‘Old timers get off on trains’

By Calgary Herald Reporter Mark Hallman

Joe Chollack peered down the multitrack mainline toward the beckoning signal and notched out the throttle of freight No. 901′s lead locomotive four locomotives gripping the track with 12,000 horsepower and 83 cars of mixed freight in motion.

“We’ve got a shorter train than usual today and should make it to Field in good time” Chollack said as the train he would pilot westward through the Rockies and Spiral Tunnels crept through Calgary downtown.

Tall, lithe and alert Chollack 58 takes obvious pride in his work as an engineer a position he had worked toward since hiring on the Canadian Pacific Railway 35 Years Ago in Lethbridge.

“Back when I started I remember shoveling 20 tons of coal into the fire box of the steam locomotive on a 100 mile stretch between Lethbridge and Crowsnest Pass”

“I feel a bit of nostalgia for the steamers. All you needed to fix them was a hammer and chisel, but with these diesel locomotives being complicated, all you can do sometimes when something goes wrong is to throw up your hands” Chollack’s eyes remained glued to the oncoming track he knows so well as the train sped west into the foothills. A second’s glance and he could tell the train’s location on the 135 mile run to Field BC, within a tenth of a mile.

“Anybody can run an engine with a bit of instruction, but handling a train is another story. Every train handles different than others. You never know what might happen each trip”
Chollack said a foot of slack exists between cars in a train permitting the cars to surge forward and backwards – a situation having dangerous consequences if handled improperly.

“The challenge of running the train is managing the slack so the cars don’t travel back and forth and break apart”

Approaching Cochrane No. 901 navigated the passing track around a maintenance gang known as “Gandy dancers” among railroaders. Looking hot and weary in the noon day sun, the workers stretched up their hands in a supplicating motion asking Chollack to toss out cans of water. Chollack tossed out several tins and then shrugged his shoulders at the man he passed standing near the tracks when all but the engine crew’s supply was gone.

Stan Zimmer, No 901′s head end brakeman, called out signals to Chollack and talked about the easy money he makes working run through freights from Calgary to Field. “I don’t have to get off and switch cars off the train.” Said Zimmer, 27. Each trip’s different and what’s more. I get paid to travel through this beautiful scenery.

The train travelled swiftly through Banff and Lake Louise on superbly maintained track, representing several years’ heavy capital investment by CP Rail. Nearing Stephen B.C. Chollack slowed the train with a gentle application of the air brakes to undertake a brake test. The Continental Divide appeared as a slight hump in the distance.

Lighting a cigarette while awaiting the test’s completion. Chollack said “Being away from home so much on trips has been hard on my family. My wife is disappointed when I disappear at a moment’s notice. Giving a two-hour, the railway can call me for a trip anytime of day or night.
Test completed No. 901 started the descent towards Field travelling no more than 20 mph. Zimmer shut tight the cab’s windows to keep out diesel fumes as the lead locomotive entering the black darkness of the Spiral Tunnels upper loop.

The headlight stabbed through the darkness illuminating the tunnel’s Rocky Interior and small streams of water showering down the walls. Trailing out of the tunnel mouth, the tail end of the train could be seen above the emerging engines as No. 901 slithered out of the tunnel down the grade into Field.

At the Field bunkhouse the crew of No. 901′s eastbound counterpart freight. No. 902 was called for 7 PM. Conductor Doug Ferguson, 50 stood on the station platform looking over the waybills of CP Rail’s hottest freight train running east bound from Vancouver to Toronto and Montréal through points in between.

Ferguson bantered with locomotive engineer Mike Kulikowski 49 dressed in traditional engineer’s pinstriped garb, who to give the crew riding the caboose a smooth ride that would leave the coffee pot sitting upright on the stove.

“It can get mighty rough back on the tail end” said Kulikowski. “If the slack starts running in and out you can get a nasty jolt back there.

“I’d rather be up front, cause if the train derails and the guys in the caboose started seeing cars going into the ditch, you sure know where you’ll be going too.”

Once aboard the caboose, paperwork done Ferguson pulled out a grocery bag full of ingredients and started peeling potatoes and boiling water for a stew. I’m one of the few guys on the road still cooks his dinner,” said Ferguson “I just don’t like restaurant food.”
Coffee simmered on the stove as No. 902 moved eastward through the growing dark racing No. 901′s route through the Rockies. Ferguson recalled times past when brakeman had to clamber onto the roofs of freight cars whenever the weather to relay signals by lantern between the locomotive and caboose.
“It was dangerous running along the car tops and it could be miserably cold in the winter.”

Bob Rose, 36 Ferguson’s tail end brakeman sat in the caboose cupola watching the freight cars ahead wind in and out of curves and tunnels, looking for drag equipment or sparks from overheated bearings.

“Some of the old-timers get off on trains, but for the younger guys, it’s just another job.” said Rose who quit the railway twice but came back because he didn’t like jobs with regular hours. “I like the job but it can be a pain in the winter time if a coupler breaks and you have to drag a 75 pound knuckle half a mile through blowing snow to fix it.”

Rose said the hobo of the past who would jump a boxcar for a ride is given away to young people seeking the warmth and shelter of one of the unmanned diesel locomotives pulling the train During the 30s Rose said, brakeman would walk car tops throwing off freeloaders. But today if he finds someone on the train riding illegally, he said he’s wary of forcing the issue with an angry passenger.

“One night I walked back through the units and found about five people sleeping on the floor of one of the engine cabs. I stepped on someone in the dark but kept walking. You never know one of them might have a knife.”

Nearing Calgary No. 902 slowed for level crossings and pulled through the city centre reaching Alyth yard when the train would be serviced for a scant hour before departing east.

Ferguson and Rose packed their gear, stepped down off the caboose and headed for home, knowing the next call to move a train might come at any time, night or day.

Photos from the Calgary Herald article October 7, 1978.

1.) Joe Chollack at the throttle running CPR’s hotshot freight No. 901 west on the Laggan Subdivision.

2.) No. 901 approaches steel railway trestle crossing the Bow River with the Rocky Mountains in the background.

3.) No. 901 passes by telegraph wires along the track on the Laggan Subdivision.

4.) No. 901 emerges from portal of a Spiral Tunnel that were built by the CPR in 1908.

5.) No. 901 after emerging from the lower portal of Spiral Tunnel 2 crosses over steel railway trestle that crosses the Kicking Horse River.

6.) Joe Chollack stretches his legs, leaning against the control console of CP 5759.

Both the locomotive engineers mentioned in this newspaper article I choose to train with on the Laggan Subdivision in the summer of 1979

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