Runaway in the Rockies
By Daniel Wood
Through the heavy snow, 35 year old Canadian Pacific Railway engineer trainee Clarence Thacker
saw the signal go green above two red lights. He released the train's brakes. Behind him stretched seven 3,000 horsepower diesel engines, a caboose, and,
between them, 106 cars of coal destined for Point Roberts and the steel mills of Japan. Ahead of him, beyond the windshield wipers and the glare of the
headlights, lay the first of 40 miles of the steepest and most dangerous tracks in North America. It was 12:25 a.m., November 26, 1977, and by every subsequent
assessment, Thacker and his four companions on the Extra 5820 West were about to die.
Seated in the brakeman's chair a few feet to Thacker's left, Greg Tirrell, then 24, believed that the 18 inches of new snow along the tracks that annually had
more than 30 feet dumped on them would assure him some good skiing the next day on the slopes above his home in Revelstoke, B.C.. He had just watched an
eastbound freight loom out of the night, pushing a giant wave of powdery snow before it as it passed through the siding at Glacier. Around them, obscured in
the blizzard, were the peaks of the Selkirk Mountains, and nearer, a few darkened trailers housing a half-dozen section men whose job it was to clear the
switches and rails along the snowiest section of rail line in Canada.
Between Tirrell and Thacker paced the trains engineer, 48 year old Timmy Hamm, a man who had spent well over half his life with the CPR. His job that night was
to instruct Thacker in the operation of a coal train.
Almost a mile and a quarter behind the lead engine, tail-end brakeman Jimmy Gullickson and conductor Bill Belton sat in twin chairs looking out into the
blackness. The snow muffled the sounds from the slow moving freight as it passed. Belton, with 20 years experience on the CPR knew the old maxim railroaders
were fond of repeating about their employer: "Uphill slow, downhill fast. Tonnage first, safety last." The train they were about to take down the
snow covered rails toward Revelstoke was just one of 464 heavy tonnage coal trains to move through Rogers Pass that year. The Extra 5820 West weighed 15,292
tons or over 30,000,000 pounds.
Belton saw the needle jump slightly on the brake pressure gauge indicating that Thacker had released the brake on the lead engine. With a slight jerk, the
caboose began rolling. For a few moments, it all felt familiar and routine.
According to the CPR manual, no section of rail in Canada requires more caution and lower speeds than the section in front of the Extra 5820. Considering the
number of sharp curves and the 2.3 per cent maximum gradient, speeds over the next eight miles should never, the handbook stipulates, exceed twenty miles an
hour. In heavy snow, with a heavy train and the possibility of icing on both the tracks and brake shoes even lower speeds would have been advised. The
potential for disaster on "The Hill", as trainman call that particular slope, is well known. Close to 300 people, most of them CPR employees, have
died in that region since the track was put through in 1885.
The cab of a railway engine is a cramped place, painted that ubiquitous landlord green and the size of an average apartments bathroom. The steady rumble of
those thousands of horsepower from the diesel engines and the intermittent hisses from released air pressure out of the brakes, combine with the distinct odor
of exhaust to urge anyone other than a rail buff to leave the space quickly. Thacker was such a buff. His father and his father's father had been railway men,
and Thacker could recall as a boy in Winnipeg looking up at a big steam locomotive hoping someday he could drive one. Now he had gotten his chance. Just five
weeks before, after 17 years as a trainman and conductor with the CPR, he had begun the course leading toward certification as a railway engineer. Under Hamm's
supervision, he had already taken four loaded coal trains down The Hill.
It takes very little time for 15,000-odd tons of train to get rolling when it is already poised on a downhill slope. With the brakes released, momentum soon
took over. The CPR manual requires a quick application of the brakes at 10 mph just below Glacier to prevent the possibility of any runaways. But as railwaymen
in the Mountain Subdivision know, one can get a bit of a jump on the long haul downhill by letting the train coast for a bit, pushed by the enormous weight
behind. This is what Thacker did. Thirty seconds passed.
When the digital speedometer just to the left of the engineman's front window showed 15 mph, Thacker hit the button on his control console, activating the
brakes. With a loud hiss, 15 pounds of air pressure jetted into the cabin. He expected to feel the train slowing as the brake shoes clamped down on the train's
The train's speed increased.
Hamm, leaning over the top of the chest high control console, looked down on Thacker. "Hit it again," he said. It was the brake-button. Thacker hit
it again, and a second burst of pressurized air hissed into the cab.
Still the trains speed increased.
Tirrell, his face pressed against the cab's left window, watched with mounting concern as the train continued to surge ahead. The snow, from his perspective,
had begun to move horizontally. But he expected the train to slow on a flattish spot a mile and a half below Glacier. Instead, it passed through there, gaining
speed every second, then raced on to the next steep slope just beyond. The speedometer showed 35 mph. Something is wrong, Tirrell told himself, but he said
In the caboose, Belton and Gullickson had made the same observation. Gullickson got on the radio-phone, "Have you got a hold of her?" he asked
Thacker. "We're working on it," came Thacker's voice in reply.
It seemed to be an odd time to be working on it, Belton thought. But in two decades with the CPR, he had been in a lot worse situations, including four minor
Up in the lead engine, nothing was working right. Thacker had already used enough brake pressure to bring the train to a complete halt under normal
circumstances, and yet, with each passing second, a new, higher number came up on the speedometer. The train lurched heavily at the curves, leaning as though
it was about to tip. Again Thacker and Hamm exchanged glances.
Gullickson's voice came over the speaker again. "How you making out, C.W.?" Clarence William Thacker wasn't sure. Hamm grabbed the radio-phone.
"We've got everything in it but the kitchen sink," he said.
In the caboose, Belton, the conductor, heard that and took the radio-phone from Gullickson. "Are you going to hit it?" In railway jargon, that means
hit the emergency brake.
"We just did."
"We just did."
Belton couldn't believe his ears. That meant the engineer had applied full braking power, everything, and yet the train hadn't slowed by a fraction. Belton
looked at Gullickson. They jumped from the raised coupola into the caboose's main aisle. Their empty coffee mugs slid across the table. The kettle rattled on
the stove. The caboose lurched from side to side, the last car in a mile and a quarter whip. They had become helpless passengers in every trainman's
nightmare, a runaway in the Rockies. They pulled on their coats and decided to jump.
Belton yanked open the caboose's front door. A blast of snow and minus 5 degree Celsius cold hit him in the face. He looked down and noticed to his horror
that, in the panic of the moment, he had forgotten to put his boots on. He was about to jump into four feet of snow in sub-zero temperatures in his socks. He
scrambled back inside and hurriedly did up his boots. Gullickson, almost 20 years Belton's junior, watched in growing terror as the trains speed continued to
increase. Things crashed around inside the caboose as the train snapped through the curves. Belton, now fully dressed for the weather, opened the caboose's
door a second time and peered out. The train was going too fast to jump.
Up front, too, something close to panic reigned. Thacker, having pushed the emergency brake button, shouted to Hamm, "Timmy, you can have her. I'm getting
the hell off!"
"Don't jump. Don't jump. You'll never make it." the engineer said as he slid into his seat at the engineers console. Tirrell watched as Thacker
pulled on his winter coat. "What are you going to do?" he asked.
"Jump, how fast we going?"
Thacker glanced over at the speedometer. It seemed incredible. "Sixty," he said. They were traveling three times the maximum speed allowed for those
"Oh, God'" Tirrell groaned.
Tirrell began putting on his coat. Thacker, with Tirrell close behind , pulled open the cab's door. Snow swirled into their eyes. Everything in the darkness
blurred together, snow banks, rocky cliffs, trees. A jump might land them in a snowdrift. Timed wrong, and they would splatter against a cliff.
"Don't jump," Hamm called again.
They slammed the door behind them, deciding in the face of a possible instant death to ride it out. The train just couldn't go any faster.
The train went faster.
Back inside, Thacker saw the signal lights at the Flat Creek siding, seven miles west of Glacier, and what they said frightened him more than anything
previously. The signal informed him that the Extra Eastbound, a heavy freight, lay somewhere in the blizzard directly ahead.
Thacker grabbed the radio-phone and in a second had the engineer of the Extra Eastbound on the line. Because of the static, though, his voice was hard to
hear."Where are you, Bill?" he asked.
"We're at the Mile Board."
Thacker didn't have to think for very long. To the engineer of the eastbound he shouted, "Get the hell out of the way! We're on a runaway."
And to Hamm, Thacker said, "Jesus Christ, Timmy. A head-on." By Thacker's calculation, the Extra Eastbound lay less than two miles ahead, although in
fact it turned out to be rather more. In any event, the crew figured that they had less than minutes to live. Again Thacker decided to jump, but just then a
tremendous surge struck their train from the rear as though something had given it an unkind extra push. Thacker fought to remain in his seat.
From the caboose, the crew in the front of the train heard Belton say, "We've pulled the pin. We've cut the caboose off."
Gullickson had managed, at those high speeds, to clamber out and beneath the caboose and turn a lever to separate his car from the rest of the train. He saw
the last of the coal cars disappear into the darkness and snow. Belton figured for sure his friends in the engine were about to die. But it was not a thought
he had time to dwell on. He and Gullickson were themselves on a runaway caboose now, rushing through the night with rocky ledges on one side and the gorge of
the Illecillewaet River on the other, without headlights, and without anything other than the two manual brakes located outdoors at each end of the caboose. If
the coal train were to somehow to stop ahead of them, and if they were unable to apply the manual brakes, they would almost certainly die rear-ending the very
train they had so happily just left.
Gullickson took the front brake and Belton the back. Each brake handle has the appearance of an automobile's steering-wheel, and operates by a simple rotation
clockwise to clamp down the brake shoes beneath the car. Both men wound the handles up to maximum tightness until their arms ached and their teeth grated. The
caboose wouldn't stop. They dashed back inside. Each secretly suspected the other of failing to apply the brakes fully.
"You tighten it hard?"
The moment contained a Keystone Cops quality, but neither of them could have appreciated it then. They pushed past each other, exchanging places at the two
brake handles to check each others efforts. Propelled by adrenaline, both managed to squeeze an extra inch of turn onto the wheels, but still the caboose slid
Again they exchanged places. And again. And as they rushed in ever mounting panic back and forth along the caboose's aisle between the two brake handles, they
could hear Hamm on the radio-phone announcing like a sportscaster the steady increases in the speed of the train itself.
Each time, Hamm's voice incredulous and doomed.
"Where are you now, C.W.?" Gullickson called into the phone.
In reply, Thacker's voice answered, "Below Flat Creek. I think we've had the biscuit."
"Hold on. You'll make it." Gullickson said lamely. It was something he didn't really believe.
The three men in the engine were preparing to die.
Thacker, transfixed by the thought of a head-on with the freight, stared out of the engines front window as the train swept through the blind curves, each
moment expecting to see the headlights of the approaching train. If they hit, he knew that death would be instantaneous. But if they were to derail in a
snowshed or down into the river, he imagined himself lying in the wreckage, legless or with his head half smashed. He dreaded that, wanting it to be clean and
quick. Thacker thought of his wife, Sylvia, and his four kids. He badly wanted to tell them that he loved them, but mostly he thought of dying. Why me? Why me?
He kept asking himself. He wanted to go back to the decision he had made earlier that day to take that shift, and unmake it. He could have been down in town
watching the Revelstoke Bruins playing hockey.
Hamm, too, stared ahead. He had done everything, and nothing had worked. He had lost control of the Extra 5820, the first train ever to get away from him.
Tirrell clung to the underside of the fireman's seat, wishing that Gullickson, the trains other brakeman, had not refused his suggestion to swap positions on
the train that night.
From beneath the train came no sound of braking. No one spoke. Even the engines had shut down automatically when the train exceeded its maximum safe speed. The
blizzard muffled everything. The windshield wipers moved ineffectually against the snow which now swirled around the cab like something, to Tirrell's eyes, out
of a bad acid trip. On the glass he saw his face reflected, and it was the face of death.
Like a juggernaut, they plowed on through the night amid an eerie silence. They were helpless. With each curve they expected that this time, no this time, no
THIS time the train would derail.
It just went faster.
Down in Revelstoke, Kathy Steed, the railway dispatcher, sat in the Centralized Traffic Control room before a large, illuminated panel that displayed
electrically the position and movement of every train on The Hill. She watched in astonishment as the Extra 5820 activated light bulb after light bulb on the
Big Board until they were blinking on and off like Christmas tree ornaments. The lights indicating the movement of the Extra 5820 raced toward the left: the
lights indicating the Extra Eastbound freight crept slowly right. She could see the head-on coming.
She got on the phone to the Eastbound. "The 5820's a runaway."
"I know. Can you get me into an empty siding?"
"Can you make it to Illecillewaet?"
"How fast are they coming down?"
"I don't have much choice, do I?"
Bill Brotchie, the engineer of the Extra Eastbound was in a terrible situation. In order to get out of the way of the runaway, he would have to go forward,
towards it, to reach the safety of the siding at Illecillewaet.
Thacker braced himself. Any second now they would hit the oncoming freight. Any second now they would derail. Again he considered jumping. In his mind he began
to calculate the route that lay immediately ahead. He might make it going into the double curve above the Illecillewaet River a half-mile ahead. If not there,
nowhere, for after that the track entered the triple-curving Illecillewaet Tunnel and no train going their speed could possibly make it through there. But, he
told himself, no train had ever run away like this before. His mind lodged on the effects of a wreck in the tunnel. It would be awful. They would go sideways
in there. They would jam up. It would be like a giant compactor as the 106 coal cars rammed into the leading engines, reducing them to a steel pulp. They would
never make it alive. At 85 mph, Thacker opened the cab's side window and prepared to jump.
Just then the train derailed.
Behind the third engine, a solid steel bar the diameter of a telephone pole snapped as the train entered a sharp curve on a bridge. The fourth engine, suddenly
broken from the leading engines, tipped sideward and then tumbled upside down through the ice on the Illecillewaet River 20 feet below. It drew the first
attached coal car after it. Then, car after car began jack-knifing back through the train as momentum hurled each unit into the one preceding it. Two robot
engines, located in the middle of the train, collided with each other, and thousands of gallons of diesel fuel began to ignite. The rear section of the train
continued to accordion, demolishing a second steel bridge and dumping more cars into the river. And still the cars pounded together, ripping up rails and
knocking down telephone lines. In all, 78 coal cars and 3 engines lay crumpled and burning along the track. Somehow, the train had made it through 24 curves
and eight miles of the steepest track in Canada before derailing. Railroad men say that 10 cars derail for every 10 mph of speed. The Extra 5820 was going 85
mph when it derailed.
Amid sparks and smoke and the grinding of brake shoes, the 36 wheels beneath the three surviving, lead engines began to slow. Free of the close to 15,000 tons
of coal cars that had, in effect been pushing the runaway downhill, the engines came to a halt. Amazingly, they had not derailed. Looking back, Thacker saw
explosions lighting up the entire valley as though someone were taking flash pictures of the disaster. For a few seconds, the three front end men waited, half
expecting to feel the slam of an errant coal car into the rear of the engines. But nothing happened. They had survived.
Belton and Gullickson, too, had managed to cheat death. After two miles of skidding in the pitch dark, their frantic efforts at the brake handles had paid off.
The caboose's powerful momentum had been overcome and the car brought to a stop. With rubbery legs, they both jumped down into the snow, happy to feel solid
ground beneath their feet.
While Hamm shut down the lead engines and called for help on the radio, Thacker and Tirrell walked back along the engines catwalks to where the train had
broken apart. Flames from the wreck filled the air, creating macabre shadows. Thacker jumped down beside the rails. "Thank Christ!" he muttered to
himself. When no one was looking, he turned his head toward a snowbank and threw up.
In terms of damage, it was the worst wreck in Canadian railroad history. Among friends, Thacker is called The Six Million Dollar Man. That is how much it took
to replace and repair the destruction he inadvertently set loose.
Ten days later, the line had been cleared, although the force of the impact had reduced most of the derailed cars to twisted parodies. Of the wreck, Tirrell
says, "They came in with the Cats and picked up the spilled coal, and the cars were cut up for scrap. For all I know, the CPR probably shipped the whole
lot to Japan to be made into Datsuns. You could be driving the Extra 5820 right now. I hope you have better luck than we did."
What Went Wrong?
IN A REPORT on the wreck issued by the Canadian Transport Commission in January, 1980, the blame for the disaster was placed on Hamm, Belton, and Thacker. It
is a view that the trainmen vehemently protest. The CTC found that by delaying the initial braking below Glacier until the train had reached 15 mph, Thacker
had, quite unsuspectingly, precipitated the chain of events that led to the derailment. He should have begun slowing the train once it had reached 10 mph.
Unaware of this miscalculation, the report continues, Thacker and then Hamm began releasing excessive amounts of brake pressure until there was not enough left
to counter the downhill momentum of the train. Belton, too, comes to blame since, by the CTC's estimation, his action in ordering Gullickson to cut the caboose
free may have resulted in an accidental further depletion of brake pressure at precisely the time the front-end crew were fighting for the trains control.
In the view of the three trainmen themselves, the CPR is the real culprit. It is a widely held opinion among railroad men in Revelstoke that, since they are
paid by the mile and not by the hour, CPR employees earn considerably less in the mountains than those who work in most other parts of Canada. On the Prairies,
trains often average 90 km per hour, twice the speed of those going through Rogers Pass. So, there is a tendency for railroad men in the mountains to speed.
This factor, combines with the extraordinary weight of the modern coal trains (now legally 20 cars longer than the maximum safe limit of 88 car trains a few
years ago) to work against safety. The bigger the train, the harder it is to stop. And when the temptation to speed and the excess weight combine, as they do
in the Rogers Pass, with terrible snow conditions, the possibility of derailments increases considerably.
It is common knowledge among trainmen that this is the most dangerous section of track in Canada, which likely explains why men with seniority prefer other,
safer runs toward Kamloops, leaving The Hill to the younger and less experienced engineers.
Perhaps these are reasons why the CPR recently announced plans to drill a new, 14.5 km double-tracked tunnel beneath Rogers Pass. To cost $500,000,000.00, it
will be the longest tunnel in North America. When completed, it will eliminate the sharpest curves, the steepest slopes and the possibility of head on
collisions in the Rogers Pass, the three dangers, in fact, that Thacker and his companions faced on the Extra 5820. But it will not be complete until the late
1980's. In the meanwhile, over 500 coal trains a year descend The Hill towards Revelstoke, and trainmen ask who will be the next to ride a runaway.
THE RUNAWAY CREW are all with the CPR still. Hamm, in effect, has been demoted and only runs the yard trains in Revelstoke although he feels unfairly punished
at having to take the brunt of the blame. Thacker has been a certified engineer for three years now and regularly takes such trains as the Extra 5820 down the
same section of track. The sharp curve where he derailed has been removed, but all else remains the same. Trains are his life, and he says with the enthusiasm
of boyhood that he gets up in the morning and looks forward to feeling the 24,000 horsepower of diesel engines at his finger-tips.
There have been no more runaways on this section of track, but the trainmen point to the runaway on the Fording River line in which one of the CPR's most
senior engineers lost his train under identical circumstances last winter.
The Union position is that the men on the 5820 were unfairly punished. As a direct result of this wreck, movement recorders were added to CPR engines to record
every action of the engine and the engineer. The trainmen loath the box, the Union calls it unnecessary surveillance, and the CPR says that it has cut down on
the cowboy-engineers who like to ride fast.