CN Pensioners Associations, Inc.

Caught Between


by
Gordon W. Burton
Copyright March 2002

 Running up the track, red flare penetrating the thick fog only a few feet ahead of me. I imagined I could hear the transcontinental racing toward us at 60 miles per hour. The lives of 350 passengers depended on the slim hope of its locomotive engineer catching a split second glance of my red fusee and applying the emergency brake.

 We were called that spring morning in 1949, for four-thirty for a second section of train 404 with full tonnage for the controlling grade. It was a beautiful morning. The sun rose with more than its usual brilliancy almost making up for the phone call that had dragged me out of a sound sleep..

 On reporting to the Roundhouse, we were assigned the 3534 a Mikado class engine. She was powerful enough to pull 7600 tons up the heaviest grade on our run, yet fast enough that she could be used for high-speed passenger runs when necessary. She was a good steamer and since fairly recently out of the back shop rode the rails more smoothly than most of her class. The Engineer who had earned the nick name Doc, and myself as the fireman had frequently worked with this engine and were confident we could get the best out of her. ¬Steam locomotives of that day, like ships of the sea were always referred to as 'she' or 'her'.

 We left the shop track on time and the head end brakeman lined switches to route us onto our train to pump the air in preparation for the prescribed air brake test. As we waited for the air brakes to pump up to service pressure the conductor walked the 72 car train checking his side of the box cars for anything that might affect safe operation. He delivered the train orders and Doc, the engineer read them aloud to everyone present before handing them to me. This procedure was prescribed by the rules and was designed to ensure all members of the crew understood the dispatcher's instructions. We compared our standard watches and noted we were within a few seconds of one another. In those days before automatic block signals we cleared superior trains especially passenger trains on the employee 'Time' Table scheduled times. So it was imperative that all running crews have standard watches and submit them to professional watch inspectors bimonthly to insure they were accurate to within a few seconds. Needless to say crews took good care and great pride in the accuracy of their railway grade watches. So much so that winding them and comparing with the national time signal became a daily ritual.

 Our train orders indicated that we would meet several freight trains by train order, also the employee's operating time-table indicated we faced trains No. 1 and No. 3 which were westward transcontinental passengers trains. We also had train No. 88 an eastbound local passenger train following us. We were holding an order authorizing us to run ahead of No. 88 the eastbound passenger train until overtaken. A normal situation since this train often lost time unloading heavy express and freight at the various stations. With a good run we could likely stay ahead of it.

 As we planned the trip, it appeared if all went well we could run to Uncus to meet No.1 --- the transcontinental passenger train. We should be away from North Edmonton well ahead of the East bound local No. 88 and would pass Tofield, where it branched off our track, well before we were overtaken. We faced nearly 13 miles of the controlling grade that would hold our speed down to about 15 miles per hour; but we would still have plenty of time to clear the time of number '1' at Uncus by five minutes as prescribed by the rules.

 Things went smoothly and we left North Edmonton with plenty of time to make Uncus. The engine was steaming perfectly and Engineer Doc Robinson worked her to the maximum to get top speed through Clover Bar for the run up the hill. We pounded past the east switch at Ardrosson at full throttle. We were six miles from the west switch at Uncus where we would enter the siding to clear No. 1. Our speed was slightly better than twenty miles per hour, so we knew we would be at the west switch ready to take the siding in about eighteen minutes. We needed four minutes to pull the train into clear plus the five minutes we must be in the clear ahead of No. 1's scheduled departure time. As we passed the East switch at Ardrosson our watches indicated we had 37 minutes before No. 1 was due out of Uncus. We were well within the safety requirements. We only needed 27minutes to clear at Uncus and having 10 minutes more than we needed the crew was comfortable with the decision to go.

 Everything went as planned until the point we would normally see the sign board indicating one mile to the Uncus station, which would be about 150 car lengths from the switch we would use to enter the siding. We were suddenly enveloped in smoke caused by a peat bog fire that had been smouldering for several weeks north of the right-away. We were not yet too concerned about the restricted vision because the telegraph poles were marked in increments of 25 boxcar lengths indicating the distance to the switch. (a boxcar was considered about 50 feet long). The poles were on my side. I first saw the 125 car length sign as we were passing it. The smoke was so thick I never saw the 75 car mark. We were now feeling our way through the smoke in search of the switch. We could barely see the front of the engine. We still had a good 15 minutes to clear but time was slipping away. We were moving at a walking speed and Doc told the brakeman to run ahead and line the switch to keep us moving; if we had to stop to line the switch we might have trouble starting again on this heavy grade. We still had 12 minutes to clear when Doc said "Gordon we have an inexperienced brakeman, I think he is riding the front of the engine, run ahead and line the switch so I won't have to stop."

 Just as I started down the ladder to run forward I saw the front wheels were passed the switch. Doc stopped the train and I threw the flagging kit to the brakeman and told him to get out as far as he could; but at whatever distance when he heard the passenger coming through the fog place stop signal torpedoes. We could be sure any engineer hearing stop signals in such dense smoke would hit the emergency brakes and at least immediately start to reduce speed.

 The brakeman ran out to flag. We still had ten minutes counting our clearing time before No. 1 was due out of Uncus but it was already due out of Lindbrook the next town east of Uncas. Doc backed up an engine length and I lined the switch to head us into the siding. I climbed back into the cab and ran the steam pressure as high as I could against the safety pop valves. We needed all the power we could get. Doc started to pull ahead but stalled after a car length. ---The technique of starting a heavy train with a steam locomotive was to bunch the slack between each car and actually start one car at a time until the entire train was moving.---- With a foot of slack between each car all bunched the engine could advance about 70 feet before the caboose began to move. Doc moved forward a few feet but the gathered slack ran back down the hill and the full weight of the train stopped the forward movement.

 We were in a dangerous situation. We were almost on No. 1's time. We hoped that despite the fog our flagman would stop the train. We couldn't back up out of the fog because we had train No. 88 a local passenger train possibly racing towards us from the rear. A train that could be meeting number No. 1 at a station beyond Uncus had No. 1 fallen off schedule. The thing we knew for certain was, a passenger train could burst through the fog with consequences too horrible to imagine.

 Doc looked across at me and said "Gordon, we don't need both of us on the engine grab some fusees and run as hard as you can. If you hear him coming be ready to throw a fusee at the right front cab window when he sees that he'll hit the emergency brakes for sure. I knew that Doc really meant without saying, was for me to get off the engine there is no use both of us getting killed. I have never forgotten his courage. A lessor man might have abandoned his post to save himself, but his first thought was to use his expertise to get the train into clear even if the attempt cost his life.

 I left the engine on the full run. I knew the further I ran the better chance a thrown fussee would alert the engineer in time to stop or at least to slow his train before the collision. As I ran I heard no sounds of an approaching train. I imagined that smog would muffle sound but I clearly heard the safety pop valves blowing on my engine indicating Doc had a full head of steam. I was thankful I hadn't lost all the conditioning gained from two years army service, as the choking fumes from the fussee in my hand was not helping my breathing. I was a car length away from the east switch when I saw it's dim outline and realised the fog was thinning. About the same time from the sound of the exhaust I knew Doc had the train moving rapidly into clear I walked a few car lengths past the east switch and came out into bright sunshine. The flagman was in position at a safe distance with red flag displayed and no sign of the passenger train. Doc pulled the train into clear. I walked back to the engine and rebuilt my fire after the hard pull into clear. The conductor hurried up and reported the tail end was clear of the main track. Doc gave five long blasts on the whistle to call the flagman in from the east. A few minutes later No. 1's headlight came into view, running about 25 minutes late. It was travelling at track speed probably better than 60 mile per hour making up lost time. It roared by our head end and charged into the dense fog the engineer confident that our train was in the clear in accordance with the rules. The conductor called the dispatcher from the station phone and was told that No. 1 and No. 88, were meeting at the station behind us.

 We stayed in the clear to let No. 88 pass. All of us silently wondering how we could have lived up to the rules and still came so close to tragedy. We had made our decision to clear No. 1 at Uncus not knowing that smoke from the burning peat bog combined with atmospheric conditions could create an impenetrable fog for almost two miles critical to our run..

 The bog smouldered for several weeks, following the morning we were 'caught between' two trains. A silent reminder that train-order-railroading had a smaller margin of safety than we had ever wanted to admit. Centralized Traffic Control governing train movements finally ended the decades of uncertainty and hazard inherent in clearing trains regulated only by judgement and the minute hands of railway grade watches.


Gordon Burton