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Canadian Railroads > November 24th, 1977, the Flat Creek runaway CP


Date: 11/23/14 09:05
November 24th, 1977, the Flat Creek runaway CP
Author: eminence_grise

The runaway of a westbound coal train at Flat Creek BC on CP's Mountain Subdivision on November 24th, 1977 had a profound effect on the careers of several railroaders, and the rules and regulations regarding the operation of heavy trains down steep mountain grades. Although there was huge destruction of equipment and infrastructure, there were no significant injuries.

All involved have since retired from CP, and some have passed away.

The image shows an eastbound "Boxes" (grain empties) at Stoney Creek BC waiting on the main to meet a westbound on the morning of November 24th, 1977, 37 years ago this Monday.

"Timmy" was the engineer, Clarence was the engineer trainee, and I (Phil Mason) was the head end trainman. In the caboose, Norm was the conductor and Joe, the tail end trainman. The trip from Revelstoke to Field of this eastbound train was entirely uneventful, however it started well before dawn on November 24th, and the train crew (Norm, myself and Joe) elected to book crew rest at Field.The engine crew, Timmy and Clarence elected to stay OK for duty.

Later on the 24th, we were called for duty on train 923, a westbound train from Field BC comprised entirely of tank cars of liquid propane gas. Barney was our engineer, as Timmy and Clarence had been called ahead of us to deadhead by taxi to Golden BC with a different crew. (Gord and Jimmy, trainmen and conductor Bill).

Our westbound journey down the western slope of the Kicking Horse Pass was uneventful, with light snow and frigid temperatures.
At Golden BC, we encountered the full brunt of a major snowstorm coming off the Pacific Ocean.

On the railroad radio, we could hear coal train 803 proceeding westbound twenty miles ahead of us. Although train 803 was perhaps half an hour ahead of us on the same tracks, they were snow covered ahead of us.

Because both our trains would require pushers (helpers) up the west slope of Rogers Pass, Barney slowed our train to allow the coal train ahead of us time to switch the pushers into their train, and leave the Rogers pusher terminal ahead of us. Because there was another westbound ahead of the coal train, we all were taking part in an orchestrated move between the westbound trains, pushers running light eastbound down Beaver Hill, and the train dispatcher (RTC) in Revelstoke, controlling the signals and switches from his CTC panel in Revelstoke. Although it was snowing enough to require sweeping out switches, the three westbound trains made their steady progress up the eastern slope of Rogers Pass , each cutting in pushers at Rogers, and setting them out at Stoney Creek. The engineers on the pusher units were all steam veterans with many years of service and knew how to keep the westbound rolling with minimum delay and fuss.

So it was that we were waiting for a signal to proceed westbound at Stoney Creek, half expecting to meet an eastbound coal empties.It was a pleasant surprise when our train got a clear signal to proceed through the five mile long Connaught tunnel under Rogers Pass . While we ground along at 15 miles per hour upgrade through the tunnel, we peered through the exhaust fog of the two trains ahead of us. We expected to catch up with the coal train, and were surprised that the intermediate signals showed "clear" for us through the tunnel to Glacier and beyond. Railroad radio was not received in the tunnel. We emerged into fresh air and a clear signal at Glacier, with the expected eastbound coal empties waiting in the siding. So far, an uneventful trip.

On the railroad radio, we heard the broadcast from the caboose on 803 ahead of us "W'ere stopped back here", a sure sign of a break apart (broken coupling). Barney glanced at me and said, "Were going to be delayed". The next broadcast on the radio from the head end of 803 caught our attention. "Anybody hurt back there?", to which the reply "Jimmy got banged up abit". Then came the voice of engineer Timmy with a portable radio, "I'm walking back to see what happened to our train", next, "the two trailing units are missing and there is a drawbar hanging off the tail end of the second unit" He then closed the brake pipe and m.u. hose connecting pipes to recover the air brakes on the lead units. "I can't see the rest of the train from here" was the next broadcast and then "the two trailing units are upside down on fire in the river" followed by "J---s Chr-st, the entire valley is filled with coal cars". Everybody that heard that broadcast were terrified.

More than seventy coal cars, four locomotives including the mid train remotes, and a railway bridge were destroyed.

Some time later, we secured train 923 at Flat Creek, and proceeded engines light to pick up the tail end crew of train 803.
Our conversations with them were very brief "How are you doing" and so on, and than we all went to sleep, mentally exhausted until our taxi relief showed up.

The second image shows the view from the engine cab of a westbound freight at the intermediate signal for Flat Creek BC, the location where train 803 started to run away out of control.



Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 11/23/14 09:43 by eminence_grise.






Date: 11/23/14 09:39
Re: November 24th, 1977, the Flat Creek runaway CP
Author: eminence_grise

Meanwhile, to the west, a short eastbound freight train called the "Coquitlam Empties" was headed toward a meet with the coal train at Illecillewaet siding when the coal train announced it was running away out of control. On board the eastbound was engineer Bill, head end trainman Wayne, and conductor Chester along with trainman Helmut on the caboose. When they heared what was happening via the train radio, Bill scooted the short eastbound empty into clear in the siding as fast as he could.

The first image shows a westbound train approaching Illecillewaet. Double tracking in the 1980's replaced all the trackage and the bridge visible in this image.

My friend Wayne, the head end trainman was in the prime of his life, fit and very tall. As soon as the train stopped, he climbed the adjacent hillside to get clear of the tracks. When he was far above the tracks and the adrenalin rush subsided, he was amazed at the strides he had taken through the deep snow. What amazed him more was that Bill, the engineer was right beside him. Bill was barely 5 feet tall and thirty years older than Wayne. When nothing happened for several minutes, they came to the conclusion that the runaway had wrecked before reaching their location, and clambered down the bank.

At the other end of the train, conductor Chester, also very tall and fit had performed a similar feat of hill climbing. However, the tail end trainman, Helmut was nowhere to be seen. Worried that he may have run into the nearby river, Chester was concerned but on returning to the caboose, found Helmut sleeping peacefully , having slept through the entire event.

The second image shows a westbound coal train very similar to the one that ran away in the South Yard at Golden BC a few days before the runaway.

After the event, the crew involved were out of service for some time. A subsequent Transport Canada investigation was somewhat vague about the causes of the runaway, blaming crew error and snow conditions. Following the event, early event recorders were added to coal train lead locomotives and a complete review of air brake handling practices was held with all locomotive crews.
Three years later, a very similar event happened on the CP Fording Sub. from the mines on the eastern slope of the Crowsnest Pass in the Rockies.

The crew of the Flat Creek runaway did not do well under cross examination at the Transport Canada hearing into that event, however the use of an event recorder and excellent testimony from Bert,the engineer of the Fording runaway train, plus some physical evidence from a former CP technician removed from equipment involved in the Flat Creek wreck bought much greater understanding to the cause of the two runaways.



Edited 3 time(s). Last edit at 11/23/14 11:17 by eminence_grise.






Date: 11/23/14 10:09
Re: November 24th, 1977, the Flat Creek runaway CP
Author: Train611

HI,

That is an incredible story, the good news being no one was seriously injured.

611



Date: 11/23/14 10:11
Re: November 24th, 1977, the Flat Creek runaway CP
Author: eminence_grise

Shortly after the Flat Creek runaway, an account by one of the crewmembers of train 803 on 11/24/77 appeared in the colour supplement to one of the Vancouver newspapers giving a minute by minute description of being aboard the runaway train. A very similar account then appeared in the Canadian edition of Reader's Digest. From time to time, the "Vancouver Today" article is republished. As one who was nearby, it is basically accurate if somewhat sensationalised.



Date: 11/23/14 10:37
Re: November 24th, 1977, the Flat Creek runaway CP
Author: dcfbalcoS1

So. . . . what did actually happen since it was not published here ?



Date: 11/23/14 10:41
Re: November 24th, 1977, the Flat Creek runaway CP
Author: hoggerdoug

Great story Phil. We too had some awesome and disturbing runaway trains on BC Rail. Some were by equipment failure,brake valve failure, brake pipe obstructions, hose bags "kicking on a crossing" or poor air brake handling. Event recorder data when properly analysed and interpreted can be quite useful to determine some of these events. On the mountain grades with "newer" brake valve equipped cars, some of the old standard air brake handling techniques just were not compatible. I seem to recall in the runaway you have illustrated, the actual cause was within some of the software or hardware associated with the remote control units.
Doug



Date: 11/23/14 11:03
Re: November 24th, 1977, the Flat Creek runaway CP
Author: eminence_grise

dcfbalcoS1 Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> So. . . . what did actually happen since it was
> not published here ?

These trains used Locotrol 1.05 for their mid train DPU's. Compared to modern remote control systems, early locotrol was not as reliable. A missed data communication between the control locomotives and the mid train remotes may have caused the pressure maintaining feature to release the air brakes at a critical juncture descending the grade. Was it a failure in software or a complex crew error? Still controversial. That's why the accounts are surfacing after anyone responsible have left the company.



Date: 11/23/14 11:15
Re: November 24th, 1977, the Flat Creek runaway CP
Author: navy5717th

Great story, Phil !!.

It's one of those when you KNOW something bad is going to happen -- because it already had -- but you're reading to find out the circumstantial details.

Fritz inn HSV, AL, USA



Date: 11/23/14 16:20
Re: November 24th, 1977, the Flat Creek runaway CP
Author: pummer

Thanks for the great story. Must be quite an experience going thru there during a snowstorm.



Date: 11/24/14 07:09
Re: November 24th, 1977, the Flat Creek runaway CP
Author: goneon66

what were some of the problems associated with locotrol?

very interesting story and thanks for posting it.........

66



Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 11/24/14 08:03 by goneon66.



Date: 11/24/14 11:57
Re: November 24th, 1977, the Flat Creek runaway CP
Author: eminence_grise

goneon66 Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> what were some of the problems associated with
> locotrol?
>
> very interesting story and thanks for posting
> it.........
>
> 66

OK, the cause of the runaway was a variety of small issues coming together to create a big issue. Some were minor crew errors and some were technological.

As a result of this and other incidents, I became involved in the "legislative" department of the UTU and later the BLE. With the BLE, I worked my way up to the Provincial level (the equivalent of a "State Legislative Chairman") Although the legislative representatives dealt mainly with injury claims with the BC Workers Compensation Board, I did get to meet and know staff and officers of other railways in BC, Provincial and Federal Government regulators and some of their US counterparts.

I took on the role shortly after the Fording runaway from Lloyd, a steam era engineer with political connections and a very thorough knowledge of railway air brakes. I was the "twenty something" railroader learning from the "sixty something" mentor.

Because of the complexity of early "Locotrol" operations, only some North American railroads embraced and stayed with mid train remote operation. Some, the UP, BN,Southern and the Milwaukee in the US, CP,BC Rail and QNS&L in Canada, and some Australian iron ore railways used mid train remotes so they could operate longer trains over mountainous territory.

In Canada, there came to be a select fraternity of railroad technicians who specialised in "Locotrol" operation. Although employed by different railroads, they exchanged information freely. They came to be relied upon by railway management for expertise.

After the Flat Creek runaway, it was found that the locotrol technology in the mid train robot car had survived and it was taken away to a major repair facility and tested. Later on, it was tested with the lead unit from the runaway which had been undamaged in the incident. Later still, a coal train was assembled and the equipment from the runaway was tested again out on the property.

After the equipment worked properly in all these tests, the railway and the equipment suppliers went to the Transport Canada hearings into the Flat Creek runaway and testified there was no equipment failure related to locotrol operation.

The equipment from the robot car was put in storage with a red "Do not use" tag. Someone decided to put it on the test rack and test it repeatedly. In hundreds of tests, there was a significant number of failures of a pair of check valves in the air brake system. If this was the aircraft industry, there would have been an immediate recall of the faulty technology. Instead, this was the railway industry. These failures were noted, and when no further runaways happened, the coal trains carried on without modification.

In the mean time, a very thorough re-education of all locomotive engineers employed by CP on train handling and air brake technology took place, and the number of "uncontrolled movements" decreased dramatically.

There was a widely held notion among running trade employees that CP and Transport Canada had figuratively "thrown the engineer and his trainee under the bus" regarding the Flat Creek incident because they were intimidated by a well known corporate lawyer and the chairman of the Transport Commission.

And then, the Fording runaway happened in 1980. Bert, the engineer involved in this case was a large, strong man with a long and spotless career. In the Transport Canada hearing into the Fording runaway, he described exactly what he did with the controls.
There was a large crowd of spectators at this hearing, railroaders and railway managers and even representatives of some equipment manufacturers. Norm, the corporate lawyer was relentless in his cross examination of Bert and was getting frustrated when Bert refused to be intimidated. Finally, Bert said. "Hey,Norman, if you want to fire me, go ahead and do it and let me get on with my life. I've told you the truth and have nothing more to say". At that juncture, a technician in the gallery said to Norman, "Why are you hounding this man when you and I both know that the runaway was the result of the failure of (this and that valve) in the locotrol equipment". The hearing was threatening to go out of control, and the hearing officer cleared the room.

The hearing never re-convened. Bert returned to work. All the locotrol equipment was recalled and modified.

In time, persons involved with these investigations both from the regulators, railway management and other interested parties saw fit to share this information. Because the Fording hearing never re-convened and there was no loss of life in either incident, much is not formally documented. Like the persons involved, all the locotrol equipment from that era is long retired.



Date: 11/24/14 15:45
Re: November 24th, 1977, the Flat Creek runaway CP
Author: goneon66

ah, thank you very much for taking the time to post such a detailed response.......

66



Date: 11/24/14 17:15
Re: November 24th, 1977, the Flat Creek runaway CP
Author: eminence_grise

goneon66 Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> ah, thank you very much for taking the time to
> post such a detailed response.......
>
> 66

Much came from three file boxes that appeared on my doorstep one night, with a note. "Please Recycle" . I did.



Date: 11/25/14 16:59
Re: November 24th, 1977, the Flat Creek runaway CP
Author: hoggerdoug

Early Locotrol on BC Rail, some issues developed with the air brake valves etc associated with the early RCC cars and also on lead locomotives with some of the mechanical pneumatic air brake valves sticking or "freezing" during cold weather operations. Other issues arose with placement of the remote units in the trains, too close to headend or too far back created air problems and undesired brake release. Also mis-use of the remote feedvalve created problems. One runaway on the Kelly Lake Hill was attributed to a brake pipe rise caused by a long hosebag kicking on a crossing, basically causing an undesired release of the applied air brake. It was a coincidental event, the Engineer was trimming his air brake application about the same time the "hiss" at the brake valve indicated a brake pipe rise and undesired brake release. The Engineer heard the hiss of air and assumed it was exhaust from the extra air he had drawn down, shortly thereafter the train started to runaway.
On the next generation of locotrol, "Locotrol 2", there was a feature that would the give the Engineer an audible and visual alert in the event of a brake pipe rise. DPU is wonderful stuff but must be operated prudently and in accordance to Railway and manufacturers rules and guidelines. Doug



Date: 11/25/14 18:26
Re: November 24th, 1977, the Flat Creek runaway CP
Author: eminence_grise

hoggerdoug Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> Early Locotrol on BC Rail, some issues developed
> with the air brake valves etc associated with the
> early RCC cars and also on lead locomotives with
> some of the mechanical pneumatic air brake valves
> sticking or "freezing" during cold weather
> operations. Other issues arose with placement of
> the remote units in the trains, too close to
> headend or too far back created air problems and
> undesired brake release. Also mis-use of the
> remote feedvalve created problems. One runaway on
> the Kelly Lake Hill was attributed to a brake pipe
> rise caused by a long hosebag kicking on a
> crossing, basically causing an undesired release
> of the applied air brake. It was a coincidental
> event, the Engineer was trimming his air brake
> application about the same time the "hiss" at the
> brake valve indicated a brake pipe rise and
> undesired brake release. The Engineer heard the
> hiss of air and assumed it was exhaust from the
> extra air he had drawn down, shortly thereafter
> the train started to runaway.
> On the next generation of locotrol, "Locotrol 2",
> there was a feature that would the give the
> Engineer an audible and visual alert in the event
> of a brake pipe rise. DPU is wonderful stuff but
> must be operated prudently and in accordance to
> Railway and manufacturers rules and guidelines.
> Doug


Beyond all the investigations and discussion into Flat Creek and Fording, the situations you describe on BC Rail are almost identical. The locotrol technicians at CP and BCR worked very closely.

I guess the significant difference between the two railways was the fact that Federal regulators examined the CP runaways, and BC Provincial regulators examined those on BCR. They also talked amongs themselves, as did CUTE and the BLE and UTU.



Date: 11/26/14 23:42
Re: November 24th, 1977, the Flat Creek runaway CP
Author: mtnwestrail

Very interesting stories and photos. Thanks for sharing!

Paul Birkholz
Sheridan, WY



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