Saturday, March 30, 2013

Last Minute Follow Up on the Okanagan Wine Train

Since I posted my last segment on the Okanagan Wine Train, a number of emails have come in from readers who would like to know what happened to the Wine Train.  Well, here it is, in a nutshell.  

The Wine Train failed, as a business.  I won't get into the reasons why it failed, except to say that I believe that if some things had been done differently, if only....., well, you know how it goes. 

Some of the original 20-odd cars that were purchased and owned by the Edmonton-based Nagel Tours were sold and went to a number of locations around the continent.  The remaining eleven cars remain in a siding near Kelowna, waiting for a buyer.

I have first-hand knowledge of the condition of these cars and can tell you that, with very little time and money, there's a first class tourist train ready to be put to work. 

Apparently, there are potential buyers wanting to purchase parts of the train, but they only want certain cars, leaving the rest to fade away on that weed-choked Okanagan siding.

But that's not the fate that should befall those beautiful cars. 

They should be cleaned, painted and put behind a couple of FP9A's or GP9U's, filled with happy train buffs and be seen and photographed rolling through the Alberta foothills, or Vancouver Island's former E & N railway, or some under-utilized, but scenic railroad near you.

If you have a dream that large, and dare to follow it....  CALL ME at 250-737-1710 or email at

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

When Teamwork Really Counts

Looking back on more than 35 years of railroading in my own career, and several years before that,  sitting at my father's side, I listened attentatively, while he and his fellow railroaders shared stories of their steam days on the railroad.  I have come to appreciate the joy and the purpose of story-telling. 

The excitement of running steam on train orders, timetable meets, running short of coal or water, break-downs on the road, fallen brake rigging, hot-boxes and other delays that would cause the engineer to 'whistle out a flag' to protect one or both ends of his train; these all come together in 'real time' when a handful of 'rails' get together at a small round table that's loaded with glasses of beer and an ashtray.  It's then that railroaders can relax and talk about their trips, the difficulties they were presented with and how they handled it all.  They could laugh at themselves and each other with no hard feelings.

Railroaders aren't unlike others who spend a lifetime in other occupations; but they are unique in their devotion to a job that offers so little in the way of creature comforts. 

No two trips, or shifts are completely alike.  There is always something that will create a spark that can turn into something really unique that must be dealt with...., always something different to experience and to talk about. 

Stir into that mix the fact that with few exceptions, one seldom encounters the same fellow crew member(s) on successive runs.  This alone, adds new ingredients to the recipe that will ultimately shape your day.  When my engineer father was running steam out of Capreol, Ontario in the 50's, I would sometimes answer the phone that hung on the wall near the front door.  It was one of those old phones that had a cradle that protruded from an oak box.  It had a crank on the side that, when turned, would ring a bell in an office down in the village. An operator would connect the lines, using plugs and wires and then she would say "Number Please?"

Internet image. Vintage Image Photos

Dad allowed me to take his call when the crew office phoned, but he insisted that I ask the crew caller who the fireman was to be.  I knew instantly what dad's trip was going to be like by the look on his face when I gave him the fireman's name.  If the fireman could fire an engine properly, dad knew he could make that train sing!  He'd be running on short time, knowing that he could rely on the fireman to keep the engine steaming, rely on the brakeman to run for the switch so he wouldn't have to stop the train on a grade, and rely again on the brakeman to do what would be necessary to flag "The Varnish", in case they were just a minute or two shy of getting into the clear without slowing or stopping the passenger train. 

Mooch Delgreco, when he was a brakeman out of Capreol has told me of climbing up on top of the boiler, waving a lighted red fusee in order to be seen more clearly by an approaching passenger train that was running 'on time,' while dad and Mooch were running on 'short time!'  (Meaning they should have been in the clear five minutes ago) 

The trust that develops between crew members can make or break the trip.  It's what makes a good story, regardless of how the trip unfolded, or ended.

Railroaders soon learn that when they throw their hat into the ring and start to tell a story at one of these 'wobbly-pop' fueled gab sessions, they have to stick as close to the truth as possible, under the circumstances.  If they're caught out in a fabrication of the 'facts,' they will lose their audience very quickly..., unless, of course it's a particularly funny, or entertaining story, or the story-teller himself is the butt of the joke.  In that case, they'll hear you out just because everybody enjoys a good laugh. 

"Waiter!!!"  "Another round over here!"

"Aren't you on duty soon?"

"I've got another 45 minutes, for crissake!"  "Time for another one."

The yarns barely miss a beat while the table is re-loaded.

Flash ahead to 1966 on the Albreda Sub

The main line between Edmonton and Vancouver was flooded with train traffic.  Winter had come early and stayed late, much like an un-loved relative.  But now the trains were running more often than the crews could handle them.  We were trying hard to keep up, but each trip was much longer and harder than the ordinary.  The mileage regulations had been suspended and men were working as much as they cared to, and more.  The General Yardmaster in Jasper was kept busy trying to pry sleepy brakemen out of their beds, even when they had booked rest after making three or more round trips without time off between runs. 

On one such night, we pulled into the yard at Blue River with instructions to 'yard the train' and put the engine to the shop track.  There were no Kamloops crews in Blue River at the time and the first freight coming east wouldn't arrive for another four or five hours.

When the Kamloops crew arrived, their train would be waiting in track three with the engine on the shop track; we would get a 'main line connection' with their train. 

Normally, this wouldn't have raised an eye-brow, but on this night we already had 12 hours on duty and we hadn't been off the engine for a break, other than to shovel snow and sweep ice out of all the switches we had to use to get in and out of nearly every siding on the subdivision.  It had been "one of those" trips, and we were hoping to get into the hotel beer parlour or the Legion before closing time.  There would still be time for three or more hours sleep before heading back to Jasper.

I lined the switches to enter track three, and when I climbed back into the cab, the engineer, Danny Lubarsky said that the conductor had called on the radio, saying that he would bail off at the station and make a run for the Legion.  If he could get inside before closing, he would load the table and tell the bartender that his mates were not far behind.  This would give us time to put the train away, put the engine to the shops and scurry up to the Legion.

Arriving at the Legion, we looked through the window in the inner door and saw our conductor sitting at a table with five chairs and a couple of dozen glasses of beer..... waiting..... for us.

Just then, the burly bartender stepped in front of the window and, holding up his watch, he shook his head and turned away.  The conductor shrugged his shoulders and picking up a glass of cold beer from the table, took a long, slow drink.

The bartender returned, grinning and opened the door. 

The place was crowded to the rafters.  Seemingly, the whole town was there.  We pushed through the throng, making our way to the table, and our well-earned beers.  Arriving at the table, we each reached for a chair, preparing to sit down to a refreshing, thirst quenching, cold glass of beer or four.

Bing Images

Then, without warning...., our conductor, my fishing buddy and a valued mentor, identified here as "K-Double A" reached inside his mouth and pulled out his upper denture, and holding it between his thumb and fore-finger, he dunked it in as many glasses of beer as he could manage, hop-scotching around the table-top like each glass was a square on a checker-board!!!  Each glass that he plunged his teeth into began to foam vigorously, spilling over the top and onto the terry-cloth table cover.

Frantically, we grabbed at the glasses that weren't yet foaming from their recent salivary intrusion claiming them for ourselves!!!! 

Fitting his teeth back into his mouth, he said...."There you go boys!" "All the ones that are foaming, are mine." 

No argument there.....

Some stories last longer than others.

Friday, March 15, 2013

A Young Lad's Memories of CNR Freight Trains and Friendly Crews

This story is submitted by Mike Mastin and is a portrait of his formative years, many of which were spent chasing trains, hanging around the rails, getting to know the crews, the engines and rolling stock.  We can be grateful that he also took photos of his experiences.

Mike's story:

It all began in the old country, namely England. I was an avid trainspotter during the 
1950's, but my lifetime pursuit of train numbers was cruelly interrupted in March of 1957
when my parents decided to emigrate to Canada and refused to leave me behind to
fend for myself despite having reached the age of eleven.

Arriving in New York on Cunard's Queen Elizabeth I started on the longest train trip of my life, namely New York to Toronto. 
We travelled on the Lehigh Valley RR overnight and next morning, what a sight, a CNR Northern, obviously freshly shopped, glistening in the sun on the Niagara Falls Ontario turntable.

CNR Northern Type, looking freshly outshopped, ca. 1957
Photographer unknown

Needless to say I did not own a camera. Another long trip followed, Toronto to Vancouver on CNʼs “Super Continental” with FP9 6504 on the point.

CNR FP9A in 1954 colour scheme
Photographer, location (perhaps Vancouver) and date unknown

 This was an uneventful trip until the last day, awakening in Kamloops to the
realization that we had been there for some time. Enquiries were made, there had been
a slide in the Fraser Canyon, we would have to travel on the CPR tracks. At Basque we
did indeed back onto the CP, proceeding west through North Bend. Shortly after, across
the canyon was a train of empty boxcars forming a V where the slide had pushed the
train almost to the riverʼs edge. Still on the head end was a large CN steam locomotive.

We crossed back to the CNR at Hope, using the Kettle Valley crossing of the Fraser and
subsequently arrived in Vancouver many hours late on a dark and rainy night. Our first
Vancouver residence was on York Ave. in Kitsilano, with the sound of BCE freight
motors punctuating the night and lines of condemned iinterurban cars beside the
Burrard St. Bridge.

Fast forward to the late summer of 1958, my parents bought a house in Richmond B.C.,
miles away from any rail line, or so I assumed. Imagine the thrill when out of the front
windows I saw a CN MLW S-4 diesel switcher, wooden caboose and a few boxcars
rolling south less than half a mile away.

Mike Mastin Photo
Lulu Island Rice Mill 1959

Jumping on my bike I soon discovered the Lulu Island branch. My explorations soon determined that upon reaching the dikes along the river bank the line branched into an east and a west leg, the east leg ending at “Delta Rice Mills” and the west end ending at the Crown Zellerbach plant.

The two legs were connected by a wye track which was used as a storage track for 40ʼ boxcars as back-up supply for CZ.

There were run around tracks on the east and west ends of the branch, the east one was just west of No. 5 road. For those with long memories there was a small store at the number 5 road crossing to serve the needs of motorists lined up for the ferry to Ladner, no tunnel in those days.
Arriving at the Rice Mill. MM

Mike Mastin photos

The operating pattern was a morning train to CZ, returning after lunch, then an evening
turn to the rice mill, both turns monday to friday only. Saturday or sunday trains were
rare but ran occasionally, usually with a different caboose, a rather ancient looking
cupola-less variety. 
CNR caboose commonly used in yard and transfer service had no cupola.
Mike Mastin photo

The morning train stopped at the packing plant by the south end of the Fraser St. bridge to unload cattle, bringing the empty cars south to the CZ plant to avoid the need for a stop on the return to New Westminster. The afternoon train had a more varied consist as it served varied customers including Alcanʼs extrusion plant on Vulcan Way, the new Shasta Beverage plant next to Alcan, a facility whose name escapes me that received Hooker Chemicals and Penn Salt tank cars. The ramp at the number 5 Road runaround received a few PGE boxcars cars of feed each year for a local farmer.

Mike Mastin photo

Discovering this rail line eased some of the pain of my separation from my beloved
British steam trains. During school I only witnessed the evening train but school
holidays saw me waiting somewhere along Shell Road for the morning run. Not only did
I record the locomotive number but all the car numbers as well, a hangover form my UK
train spotting days-it was to be over 50 years later that I discovered I had Aspergerʼs
Syndrome, anyone familiar with this will recognize the connection.

I should mention at this point that my parents, who had left my bicycle in the UK, took
me to Woodwards in downtown Vancouver in the summer of 1957 and bought me an
“Argyle” bike, made in the UK by Raleigh, so the salesman said, the ʻArgyleʼ name
being strictly for Woodwards. This bike was rather unique-it had no gears, it was permanently in low, very low, one city block required me to pump the pedals somewhere
in the neighbourhood of 10,000 times, or so it seemed.

With no trains on the Lulu Island branch on weekends I would get on this bike-get your maps out here-at my residence near #4 Rd. and Williams and ride to the Fraser River bridge in New Westminster, via Queensborough. There I would watch the GN “Internationals, CN and GN freights, BC Electric motors shuffling cars on the waterfront, and if I was lucky and
they were working weekends steam at Pacific Coast Terminals-but that is another story.

SW9 7204 returning to Port Mann with one stock car and caboose.
Mike Mastin photo

Then I would ride all the way back home, all alone, but that was not a concern.
Anyway, back to Lulu Island. The regular engineer on the evening train around 1959
was a kind man, name of Johnny. If I walked down to the platform at #5 road he would
invite me to ride to the rice mill and back. As I got to know him better he would let me
stay on board and make a special stop at Shell Road and Williams Road and I would
walk home from there. The most common power was 8077, others that I remember
were 8061 and 8163.
By the summer of 1962 I had made myself familiar to the morning crew, I would wait at
the north wye switch as they had to stop and line the switch, it having been left lined for
the east spur by the previous evening ʼs train. They would also give me a ride on the
loco, letting me off at Williams Road on the return. One day I got bold and suggested I
ride in the caboose all the way to New Westminster, they acquiesced and what a thrill it
was for me.

Crossing the Fraser River on the Lulu Island bridge
Riding in the cupola of the caboose from Lulu Island to New Westminster
Mike Mastin photo

The afternoon crew were somewhat surprised to find me occupying their
caboose but they kindly stopped at Williams Road so I could trot home for supper.

There were humorous moments. One evening at the Rice Mill, which was down in a
dip, they dropped a load onto their train, they really dropped it, the crew member who
was to swing on and wind the hand brake was otherwise engaged and missed it. I
heard Johnny say “Thatʼs a standing load”, then there was the bang. Nothing derailed,
no car damage was apparent, but the dust cloud emanating from around the doors of
the rice load was somewhat impressive.

The engine has run around the train and is now shoving cars toward the Delta Rice Mill facility.  MM
Another day I was waiting at #5 Road with my dog, a perpetually hungry Springer Spaniel. Dog and I were invited into the caboose while the crew ate their lunch, a new brakeman opened his lunch bucket, took out a pork chop, put it on his plate, went to fill his coffee cup.  In an instant my dog took ownership of the chop. Amazingly not a bad word was said.

On another day I was at that same ramp with my bicycle, the train pulled in and
immediately the conductor told me not to go on the ramp, better I go home, there was
something I shouldnʼt see. I went home mystified, contacted a school chum who lived
nearby, and we decided to walk back to the ramp and solve the mystery. As we walked down the track we had to step aside for the train, on the rear platform of the caboose
were a young couple who appeared very amorous. When we reached the ramp we
found evidence of a picnic that had ended up with a very special dessert, apparently
interrupted by the trains arrival.

Then there was the day I had to take the bus to Vancouver. On the way home I used a
pay phone to call my mother at work. I inserted 25 cents expecting 15 cents change,
that was the day I learnt that pay phones did not give change. Not having enough
money for bus fare I started what would be a long walk to home. I walked across the
Fraser and Mitchell Island bridges and was thrilled to see the Lulu Island train still
unloading cattle at the packing plant. I detoured along the track and told the crew my
tale of woe, could I ride with them and get dropped off at Williams Road? Sure they
said, climb on the caboose. Already on board were five passengers, folks going
blueberry picking who were dropped off near Blundell Road.
One of the hazards of railroading on Lulu Island was the everpresent danger of brake-shoe sparks setting fires in the peat bog, which is everywhere on the island.  Once a peat fire has started, it can burn for months, sometimes consuming even railway rolling stock, as we see above.  MM Change came to the branch in 1962 when SW-9ʼs started to replace the MLW units.

The first SW-9 I recall seeing was #7206.   

 Mike Mastin photo
Change came to me the same year as I finished Grade 12 and took on a summer job to finance my tuition at UBC.

As I got older, finishing UBC after obtaining Grade 13, and started working I had less
time for the Lulu Island branch. I did have a vision that came true, I thought how
wonderful it would be if ʻsomethingʼ were built at the end of the branch which would
bring more traffic. This vision came true after I had moved away from Richmond to Vancouver, the loading facility for imported autos has led to longer trains running on rebuilt trackage. I hear rumours that the access to this auto facility will be changed, that rail will be put in beside the river from the end of track at the Lafarge cement plant at the south end of #9 road all the way to the auto facility, allowing the line currently used with its myriad of grade crossings to be removed.

It was odd to see this Scale Test Car on Lulu Island, but here it is after all  MM
Does anyone recognize this location?  We're assuming it is in the vicinity of CP/BCHydro/CNR yard in New Westminster yard
Thanks to Mike for this story and his photographs..., and to the CNR Lulu Island crews who let him "hang around" with them while he built his childhood memories.


Recieved today in an email from Mike Mastin, clarifying an error to two I committed in the assembly of the article and photos.

Thanks Mike!

Thanks for running the article-a couple of points, the picture captioned "Arriving at the Rice Mill" is actually the northbound train from Crown Zellerbach swinging from its north bound alignment, alongside Shell Road, to an eastbound run, it is just about to cross #5 road.  The Highway 99 overpass crosses the tracks just behind the photographer's location.  

The 'small type' paragraph "After pulling into one of the empty tracks at the Rice Mill, the engine would come around to the tail end and set the caboose over to another track before switching the train out. On occasion the crew would 'drop' the caboose allowing the engine to perform other work before coming toi the rear of the train" is not correct, it implies a run around at the mill.  The mill had two stub tracks, one by the loading doors and a set over track.  The southbound train would always have the caboose immediately behind the engine.  After eating supper west of the #5 road crossing, between switches of the siding, the engine would run around its train and shove east 1/2 mile or so to the mill.

Friday, March 1, 2013

A Dying Railroader's Last Request

The train was set, the brakes tested and the engine ready to go.  The "North", or CN train 455, from Vernon to Kamloops was ready for the night crew to take over, making their run to Kamloops and back.  If they got back to Vernon before 0800, the three day crews would separate the three SD40-2's and tear the train apart for their daily runs to Kelowna, Lumby and Armstrong. 

455 on CP's Okanagan sub at Realm, just south of Armstrong.
Power consists of all four of ex-NAR's CN SD38-2's.
Photo taken by Duane Cook on May 28, 1999.

I was working the Kelowna job that week and as such, was the last crew to return to Vernon.  Therefore it was our job to re-assemble the power into a three-unit consist, couple up the train and perform the air brake test for the night crew. 

Keith Clark, the conductor, and Ed Bewly, the brakeman had already gone to the yard office to change and get the paperwork in order.  Meanwhile, I was going over the locomotives to ensure they had sufficient fuel, water and other supplies for the long night ahead.

The locomotive consist, now separated for the use of three crews, begins its day.  Here the Lumby job (right) switches at Lumby Jct, while the Kelowna job waits its turn.
Bruce Harvey photo

The northbound crew, Tom Anderson, engineer and Dana Robertson, conductor would arrive within the hour expecting the train and engine to be ready for a quick departure.  As time was never on our side in the Okanagan, everyone tried to make sure they did their jobs well, or they would surely pay a price the next day. An hour's delay today might mean that "the South" wouldn't get out of Kamloops until after the passenger trains had all arrived and left, thus one of the morning crews would have to get into a taxi and go out to find the train which had been left un-attended on the Okanagan sub while the night crew went home.  It could take a week to get caught up and back on
schedule again.

Tom and Dana were suspected by the other crews to be un-cooperative, un-repentingly abandoning their train before their mandatory 12 hours on duty had expired; thus requiring the three day shift crews to finish the work of the night crew before beginning their own.  On several occasions, a day crew had to 'rescue' the South at Kamloops, because the night crew didn't even get out of the yard there.  At other times, we would find the train at CP's Campbell Creek, CN's Monte Lake, Westwold, Falkland, Sweetsbridge, O'Keefe or Armstrong.

I climbed down the ladder from the front deck of the lead unit, and stepped onto the ground. As I turned around, I saw the boss, Dave Hanratty walking toward me with three people in tow.
Dave managed an introduction, but it was clear that he was uncomfortable about something.  He turned and walked back to the yard office.

In front of me, stood a woman in her late 60's and a young couple in their 20's.  The young woman was pregnant.  All three had been crying.

The elder woman took one step toward me and asked me if I might be able to help her with something she had promised her husband that she would do.  I had a pretty good idea what she had promised him, as my father had died a year or so earlier and I had kept a promise I had made to him thirty years before he died. 

I asked her what she might want me to do for herself and her family.

She went on to explain that her husband had been a CNR brakeman for 30 years out of Biggar, Saskatchewan, and every year since they were married, they had come to the Okanagan for a summer holiday.  They both loved the area and swore that if he ever acquired enough seniority, he would bid on a job, any job that would bring them to the Okanagan Valley to live out their lives. 

This was once the only way that CNR Trainmen and Conductors could move between the Prairie and the Mountain seniority districts, and Mountain Region men often found themselves being 'bumped' off a job they hoped to hang on to, by a Prairie Region man who had decided to move from Hudson Bay to Vancouver, or Jasper, or Edmonton. 

This woman's hopes rested on her husband's ability to hang on long enough to hold a job within reach of their beloved Okanagan Dream.

He died before that could ever come to fruition, and now..., his last remains were inside a shoe-box sized container which his wife of so many years now held in her trembling hands.

"When my husband was laying in his bed, a very sick man..., he asked me if I would spread his ashes on the Okanagan sub," she said.  "But, as you can see..., I'm not able to walk on uneven ground, or climb to the track to do it."  "And my daughter is expecting a grand-child soon, so I don't want her climbing the hills either." 

I looked toward the son-in-law with a questioning gaze.  He said, "I offered to do it, but 'dad's' last wish was that 'mom' do it." 

"Can you help me", she asked with tears continuing to well up and run down her cheeks.

"Of course I can", I said. 

I set my grip down beside the track and reached for the container that held her husband's ashes.  She looked at the box, holding it back from me. 

"What are you going to do with him," she asked?

"I'm going to take him up on top of the engine," I said.  "And I'm going to give him the best seat in the house." 

"There's a small cut-out on the roof of the cab that I'll put his ashes into."  "It's open at the front and when the train is under way, the wind will scatter his ashes over every mile of the subdivision all the way to Kamloops from here."  "That way, he'll have the ride he always dreamed of, and his last wish will be fulfilled."
Photo credit RailPictures.Net
Photographer Christian Vazzaz

She gave me the box, and the pained look on her face turned into a smile. 

I lifted the box up above my head, and set it on the front platform, then I climbed back aboard the engine.  Picking up the box, I put it on top of the nose and climbed again. 

Setting the box on top of the cab roof, I removed the lid and poured the contents into a neat pile inside the cut-out near the leading edge of the cab roof.

After climbing down off the engine, the two women approached me, offering a hug for my efforts; the young man thanked me and shook my hand.

Without another word, I unlocked my car and got inside, closing the door.

In the silence of the next few moments, I re-lived the experience of spreading my father's ashes at CN HARVEY, just a mile or so east of Tete Jaune at the confluence of the Tete Jaune and Robson Subs only a few months earlier.
Bert Harvey, my father, my friend, my mentor. 
A proud CNR Steam Engineer

In his resting place among the jack pines in the Robson Valley, while the Cedarside Switcher drifted past, blowing one long, lonesome whistle sound.

 Only Dave Hanratty and I knew about the ashes on top of the cab; and neither of us would share that information ... until now.  Then, driving away from the CN property, a wry smile spread across my face. We never spoke of it again.

You see, from the first day I arrived in Vernon after successfully bidding a job there, I had been treated quite badly by Tom and Dana, the union representatives in Vernon.  Neither of the men could, or would give me a satisfactory answer when I asked them what it was that set them off like that.

I knew that it would someday be my turn to get back at them, and this looked like a good opportunity to do that, while doing something for a fellow 'rail'.

Train 455 northbound near Westwold with five M420's
Photographer unkown at this time. 

Tonight, they would be blissfully rolling northward, all the while carrying the ashes of a dead brakeman only a couple of feet above their heads, while the breezes scattered the man's ashes over the subdivision he had dreamed of for so long

On this moonlit summer night, a prairie brakeman 'came home'.  The night-breeze and softly rocking engine gently scattered his ashes, which tumbled from the roof of the engine, just as seeds are hand-sown into a prairie field, along the right of way.

The whistle and bell announced his last run.

This story is a memorial, a tribute to every railroader who has gone before, leaving only memories behind.  This land has been stitched together by the steel rails and the souls of those who were blessed to have contributed in some way to steel wheels running on steel rails.

If Gordon Lightfoot's "Canadian Railroad Trilogy" doesn't move you to your core, you're reading the wrong blog.  If it does..., you are one of many soul-mates found herein.

In addendum:
When 454 came in the next morning, I was looking at the same locomotive consist as had departed the evening before on 455.  I climbed to the top of the engine and found that every speck of the brakeman's ashes had vanished..., scattered over the entire run between Vernon and Kamloops.  The job was done.