Saturday, December 10, 2011

Spotting the Tilbury Island Rail Barge

The 1900K Tilbury Island Turn isn't the worst job a spare board hogger could be called for on a Saturday night in December.  When I called the crew office at 1500K, I was told that they were going to order at least five extra yards for Port Mann, one for Vancouver's downtown Main Yard, one for Lynn Creek and a number of Transfers between Port Mann, Vancouver and Lynn Creek.  It was only a couple of weeks before Christmas and rail traffic was quite heavy.  The plant was working to capacity in order to get the yards cleaned up so that westbound trains wouldn't have to be set out on line over the holidays.  Can you imagine the security concerns that would be placed on CN's Police Force of two officers with authority over territory from Prince Rupert to Vancouver?

Catching a yard assignment, or a transfer wouldn't be all that bad, but when there are so many crews working in the Greater Vancouver Terminal at the same time, a certain chronic problem could develop.  CN had purchased  Motorola 8-channel radios for their train and engine crews to conduct their railway business on.  "Railway Business" was actually a pretty broad paint brush that included end-to-end communications between head end and tail end crews on transfers, train-to-train communications between transfers and road freight engines while they were in the yard, communications between the control tower in Port Mann and every job that was working anywhere on the south side of the Fraser River, all communications between transfers and tramp jobs, with the New Westminster Rail Bridge, and communications with the Burlington Northern Dispatcher at Sapperton/New Westminster.

Photo Credit....Forums-Radio

Some nights,  the radio traffic became so intense that many trains and engines came to a halt while they waited for a break in the transmissions so they could try to get instructions or to broadcast their locations, etc.  At night, all yardmen used electric hand lanterns to give signals to each other and to their engineers, but at a distance of 20 car lengths or more, and two or more crews working on adjacent tracks, it became very difficult to determine if the signal you were seeing in the dark was meant for you, or for the engine near you.

Some crews would occasionally resort to raiding a caboose for fusees which they would use, just so that their signals would be unique.  On one occasion, my foreman and his helpers pulled out their "fog whistles" and we worked on whistle signals until radio traffic settled down.  Oh, yes...."fog whistles".... Port Mann yard could get pretty foggy, so crews would use whistles, similar to those you might envision a traffic cop having clenched between his teeth.  If there were too many crews working in close proximity, the same problem arose.  I'd be hiked up on one "cheek" with my left foot braced against the base of the control stand and my head pushed out of the window, listening for signals from my crew.  If I was in reverse and moving backward, I would stop on a single blast...then would hear two or three 'back up' signals and a stop....all at the same time.  In that case..., everybody would come to a halt until things got sorted out.

This would be one of those nights for the crews working the lead jobs in Port Mann, but I was going to Tilbury and would be out of the fray for several hours.

After checking our watches with each other, reading and signing the Bulletin Books, checking our BN orders and clearance and gearing up for a wet night, we headed out the door and into the wet, blustery mercury vapor lights that illuminated the shop tracks.

We soon found our assigned locomotives; a pair of 4200 class GP9's of 1957 vintage.  They were coupled up, back to back with their long hoods leading and their rain-streaked steel bodies glistening in the yellow-orange light from the big overhead lamp standards.  A big low-pressure front had moved in from the Pacific and it hadn't weakened as it climbed over Vancouver Island to the west.  The wind caught the diesel exhaust from twenty locomotives, tearing it from the spark arrestors tucked snugly against their roofs and whipping it away into the darkness beyond the shops.

The waters of Georgia Strait would be ugly tonight.  The wind had continued all day from the south-west, swinging through the south-east and back again.

MV Shelley Ann II.  Our home for nearly five years.

Our boat, the Shelley Ann II had been lunging at her lines most of the day and all evening and the Coast Guard had been broadcasting warnings of gusts that might reach 90 knots at Vancouver International Airport, just a few miles downriver from Port Mann yard and even less from Tilbury Island.

We knew that it would be difficult for the rail barge, the Seaspan Greg to come up the river from Steveston to the rail barge slip at Tilbury, and even more difficult to place the barge in a position where we could pull and spot it.  Tonight's operation would be a delicate one.

On our way from the shop tracks to the yard, we reached into the caboose track and pulled a serviced caboose out to put on the east end of our 12 car train that had been made up in the yard and left on the number three switching pull-back at the west end of the yard.

There was just enough room to shove the caboose onto our little train and still clear Sullivan street, a small, local access road that crossed over the main line, the by-pass tracks and the four pullback tracks.  CN vehicles and local gill-net fisherman who tied their boats up by the log booms at the edge of the river were the only users of this road.

Once the engine was coupled on to the west end of our train, the car men were called out to conduct our air test.  Within ten minutes, we had the 'all clear' from the car foreman and we crept out of the yard.  Soon we were on the westbound "main", part of a two track entry/exit for traffic moving to and from the New Westminster rail bridge and traffic to and from Townsend, Brownsville and Tilbury.  We passed the Gyproc plant where we stopped to line a switch that would take us beneath the easterly, or southern approaches to the New Westminster rail bridge on a route that would parallel the Fraser river toward Delta and Tilbury Island.

First, we had to get permission from the BN Dispatcher to enter the BN signaled siding at Brownsville and from there, enter the BN main line for a short run to the Tilbury Branch line that would take us eventually, to the rail barge slip.

Once we had left the BN main line, we were back on CN track which carried us slowly and carefully across the Burns Bog, a huge, environmentally delicate peat bog where the peat beneath the track is many dozens of meters deep.  On the Branch, the ride smoothed out noticeably, as if the railroad had been built on a huge mattress.

On arrival at the end of track, we found the small, three track yard empty, an empty ferry slip and a barge slip attendants' shack that was completely dark.  The conductor and rear-end trainman walked up from the caboose and climbed into the cab.  In the time it took to walk the length of our short train, their boots were soaked, their mitts were dripping and their black rubber rain suits looked as if they had just stepped out of the showers, which they had.  After a short discussion, it was decided that we should call the control tower at Port Mann and ask them if they had an update on the ETA of the Seaspan Greg which had not yet arrived at Tilbury.  After three or four attempts, we gave up trying to dig a hole in the crammed radio chatter on channel four, the only channel that the tower would be monitoring.  The conductor thought he knew where the attendant's shack key might be hidden, so he and the tail end man left to see if they might find it and let themselves in, light a fire in the stove and wait for the barge to show up.

Within and hour or so, some red, white and green navigation lights emerged from the storm just in time to welcome the barge slip attendant and his helper who arrived about the same time.

The photo above, represents a modern barge system which has been adapted to carry the large amount of truck traffic that has replaced most of the rail traffic between Vancouver Island and the greater Vancouver area.  Rail traffic on Vancouver Island has dwindled in recent years due to economic conditions as well as deteriorating track and infrastructure conditions.
After nearly an hour of manouvering; driving the barge toward the open slip, then being blown off the mark and pulling back to try again, the vessel finally got it timed just right and rammed the hull into its slot.  It then took a little while for the slip attendants to lower the ramps down far enough to lock them in place with the open deck of the barge which was pitching and rolling in the furious storm.

It was decision time.  While the barge was securely fastened to the ramps, and the ramps were secured to the lead track, the whole thing was in a state of constant, confused motion.  It was too dangerous to try to reach out onto the barge with the light skeletonized flat cars that were stored in the yard for that purpose.

It was considered safer to wait for a lull in the storm and take a look at the situation then.

We cut the engine off the train and ran back through a clear track to come against the half dozen or so 'reachers' that were in track three.  If we did get a short break in the storm, we would be ready to shove ahead and perhaps pull the cars from the barge before the next round of screaming wind and rain.

The photo above was taken by Doug Wingfield, and presents CPR's rail barge system, typically found operating on British Columbia's large interior lakes.  These barges, powered by freshwater tugs, carried rail cars, locomotives and cabooses..., the whole train, from one point to another.  This was necessitated by topography that had proved too difficult to support track and roadbed.  It became more economic to transport rail traffic around the geographic obstacles.  Note:  the cars next to the locomotive are flat cars that are used as "reachers" that enable the locomotive to pull or shove cars on and off the barge without tipping it too far one way or the other.

Back at Tilbury, the head-end guy and I got the engine in position and settled in to wait.

Channel four had now become so jammed up with radio traffic that we decided to turn down the volume so that we couldn't hear the racket.  I called the conductor to tell him that if he wanted me, all he had to do would be to flash his electric lantern at me and I'd come back on the radio for instructions.

In the cab, we were warm and dry.  The cab lights were on and the heaters were pumping out enough heat to evaporate all of the water that had followed the crew in from the outside.  I pulled off my water proof jacket and got up to stretch my legs and hang the jacket on an electrical cabinet door latch.

Photo credit...the author's wife, Susan Harvey

We began to talk, to share stories, to bitch and complain and to generally draw up a plan with which we would change the way the railroad was being run, including who we would keep and who we would fire.

Soon, the conversation elevated to things like our favourite watering holes and animal husbandry.

Of course, I had a real life experience that I recalled from my high school days when a friend called me one winter night and asked me if I could give him a hand feeding the pigs at his fathers farm, a few miles outside of Sudbury, Ontario.

It was minus 30 degrees F. when we arrived and he and I let ourselves into the barn.  I had never been inside a pig barn and was interested in everything that I could see.  My friend was willing to tell me all about it.
Then...., he told me that there was a young sow in the barn that had just gone into her first heat and should be bred by one of the boars before much more time had passed.  Then he went outside into the night and came back five minutes later, pulling a huge boar behind him.

The boar knew exactly what was expected of him and the sow seemed to be rather inclined to hide under a bale of straw.  But this was not to be.  My friend pointed out to me that the boar was so large that if he was allowed to do what was about to come naturally to him, his great weight would crush the little sow.  So..., we were going to have to each take one of the boar's front legs and carry as much of his weight as we could while he ....well...., you know what I mean.

In the telling of this story, I did what I do best... I used my natural talent as a raconteur relating the entire tale without missing a single, curly detail.

I had only just reached the end of the story, when I noticed a pair of automobile headlights pitching and yawing along the muddy, pothole riddled road as it rapidly approached the locomotive.

A moment later, the General Yardmaster burst into the cab and, reaching for the radio handset that was cradled in its holder on the side of the radio, just within my reach....he released the "TRANSMIT" button that had been stuck in the  'open' position ever since we had put the locomotive on top of the reachers.

For over an hour, every railway radio receiver within twenty miles had picked up my  dissertation on the re-organization of the railroad and the story animal husbandry....LOUD AND CLEAR.


Cliff Beagan said...

Good to see you back Bruce.
The more I hear of railroading on the CNR in Vancouver, the more I appreciate the mostly uneventful years I spent working in Ontario on the CPR during the 1950's

LOU said...

Shelley Ann II iooks like a ' GOOD-LIFE ' w/o yard-chores, but did have some ' water-supply-duty ', Googled-the-rails ' all the way into ' barge-slips ' on Tilbury Island facility, now showing lotsa-activity !!!!!!!!!!!

Sounds like y'all had a ' quick-refresher-course 'on that new communication-system from 'top-brass' as-well !!!!!!!!!!!

I remember similar 'pig-chores' only that which changed HIS ATTITUDE !!!!!!!!!!!

LOU said...

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

Good to have y'all ' UP-AND-AT'M-AGAIN !!!

Sure did enjoy that ' LOAD'n-SCENE '. We just got a new ramp & tug @ our local Bull Shoals Lake Hwy 125 crossing and took it to MO to see the FALL-COLORS last month, MUCH smaller for only 6 autos or 1 semi !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!