Join us as we spend a day with the Battle River Railway in central Alberta, tagging along with the train crew to tour the line and touch on exactly what it is that makes a company like this tick. We’ll look at the men and their massive machines, and the important roles they all play in keeping the rail cars moving, which keeps the customers happy and hence the income streaming in. We’ll be witness what could best be described as a dance, that we’ll do our best to document.
On a cool fall morning I wait outside a dark enginehouse, a little nervous about meeting the crew I’ll be hanging with. I know railways types can be a bit gruff in nature, and I worry, being an outsider, perhaps an unwelcome outsider, that they’ll resent me for forcing them to be on their best behaviour. Play nice for the cameras! Someone’s watching!
My fears were unfounded as it turns out. Everyone I’ll deal with this day, the train crew and those in the office, were amazingly nice and accommodating. I was hoping I would be able to blend into the background, go unnoticed, and record events as they unfolded naturally. With everyone comfortable, this was easy to do. I did not conduct interviews in the traditional sense, but rather just listened in and took notes, allowing the conversation to head in what ever direction it pleased.
Every day starts with paperwork and crew head to the office, interestingly located inside an old grain elevator, to collect theirs. Overnight faxes are filed, phone calls are made and the days work planned, a very chaotic scene. I smile and pretend to know what’s going on.
We head out to the enginehouse where Ted, our engineer for the day, starts up the locomotive that will be our ride. There are two engines inside the building, but given today’s trains will be of modest size, only one is needed. The machine roars to life and is moved outside to warm up.
The two locomotives that the Battle River Railway owns both came from the Canadian National Railways (CNR). The one we’ll be using, #5251, is a General Motors Diesel Division (London Ontario – closed in 2012) SD40-2W built in 1975. She’s an old-timer for sure, a bit beat up and all, but runs like a Swiss watch. Sister engine, #5353 (both units kept their original CNR numbers) is the same model, but built in 1980. Ted tells me our locomotive, which was acquired a couple years back, arrived in bad shape having been involved in some sort of mishap. The railway fixed her up nicely and unlike its sister, which is still in CNR paint, this one has been painted up in a colourful blue with yellow scheme. These colours are a bright spot in an otherwise dull and flat often hazy, dismal grey day. I’ve never seen worse light then this.
The SD40 series was once of the most common locomotives ever produced and even though the last were built in the 1980s, many are still in service today.
Dean is our second crew member and soon joins us. We gather our train which is sitting on the main track and head out. Our trip will take us from Forestburg running in a roughly northwesterly direction, to a location just east of Camrose. Sometimes Battle River trains go into that town, but occasionally like today, a swap is made at a small yard next to huge concrete grain terminal at a place called Kiron (aka East Camrose). The railway also heads further southeast to the end of track at Alliance, a section I won’t visit this trip. The cars we’ll tie onto came up from Alliance the previous day. We’ll be hauling a dozen loads of grain, to start with, and will add a few more cars pulled from an industry later on.
Our locomotive will be running long-hood forward for the trip up – engines don’t care which way they’re pointed. There are no turning facilities on the line, but they’re not needed. The view down long hood seems bit strange to me, however.
The track here, built close to a century ago, once belonged to the CNR. This was that company’s Alliance Subdivision. The BRR line is close to 90km long and has one unique feature…it’s arrow straight. Yup, there is not a single curve the entire length of it. The Battle River Railway acquired the branch in 2010. The line was under threat of abandonment but was saved by an organized group of local farmers who used it and continue to use it, to transport their grain to market. The loss of this outlet would have been disastrous to some.
Track speed is 25mph (or 40kmh) for most of the trip, with a short 10mph (or 16kmh) section near the end, just before reaching the connecting CNR line. While Canada adopted the metric system in the 1970s, railways continue use the old imperial form of measurement and probably will never change over. Interestingly, most of the line is laid with heavy duty welded rail. This may seem odd for a prairie branch to be so robustly built, but I heard plans, that never came to fruition, were to reintroduce coal trains on the line. You need heavy track for that type of service. Given how well-built the roadbed is the ride is very smooth and quiet. Strangely, the last section of the line just before connecting with the CNR track is on lighter stick rail (jointed track) and must be travelled as a slower pace.
On more then one occasion this trip we encounter a cow or cows on the track. Some get scared and run when we pass while others act nonchalantly and sauntered off as those unconcerned that we’re bearing down on them (albeit slowly).
Rolling along at a leisurely rate, I resist the temptation to ask Ted, “let’s see what this BABY can do!” A sign above the control stand, a baffling mix of gauges, switches and levers says “maximum speed 65mph. “We can do it, right?”
I asked the crew if travelling the line week after week becomes boring. They respond there is always something to do to keep busy, so no for the most part. I enjoy a cup of “railway coffee”, which given my happy state tastes better then it actually does.
Lots of old and interesting things were seen beside the tracks this trip. Old cars and trucks at old farms, junk dumped by the tracks (lots of ancient metal stoves) and other stuff.
There is only one stop on the first half of our trip, to pick up some empty fertilizer cars in Kelsey. The major commodity carried by the railway is grain and there are a half dozen loading points along the entire line. A couple other industries also use the railway too, this fertilizer plant, which accounts for the only inbound loads, and an oil loading firm east of Forestburg. On the fertilizer siding are some grain cars, loaded with material that was too high in moisture, and as such were rejected. No one is really sure what to do with them, so for now they’ll sit. They get in the way of the switching move and have to be set aside for a time.
An amazing number of wild animals were seen this trip. Ted, I’ll call him Eagle Eye Ted for reasons that will soon become obvious, has this incredible ability to spot critters from the train, even at great distances, and points out deer, coyotes, hawks, moose (yes they live on the prairies) and anything else on four legs or with wings. A view of a zoo. He slowed the train with each sighting in hopes I could snap some pictures but the animals were always too fast and soon disappeared from sight.
There are no real grades on the line, save for a small section just before Kiron. Even with the short train, you can hear the locomotive labour a bit and dig in its heels. Ted, applies sand and the train lurches as the wheels gain traction.
Ted’s been working on the railway since the early 1970s. He’s been here for a year. In the past he worked for the CNR in Quebec and later Alberta. He’s run fast hotshot trains and lowly wayfreights like this (wayfreight – a local or milk run). He guesses at some point in the past, he’s operated both of the locomotives used by the Battle River Railway. He does not live in the area and commutes in from a point near Edmonton, as needed. Trains run a couple times a week, or so, depending on grain markets and a whole slew of other variables, to complex for me to comprehend.
Dean the second crew member, also farms and is in trucking (grain hauling). He’s a likeable quiet fellow who’s been working with the BRR a few years.
Where the Battle River Railway ends and the CNR track begins, the train is stopped and a call made to get approval (clearance) to proceed further. Off in the distance we can see the headlight of another train, the one we’ll swap cars with. Clearance, which shouldn’t take much time at all, does not come for well over an hour. That whole time we sit. Ted shakes his head, suggesting this sort of unnecessary delay has happened before. I get the impression the CNR almost tries to bully the Battle River Railway. It’s clear they see them as small and insignificant, a nuisance. The big railway, and I’ve heard this from many sources, doesn’t always allocate cars for smaller operators and rarely offers an explanation why. I understand they often tack on unexplained surcharges for car movements. The also fail to respond to phone and radio calls, I saw that myself.
The exchanging of cars goes smoothly. Our new train is about three times larger then the one we just left behind. Most are grain empties with a few loaded fertilizer cars in the mix. The CNR locomotive seen, #2605, is a General Electric model Dash 9-44CW built in 2000.
We’re soon on our way, rocking and rolling as we go. We pass a track crew, who’s been replacing worn ties along this section of the line.
There will be a lot more work on this return leg of the trip. At Kelsey, the small community we spoke of earlier, with perhaps a half dozen houses, we drop off those fertilizer cars. I step off the train here to record the action. Ken, an expert with the brake and throttle works the locomotive so masterfully it’s almost magical. He’s done it for so long, and seen it all, it’s all second nature to him. Dean works the turnouts and couples and uncouples car. The two crew members work as one and keep in touch via radio. In the old days, they’d use hand signals.
Moving on, we stop at Rosalind, with a population of some two hundred, to drop more empties to be loaded with grain. Remains of an old siding are seen in town. In an old timetable I found it’s listed the “Barium Spur” (as in the metal). They quarried clay here.
Next we pass the ghost town of Anketon where the concrete bases from some old grain elevators can be seen. Every town on the prairies, no matter how small, had grain elevators. Today, along the Battle River Railway, there are a few of these old prairie sentinels still standing, a couple in Forestburg and one in Alliance (on the section I did not travel). Some are still used too, that’s rare. Most of the grain loaded along the line however, is done so producer style meaning it’s taken directly from the delivery truck, or filled from track side bins usually without the involvement of any middlemen.
Heisler is the next stop and a row of empty grain cars are spotted on the siding there. Ted mentions a good restaurant in town and I catch the glimpse of a nice old hotel from the locomotive cab. Some of the rail cars left behind are leased by the BRR – recall the CNR often shorts them of cars and these help satisfy the need.
Making good time, well as good a time can be made at 25mph, we’re soon back in Forestburg, the biggest town along the line and home of the railway’s headquarters. I watch the crew switch the siding. The old wood-cribbed grain elevators here will not be discussed this report and instead will merit a write up on their own later. They’re some old timers.
This is where I leave the train. Ted and Dean will continue on to Alliance before returning to Forestburg. They had a long shift: I heard the train coming into town later that evening. Twelve hour days are not unusual here.
I head to the office to take some time to talk with Peter, who’s best described as the railway’s dispatcher and car-allotment specialist. Formerly of the Great Sandhills Railway in Saskatchewan, he mentions that business has steadily increased the couple years he’s been here. From a low of perhaps 600-700 cars hauled the first full year, now they’re on track (I’ve been waiting some time to use that pun) to transport more them 3000 of them. It’s seems this group is doing everything right! And indeed they must be, as their success is often written about. They’ve in a way become a benchmark of success to which other prairie short line railways that serve the grain industry subscribe to.
Just southeast of Forestburg is a spur line that from 1950-1980s served a nearby coal mine. Peter mentions the possibility of a new customer coming online soon, but naturally has to be a bit vague about it, and I wonder if he’s hinting that coal will make a comeback? More so, he’s likely speaking of more oil loading points. There is a lot of wells in the area.
The Battle River Railway does the occasional passenger excursion using a a nice old coach (not seen this trip) painted up in the old CNR green and gold colours.
So there we have it, a day in the life of the Battle River Railway. What we witnessed and reported on here is but a small snippet of a very big picture. I’ve learned a lot on what it takes to make the trains run, stuff I thought I knew, but was wrong. The railway business for me is now a little less mysterious.
I’d like to thank everyone at the Battle River Railway for accommodating me. Ted, I could listen to your railway stories all day long. Dean, I now know just how hard, dirty and potentially dangerous working on the railway can be. Peter and Ken at the office, thanks for putting up with me and answering my questions. Locomotive #5251, you’re a sweet ride – a bit noisy, but sweet. This gig fulfils a life-long dream. The young boy inside me, who’s loved trains as long as he can remember, is very pleased. He’s in his happy place.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: October, 2014.
Location: Forestburg, AB.