Speeder Story Part II

by Riun Blackwell


From just north of Sunset Marina, I can see across the water to Deeks Point. Even at night, the dark bulk of Brunswick Ridge descending to the sea is clearly visible. By road, this is seven miles; less in the straight line of sight. Lions Bay and Brunswick are the next stations. There is a large siding at Brunswick; the nearest meet location for trains from North Vancouver.
I get a feeling of satisfaction and release at this point in the night. I am successfully through the beginning of my shift and the train is clear of the tunnel. I am usually quite content with the night and my work.

Being out on the tracks by myself, patrolling, is the best work I have had and see no other employment that interests me, either on the railway or in my working experience. My brother is now an engineer for the railway. He tells me about the “on call life” and I realize it is definitely not for me. Though I may never get weekends off or day shift, I like knowing when and where I will be going to work. This stability allows me to live a dependable, scheduled life. The “on call” system seems like personal chaos to me.

I have worked a few different jobs: in the shipyards at Allied Shipbuilders, Burrard Dry Dock, manufacturing work in a tire retread factory, battery maker and restaurant work. I had my own business doing residential rubbish removal with my pick-up truck in North Van, which was a great side business. None of these seemed to hold prospects for building a life I could see myself in. It surprised me that I wanted the whole ball of wax:  wife, kids, house and mortgage; all that Canadian dream stuff I had ridiculed in my younger years.

I started patrolling in 1972 after visiting my brother, who started a few months before me. One Sunday, a group of friends and I drove up from North Van to Pemberton to visit him. We walked into his bunkhouse trailer at “92 Mile” and I fell in love. I was captivated by the location at Narin Falls, fuel drums by the dozen, smelling of stove oil and “Speeder Mix” (a two-stroke fuel/oil mixture). The yellow speeders were suspended at track level a few feet above ground giving an oily industrial taint to everything in proximity. I wanted to be there so much I harassed my prospective supervisor weekly until spring fire patrol season when he sent me to 92 Mile for training.

After training, my first work location was in Marguerite on the Prince George Subdivision - Mile 365. I spent that first summer in Marguerite Fire Patrolling, going twenty minutes behind the trains and checking the tracks and bridges for fires caused by trains. There had been great strides made in railcar braking technology, new creosoted ties and improved roadbed that reduced fire hazards.

The initial experience was getting used to being independent out on the tracks; safely avoiding section crews, adapting to the solitary nature of the work, machine repairs and bunk house living.

I was happy to be “up North” again. The previous fall, I had been in Prince George, living the street life. Hanging out at the mall and bars, I was living in a house with a group of guys I had met in my travels in the Okanagan. I came down to Vancouver for a short visit, intending to return to find work. Falling from the roof of a moving car I broke my leg and was stalled for a long 5 months recovering at my parents’ house. Thank goodness for their tolerance!

Over the first few years patrolling I worked out of all the Patrol locations: Marguerite, Clinton, Lillooet, Birken, 92 Mile, Alta Lake, Squamish and North Van. Train Patrol was more engaging than Fire Patrol. Having a train ten minutes behind you was much more interesting than following them. I enjoyed the travel on Howe Sound and Cheakamus Canyon due to the changing scenery and variable weather conditions. After years of winter lay off and on Unemployment Insurance, I had a permanent job in North Vancouver with a settled home life and prospects for a reasonable future.

The tracks between Brunswick and Porteau are one of the reasons why we are patrolling. The railway is carved from the rock as it meets the sea directly below Highway 99; itself a famously dangerous road.  The cliff faces are much higher than the Rock Gangs can reach without special equipment. Rock scaling is precarious and dangerous at the best of times and limited to the specific areas where we have had rocks coming down.

During the summer work programs, rock drills mounted on cranes will penetrate the rock. Steel plates and bolts are placed to solidify dangerous deteriorating rock faces. Rock bolting can be seen at Porteau and other places along the Highway 99 route.

North of Brunswick siding is a small tunnel. From there, Howe Sound carves a wide concave arc. The point at the north end of the bay is called Deeks for Deeks Creek that flows into Howe Sound at that location.

Deeks is a special place. From this point you can look south to the yellow glow of the ferry terminal nestled in the protected cove of Horseshoe Bay, southwest to Boyer, Gambier and Bowen Islands then over to the lights of Gibson’s Landing Ferry Terminal on the Sechelt Peninsula. The sense of space opening up around you from this view point is exhilarating.

In the coldest days of winter at Deeks Point, the freezing Arctic Outflow Winds leave Howe Sound. There is clearly a streak of white caps over the sea into Hood Point on Bowen Island on its southward journey. Coming around this point, I have been blown to a stand-still in my speeder with the force of those powerful freezing winds. One mile north of Deeks, you are at Mile 23 or Windy Point as it is called. This is the narrowest place in the fjord inlet of Howe Sound. The trees in this area are pruned on the North side by the intensity of the winds that lash the passageway, permanently pointing the way southward.

When I reach Porteau the continuous hazard of the exposed carved rock is past and I can pick up a little lost time on the flat straight track through to Furry Creek. North of there is a long tunnel at Mile 28 and we have a couple of smaller tunnels and some dangerous rock so caution once more slows me down.

Rounding the curves beside the highway at Britannia, I dim my lights to fog light only when passing traffic. The way our lights are set up and the high elevation can be a strong light at night for drivers on the highway. I have seen engineers do this on my highway travels and I learned to show this courtesy to my fellow nighttime travellers.

Past Britannia, we have two more tunnels carved from solid granite. One can imagine the retreat of the Ice Age glaciers making this curve, scraping around this two mile tangent of what must be the Earth’s most solid rock.

I now pass around Watts Point. Here, in a dramatic shift of terrain, we cut through a gravel pit of shattered basalt with the conveyor structure going from the rock crusher over the tracks.
From this point, on a clear day, or more dramatically, on a moonlit night, you can see the pinnacle of Mount Garibaldi. Below it lies the whole bowl of Squamish with the massive bulk of the Stawamus Chief anchoring it to the east and the Squamish River flowing beneath the Tantalus Range in the west. To your far left is the smoke and industrial effervescence of Woodfibre, the local pulp mill. At night the yellow halogen glow from the Squamish Dock, a deep Sea Terminal, is a very prominent bright light. The pale white glow of Squamish town and its suburban neighbourhoods light the valley floor and up the distant hillsides.

My route circles around a four mile long arc where we pass Shannon station at Darrell Bay with the ferry terminal servicing Woodfibre and then by the fast rushing water of Shannon Creek.
I plug along between the lower apron of The Chief and the rotting pilings of the original Squamish Dock. This was the southern terminus of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway before Howe Sound was blasted through in the 50’s with both Highway 99 and the railway. This completed the route to North Vancouver, thereby connecting Squamish and points north to the Lower Mainland - an event regretted by some old time locals to this day.

I travel along the flat track over the Stawamas River and through Salamander Cut, across Cleveland Avenue to Squamish Station where I clear the Main track.  I give the train “a roll-by” that is watching for dragging equipment and/or other hazards on the freight as it rolls past. All employees are supposed to do this with every train; checking both sides if there is more than one employee.

Here, at Squamish, my friend Jim is usually the Night Shift Operator and we do a proper roll-by. Our friendship started with him inviting me into the Station and offering me a coffee. Jim is a cowboy kind of guy. Now he offers me a warm seat and then we spend the time chatting about the current railway gossip. He  is well-read and has introduced me to some interesting authors such as Wallace Stegner and Malcolm Lowry.

We listen on the radio for the southbound train’s progress. I have to be careful not to underestimate the desire of the southbound crew to get home. Tonight, after a quick coffee, I go south to Shannon and arrange for the train’s engineer to call me going by Squamish Station. By this time we are in the early AM hours and the world seems asleep. I often open my doors letting the chill night air and the coffee revive me. We soon pass through Porteau; one hour left till North Van and home.

When the newly fallen pile of rocks appeared on the track in front of me I hesitate for a moment before jamming on my brakes. I don't know why but something in me doesn't want to believe the rocks are there. A train and I have passed this area just a couple of hours ago. Thank goodness for having my brakes in good repair at those times. The rock fall is a couple of feet above the rail and roughly the same wide, with small broken rock. One massive boulder between the rails is a greater challenge.

I alert the train that I have stopped at a rock fall. I tell them that I am okay and will get to work to clearing the rock. I put on my hard hat, use my flashlight and try to see where the rocks have come from. I can clearly see the area that has collapsed; there should be no more to come right now so I can safely clear the tracks on this night. I call the dispatcher and alert him to the situation and estimate that we will be rolling within the hour.  

As the train comes up at Slow Speed, the rails light up first then the rumble of the lead engine. The whole area is illuminated as the engine comes around the last curve behind me. My little speeder now seems quite small sitting in front of this huge machine.

Years ago, with a big rock down, I worked with the crew and we “Jill Poked” the rock in the clear. This entails disconnecting the lead unit, getting a tie and pushing the rock with the tie jammed against the knuckle of the unit and the rock. Of course my speeder has to be clear of the tracks and the whole operation took hours to complete. This was old time railroading. Now we would call the Squamish contractor and he would soon have a front end loader on a trailer truck headed to an access point and get the job done in half the time. One night, with the rock fallen in front of the passenger train I was riding in, they used dynamite to speed up the process and blasted the rock to smithereens.

Thankfully tonight is just a matter of using my lining bar; a five foot steel bar with a round handle and a heavy rectangle of steel ending in a point. I work as rapidly as I can, levering the larger pieces of broken rock far enough in the clear to get the train past. As a rule of thumb, if you can stand at the rail and wave your arms or kick out and not touch the rock a train will pass by.

I am soon finished, the rocks clear enough to permit our safe passage. Luckily there appears to be no track damage. The section crew will come in the morning and clean up the area and do a closer track inspection. The Rock Gang will probably do a little scaling up on the cliff face as well.

The Engineer calls the dispatcher and he authorizes us to proceed over the area at ten miles per hour. He will then put a “slow order” on the area until the inspections are complete and the track is authorized to be clear and safe.

I grind over the fresh grit on the rail and we are on our way. When we pass Deeks southbound, the lights of Horseshoe Bay are a welcoming beacon with their electric glow. I am a little chilled with sweating and the early morning temperature. However, I have the good feeling of a job well done. The train is over the slow track and we are all on our way home. The freight will be pulling into North Van,  having lost less than an hour of track time. At Sunset, I pass the car-men waiting to give the train a professional roll-by before the decent through suburban West Van. They have had an extra few minutes to wait and at this time of night, that is A-Okay with them.

I call my train going in and out of the tunnel. Then I can’t resist highballing into the speeder sheds. I flash my lights to see if there is oncoming traffic at the crossings and hope there is no yard crew working the north end. I call the engineer when I’m clear of the Main Track. My night shift is complete, the value of our patrol duties are realized. I'm happy to be going home safe and sound from this night of patrolling on the British Columbia Railway!


Riun Blackwell worked thirty years for BCRail, happy to be a patrolman. He moved to Squamish 1990 where he raised his family and still lives. Riun is one of the founding members of the Squamish Writers Group and the inspiration and driving force behind Squamish's Story of Mine.

This is Part Two of Riun's Speeder story, you can find Part One in the 2018 April issue of Sea to Sky Review, click here.