver and Burnaby on its way to the New Westminster rail bridge over the Fraser river to CN's biggest west coast rail yard....Port Mann.

Arriving in Port Mann yard an hour or more later, our train was put into a long track.  We were instructed by the yardmaster to 'drop' the train and make our way over to another part of the yard where we would find cars in three tracks that were ready to be doubled together for the trip to Boston Bar and eastward.

As the rain began to fall harder, I walked to the east end of the yard to help Perry put our train together.  Port Mann was a really big yard for a couple of boys from Jasper.  Unlike today, the yard was unlighted and many of the switch targets didn't carry identifying numbers defining the tracks they governed.  Beneath the huge arches of the Port Mann bridge which carried vehicular traffic across the river, I saw the dim lights under the skirts of our locomotive shining on the wet ground.  All around were the green and yellow oil lamps of the switch lamps, flickering in the darkness like one-eyed soldiers standing at attention, each one protecting a hand-throw switch.

Photo Credit:  Photographer and Source Unknown.

We began our search for the first track that we were to tie onto and couldn't find it.  We went to the cab of the locomotive and asked the engineer and the fireman to draw us a crude map on a paper towel, which they did.

Back outside, we shone the light of our lanterns on our map and made a plan.  Giving the engineer a 'proceed' signal, we brought the engine out onto the lead from which we could make our way down the long line of coloured switch lamps to the track we were looking for.

Finding the appropriate track, we brought the engine on top of the cars and cut the air in.  When the engineer was ready, we began to pull the cars out of the track.  According to our switch list, the track held forty five cars.  Less than ten came out of the darkness!  Swinging our lanterns, we stopped the movement and I climbed up onto the ladder on the end of the last car.  Together, relaying hand signals to the engineer, we went back into the darkness to find the rest of the cars.  I found that the track had not been coupled together by the yard crew when they threw our cars into the track.  The yardmaster had assured us that the tracks had been properly set and our double-overs would be relatively uneventful, but this was not the case.

After finally getting the first track all together and pulled out onto the east yard lead, I pulled my dirty, wet leather mitts off and reached into my jacket pocket for the paper towel map that the fireman had drawn for us.  I had only had to handle it a couple of times, so there was no understandable reason for it to be soggy, dirty and falling apart.  With the engine nearly fifty cars away, I resolved to find the next track on the switch list by using my powers of reasoning...guesswork!

Observing switch targets, I reasoned that the track I needed to find lay along the lead that lay closest to the river, so I gave signals to bring the engine and head-end forty-odd cars back along the lead while I looked for the proper target.

There were very few portable radios in service by train crews, so we had to rely on the old methods of relaying signals.  This night, we were using electric lanterns.  Because of the length of the train we were handling, and curves and bad weather, Perry had 'go wide' so that he could relay my hand signals to the engineer.  Most of the time we were out there, I couldn't see Perry or the engine, but I could see the little white light from Perry's lantern.  A few years later, I learned that yard crews working in the fog of Vancouver's yards used whistles to give signals.  Can you imagine what that was like, with three or four crews within ear shot of each other....all giving whistle signals to their engines??

Before we had gone twenty cars, I realized that we had made the wrong decision, as the track number we required was not on this lead at all.  I swung my lantern in a wide arc and Perry did the same.  The cars came to a stop.  Lifting an lowering my lantern, I gave the signal to proceed ahead.  The cars began to move eastward.

A CN truck came bouncing up the service road and skidded to a stop beside me.  In the light of the single remaining headlight on the front of the truck, a mix of the truck's exhaust and faint mist hung in the air.

A man's voice from within ordered me to back our cars into the track we had just vacated and wait for a westbound that was on its way in from Westlang, the first siding east of Port Mann.

We climbed up the ladder and into the cab of the engine to wait for the westbound.  The engineer reached up to a light switch mounted on the ceiling of the cab and turned on the overhead light.

The engineer seemed to be a little disturbed and told us that the conductor had called him from the yard office to complain about the length of time it was taking to make up our train.  Feeling personally responsible for the fact that we were several hours late and not yet on the road, I began to apologize the engineer and fireman.  They both chuckled, saying that they were fine with it because the delay might put us all on 'switchmen's rate of pay'.  This is only achieved when a road crew spends five hours or more performing switching on a road trip.  This seemed to be small consolation for me; I was wet and cold and already becoming tired.

Too soon, the westbound arrived and rolled into a clear track.  With the westbound finally in the clear, we pulled ahead to try again.

After a half  hour or so, and a few more false starts, we managed to find the second part of our train, buried deep in an unlit yard track.  We'd had some difficulty with this track because, although we found the correct track, it had the wrong car numbers in it.   Finally, after much searching out alternatives, I walked down the track, checking numbers and finally discovered that someone had thrown a cut of about twenty cars on top of our double-over.  The yardmaster was obviously not informed of this and wasn't able to write it up on our switch lists.  After calling the yardmaster for instructions regarding the extra twenty cars, he decided to drive up from the office to the east end of the yard and give us a hand.  We were grateful to him for helping out.

Actually, he was probably correctly thinking that if he didn't pitch in and help, we'd never get out of his yard.  He might have been right about that, too.

Eventually, the train was all together and the air was cut in.  I walked back to the caboose that the yard engine had taken from our first train and placed on the rear of the new train.

I drew a deep breath of resignation when I realized that we had already been on duty much longer than most crews working anywhere I had previously worked.  I resolved to ask Ed if it was common practice to make up a long train of east traffic in Vancouver, take it to Port Mann and exchange it for another long train of east traffic.  I had only been on the job in this terminal for less than one shift and I was already questioning the way things were done here.

I thought it over and, feeling that the worst must be over, I continued to march steadily toward the caboose.

My boots were beginning to drag in the ballast as I walked.

All that remained to be done was wait for the car men to complete their air test and call the dispatcher to ask for a CTC signal out of the yard.

CTC, or Centralized Traffic Control is controlled by a train dispatcher who determines the movement of trains.  This method of control over-rides the older system of train orders and timetable method of train movement.

The train was rather long, considering the year that this took place; it was over a mile in length, including the engine and caboose and would use up every available foot of most of the sidings on the Yale sub.

Pulling off my dripping wet jacket, I closed the caboose door behind me.  The expected noise of a rousing game of cards was totally absent and  I immediately realized that the dead-head crew was not aboard.  The cribbage board was gone and the chairs had been put back in their places.  Typically, the dishes were left stacked in the sink.

I asked the conductor where they  had gotten to, but he was in a dark mood and didn't look up at me.  He would only say that his 'green brakemen' had taken too long to get the train put together and CN had decided to put the dead-head crew into a taxi and drive them to Boston Bar where a westbound potash train was waiting in the yard for them.  A yard crew had already yanked the deadhead caboose off the train had taken it to the cab track.

 At last, one of the car men entered the caboose, telling the conductor that the air test was complete with all cars cut in and operable.  Placing the air test completion form on the conductor's desk, he turned and stepped out into the driving rain to return to his small, warm office for a cup of tea and a sandwich from his lunch box.

The hard-wired railway radio speakers, mounted on the wall above the conductor's desk came alive when the operator called to say that the dispatcher has been notified that we're ready to depart and he will line up the mainline switch and give us the light to leave the yard.  I called the engineer and told him we were both on and ready to go.

Not wanting to stir up the conductor with idle chat, I quietly climbed into the cupola, opened the window a bit and put my feet up on the hand rail in front of me.  I was still in my wet jeans and shirt, but my jacket was hanging on a wire above the big oil stove in the galley.  Once we were out on the road, I'd take off my shirt and jeans and hang them from the plastic-coated stainless cable that was suspended in eye-bolts from the ceiling and which extended from one end of the caboose to the other.  The intended use of this cable was so that crews could hold on to the cable and move about safely while the train was in motion.

Wrapping myself in a scratchy woolen blanket that I'd rescued from the emergency locker, I thought about Perry, huddling, wet and chilly on the wobbly third seat in the old F7A diesel locomotive.  The only thing one might find in the "emergency" locker on that engine would be a one gallon can of coal oil for the lamps, some old flares, some air hose gaskets, an extra air hose and a pipe wrench.  The toilet, it one was provided at all, was basically an electric hot plate on which one let fly one's waste and hit the "fry" switch.  Then, for the next several hours, it would smolder and smoke until finally, the lump had been reduced to a black cinder.
Drinking water was provided for through the use of a three gallon galvanized bucket with a lid on top and a spigot on the bottom, where all the sediment and green slime formed.  Crews would often stop their trains at any location where relatively clear water might be found beside the track to rinse and re-fill their water pails.  This, I was certain was a plan put in place by CN's Pension Board designed to reduce the number of potential claimants.  It wasn't until twenty years had passed that CN followed CP's lead and provided canned water to head-end crews.  At Port Mann, a total of six 350 milliliter cans of water were allocated for each three man crew leaving town on a 12 hour trip into the canyon.  While the cabooses had electric refrigerators, the engines had none.

The tail end crews had a collective Union Agreement that provided very well for them.  They actually had it pretty soft with electric lights, bunks and bedding, a working chemical toilet, a fully equipped galley with stove, utensils, pots and pans...and a butcher knife, the lack of which seemed to keep more trains waiting (on pay) in Port Mann yard than anything else.  But on this night, I was riding the caboose instead of the engine.

The long freight crept slowly out of the yard, boxcars waddling, out of sync, like elephants...tail and trunk.

Once on the main, I picked up the radio mike and called out, "Extra east is on the main at Port Mann".

The engineer answered with "On the main...."

The towns and villages with no names seemed to stream past my window.  The lights from buildings, street lights and automobiles lit up the interior of the cupola like many coloured flash bulbs.  The sounds of rails and wheels changed each time the caboose shot over a public crossing.  The normal clickety-clack sound became, momentarily, a crashing rumble that collided with the ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding of the crossing protection bells and flashing red lights as the caboose rushed by.

Eventually, the train slowed to half of its previous speed as it entered the canyon.  The engine crew called out the  trackside signals when they came into view, and I answered by repeating the colour of the signal and the station name that it governed.  "9086 East, clear to Trafalgar", came the broadcast from the engine crew.  "Clear to Trafalgar", I answered.

Peering into the darkness, I strained for a glimpse of the fabled Fraser Canyon I had heard so much about.  It seemed that whenever trains were delayed, it was because of something major occurring in the Fraser of Thompson canyons.  All I could see from the cupola were the trees that grew closest to the track on either side.  The mountains pressed much too close to the tracks on the right hand side, while the river was shrouded in fog on the left side.  Looking to the rear, I could see the tracks speeding away from us in the light from the single track inspection light that was mounted above the conductors window at the rear of the caboose.  The rain that had been falling with intensity throughout our transit of the broad valley, now fell as a heavy mist in the canyon.

"9086 east, Clear to Yale!" came the call from the engine.

"9086 east, Clear to Yale." I responded.

A moment after the caboose had cleared the east switch at Yale, we dove into the middle of a mountain.  I was caught off guard by the sudden gust of wind, the immediate change in the sound of the wheels, the screeching wheels and the smell of diesel exhaust that was still trapped inside the bore hole.

Looking back, I watched the tunnel entrance behind us grow smaller, as bits of trackside trash, wood chips and dirt rolled and tumbled along with us, as if trying to catch up, but falling behind once again.

While still inside the 2104 foot tunnel, the little brass whistle that was mounted on the wall of the caboose above the couch sent out a short, shrill cry.  This was the tail end crew's warning that the engineer had just set the air brakes.  It was a signal that allowed the crew time to brace themselves against the inevitable slack action that would cause a train to bunch up or stretch out, sometimes with alarming force.  I put my feet up against the hand rail in the cupola and pressed myself back into the chair.

The slack ran in, but without much of a jolt; then it ran back out again.  This time, the spring-loaded draft gear that connected the caboose to the rest of the train caught the bulk of the shock and we felt the train surge ahead a bit as it settled down and adjusted to a further speed reduction.

I had noted in the timetable that the track speed for freight trains was 25 miles per hour from Yale to Boston Bar.  The engineer had already taken liberties with the speed limit, because we should have been down to 25 well before the engine entered the tunnel, but the track was in great shape and mostly straight for another mile or so, and we'd been on the road far too long already, so......  "he let the shaft out", as they say.

Soon, he called out "9086 east, approach to Stout!"

"9086 east, aproach to Stout", I answered.   We were either going to meet a westbound here, of perhaps wait for a track patrol to get clear of the mainline.

My conductor picked up the radio and asked, "Have you heard from a westbound?"

"Yes", he answered.

"He just called the signal to Komo, so we'll be here for a while", he said.

"Well, put your feet up and get a little shut-eye" the conductor said.

I found my eyes drooping as my head began to sink slowly toward my chest.

It seemed like it was just a few seconds before I woke to "Extra 5086 west, clear to Stout".

He would be coming by the caboose in a few minutes.  Time to see if my jacket was drying out.

I climbed down from the cupola and took my warm, dry jacket from its perch above the stove.  Putting it on, I felt a little shudder of pleasure, like I was getting dressed in front of the clothes dryer at home...pulling clothing out of the still hot dryer and putting them on.

Stepping into the light from the conductors desk light, I decided to test the water with him.  I asked him how he was feeling now that we were less than twenty miles from the bunkhouse in Boston Bar.

He turned and looked directly at me.

"I suppose you're the kind of guy who will want to book rest and tie up the crew, are ya?"

Not exactly what I had expected, but not really out of character, I found.  I figured that after more than 16 hours on duty, the old man might want to get a few hours of rest before heading out for another run at the railroad.  Quietly, I was beginning to become concerned that I might lose my job at the Shell Oil station if it took the same amount of time to go home as it had taken to travel this far.

The radio suddenly came to life.

"Ron"!!!!   "Are you guys alright?"   "Ron!!  Come in."  "Ron!! Are you all right??"

There was no response.

Our head end crew called to the tail end of the westbound to tell them that they had just witnessed their engine emerge from the tunnel at the east switch at Stout, on it's side.

The westbound, led by three new SD40's had hit a big rock slide that completely covered the entrance to the tunnel at Stout - East.

All three units of the westbound was on their sides, pushing rails, ties and ballast in front of it.

The engines followed each other through the tunnel, held, one behind the other by the concrete liner inside the tunnel.  As the locomotives were pushed through the tunnel, they pressed against the sides of the tunnel, sending showers of sparks tumbling over the locomotives.

As the locomotives emerged from the tight confines of the tunnel, the lead unit swerved toward the river, which lay somewhere below the track and very close by.  On the east end of the tunnel, big cylindrical hoppers, loaded with potash were twisting and turning, fighting for space on the narrow shelf that was the railway's roadbed hung on the side of the mountain.

The units kept coming, as if in slow motion toward the edge of the roadbed and the black emptiness and the icy rushing waters below.

At the last possible moment, the engines stopped sliding in the dirt.  The cab of the lead unit, which was still on its right side, teetered precipitously above the river, the couplers between the first and second unit keeping it from falling into the river.

The engine crew climbed out through the fireman's side window and scrambled cautiously along the upturned side of the locomotive until they reached a place where they could be helped to the ground by our engine crew.

IN the dim grey light of dawn, I searched for the dispatchers line phone which had been plowed under by the derailed diesel and finally found it in the dirt under the fuel tank of the second unit.  It was still working, so I called the dispatcher to tell him of the derailment and to ask for help.

He said that emergency help would be on the way and asked if the crew had survived.  I told him the crew was OK.  He said he wanted us to give them one of our locomotives and send them on their way.  Then he wanted to talk with our conductor, because the Chief Dispatcher had just told him we were to be turned into a work train to help with the emergency in progress.  We were going to be held out there for at least a week.

Good bye, gas jockey job, I thought.

Oh, by the way...the head end crew on the derailed potash train was Ron Nicks, engineer, Albert Prins, fireman, and Ed MacDonald, brakeman.  These were three of the five men that had been taken from our caboose in Port Mann and sent to Boston Bar by taxi.

If Perry and I hadn't been so "green" and taken so long to get our double-overs completed in Vancouver and Port Mann yards, we would likely have been the crew that struck the rock slide that blocked the east end of the tunnel at Stout.

Unknown to me, at the time....Someone in the crew office in Vancouver had called in the dark hours of early morning to tell my bride of two weeks that my train had hit a rock slide in the canyon and the engine had gone into the river.  To add a little icing to his ugliness, he told her that they were unable to locate the crew and the company had no idea when they'd be able to start looking for survivors, if any were to be found at all.

As an aside to this post, I've added the link below.  Some of you will have seen this film by Canada's National Film Board, and it is worth watching.  Granted, it is of a time a few years before the above story, but it will give you a real good idea what mountain railroading was like in the 50's and 60's.

Railroading in the mountains hadn't changed appreciably in the dozen or so years between when the NFB filmed their coverage and when my story occurred.
 It's good.  I know you'll like it.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Air Brakes on the Alberta Coal Branch

This story was published a year ago on another blog that I maintain. I'm re-posting it
here today because I received an email from a gentleman who was commenting on the use of "retainers".

It was nearly 20 below on a cloudless November night, We had picked up our train of limestone at the mine and were making about 25 or 30 mph along the undulating track of the Alberta Coal Branch. The fireman leaned forward and told me to lace up my boots and get my parka and mitts on.
"You gotta go back and put up the retainers", he said.

I smiled, and said, "I'll be ready to go when the train stops".

"You don't understand, kid" he said, "Get your gear on now..., and get going.” “The train isn't going to stop".

"It will stop if there's going to be any retainers put on," I said.

I have done some pretty scary things in my career, but going 'over top' from one cross-hopper to another while putting up retainers ranks among the most frightening things I could imagine. There are no handrails up there…just an eight inch wide, frost-covered steel cap on the side walls of the open top cars that were waddling along in the dark, Rocky Mountain Foothills.

The photo above was taken by Ray Matthews has been published In CNLines SIG.

***The smoke was common on trains descending long grades. The brake shoes got so hot they'd turn the wheels blue. Sometimes, we'd have to stop for twenty minutes to let them cool down so the wheels wouldn't fracture and break up.***

I soon realized that perhaps I was just being a 'chicken'. If was really true, as the engine crew insisted that brakemen had been putting on retainers 'on the fly' on The Branch for years and not a single fatality had been reported. Well, none had been reported, but there were a few old Edson railroaders around who were missing some fingers. Slim Amundsen told me once that he had lost his putting out a short flag on the passenger train. He was putting down the torpedoes when the engineer on his train released the brakes, and the slack ran out, taking off three of his fingers!!!

I'd figure it out, I thought as I stepped out of the warm cab into the frozen night. Flipping the switch on my trusty trainman’s lantern, I stabbed the feeble light into the darkness looking for the best way to get myself from the rear platform of the locomotive and onto the ladder on the end of the car. Shaking off the vision of my body laying between the rails in numerous pieces after I had fallen from the top of one of those bouncing, twisting, rocking cars, I leaned out and grabbed at the nearest hand rail.

My hand found a hand rail on the car and held on tightly. Swinging across the void between the engine and the car, I planted my boots on a ladder rung and immediately "gave thanks."

I knew how retaining valves, or “retainers” worked….sort of. Lots of railroaders had mentioned them; told stories about using them on steep grades long before the advent of modern brake systems.

Please note: Retaining valve mounted on the end of the car immediately to the left of the hand brake wheel.
Photo source unknown. BH Collection

They always finished their stories with "But, you know...we don't have to use 'em anymore since they got the new 26L brake valves on the engines". Well, here I was trying to keep my balance on the top of a pile of crushed rock in an old steel open-top hopper that was jolting down the track in the middle of nowhere. Where were those old railroaders with their stories now?

26L brake valves incorporate a 'pressure maintaining' feature which is designed
to hold, or maintain the pressure in the brake pipe and its associated brake valve components on each car in the train.

The braking system of each car is made up of many components such as pipes, fittings, rings, gaskets, pistons, cylinders and much more. At every fitting, there is the potential for air to escape from the system and since train air brakes are kept in the release position when the system is fully pressurized, any loss of air pressure will allow the brakes to be applied. Therefore, system leakage, if not kept under control will cause the brakes to apply and...if there is too much leakage, and the brake control valve in the locomotive cab cannot replace the air at a controlled rate, the train will stop and can not be moved safely.

All right!!! Now I know that the highlighted link below is going be an eye-opener for many of you. The readers of this blog range from the very young to....well, those of us who have gone to seed! Some are railroaders and some used to be railroaders. But you wouldn't be here if you didn't have the "bug". The link below will give all of you an idea what it was like to be an engineer in the days before the advent of 'second generation' diesels. There were many of the older locomotives in service in the era that was my favourite and the time when I earned my engineers certificate. And, yes grandpa, I had to know and understand every component you'll find at that link, and much more! Enjoy.

The predecessor of the 26L brake valve was the 24RL brake valve. Initially, the 24RL did not have a pressure maintaining feature, but I understand that in the few years prior to its demise, a pressure maintaining feature was introduced in the 24RL. Some CN enginemen used a tricky 'engineer magic' thing they called Feed Valve Braking,where they utilized the 24RL brake valve and the supply valve that controlled the amount of air, or total pressure that the brake valve was able to pressurize the train air brake system to. The use of Feed Valve Braking was frowned upon by the railroad and was not allowed by Transport Canada, but it worked.

Retaining valves are just a little piece of equipment. They’re a small metal valve with a smallish diameter pipe coming out of the bottom and running to somewhere in the brake apparatus within the steel framework that supports the end of the car above the trucks that house the big steel wheels that carry the whole thing on the rails. On the side of the valve, is a small handle that pivots and can be set at “exhaust”, “low” or “high” pressure settings.

Its function is to trap a bit of air in the air brake system so that, when the brakes have been applied and then released, a small amount of “brake effort” is retained on that individual cars’ brake system until it's released by returning the valves handle to the "off" position once again. Retainers were used when heavy trains, such as aloaded Rock trains like this one from Cadomin Alberta could be safely brought down long steep grades by maintaining some brake effect on the train all the while recharging the air in the train's brake pipe and reservoirs. The idea is to keep the train speed under control, thus preventing runaways that would result in demerits being handed out to the crew, or worse.

Normally, the train would be stopped a safe distance from the top of the hill prior to descending the grade. At this time, the trainmen would start out from both ends of the train, climbing each ladder in turn, to the brake platform and setting the retainers. Generally, this meant a delay of from twenty minutes to three quarters of an hour depending on the length of train, weather conditions, etc. The same thing would happen at the bottom of the hill after safely descending the grade. The train would be stopped and the trainmen would return to their respective ends of the train, all the while replacing the retainers handles to the normal, or “off” position.

This procedure was what the Uniform Code of Operating Rules called for. This procedure was what any mother would want her son to do under the circumstances. But this was not what this Coal Branch crew did. They “put up” and “took down” retainers “on the fly” no matter what the conditions, the time of day or the season. On the fly!... I have to tell you that I was terrified and was quite sure that I would not survive the night; because I had fallen from the top of a wildly swaying car.

I desperately clung to the frozen steel of those cars with phosphate dust burning my eyes and frost stinging my ears. Fumbling in the dark, and focusing on getting this job car at a time, I eventually came upon the tail end brakeman. He had completed his share of the job and was standing on the drawbars in between the cars, holding onto a grab iron with one hand while he smoked a cigarette with the other. I huddled in silence in the blowing snow and dust, choking on the thick brake smoke and the tail end brakeman hooked one arm over the end of the car and casually smoked a cigarette while we waited for the train to snake its way to the bottom of the hill.

Once there, we parted company, that brakeman and I; he headed off through the thick brake-shoe smoke toward the caboose, removing retainers from each car as he went. And I headed back toward the engine, doing the same.

Not a word was spoken in the cab for the remaining hours and miles back to the yard in Edson.

After yarding the train, I put the engine on the shop track. Gathering my kit from the floor of the cab, I headed across the rail yard toward the office.

The conductor stood silently watching me as I entered the booking-in room at the station. I set my grip down on the bench and stepped gingerly up to the operator's wicket to check the train register and the train lineup for the trip back to Jasper.

Pulling himself up to his full height of six foot three, and leaning a bit in my direction, he said "If you're not goin' to cooperate with me son, you needn't bother takin' a call for the 'Branch' again". “You Jasper boys aren’t welcome here 'cuz you don’t want to do as you’re told”, he said as he turned his head and spit a long black streak of tobacco juice toward the trash can in the corner, narrowly missing my arm when he let fly. Tobacco juice and saliva, resembling a minor oil spill ran in a jagged track over the papers and cold cigarette butts that had been discarded there.

“I won’t be back if I can help it”, I said, coldly.

"That's for damn sure". he said. A blast of icy, winter air brought snow scurrying into the room as if trying to escape the minus 25 degree Edson winter. The door closed behind him.

I felt sure that it would be better to be laid off and taking unemployment benefits than to take a call to join his crew on the Branch again.

Checking my watch, and bemoaning the fact that the town of Edson had rolled up the sidewalks, effectively closing every eatery within walking distance, I sat down on a long, hard bench in the passenger waiting room.

With at least a couple of hours to wait before the first westbound freight might show up to take me back to Jasper and my warm bed, I took a deep breath and closed my eyes.

I thought of my family back home in Ontario.