Runaway on the Mountain Sub
By Phil Mason
The Canadian Pacific Railway has hauled coal for as long as I can remember. Even before unit
coal trains started operating plenty of coal was moved in those black coloured triple hoppers. Some even labeled for dedicated
Coleman-Port Moody service. Now ghost towns, Michel and Natal, British Columbia, had large producing coal mines at one time
serviced by Canadian Pacific. In the 1960s demand by Japan for low sulphur coal initiated unit trains dedicated to carrying only coal. The
trains came into service with shiny new red bathtub gondolas and multi-mark paint scheme. It wasn't long before the cars were re-painted
black. They might as well be black as coal dust soon turns them black very quickly. Trains leave the mines in southern British Columbia,
travel north up the Windermere Valley to join the main line at Golden, continue over the mountains, then follow the Thompson and Fraser
Rivers into Vancouver with their final destination at Roberts Bank Super Port. As you read this, unit coal trains run continuously day and
night, 7 days a week, 365 days a year... loads to the port... empties back to the mines... loads to the port... Over time the bathtub
gondolas have given way to modern aluminium cars as thousands, no, millions of tons of coal is delivered in a constant flow to the dumpers
at the port. Normally all goes as planned but one day in 1977 operations took a turn for the worse.
A Vancouver Magazine article titled Runaway in the Rockies by Daniel Wood, first published in October
1981, told the story about the runaway. It was subsequently republished in Jimmy Gullickson's autobiography, "Ballast Scorchers on
the High Iron" in 2011.
Phil Mason after 33 years of railway service retired as a Canadian Pacific
locomotive engineer in 2005. Below you can read his story about the events that happened that day in 1977, but first, examine this grade
chart and timetable for Canadian Pacific's Mountain Subdivision:
Mountain Subdivision Grade Chart
Time Table No. 93 - 15 November 1981
Other accounts of this incident have been published concerning the coal train that
was ahead of us on 25 Nov 1977. As time passes and the story gets retold, it changes and becomes more of a legend than a factual account.
What follows is what the railroaders in the area experienced that day in 1977.
On 25 Nov 1977 I was the head end trainman on CP freight 923, a Calgary-Vancouver freight consisting almost entirely of tank cars of LPG
(Liquid Petroleum Gas) bound for export to the US via the Burlington Northern interchange at Huntington, British Columbia, Sumas,
Washington, USA. At Field we changed off with the Calgary crew and proceeded westbound for the 125 mile run to our home terminal of
It was an evening run. For the first 33 miles of our run, we followed the Kicking Horse River down the western slope of the Rockies to
Golden. This part of British Columbia shares the same climate as western Alberta, the weather was below zero, and snowing lightly. We had
three SD40-2s on the head-end of our train. The engineer, Barney was a steam era veteran, a friendly and soft spoken fellow.
On our caboose was Norman, the conductor, a tough old Okanagan rancher, and Joe, a big friendly man from New Brunswick was the tail-end
trainman. We had been a regular train crew for some time and worked well together.
As we approached Golden, we could hear radio conversations, and became aware that we would be following a westbound coal train which was
joining the mainline from the south at Golden. (Junction of the Windermere Subdivision.)
In 1977 all the through freights, including the coal trains on the Mountain Subdivision, were manned through a common pool. We had worked
east in the morning with the engineer ahead of us, Timmy, who had an engineer trainee, Clarence. Somehow, there was an imbalance in the
number of train and engine crews laying over at Field, so we were heading home with Barney.
Both our trains would require a pusher to help is up the east slope of Rogers Pass, which meant
a stop at Rogers siding at the base of the climb, which would take about forty minutes. Rather than follow the coal train on
"approach" (clear to stop) signals for thirty miles, we slowed down and let them get ahead. So far, it was just a typical
evening on the Mountain Sub. I don't recall much eastbound traffic coming against us. I'm sure there was, but the meets must have taken
place smoothly on that mostly single track railway, because I don't recall any of them.
West of Golden, the railway follows the Columbia River for twenty or so miles of "river grade". The mountains of Alberta and BC
form an effective barrier against precipitation coming in from the Pacific Ocean. Each range of mountains catches more moisture, and as a
result, a train passing through the mountains can encounter significant weather changes. West of Donald, the weather changed from light
snow and sub-zero temperatures to heavy snowfall just below freezing. Barney noted that although the coal train was only 45 minutes ahead
of us the tracks ahead of our train were buried in snow.
He noted another change. With warmer temperatures, the leakage of air in the brake pipe to the tail-end decreased, a definite improvement
but all the snow was building up on the brake shoes, which required more frequent brake applications to prevent ice buildup.
Although we were in a virtual "white out" his knowledge of the route was such that he knew the signal locations and track
profile so well that we proceeded with confidence.
We were monitoring the radio to keep track of the progress of the coal train ahead of us. Once he departed Rogers siding, our pushers
would head east from the back track to the wye, and once they were clear in the wye, we would get a signal into the siding. Our conductor
would contact the pusher crew by radio telling them where to cut into the train. At Rogers, our tail-end trainman would walk up and make
the cut, and switch the pushers into the train.
This all happened a little slower this night, because each track switch would have to be swept out of accumulated snow before lining. We
were conscious of what was happening ahead of us, we were listening to the radio conversations between the coal train engineer and the
pushers climbing the hill. They were well ahead of us. Typically, with one train following another, both with pushers, there was a clever
"ballet" of train movements on the hill. The pusher on the first train would cut out of the train at Stoney Creek, and proceed
back east down the hill to Griffiths, a siding half way up the grade.
If the second train timed its departure to a message from the pushers that they were head "engines light" down the hill toward
them, there would be a perfect "headlight" meet at Griffiths with the loaded train getting a clear signal.
Such was life this night, we roared out of Rogers with the power of eight SD40-2s, three on the head-end, and five cut in mid-train (a
total of 24,000 horse power for a 75 car train). The pusher crew, two engineers, were true veterans. Theirs was the senior job in the BC
district, high paying with meals and lodging supplied. Most were veterans of the Kettle Valley Division, well accustomed to mountain
railroading. They were from the era before radios, so much of the switching and pusher operation was done by feel. All we had to say on
the head-end was "let's go" and away we went.
As predicted, we met the pushers from the coal train at Griffith without having to slow down. We were expecting the coal train to be
delayed by an anticipated meet with an eastbound coal empty at Stoney Creek, however the RTC (Rail Traffic Controller - Dispatcher for you
American readers.) decided to take the coal train west through the five mile long Connaught Tunnel and hold the meet at Glacier, the
summit of the Rogers Pass on the railway. More "ballet", we would cut out our pushers at Stoney Creek and be clear in the siding
by the time the eastbound empties arrived. I remember getting off our locomotive to PK the eastbound (Pins and Knuckles - to inspect the
approaching train while it passed.) and being almost waist deep in powder snow.
Following that meet we proceeded west toward the Connaught tunnel. It was predictably full of smoke from the previous trains, however we
were proceeding on a clear signal which meant the track was clear at least as far as Glacier, the other end of the tunnel. The warm
exhaust in the tunnel melted all the snow off our locomotive. We knew there were other eastbounds coming at us, based on the now several
hours old printed line up of trains we had picked up at Field. We half anticipated a double meet at Glacier between the coal train ahead
and ourselves with an eastbound, but the mid tunnel intermediate signal and the signal at the east switch of Glacier was clear. It was
always a relief to exit the tunnel and regain radio communication. Our train was about half way out of the tunnel when we heard the
conductor on the coal train ahead of us say "We're stopped back here". Oh, oh. That meant just one thing. The train ahead of us
was apart between the engines and the caboose. At the very least we would be delayed while they put the train back together. Still, it was
nothing to be alarmed about.
The next communications heard on the radio really got our attention. From the head-end of the coal train, Clarence, the trainee asked
"Are either of you hurt back there?", to which the reply, "Jimmy got banged up a bit, but he's OK". (Jimmy was the
tail-end trainman). We said to ourselves, "More than a break apart ahead of us." The next thing we hear is the engineer on the
coal train who had gone for a walk with a portable radio. "I don't know what happened to our trailing unit, there's nothing here but
the drawbar. I can't see the train anywhere", a few more moments and "Oh, Jesus Christ, I can see the trailing unit, upside down
and on fire in the ditch.", followed by sounds of his heavy breathing and footsteps as the mike on his radio stuck open. Finally,
"the whole valley is filled with coal cars".
Listening to all this converted Barney and myself on our following train to babbling idiots.
Finally, the RTC comes on the point to train radio and asks what has happened. With amazing composure, Clarence the trainee said, "We
ran away out of control from Glacier and are derailed west of Flat Creek. No one is seriously injured." The RTC said, "Did you
hear all that 923?", so we replied, "What do you want us to do?" The RTC said, "I've lost my CTC from Flat Creek west.
Flag yourself into the siding at Flat Creek, tie down your train, and go rescue the tail-end crew on the coal train. I have no idea what
shape the tracks are in behind the runaway so watch for overturned rails."
We did this tying virtually every handbrake on our train because the LPG was sloshing back and forth, causing the cars to move. Finally,
we proceeded west engines light to find the tail-end of the coal train. It had continued to snow heavily while this whole drama unfurled.
With snow covering the tracks ahead, we couldn't have seen an overturned rail in front of us. Barney said, "I don't think they would
blame us if we went on the ground picking up the guys from the coal train". It was a strange eerie feeling, creeping ahead, half
expecting to derail at any moment. On hearing that help was on the way, conductor Bill and tail-end trainman Jimmy from the coal train
decided to walk toward us. They kept us posted of their progress by radio, and both lit red fusees when we were close to them. It was a
strange sight, a red glow ahead of us in the whiteout of the blizzard.
Of course, we were anxious to know what happened, but when they climbed into our cab, there was very little conversation. Just, "How
are you doing?", and such. I went back to the other end of the power consist, then we backed up and coupled onto our train. By that
time, our tail-end crew had walked up. It's funny how crews stick together, Norm, Joe, and myself settled down in the cab of the trailing
locomotive and waited for instructions about what would happen next. After all the excitement, we were exhausted, and fell asleep. There
was lots of radio traffic, but so far no one was trying to contact us. Finally, after an hour or so, we were told to clamber out toward
the Trans-Canada Highway and wait for a taxi. The snow was almost up to our armpits hiking out toward the road.
It seemed so strange to see the familiar face of the taxi driver after all that had happened, a face of normal day-to-day life amid all
the bizarre events. Through the steamed up windows of the cab we caught a glimpse of the wreckage as we drove by, heading for
There's still more to this story, but from the perspective of a piglet named Wayne. (A hogger in
training officially known as an engine service brakeman.)
Wayne is a friend who was also took part of this drama. He had recently transferred from Schrieber, Ontario, because as an engine service
brakeman, he would be promoted to a hogger (locomotive engineer) much sooner in BC than in Ontario.
He was the head-end trainman on an eastbound freight east out of Revelstoke that evening. I think the freight was 772, a catch all general
freight from Vancouver to Calgary which bore a chemical train 700 number because it was carrying a few chemical tank cars used in the pulp
and paper industry. It was a short train, mostly pulp boxes, and anything else Vancouver wanted shipped east. They had two SD40-2s, ample
power for this sixty car freight.
The engineer was Bill, a tiny man, perhaps 4 foot 10 inches tall, and weighing about 125 pounds. He had spent much of his career as a
locomotive fireman at a branchline terminal in Manitoba until Canadian Pacific closed the terminal down. They offered him a job in BC, and
to pay moving expenses. By his own admission, he was somewhat afraid of the mountain grades and was extra cautious and slow.
On the tail-end of 772 was conductor Chester and tail-end trainman Helmut.
So far, their journey eastbound from Revelstoke had been uneventful, meeting no westbound traffic. As they were climbing upgrade between
Albert Canyon and Illecillewaet sidings, they heard a radio conversation which instantly caught their attention.
"Clarence, have you got it?" (meaning control of the train), from the tail-end of the coal train to the head end. "No,
Jimmy, we are out of control and doing sixty miles an hour.", was the answer. "We'll never make the curves at
Illecillewaet."", was the next transmission.
The effect on the crew of the eastbound was immediate. Bill the engineer opened the throttle and got the train going as fast as possible
into the siding at Illecillewaet. As soon as they cleared Bill stopped the train. Wayne wasn't waiting around to see what happened next.
A fit 25-year-old, and very tall, he headed up the nearby hillside to get as far away as possible. It was at least a thirty degree
upslope, covered in fresh snow. Finally, when he was far above the tracks, he stopped to catch his breath. By now, he realised that the
runaway had not reached their location before derailing. He looked at his footsteps up the hill, and it seemed he had been taking giant
strides at least five feet apart. He realised he was not alone on the hillside. Engineer Bill was right beside him. On the other end of
the train, conductor Chester had also chosen to climb the bank. He was another tall and fit person. However when he stopped climbing, he
was alone. He too figured out that the coal train wasn't coming. In time, he clambered back down to the caboose. Here he found tail-end
trainman Helmut sleeping contently in the cupola. He had slept through the whole drama.
Train number 803, Extra 5820 west, derailed at 00:30, 26 Nov 1977, at milepost 94.4 of the
Mountain Subdivision. The main line was closed for a week. Three locomotives, a "Robot" car, and sixty seven loaded coal cars
were destroyed. The usual consist of a coal train was four SD40-2s on the head end, two mid-train SD40-2s, plus a Robot car cut in
behind 45 cars of the 109 car train. A bridge was shifted off it's footings and part of a snowshed was damaged. Most of the damaged
equipment was cut up on the spot. Even today, there are small pieces of freight car equipment visible in the Illecillewaet River where it
There's Still More to the Story - August 2013
The crew on the Mountain Sub runaway faced much hardship following that incident. A second
runaway on the Fording Sub with the subsequent inquiry brought much to light about both runaways. Please note that no real names are used
in the following addendum to this story.
CP had a dedicated group of shop staff employees and supervisors who worked to keep "Locotrol" equipment working. When the
wrecked Robot Car (a radio receiver car which converted radio signals to air brake commands) was uncovered, "Milt", one of the
technicians examined the interior of the car and found the radios, logic cabinets, and air brake manifold to be undamaged.
The carmen on the auxiliary helped him take these items out of the wrecked car, and load them into a CP box van.
In the following weeks and months, the cause of the runaway was closely examined, and those involved got to recount what happened many
times. The crew were out of service for some time. Sadly, they didn't have any clear answers as to how the train got away on them, and for
awhile, all the blame was assigned to them. It took another coal train runaway on the Fording Subdivision near the mines in Crowsnest Pass
to uncover some of the details.
In that case, Bert, the engineer knew exactly what he did and when, and was unshakable under questioning. Not that Transport Canada and
the CPR didn't try. It turned out to be a technical glitch in the air brake controls. CP had known about it for some time, but had kept
quiet about it. Finally, Milt the technician decided that rather than subject the engineer to more unwarranted cross examination, he
yelled out at the Transport Canada hearing, "Stop harassing this man, half the people in this room know it was the number 5A check
valve sticking open that caused this runaway." Bang, bang, bang went the hearing officer's gavel. "We will adjourn for lunch
now." They never re-convened. A CP road foreman of engines met up with the employees attending the hearing in Cranbrook and told them
to go home and "thanks for your valuable input." (They hadn't had a chance to speak).
The undamaged Locotrol equipment from the Robot car, and from the lead locomotive in the runaway was taken to Ogden Shop in Calgary, and
tested. It was found to be operating properly as far as the railway and Transport Canada was concerned. The Locotrol technicians had their
own shop and test rack, plus a storeroom of spare components. They decided to "red tag" the equipment from the runaway, and
subject it to more testing when they had time.
Meanwhile, the official report of the runaway was published, blaming the incident on improper train handling and severe weather
conditions. Research Canada did an extensive study into the performance of fibre brake shoes in powder snow conditions which resulted in
revised air brake procedures when operating in powder snow conditions.
Four years went by. Milt was offered a job with the manufacturer of the radio components used in Locotrol, and left the railway. In the
years since the runaway, the Locotrol equipment from the train had been tested repeatedly, and it was discovered that magnetic check
valve 5A would occasionally stick in the open position. This could cause a "brake pipe rise" which in turn could cause the
pressure maintaining feature of the locomotive and Robot Car to release the train air brakes. Milt notified the CPR, and the air brake
manufacturer of this possible defect. They chose to do nothing about it, in fact the air brake manufacturer was threatening to him. The
equipment from the first runaway went back into storage, still red tagged.
One cold spring day in 1981, a very similar runaway took place on the Fording Sub with very similar results. Although Milt had left the
CPR, he made sure his former colleagues rescued the equipment from this wreck also. That equipment was also thoroughly tested and in
time, a fault with the same magnet valve was detected.
Bert, the engineer in the second runaway was a big, husky, no-nonsense fellow, and a very competent engineer. He was un-phased by the
increasingly hostile cross-examination at the hearing from the CPR lawyers and Transport Canada. He finally got angry and said, "You
guys are intent on firing me for just trying to do my job. I have nothing more to say, just fire me and let me get on with my life."
"Jack", the Transport Canada commissioner, was a former locomotive engineer himself and told the lawyers to back off. One of the
lawyers came back with some smart ass response so Milt decided to speak up. Within a week, all the 5A check valves had been replaced on
every locomotive and Robot Car. The official report of the Fording runaway remains incomplete pending further investigation, now, over
thirty years later.
In time, newer Locotrol equipment replaced the equipment used in the 1970's.
Everyone out there that night in November 1977 has retired. All had full careers with CP, some interrupted briefly after the runaway. Some
have passed away of old age. But it still remains etched into our collective memories.
Typical 1970-1980s Equipment
Below you will find photographs of typical equipment used on Canadian Pacific's unit coal
trains on their Mountain Subdivision in the 1970s and 1980s:
CP 5708 - Typical power
in 1970 was the General Motors built SD40-2 producing 3,000 horsepower for its C-C trucks. The SD40-2 was the best selling model
in General Motors history becoming a standard across North American railways.
CP 4551 - Montreal
Locomotive Works built the M-630 which produced 3,000 horsepower with an ALCO V16 4-cycle 251 turbocharged engine. Locotrol 1 and
Pacesetter slow speed equipment was installed in 1971. All were retired by 1995.
CP 349379 - is an early
bathtub gondola of 105 ton capacity with tapered sides, ends, and a rounded bottom designed specifically for unit train coal
service and manufactured by Hawker Siddeley in Trenton, Nova Scotia - 2001 Grahame Morris.
Robot 1027 - Robot cars
contained radio equipment enabling a head-end locomotive to control mid-train slave units. Eventually radios were fitted into
locomotives eliminating a need for robots. This is the robot destroyed in the runaway - 18 Nov 1976 Claude
CP 434534 - was an
extended vision caboose. Extended vision cabooses were first introduced in North America in the 1950s and quickly became the
mainstay design of the modern caboose.
CP 434412 - Canadian
Pacific built 435 extended vision cabooses at their Angus Shops in Montreal between 1970 and 1981. This interior photo shows one
of the cupola crew seats.
CP 434412 - A second photo
displays the galley of this Angus built extended vision caboose. In some parts of Canada a caboose is also called a
CP 5802 West - Four
head-end units pull a unit coal train comprised of twelve SD40-2s, including pushers, across Stoney Creek bridge - 15 Sep 1981
Employee News Articles
May 1969 - CP Rail Gondolas Designed for Advanced Unit Train Operation
March 1987 - Route Change Controversial to This Day
July 1987 - CP Rail Coal Trains Feed the "Giant"
November 1987 - Golden Shop Officially Opened
April 1988 - Heavy Haul Handles Record Amount of Coal
December 1988 - Railway Sets Record for Moving Coal
January 2005 - Phil Mason's Last Run
Runaway in the Rockies
Ballast Scorchers on the High Iron
Kettle Valley Press
Associated Web Sites
Canadian Pacific Railway
Runaway at Flat Creek
Canadian Black Gold
The Last Pushers - DVD