Friday, November 23, 2012

The Okanagan Valley Wine Train - Part Two

When we last saw the Wine Train, it was rolling happily through the Okanagan Valley, albeit with one of its two engines disabled.  The GMD1, CN 1437 ran, coupled to the 1652, an SD38-2 for almost a week before it was picked up the northbound switcher and taken to Vernon.  From there, it was hauled, dead to Kamloops.  We didn't see the ugly duckling again.

Instead, we got a different locomotive almost every week.  All of them were GP 9's that had been heavily modified, mostly for yard and transfer service.  All of them had the short hoods "chopped", or lowered, so that they resembled CN's fleet of SD40-2's.  For the most part, CN had done a good job extending the lives of these old engines which dated from the early nineteen fifties.

July 1999, northbound at Armstrong, BC
Bruce Harvey photo.
While some elements of the job went unchanged, day to day; others did not.  I enjoyed working an assignment that offered something different, an new challenge, something out of the ordinary and the Wine Train never failed to fulfill that need in me.
On one trip, a visitor climbed up into the cab while we were stopped in Armstrong.  He was an old friend who had been an operator until he accepted a position as a Rule Instructor.  Phil Moreau had worked in Boston Bar in the 80's and I had gotten to know him there.
Phil was taking a short vacation in Kelowna and had boarded the train there for the trip to Armstrong and return and I was glad to see him; I was even happier that he asked to ride with me in the cab between Armstrong and Vernon. 
 Since I had been away from the mainline for quite a while, working yard assignments in Vancouver until I moved to the Okanagan Division in August of 1995, I was eager to learn what changes were taking place Mr. Tellier, the new President and CEO. 
While Phil regaled me with stories about life on the mainline, my interest was piqued by one point in particular; according to Phil, head-end crews were now barred from inspecting their locomotives when they took control of a consist.  The assumption being that there were shop staff on duty to ensure that safety appliances, lube oil, water and fuel were all in order, there was no need for enginemen to check these items before departing on what could be twelve hours or more of running in some of the most inaccessible geography on the CNR..., the Fraser and Thompson canyons.  As an engineer of considerable experience, I immediately thought of a number of trips that I had made with heavy trains and single unit consists.  On a few of those occasions, engines had failed due to insufficient cooling water, low lube oil, running out of fuel or some other cause.
Phil went on to say that CN management had caused all fuel guages to be removed from locomotives and had followed up with an order that enginemen were not to inspect their locomotives, on penalty of discipline.
I wasn't overly concerned about this, because the Wine Train power was changed out at Kamloops once a week and fresh power was brought to Kelowna every Friday morning. 
However, the seed was planted, and I decided to inspect my locomotives more closely starting the very next trip.
On arrival in Kelowna for the next run, which was a Sunday, I stepped into my striped over-alls, put on my striped engineer's hat and laced up my boots.  On approaching the locomotive, a freshly painted GP9, the CN 7064, I observed that the customary red fuel gauge was missing from beneath the skirt and just above the fuel tank. 
Not a problem, says I, and bending over, I picked up a smooth, round, half pound rock from the mixed ballast beneath my feet.  Selecting a spot about a foot from the top of the tank, I gave the black, shiny steel tank a smart blow with my rock.  Expecting the muffled 'thud' that would indicate a full tank, I was slightly taken aback by the hollow 'clang' of an empty vessel.  I struck the tank again, this time at a spot about midway down and got the same response. 
Now, I paused to give this some thought.
The locomotive is supplied to Mr. Nagel under a "wet lease" agreement, meaning that CN ensured that the locomotive would be completely serviced and filled with all necessary fluids, including fuel.  In short, Mr. Nagel would not be allowed to undertake to service the locomotives in any manner.
In addition, if I were to strike the tank one more time, near the bottom of the tank, with the same results..., well......, it was Sunday.  Where would one find a fuel truck to fill this tank up on short notice..., and on Sunday!!!???
The conductor had driven over to Cecil's Perogy Palace to pick up some nibbles for our northbound run and to stop in at the Wine Train's offices nearby to get our paperwork off the fax machine, authorizing us to leave Kelowna and occupy the main track between Kelowna and Vernon.  I decided to wait for his return before banging on the fuel tank that one last time.
I set my smooth, round stone on top of the fuel tank and picked up my belongings from the ground at the ends of the ties.
The  engine had been left, isolated and shut down by the switcher crew when it had been brought from Vernon.  An engine, when it's running will give you a sense of a living creature when you reach up and take the stair rails in your hands.  When it's not running, it seems to welcome you, filled with the expectation that you will soon bring it to life and take it out on the road for a good run.  This day, the 7064 was silent, waiting in anticipation of a leisurely trip through the beautiful Okanagan Valley.
Today, all the freight trains were still; their engines put to rest on their shop tracks.  Today was our day to own the road.  Today was our day to shine.
I unlocked the cab and dropped my 'grip' on the floor behind the control stand.  My camera bag went on top of the heater in front of my seat.  The familiar smells of almost-fresh paint, oily brake exhaust, stale cigarettes and chemical toilet filled my senses.  I was at  home.

The Happy Hogger

Phil Moreau photo

Flipping on the breakers and setting the necessary switches, I went out onto the walkway and opened the carbody door to the 'start station'. 
In less than a moment, the engine came to life, and when I was sure that fuel was flowing through the fuel sight glass on the equipment rack, I backed out of the engine compartment, and closed and latched the door. 
The conductor was just getting out of the rented car, so I climbed down from the locomotive and met him in the parking lot.  Handing me a cup of coffee and a brown paper bag with a small order of perogies, he assured me that he had our paperwork in his grip and that he had spoken with the Okanagan Valley dispatcher, or OVR Rail Traffic Coordinator. (RTC) re: our expected arrival time in Vernon, where we would require additional clearance to proceed on OVR track from Vernon to Armstrong.
After he had run out of fresh information, I suggested he come with me to where I had left the stone resting on the fuel tank.  When I told him of my concern, he mentioned that his brother, who worked for CN at Kamloops had told him about the new edict regarding engineers checking fuel levels.  He asked me if I really wanted to tempt fate, risk discipline by checking the fuel in the tank. 
I told him that any CN officer who cared to take me out of service at this time would be risking his own job.  After all, the Wine Train would have to be cancelled as there was no other engineer available to replace me on less than six hours notice.  I felt confident that I could smack that fuel tank one more time.
Lifting the rock, I bent down and gave the tank one good tap..., a few inches from the bottom of the tank.  Clearly, there was little or no fuel in there.
Without speaking, the conductor handed me the company's cell phone and I dialed up Mr. Hanratty, the Operations Manager.  I found him at a sports event with his family. 
He was immediately upset with me for disturbing him with something that was clearly not possible.  The engine had only just arrived from Kamloops and he was positive that it had been fully serviced there.  He 'ordered' me to take the engine and put it on the train and do my job!!!!
"But don't turn off your phone, just in case I'm right and you're wrong", says I.
We gathered up the passenger cars and backed it over to the little station and waited for the passengers who were milling about in fairly large groups, to get on. 
I checked my watch.
Rail buffs came to stand below the cab window.  They took photographs and held up little children for a better look.  We completed our air brake test.  I called Mr. Nagel's on-board train fellow to ask how things were proceding and he told me that Mr. Nagel was coming up to the engine to speak with me. 
This was an event that always elicited a rush of excitement.  Sometimes, Mr. Nagel had met someone who professed to be an expert in the field of track-train dynamics and who could make some changes to the way the train was run that could save Mr. Nagel large sums of money, or cut hours off the running time each week.  Or, he might tell me that he had made arrangements with a local business or family, to pick up a large party at some milepost, or crossing along the route.  He would invariably want me to place the train in some location where the road bed was level, not overgrown with weeds, and always close to parking.    I always did my best to accomodate him.
Leaning out the window and looking back toward the station, I saw him, wading through the throng, waving at me, beckoning me to meet him on the platform.
Bob Nagel stood taller than six feet and I stood somewhat less than that.  He had a habit of standing quite close and leaning forward to talk. He leaned in and I backed up.  He moved forward.  I backed up again.  Finally, he hooked his fingers into the bib of my coveralls and held on while he began to explain what was on his mind. 
His big concern today was a special group of travellers he had on board.  For months he had been trying to get a group of travel agents to come out for a tour of the valley on his train.  This meant a lot for his business, for if all went well, his tour train would get a favourable rating, plenty of advertising and increased ridership.  I assured him that I would do everything I could to make sure that all went smoothly.
I climbed back up into the cab and sat down with my head in my hands.  Just as I was able to assure Bob that I would do everything in my power to ensure this trip would be memorable, I knew that it would be a memory that he would rather be able to forget, but would not matter what.
Without further ado..., the signal was given to proceed and I released the brakes, put the bell on and gave two smart 'toots' on the whistle.  We began to move northward into the late afternoon haze of a hot July day in the Okanagan.
The engine and train happily climbed out of the valley for twelve miles to Winfield, where we tipped over the hill to run two miles downhill to Woodsdale.  From there, it was level running along Wood lake and Kalamalka Lake.
At the north end of Wood lake, there is a narrow ithsmus that the railroad uses to cross from the east side of the valley to the west side.  This ithsmus separates Wood lake and Kalamalka lake and, besides carrying the railroad, it also has a secondary highway between Oyama and North Kelowna. 
As the train emerged from the trees at the north end of Wood lake and began to swing onto the narrow strip of land between the two lakes, the conductor yelled  "Soak 'er!!!"    As the engine was running long nose forward, and we were entering a left hand curve, I couldn't see what he could see, but I instantly slammed the brake valve into the right hand corner, putting the train into an emergency brake application.
Before the train stopped, I saw a small, dirt road crossing pass under the leading end of the engine.  There was a cloud of dust, and metal parts rolling away from the scene and into the ditch.  Getting up from my seat, I crossed the cab and looked out toward the lake and saw an old station wagon pulling a boat and trailer.  The boat launch had been rather busy and the the driver had pulled onto the railroad crossing, but not quite all the way across it. 
We had just taken part of  his outboard motor off the transom and left it in the ditch. 
While I recovered the air in the brake pipe, the conductor got down onto the ground and got the fellow's name and address for the report that would have to be filed.  Then he called me and asked me to pull by slowly so that he could conduct a roll-by inspection of the train.  I called the on-board train attendant and instructed him to go to the rear of the train and open up the vestibules to allow the conductor to get back onboard after the inspection.  He could then walk up to the head end while we continued on our way.
Soon, he called on the radio to say that the train looked good and he was aboard.  I began to notch up the throttle.  I activated the engines bell as there were quite a few people at the beach and near the track. 
I opened the throttle even more.  It felt good to be under way.  The breeze carried the scent of wild Sage and Ponderosa Pine.  It was a good day to be the hogger on the Wine Train.

Southbound at Kalamalka Lake
Bruce Harvey photo
The engine stopped running and, except for the ringing of alarm bells and the faint sound of the locomotives wheels pinging on rail joints, there was just an unfamiliar quiet.
I called the conductor on the radio and asked him if the tail end of the train had cleared the crossing to the boat launch where we had clipped the boat on the trailer. 
He said, "Yes, why". 
"Because, I think we've just run out of gas," I said.
"I'll walk through the train to the head end", he said.
"And, I'll wait here for you", I said, with a wry smile.  We were out of fuel.  Where else would I wait for him?
In a few minutes, the conductor arrived..., with an irate Bob Nagel in tow.
Bob had seen the conductor walking up from the tail end and wanted to know how long we were going to stopped here.  That's when Bob found out that the engine was "out of gas."
Bob was more than irate..., he was frantic!
There would be untold numbers of heads on pikes very soon!  And, I was to be fired immediately! 
Bob dug his cel phone out of his pants pocket and began calling CN officials in Montreal, Edmonton, Vancouver...., wherever he thought they might be hiding. 
I called Operations Manager Dave Hanratty who immediately 'launched' at me for interupting his Sunday ... again!
I calmly waited for him to settle down, then I told him that the train was stopped at Oyama and the engine was "out of fuel".  He insisted that I was confused and that I should put the conductor on the phone.  The conductor then told him that he engine was, indeed..., out of fuel and no amount of threatening posture on his part was going to make it go one foot further...., without fuel.
After a half hour or so, the phone rang.  I overheard the conductor telling the person on the other end of the conversation that we were stopped at Oyama, and that there was very easy access to the locomotive from the road.  In fact, one could drive right up to the edge of the track beside the engine.
A fuel truck was on the way with a half load of diesel fuel.  Hanratty now owed a truck driver a favour.  That wouldn't sit well with him.
Another 45 minutes passed and we were still sitting on spot.  Dark clouds were now covering the sky and there was a definite chill in the air.  Bob Nagel was pacing up and down the line, cell phone to his ear. 
The on-board train manager, a Nagel employee came up to the front of the train where we were standing on the ground, planning out how the remainder of the trip might go.  The train manager said that the passengers were getting unruly and wanted to know why we were not moving. 
Nagel told him to tell everyone that CN had the track tied up and they'd be moving shortly.  In the meantime, he said...., "Break out the peanuts and pop..., and give everybody one of half price."  I stepped in and suggested that he open the bars and let everyone have a couple of drinks on the house.  After listening to my arguments, he agreed.
The fuel truck finally arrived and the driver emptied his tank into ours.  Happily, the engine turned over and...., it caught!  We would be moving again as soon as we had re-charged the trains brake system. 
Not bad!!!  We were only one hour and fifty five minutes late and already we had covered nine miles.
The repercussions were only just beginning.  The caterers in Armstrong were expecting the train to arrive on time.  No one had advised them of the delay.  Dinner would be cold if there was even anyone hanging around the dining hall to serve the meal.  All of the on-board staff, who were being paid on an hourly basis would be on 'overtime' long before the train arrived back in Kelowna.  Nagel hated having to pay anyone at overtime rates. 
As the train was pulling through the CN yard in Vernon, the on-board manager called on their portable radio to tell us that we had an un-scheduled stop at the CPR station in Vernon.  All of the Tour Company operators who had boarded the train in Kelowna had decided they had seen enough and had called for a chartered bus to take them from Vernon to Kelowna. 
Well, that relieved the pressure somewhat, eh?
The trip was pretty quiet after departing Vernon.  On arrival in Armstrong, it was already dark, and there were no passengers on the platform, eager to go for the 90 minute round trip to O'Keefe and back.  I don't know what happened at Armstrong when we were away reversing the train for the return to Kelowna.  I felt it best to keep a low profile.
For the next couple of weeks after running out of fuel, management supplied two locomotives for the Wine Train to make sure that Mr. Nagel felt he was being looked after.

Two locomotives; a GP9 and an SD38-2 shown leaving Kelowna.
Bruce Harvey photo
In the next installment........  someone's rule violation puts my wife and I in the right place at the right time.


Unknown said...

Another great story! The Okanagan sub reminds me of my trips from Nelson to Slocan City and the one trip to Nakusp on the barge with the "Iris G" tug. Tracks all pull up now, just a fond memory!

Unknown said...

Another great story! Reminds me of my trips up the Slocan sub from Nelson to Slocan City and the one memorable
Trip to Nakusp on the barge with the "Iris G" tug. Tracks all but pull up now, just fond memories.2370

Unknown said...

Another great story! Reminds me of of my trips on the Slocan sub from Nelson to Slocan City and the one trip to Nakusp on the barge with the "Iris G" tug. Tracks all but pulled up now, just fond memories.

Bruce said...

thanks for your note, Joe. I enjoyed all of my railroad experiences, but working the branch lines has always been the most satisfying. I worked the Okanagan Sub, the Alberta Coal Branch, the Grande Cache and the BC Northline. I loved them all, so I know how you would cherish your memories of the Slocan sub and the trip on the "Iris G."