Monday, March 3, 2014

What’s in a Name?

Sometime shortly after we’re born, we assume an identity which is partly attributable to the genes we inherit, and partly by the name we’re given.  We grow up with the realization that our given names are a good fit with the personalities we develop, or perhaps that isn’t the case at all.  Those who wonder what the hell their parents were thinking when you were given your ‘handle’ may live their entire lives trying to gather up enough courage to have their name legally changed, and at the same time, avoid hurting mom’s feelings. 
While my mother was waiting for me to be ready for my birth, she spent her resting hours reading the classics, one of which was the story of the Scottish King, Robert the Bruce.  

On the night before the battle in which the 5000 man Scottish army, led by Robert the Bruce defeated the 20,000 man English army of King Edward II, Robert must have felt discouraged knowing that he was outnumbered 4 to 1 by a well-armed, and well-trained superior force.  As the story goes, Robert sat in a cave, trying to plan a strategy that might result in an outcome that wouldn’t see 5000 of his countrymen lying dead in the mud, their fallen flag covered with their own blood.

As he sat, staring into the small fire that was only large enough to warm his legs, he felt abandoned by his tactical skills.  Then, he noticed a spider working steadily to build a web near the roof of the cave. 

Despite the cold, the humidity, the smoke from Robert’s fire, and groundwater that seeped through the rocks onto the spider, it continued to  spin its web, feeding it from the spinneret on its abdomen and carrying it from anchor point to anchor point.  The rock was wet and the web didn’t hold very well, letting the spider fall toward the fire below.  With each setback, the little spider arrested its fall and climbed back to the roof to look for a better spot to anchor its web. 

As Robert the Bruce watched, the spider continued until, finally, the web was finished.  The spider then moved to the center of the web and settled in to wait for its first victim.  Job done.

Perhaps my mother felt there was a good chance, being born into a railroad family, in a small railroad town (Capreol, Ontario), that I would become a railroader too.  If that was to come true, then I would benefit from the lessons that came from the story of the King, Robert the Bruce.

One of the things about ‘names’ that has always fascinated me, while at the same time, eluded me…, is a nick-name.  Nick-names are humorous, serious, malicious or descriptive.  As I advanced through my many years of railroading, I was called many things, but none of them might be called a ‘nick name.’ 

Jump ahead to the year 1998.  It had been a very long, hot summer in BC’s southern interior. After a wet spring, the valley entered summer with a thick, green blanket of growth.  Weed growth along the roads and railway rights of way reached almost unbelievable heights of more than ten feet.

CN MOW crew backing into Kalamalka siding. 
Photo by the Author
BC’s Premier Gordon Campbell (Liberal) delayed cutting the weeds that grew right to the edge of the province’s highways and, following suit, CN Okanagan Division’s Operations Manager refused to release funds to cut the weed growth along the right of way, in the yards and at public crossings at grade (road crossings).  The unions complained, wrote letters, made phone calls and made strong verbal presentations to the Ops Mgr.  He would not be moved, reasoning that the snows of winter would knock the weeds down. 

We struggled through the summer, but the experience wasn’t without some drama, but that’s another story…., or two.

That same year, winter arrived with a vengeance.  It came early, and it came hard.  Week after week of sub-zero temperatures, strong winds and heavy snow filled the low-lying places in the valley with hard-packed, driven snow. 

The Ops Mgr was right.  The weeds were eventually beaten to the ground, however the sturdiest of them took a long time.  Those that had grown closest to the track collapsed where they had grown, the wind blowing them over the rails in a great blanket of slippery fiber, snow and ice.  On the Lumby sub, where the heaviest snowfalls are traditionally encountered, pulling and spotting industries was particularly hazardous due to not only the deep snow, but also the tangle of weeds that lay beneath the snow cover.
The work was intense under the best of conditions.  In bitterly cold weather, when the crew-men are bundled up in layers of heavy clothing, heavy socks, insulated boots, toques, at least two pairs of mitts, one wool and one leather…, a job that is, by nature a dangerous one, becomes treacherous.  Even small mistakes can bring dramatic results.

We started this day with a ‘rescue’ of the southbound CN train ex-Kamloops.  The night crew hadn’t been able to get out of Kamloops Junction until their mandatory 12 hours on duty had almost expired, and as a result, they had to leave the train at Monte Lake, where we found it and brought it into Vernon. There, the motive power consist of four SD40-2’s was broken up to provide three crews with power to run to Kelowna, Armstrong and Lumby.  At the end of the day, the three crews  returned to Vernon where the power was re-consisted into a four-unit consist to take all the cars that had been gathered throughout the valley all day.  Such was the normal cycle of activity in CN’s Okanagan sub in the 1990’s.
Photographer unknown
CN M420's northbound at Westwold, between Falkland and Monte Lake, ca. 2002.
Timing was everything with this operation.  Whenever the southbound freight had to be rescued…, and it happened way too often, the whole operation had to go like hell to try to make up some of the lost time.  If that lost time wasn’t made up, the northbound train would arrive late into Kamloops Jct, resulting in another rescue, this time the train would have to be rescued in Kamloops, causing even greater delay.  Once this pattern developed, it would often carry on all week, taking the weekend to get caught up and back on schedule.  All in all, a bothersome situation.

Brakeman Mark Goode and Conductor Don McMillan 

Today we’re late.  The office calls, wanting to know what time we might make it back to Vernon. 

We had gone up to Lumby, switching Lavington's wood chip plant, the glass plant and Lumby's mills.  We were on our way back with one more stop to make at Lavinton.

Leaving Lumby with twenty cars for Vernon.
Photo credit Len Vandergucht of Salmon Arm

The CPR crew hadn’t yet returned from Kelowna and might get back to Lumby Jct. before we do.  We would have to wait for them to complete their switching at the junction before they could get up to the north end of town to put their engine on the shop track. Our Kelowna crew managed to get back to Vernon and had placed their power on the shop track.  The Armstrong crew was on their way in. 
Timing is everything. 

Our last stop on the way back to the junction was at Tolko (Forest) Industries in Lavington.  We had already picked up a dozen loads of wood chips at Lavington on the way to Lumby. Added to the wood chips, lumber and veneer we pulled out of Riverside Lumber at Lumby, we arrived at Lavington with a long, heavy train.  We left the loads on the main line and backed into the mill with some empty bulk-head flats and some Rail-Boxes for lumber loading.  We pulled the loads and spotted the empties, and returned to the mainline to couple onto the cars we had brought from Lumby.
After the air had been cut in and the pressure in the SBU had come up to 80 psi, I set the brakes for a brake test.  Since the rear portion of the train had already been properly tested, we did a proper setup and release with a walking inspection of the Lavington pick-up.

With everybody on board, I release the engine brake and edge the throttle out.  It's a bit of a lift, at first, as the train is sitting on an incline, but soon the train moves more easily ahead.  In a couple of minutes, we're heading down a steep decline into a swale.  Highway 6, the road to Lumby, Cherryville and other southern BC centers lies at the bottom of the swale.  I set the brakes, partly to prevent the train’s speed from exceeding the legal speed limit of 25 mph, and partly to satisfy my need to ascertain that the brakes were working properly.  With whistle blowing loud, we cross the highway and begin to climb out of the hole and onto a mile of straight, level track. 
The brakes have applied and the train feels steadied.  I move the brake valve handle to release them, working power and watching the air flow meter and the brake pipe pressure reading on the TIBS display.  The brakes seem to drag longer than I expected them to and are slow to release completely.   The speedometer settled out at about 15 mph and the brake pipe pressure slowly crept back up to a level I was happy with.

The conductor is in the cab of the second unit, writing up his train.  The head end brakeman sits across the cab…,  watching my facial expressions. We discussed the fact that the brakes seemed to be behaving a bit strangely, but since they had both applied and released during our brake test at Lavington, and had applied again as we were leaving there, we weren't overly concerned at that time.

Now, up out of the swale and travelling over the straight track, there was only a quarter mile of the flat track left ahead of us. I checked the BP pressure again.  It was slow recovering…, too slow.  The brakes have released, but without a fully charged brake pipe, I would have fewer options available to control the train's speed going down the hill. Was it the cold weather?  The train line was reasonably tight, with only slight leakage before we left Lavington. 
The bright orange light on the front panel of the air flow meter was flickering on and off, meaning that the air pressure wasn't pumped back up after our latest application and release.  As the engine led the front of the train off the level track and onto the 1.5 to 2 % descent to Lumby Jct., I cursed CN for failing to provide dynamic brakes on our road power.  Sometimes, air brakes alone just weren’t enough to do the job. 

I thought about stopping to check out the brakes, put up some retainers, or put on some hand brakes.  But, with an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach, and feeling the pressure to keep the train moving toward Vernon, I decided to keep going. I was gambling that the brake pipe would continue to charge and that there would be sufficient air pressure available to slow or stop when we were approaching Cautionary Limits, or the spot where we might find other train movements using the track were on.
The speedometer began to edge past 25. With some reluctance, I reduced the throttle to ‘idle’ and took a light reduction from the brake pipe. A higher throttle setting causes the air compressor to put out greater volume at greater pressure, and I needed that compressor working hard to replenish our air reserves.  I followed that with a light application of the engine brakes.  I wanted to warm up all the brake shoes on the train.  We had been clipping the tops off snow drifts over the track and I was conscious of the possibility that a build-up of snow between the wheels and brake shoes would make braking difficult, if not impossible. 

Our speed was still increasing. Feeling that I was running out of room ahead, I decided to stop the train on the hill. I made a heavy brake application and waited for the full-set brake to stop the train. 

The speedometer climbed past 40 mph.  The brake reduction I had made hadn’t given me the results I wanted. 

My options were getting pretty slim.  

With only a couple of cards left to play in my hand, I pushed the brake valve handle into the EMERGENCY position!  The sudden rush of cold air escaping from the brake valve was loud and jarring!  In an emergency situation like this, "plugging her", or "putting her into the 'Big Hole'" was a head-end man's second-to-last card to play.

The last card is whether to stay and ride it out, or ..., jump.

The brakeman had a look of real concern on his face.  The conductor called from his seat in the second unit and, speaking in a soft voice, said…, “Have you heard from the CP crew?”
He knew we were not going to stop anytime soon and was now concerned about whether or not the CP crew would be working at Lumby Jct. when we arrived there. 

My most immediate concern at that point was that we would roll onto the old wooden trestle at the end of the Lumby sub at great speed and end up on Kal Lake road below the trestle. 
 CN train on Lumby Jct trestle
RBH photo
We  called the CPR crew on every radio channel that we had in common.  We knew they had a switching channel that we didn’t have, and feared that we wouldn’t be able to reach them in time to avoid a terrible wreck. 

The speedometer stopped climbing at just over 50 mph, the indicator needle bouncing slightly as the faded, yellow “Lumby Jct. One Mile” sign came into view in the distance.  I edged the engine brake on a little more.  The brake shoes had been getting hotter and hotter and were now smouldering, as they began to crumble and fall away from their hangers.  Brake shoe smoke was now filling the cab. 

The brakeman, began looking through the contact list on his cell and discovered that he had a cell number of one of the CPR crewmen.  A quick call discovered that they were switching at Lumby Jct. and they said they’d clear off the main line and line up the switches for us.  
Soon, they were monitoring our radio channel, waiting to find out how we were doing.  The main line was clear, they said, and if it was at all possible, they would try to help in any way they could.  They had two GP-38’s with dynamic brakes and would tie onto our tail end and use their DB to slow us down…, if they could catch us! In the meantime, they took up a position where they would be handy to help us, if help was needed.   They were also in a good position to witness a spectacular derailment if we failed to negotiate the curved trestle and piled up in the valley below.  

 I called the CN office to let them know our situation, as there were a number of busy road crossings at the bottom of the hill, in downtown Vernon.  These would have to be protected…, if we got that far.

 I glanced at the speedometer.  It was at 43 mph and dropping slowly.  The brake smoke in the cab was getting severe and the brakeman had the front door held partway open with his boot in an effort to clear away the acrid smoke. 

The three photos above are provided by Andy Cassidy.
They demonstrate badly worn brake shoes and shelled wheels similar to, but not as severe as the damage done to the wheels in our story.

I knew the engine’s wheels would be hot, blue and probably condemnable, but I didn’t care a damn for the wheels at that point.  In fact, if the wheels broke into pieces, we’d soon be in a pile-up, but at least it would be a pile-up on solid ground and not inside the Kal Lake General Store!
With the engine entering the steepest part of the downward grade, the east end of the trestle came into view. 
Snow began to fall.  It was a peaceful scene, but perhaps not for long.
The speed began to fall as the brakes began to take hold.  The train’s brakes were finally working!

Now, with most of our train on the heaviest down-grade of 2%, and the engine reaching for the wooden trestle, the brakes dug in hard, bringing the train to a stop. The ancient timber trestle creaked and groaned beneath the weight of the locomotives and the loaded lumber cars.  Rolling slowly across the span, the train finally came to rest  with the engine sitting just clear of the west end of the trestle, and clear of the Vernon-Kelowna main line.

Notice the CPR locomotives beyond the roadway. 
 They're standing on the Kelowna line, just clear of Lumby Junction.
Photo by the author
The wheels were very badly burnt, with almost every colour of the rainbow evident.  They weren’t cracked, but…, oh my…, they were cooked!  And the brake shoes?  They were non–existent.  Even the cast brake rigging that held brake shoes in position was burned off every truck. 
The engine consist couldn’t be moved on its own.  Half of the Okanagan sub's motive power fleet was crippled. 

We called a taxi to take us to the yard office where we booked off duty.  The night crew had arrived and were instructed to take the remaining two units to Lumby Jct and bring the crippled units to the shop track. They grumbled, but had no choice in the matter.
As a post-script, and because you’re going to want to know….CN sent a couple of truckloads of men and equipment from Kamloops to Vernon, where they worked for 16 hours to make the units fit to be moved back to Kamloops for repairs.  The temperature on the shop track while they worked was in excess of minus 32 degrees Celsius. 

And that’s how I came by my nick-name….., HOTWHEELS HARVEY.


Unknown said...

Really enjoy these refelections from the past Bruce, they are wonderful. I can think of many nick-names, Hot Wheels Harvey, Raincoat Jones, Crash Adams, Potato Face Crandle, Windy Wilson, The Wooden Horse, Big John, Senker, and many others. Railroaders were so notorious for coming up with nick-names, part of the culture, eh? Cheers my friend, hope all is well. Rocky "Roadrunner" - Sam Dempsey's nick-name for me when I worked as a head-end flagman on the Clearwater Road Switcher..

Unknown said...

Compelling! Denzel Washington kept flashing through my mind as I read this story. As a resident of Vernon and surrounding area for 53 years, I've made my way under the Lumby Jct trestle countless times. The beauty and distinct scent of this ancient timber trestle always captures my attention. It's a visual treat watching trains pass over this iconic structure, built around the early 1900s. Still in use today. Just uploaded a video to YouTube of a CN train crossing it.

Bruce said...

Denzel Washington, huh? I'm flattered, I think. Thanks for your comments.

Unknown said...

Excellent story, thank you for sharing. I'm curious to know if a reason was ever found for the brakes failing?