The Wreck of Old Number 2

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, September 25, 2019

In my dispatch to you yesterday, I wrote that Canadian National Railway is trundling heroic amounts of containers, grain, crude oil, forest products, autos and what-have-you across the prairies, between Edmonton, Alta., and Winnipeg, Man., and that as a result nothing seems to get anywhere in a hurry. It’s like herding rhinoceroses, except that rhinos are more easily herded. Today I intercepted VIA Rail’s eastbound Canadian, and shadowed it for more than 250 miles, from near Watrous, Sask., to Rivers, Man. As was the case yesterday, the results were perhaps not what you’d expect.

But first, my wildlife surprise. What should I see today trotting across Provincial Highway 15 but a huge elk strutting in front of me, eager for his favorite breakfast in some farmer’s hay field. Having ignored my car, it stops to shake its antlers at me, a bit of sass I enjoyed. I’m used to elk in our back yard, but that’s high in the Colorado Rockies. Having almost hit a bear the day before, I’m starting to get a new feel for Canada’s prairies 

#2 passing St. Lazare, ManitobaNow back to the real Canadian, VIA 2 as it is known over railroad radio (but Old Number 2 to me, in deference to its tribulations I’ve often described). There is little in its way from Watrous to the crew-change point of Melville, Sask., and what there is (just two opposing freight trains) the rail traffic controller (dispatcher) gets out of its way. So our gorgeous, 21-car train, which had left Saskatoon, Sask., half an hour late, gets to Melville almost half an hour early and waits out its time. I notice that several score coach passengers disembark for the nearest street, I suspect in search of cannibus supplies. If that’s what they’re after, the one retailer is a mile away. But I digress again.

Off Old Number 2 goes from Melville, a few minutes early, actually. And what transpires west of there occurs east, as well—which is to say, nothing. Between Melville and Spy Hill., Sask., the devil seems to be slow orders. At the Manitoba border, the train enters the valley of Assiniboine River and follows it through St. Lazard, Man. (see the top two photos), and for another 30 lovely miles quite remote to roads. Still nothing stops our train. 

VIA #2 meets CN #301 at Oakner, ManitobaIt’s looking as if our lovely Silver Lady will be an hour early disembarking two passengers in Rivers. I’ve managed to stay ahead of the train since it left the Assiniboine’s watershed. I’m thinking there’s got to be a place where it hits the wall of opposing traffic. There always is. And two sidings short of Rivers, at lonely Oakner, comes The Wreck of Old Number 2. When I drive by the west switch, the points are lined for the siding. I find the siding’s east end, park and wait. Forty minutes pass after our train gets there before 178-car manifest train 301 belches by at 40 mph (see the middle photo). That’s okay, because Old Number 2 has another 50 minutes to get the last 16 miles to Rivers, where the train and I will part company.

It was not to happen. (You knew that, didn’t you?) The switch machine at Oakner doesn’t purr to reverse position, so Old Number 2 just sits there. (In fact, the siding between Oakner and Rivers, at Myra, is occupied by intermodal hotshot 112, also headed east.) But after 30 minutes and the appearance of no westbound freight train, the boys running the show from Edmonton create a new plan, and the switch suddenly is reversed and the Canadian is let go. Not for long, I suspect, and begin careening down gravel roads in search of Myra, the last siding before Rivers  

VIA #2 waits in the Myra sidingWhen I find Myra’s west switch, I see Old Number 2’s bobtail observation car slowly receding through the siding. At least food isn’t being spilled in the two diners, where the first dinner seating has begun. The problem turns out to be that our train has gotten in the way of intermodal supertrain 111, the holiest of holies. It has been overtaking westbounds in it’s wake, and empty crude oil train 313 occupies where the Canadian might like to be, which is the siding in Rivers. So another 30 minutes go by waiting for 111 to take its time recrewing in Rivers and get to Myra (see the fourth image).

And then, wouldn’t you know but the RTC wants to slip another train by. Train 315 is a humongous dog’s breakfast of freight cars, and having been recrewed just short of Rivers, goes by 15 minutes behind 111. Finally, as I’m about to mix an ice-less gin and tonic from my Suburu’s tailgate to relieve the fatigue, Old Number 2, its schedule finally wrecked as we all know it would be, slips into Rivers, defeated. It makes two stops to disembark passengers and departs not an hour early (as is permissible because nobody was ticketed to board) but 70 minutes late. Moreover, a bevy of eager westbound freights stand between it and Winnipeg, 

VIA #2 leaving Rivers, ManitobaWhat I concluded from watching all this happen from the ground is that Canadian National doesn’t have a bone to pick with the Canadian. It’s own schedules are being shredded.  VIA Rail’s pride and joy seems to get a fair shake. It’s when everything comes together at the same place, and the RTC has nowhere to put everything, that the wheels fly off—not just for the Canadian but for everything else, sometimes His Holiness 111, too. I would rend my garments in despair, but here is a railroad artery whose business is growing, not receding as on so many other Class I lanes.  Canadian National keeps investing heavily in this corridor—a new 10-mile double track segment just west of Melville looks ready to cut in. I am fascinated watching this too-big-for-your-britches story play out, even when it includes, inevitably, The Wreck of Old Number 2.—Fred W. Frailey

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