Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Terror on the Rails

Recent arrests of terror suspects, following extensive investigative work by authorities on both sides of the Canadian/American border, in which individuals are suspected of planning to cause a major disruption to VIA Rail Canada's services have brought to mind a somewhat similar set of circumstances and events.

In what became known as The October Crisis, a Quebec based para-military group called the Federation de la Liberation de Quebec, or FLQ finally got the attention of the Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, and the police and military when they kidnapped Pierre Laporte, a Liberal Member of Parliament, and James Cross, the British Trade Commisioner.  PM Trudeau enacted the War Measures Act and on the following day, Pierre Laporte was murdered, his body dumped at St.-Hubert, Quebec.

The FLQ had conducted roughly 200 bombings, had stolen large amounts of cash and military equipment and had stormed the International Firearms Co., killing the Vice President.  In a shoot-out with police, an employee was also killed by police bullets.

Canadians everywhere were stunned by the events as they were portrayed on every TV set and radio, with hourly updates.  No one knew for sure who these terrorists were, or what they looked like.  No one knew where they would strike next.  No one knew who, or what their next target would be.

The Nation was tense.

In Jasper, in October of 1970, the FLQ crisis seemed to be too far away to really concern us, however the military and police were rounding up hundreds of suspects, so it was perhaps wise to consider that the terrorism might reach the mountains; after all..., we had pipelines and oil fields, ocean ports and railways; who's to say they wouldn't target those facilities??  The matter was analysed, pro and con around kitchen tables, coffee shops, beer parlours and yard offices.  There was no definitive answer to the question.

Then, one evening my crew was called for a potash drag west and we trickled into the booking-in-room in the Jasper railway station.  My conductor, Joe Blasko and the tail-end brakeman,
Darryl "Dizzy" Dallyn were already there when I arrived.  The engineer, Ed Miller arrived soon after me.  We greeted each other with the usual passive nods, and "Hey, how are ya".

Blasko, a tall, slim man with thick, black wavy hair was standing at the operator's window, checking the train register for the arrival and/or departure of all First Class and Fourth Class trains that were due, or overdue.  Dizzy and I were leafing through the bulletin books to see if there was anything new that we should know about and Ed had stepped out of the room to use the washroom.

The operator, Harry Lyseko was just putting his stapler down on his desk as he handed Joe two sets of train orders with clearances attached.  Joe picked them up and stapled his Train Register Check to the back of the train orders, as was the custom.

He handed on set to Dizzy and one to me, saying "Check 'em over and give one set to Ed when he gets back". 

Standing nearly shoulder to shoulder, we began with the clearance on each set, checking the date, time, dispatchers initials, operators signature and the numbers that were listed for each order in the set.  Then we checked each of the orders for correctness as well, ensuring that we had a copy of each order that was shown on the clearance.

All was well, so we began to read them aloud to each other, stopping to discuss strategy at each of the "meets" and "waits" that we came across. 

Then there the usual "slow orders", "Form Y" track work orders and "Cars on sidings, etc" type orders. 

Between the last order and the Train Register Check was a sheet of paper that contained a message "to all concerned."  It was a form of bulletin advising all railway employees, especially train crews to be on the lookout for person or persons unknown who appeared to be acting in a suspicious manner on, or near the railway property.  The proper authority was to be notified immediately if such activity was noticed. 

Was this just a precautionary measure?  Or, did they know something concrete about an impending attack on the railway? 

Ed came back from the washroom and I handed him the orders.  I thought it best that I refrain from mentioning the bulletin about terrorists until Ed had finished reading the train orders. 

Ed was a large man with hands that had seen very hard work in their youth.  He had a boyish face with cherubic features.  It seemed that no matter what Ed was thinking, he was always ready to break into a smile.  

I liked working with Ed.

But his facial expression changed, and grew dark as he read the contents of the sheet at the back of the orders.  Apparently, Ed was one of those Jasperites who believed that the FLQ would target the railroad, and especially Jasper for some reason yet unkown. 

He looked around the room for some sign from the rest of the crew that his concerns were shared.  There didn't seem to be any.  He turned to me specifically and asked what I thought of the threat, which he was convinced that message made clear.  I said I thought anything was possible and let it go at that. 

Shortly, a heavy growl, pounding pistons and squealing, chirping wheels could be heard outside the door to the platform.  Our train was arriving on the main line and wanted a fresh crew to take her to Blue River.   Stepping out into the chill night air; the trees on the hillsides around Jasper were in full Fall colours, I climbed up the ladder and through the open door of the now-vacant F7 cab, the incoming engineer and brakeman having just stepped onto the platform.

Ed passed his big tin box up to me and I slid it between his seat and the brake pedestal, thinking that he might choose to use it to hold down the 'dead-man pedal', or sit with one of his size 14 work boots on it.  I checked the flagging kit for contents, then checked the white flags and class lights to be sure they were all in place.  Then I swept out the cab, making it ready to roll when Ed got aboard.

When he had finished chatting with the incoming engineer about the perfomance of the train and engines, he climbed to the cab, squeezing his big frame through the under-sized door, which he closed behind himself. 

He wound the window down and stuck his head outside where Joe was standing on the platform.  Joe have Ed a proceed signal and Ed withdrew his head from the opening and reached for the 'bell ringer' valve. 

Bell ringing, he notched the throttle open, each progressive throttle setting moving into its next position with a resounding 'click'.   With his right hand, he pushed the 'sanding valve' handle into the forward position, then with the same hand, reached into to the upper right corner of the cab to shove the headlight brightness and direction rheostat as far forward as it would go. 

F7 cab, courtesy Prince George Railway Museum
The ditch lights snapped 'on' and the ground, tracks, and the forest that began at the west switch were all bathed in the brightest of incandescent light. 

We were on our way.

I set the cab heater on the left side, in front of my seat and settled down to enjoy the ride.

As all railroaders who've handled one knows, potash trains are heavy brutes.  They can be hard to lift from a standing start and they're certainly hard to get stopped once you get them rolling.  We were facing a nineteen mile climb to Yellowhead, the Continental Divide and it was inevitable that conversation would break out at any moment.  Ed reached up and, in the near darknes that was our cab, he instinctively found the switch that controlled his overhead reading light.  He turned the light on, because as we all know, it's much easier to talk when a light is on than when it's not. 

Ed asked me which structures the FLQ would be most likely to hit on the Albreda sub.  I thought about it for a moment and said..."Bridges".  Bridges were most vulnerable, especially big bridges.

There were a number of bridges on the Albreda sub.  The first one we would encounter is the Miette River bridge, but we had already gone over it by the time Ed asked me the question, so he didn't have to worry about that one. 

There was a medium sized bridge near Grantbrook and another over the outflow at the west end of Moose Lake.  This was the beginning of the Fraser river, so the bombing of that bridge might be symbolic, if nothing else.

West of Valemount, on the long climb up to Albreda summit, there was the Canoe River bridge.  It was a big one, built high over the Upper Columbia river.

Full tonnage bulk train on the Albreda sub
Bruce Harvey photo

Frankly, I wasn't concerned much about an attack against the railway when there were higher profile targets such as the oil refineries in Alberta.  But Ed saw things differently.  He went very quiet, leaning a bit forward in his seat, peering around corners and staring at line-side stations and tool sheds along the way.

We met an eastbound at Rainbow, just east of Red Pass Jct. and Ed called them on the radio to ask if they had read the bulletin, or seen any strange people along the tracks.  They assured him that all was quiet to the west.

The eastbound had been instructed by train order to take the siding at Rainbow, and they had been tucked away for about fifteen minutes when we 'knocked down' the 'clear' westward signal taking us onward to Red Pass and beyond.

Ed set a brake on the train leaving Red Pass and we enjoyed a quiet ride down the hill to Swift Creek, where he began to prepare for the climb up the Canoe River hill to Albreda.

"We're half-way there", I thought.

With the train now making nearly track speed, we clattered over the west switch at Cedarside and launched into the hill.  Nothing to do now, but leave the throttle in the 8th notch until we could see the train order board at Albreda.

The speedometers needle shaped speed indicator made a noticable clicking sound as the pencil and paper speed recorder inside made a line on a graph that could be read later by anyone who found it necessary to look at our speed log.  It was a primitive 'Black Box' of sorts.  Our speed was dropping as we expected it to, and as the engines leaned into the load, the staccato hammering of four 567s were music to my ears.  I never tired of sticking my head out the window and listening to the engine exhaust as it echoed and reverberated in the trees and canyons.

When we were less than a quarter mile from the Canoe River bridge, Ed scootched his bum a little closer to the front edge of his seat.  The movement didn't escape me, as I had noticed that he had moved his right hand to the handle of the 24RL brake valve.  I was on alert, for Ed's sake.  I have to admit that I wasn't 100% sure that the Canoe River bridge would be ignored by a potential terrorist strike.  The idea had some logic associated with it, didn't it?

When the engines began to move onto the bridge, the sound changed, reflecting the fact that we weren't running on cold ballast any more, but on a steel web that was hung between the east and west banks of the river.  The bridge added a deep 'base' component to my F7 overture.

Then, when we were almost exactly in the middle of the span, there was the sound of a tremendous
explosion!!!  The engine seemed to leap ahead, then almost at the same time, fell back against the following train.

An alarm bell was ringing and red, blue and white lights were burning brightly on the electrical control panel behind Ed's seat. 

The mighty 567 in the engine room behind us was silent and the smell of hot oil and smoke seeped into the cab.

The look on Ed's face was one of shock and disbelief!  He was expecting a terrorist attack and had been vindicated!  Without touching any of the controls, he started to rise from his seat. 

"Where are you going?", I asked. 

"I'm getting off.", he said, his voice raised an octave or two.

"ED!!!"  "It's something in the engineroom", I said..., raising my voice in an attempt to get his attention turned around.

By this time, Ed was on his feet and was standing behind his seat.

The tonnage train was rapidly rolling to a stop, while the remaining engines in the consist tried in vain to make up for the loss of the lead unit. 

It was Dizzy's voice on the radio, asking Ed if we had lost an engine.  Ed looked at me, and lifting the radio handset from its cradle, answered "yeah, we lost the lead unit."

I was grateful that Dizzy had called when he did, because it was beginning to look like Ed was going to bail off in the middle of the Canoe River bridge.

 Ed set the brakes to prevent the train from rolling away eastward and Dizzy trecked ahead to make a cut.  We had to 'double the hill' with the head-end cut and run to Albreda to set them out, returning to the train for the balance. 

Albreda sub work train, June 1970
Engineer Cal Elliot, trainmen  Ben Leggio and Lloyd Crawford
Conductor Harvey photo

The train was eventually put back together and we arrived three hours off our expected time, with a cold, dead engine leading. 

I was glad to lay my head on the pillow in the bunkhouse as that was enough adventure for this trip.

When the post-mortem on the dead F7 was conducted, it was found to have suffered from a failed piston which severly damaged not only the piston but the cylinder as well. 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

"Doubling the Hill" is never fun, considering you're getting paid by the mile!