Postcard from Goodeve

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, December 05, 2017

In Texas we have towns with sensible names like Ben Franklin, Dime Box, Cut and Shoot and Pecan Gap. In Saskatchewan we pass Goodeve, Undora, Xena and Allan with an “A.” Englishmen must have built the Canadian National through the province. In any event, it has been quite a morning on the Canadian, out among these towns with odd names. Let me give you the flavor of things.

We pull into Melville at 7:15 a.m. in complete darkness to change engineers. We had just passed a westbound manifest train and met an eastbound crude oil train in the two sidings east on town. On the main track sits intermodal train 118 (Calgary-Winnipeg), ready to start its last lap. We wait to pull down to the station because grain train 759 is in front of us, also recrewing. It couldn’t pull through the yard because two and maybe three other trains occupy all those tracks. By the time we finally trundle out of Melville 36 minutes later on a yellow signal behind a waddling 759, our eight hours of daylight has begun. If 759 is able to make 20 mph, I am surprised. We creep behind it on yellows past Fenwood, the first siding, occupied by manifest train 316. Finally at Goodeve, the next rabbit hole, 759 creeps into the clear, we finally see a green signal flash before us and rack our speed quickly to 80.

At Raymore at 9:30, we shoot past intermodal train 116 (Roberts Bank, B.C.-Chicago). Its engineer tells ours he went on duty in Bigger, Sask., at 1 this morning. Let’s see, that’s roughly 160 miles in eight hours, and 116 is a hot number. This is one crowded railroad, folks, every siding seems to hold a train and ours is not the only one feeling the pain. Yet for all that, consider this: We are almost making our running time. To state that another way, we left Toronto two days ago 12 hours 45 minutes late. We left Melville 13 hours 12 minutes behind. So we’re not falling deeper into the hole, yet.

This is all the more remarkable in light of what happened yesterday in Ontario. At Sioux Lookout, the engineers going off duty were told their replacements were not there to take us on to Winnipeg. The relief crew was to have flown from Winnipeg that morning, but a snow storm grounded their flight. Now they were in a van and not expected before 12:30 p.m. and probably later. My watch said 10:05 a.m. Yuck. Our opposite number, the eastbound Canadian, arrived in Sioux Lookout at noon and came to our rescue, so to speak. Its engineers had working time left. So they walked over to our train and at 12:15 p.m. off we went in search of our assigned engineers in that van. We met up with them in Richan, Ont., 45 miles to the west. During that delay of more than two hours, a group of coach passengers stocked up at a liquor store.

Flash ahead to 4 o’clock. Now it’s getting dark again. On the VIA radio channel, our service manager summons everyone to go to a “secure location” where what he was about to say would not be overheard by passengers. In Kootenay Park’s bar beneath the dome, I bid the attendant goodbye and adjusted my radio to the VIA channel. We have a severe problem in the coaches, the service manager says. If anyone knows of a—here the static blocks the next few words—let me know, he says. What’s he saying, I wonder? Our attendant returns, says she’s figured it out but stays mum. I narrow the possibilities to three: sexual assault (hence the secrecy), medical emergency, drunkenness or some combination thereof. Boy am I off base!

We’re to be met by someone at Malachi, a flag stop. The service manager informs the rail traffic controller (dispatcher) there will be a brief delay but won’t disclose why. The RTC is smart enough to know there is no such thing on a railroad as a brief delay and says we will first have to wait at Ena Lake for hotshot 112; a delay to that train, he says, would mess up meets planned for it more than 150 miles east of Ena Lake on the Allanwater Subdivision. We’re told we will wait at Ena Lake only 20 minutes but of course it turns out to be 45.

In the meantime my curiosity is just hammering me. I decide to walk forward and see for myself. At the first sleeping car, three VIA employees stand next to the vestibule leading to the coach section’s Skyline car. Do I want to use the toilet, one asks? No, I’m talking a walk. Then walk the other way, I’m told. Back I go to Kootenay Park.

Finally we reach Malachi. And we sit there. After 45 minutes the RTC asks when we will get underway. The engineer relays the question to the service manager on the VIA channel. I’m busy and I don’t know is the answer. Now the RTC is pissed. His words: “Tell the train director he must tell me what is going on and how much longer he will need because I am being asked. I have 107 coming right behind you and eastbound trains approaching from the other direction.” Wow, listening from Room B I add another possibility as the poor engineer plays go-between: international terrorism.

Cornered, the service manager sort of fesses up. There has been an incident in the first coach involving alcohol. Four people have been persuaded to leave the train and surrender to constables, which means wrestled off. I have another three to five people to remove from the train. Well, that shuts up the RTC. We end up staying at Malachi for 102 minutes.

Now are you ready for what really happened? Three drunken pimps were selling the sexual services of two underage girls to their fellow passengers. Two male passengers, also drunk, had already availed themselves. The other passengers were frightened and angry. It’s hard to believe this stuff happens on a train, much less this one.

Right now it’s 11 a.m. and we are passing Chicago-Prince Rupert intermodal train 199, which may be waiting to get into the yard at Saskatoon, 20 miles ahead. I have a decision to make before we leave Saskatoon and my internet service is imperiled. Yes, we are 13 hours late and holding our own. But ahead lies the busy Wainwright Sub and then Edmonton. The Canadian has been known to spend hours (once 24 of them) getting through Edmonton. It’s not out of the question that our lateness will balloon. Should I change my departure from Thursday morning to Friday? I look up fares back to Jacksonville for Friday and the same flights for tomorrow. They are the same. There is no last-minute penalty, it appears. I’ll wait to see how we do through Edmonton.—Fred W. Frailey

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