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.  http://www.nfb.ca/film/railroaders/


Cliff Beagan said...

The more I read of your CNR 'work place' conditions in Canada West during the 1960's Bruce, the more I appreciate my 'work place' conditions during the 1950's on CPR Canada East.
I thought railroading would be more of an adventure in the Mountains, but it sounds like it was more agony than ecstacy. I had some bad trips, but none that bad.
But then you northern Ontario Capreol guys were always tougher than us Parry Sounders....EH?

LOU said...


Those early days were certainly JAM-PACKED-FULL of unuque experiences rapidly advancing your early RAILROADING CAREER !!!!!!!!!!

Your great descriptive writing definately holds a readers interest to the very-end !!!!!! Now to 'FEEL' it even-more w/ the GOOGLE app we do when following your ' actual-rails' as best we can produce w/ our limited-talent. REALLY ENJOY BE'N-W/-Y'ALL !!!!!!

LOU said...

The video really shows a lot of operation details that are enlightening to those who have never thought about what effort is reqired to keep in service,particularly in western Canada's rugged environment !!!!!!!!!!

We sure do enjoy your efforts to share all your many adventures !!!!!!!!!!

Hogger Blog said...

Great story again Bruce. I can remember making a trip from Jasper to Edson with my Dad but I had to wait till he got a steel caboose as he wouldn't take me in the wooden one as they were getting into disrepair. We went Jasper to Edson 1' 50" seemed like a long time to me. Engr Len Cobb H.E. man Ian McDonald TE man Ray Misik.