Thursday, 29 August 2013

Last Ride on Train 41

Moving to a new home can uncover a few surprises. Things that were tucked away years ago and forgotten are sometimes unexpectedly rediscovered. My recent move yielded up a treasure which I had thought had been lost forever; my last CP Rail employee pass dating back to the days before Via Rail. The pass was good for travel between Montreal and Megantic.

My last CP Rail employee pass with both parts

A larger copy of the return part.

Finding the pass brought back buried memories and when I began recounting stories to my wife about train trips of yore, she suggested I write down and record the details. So here is my story and a brief look back.

July 1976. 

The night before: Train 41 leaving Saint John, NB.
While I did not know it at the time, what would turn out to be my last ride on CP Rail’s Train 41, better known as "The Atlantic Limited" also coincided with what would be my last visit with my grandparents in Milan. This trip would also be my first and only voyage over the rails of the Megantic Subdivision on a Canadian Pacific employee pass and my last rail trip anywhere as a CP employee.

The sudden airline strike early that summer had forced an early end to my visit in Milan. Making a hurried effort to return to Vancouver and back to work on time, I was rushing off to Montreal hoping to be able to obtain a seat on “The Canadian”. Boarding Train 41 in Megantic at 03:50 meant having to crawl out of bed half asleep around 02:00, getting ready and then driving the fifteen miles from Milan. Mom drove me that morning. Outside was absolutely black. No distant city lights; no hint of dawn on the horizon. Little conversation transpired. No one was happy about my sudden change of plans.

We arrived at the Megantic train station around 03:40 only to learn that Train 41 was running at least two hours late. Rather than wait out the delay in Megantic, we returned to Milan to have an early breakfast. I really did not want to have to depart for Vancouver and was grateful for the extra time. 

Around 05:20 we departed again for Megantic. Dad drove this second time. Checking with the operator on duty, I was informed that Train 41 was still expected to arrive around 06:00. After exchanging our good-byes, Dad departed before the train arrived. He hated waiting and I was afraid I would change my mind about leaving.

Train 41's official schedule as it appeared in the April 25, 1976, CP Rail employee time table that was in effect at the time of this story. In 1969, CP Rail's Megantic Subdivision was combined with the Sherbrooke Subdivision.

The Atlantic Limited very slowly squealed to rest in Megantic at 06:10. The consist was one of CP Rail’s usual 1970’s augmented summer Atlantic Limited: one of the 1800 series E units, a smooth curved-wall baggage car, a stainless steel Manor sleeping car, A Skyline dome car, a Budd-built stainless steel coach and an Angus Shops built smooth curved-wall coach trailing.

Canada Customs and Immigration agents boarded the train as soon as a door was opened. Megantic was the train’s first stop in Canada following its nocturnal journey across Maine. After the government agents completed their business on the train, the Farnham Division crew took over. Finally permitted to board, I chose a vacant window seat in the rear coach and settled in for the trip to Montreal, determined to make a mental note of every detail of the journey over my favourite railway mileage. Most coach passengers were reluctantly awake, probably with much muted thanks to Canada Customs and Immigration.

A typical CP Rail 1970's Train 41. The Atlantic Limited about to depart from the Montreal West train station and nearing the end of its run from Saint John, NB.

Although more than two hours late, The Atlantic Limited did not depart prior to fulfilling its entire ten minute wait in Megantic. Also because of the delay, the entire subdivision would be travelled in daylight instead of the customary mostly darkness.

Westward from Megantic the first four miles is tough climbing to achieve a vertical gain of about 250 feet. After twice crossing Highway 161 east of the recently removed Glen River siding, mile 4.4, the grade eases and the track alignment straightens out somewhat. While approaching this location the train started to speed up. 

The late Omer Lavallee identified the location of this 1957 Jim Shaughnessy photo as being between Megantic and Scotstown. The location is the western crossing of Highway 161 (looking eastward) and the train shown is about 1/2 mile east of Glen River, the former siding shown in older schedules at mile 4.4

From watching the telephone poles flash by and listening to the rhythmic chatter of steel wheels rolling over the joints of bolted rails, I was certain the train was travelling faster than 50 miles per hour. In spite of the 50 miles per hour permanent slow order on curves between miles 3.0 and 9.0 the engineer did not relent as the train leaned into the long gentle curve west of the former siding. Our hurried pace continued uphill toward Nantes, mile 8.4. By now I was aware this would not be the usual relaxed 115 minute cruise between Megantic and Sherbrooke.

As the whistle sounded for the crossing in Nantes the engineer finally applied the brakes. Braking intensified as Train 41 tilted into the long curve through town. The wheels shrieked and showered the right of way with an impressive display of sparks as the train slowed for the 40 mile per hour speed limit beginning west of Nantes at mile 9.0. Having walked along the track years earlier, I knew there was little straight railway through to mile 10.0 and as well as beyond. The westward climb that starts from Megantic continues for a little more than a mile to peak near mile board 11 at slightly over 1700 feet above sea level and about 400 feet higher than Megantic. This location just west of mile 11.0 is the highest elevation on the Megantic Subdivision.

Although the 50 mile per hour speed limit on curves governed again from mile 10.0, the Atlantic’s pace did not significantly change until after cresting the summit west of mile 11.0. For several miles the tangents lengthen with a few reverse curves interspersed. Assisted by gravity, speed increased quickly as the train raced downhill toward the curved uphill rise near mile 13.0. Over the mile and a half of tangent track paralleling Highway 214 Train 41 sped toward the S curve east of Milan. Even after passing mile board 14, the engineer held off until the last instant before making the expected reduction of pressure in the train line. Upon feeling the train slowing, I left my seat, went to the vestibule of the coach and opened the top half of the door on the left side.

Recorded in the mid 1950's, the mile and a half of tangent track east of Milan with a short eastbound train heading toward Megantic. The train shown is at or near mile board 14.

Completing the reverse curve approach into the tiny town, the engine’s whistle broke silence for the crossing in Milan. I was watching to see if anyone would be standing on the verandah of my grandparents’ home. Dad was waiting there and gave a wave in response to mine. I thought it ironic to see my father standing in the very same spot where I had often stood to watch trains passing through Milan. He intensely disliked trains as much as I loved them.

Train 41 quickly cleared the road crossing and east switch of Milan siding. Before returning to my seat I remained long enough to watch Milan disappear from view as the train rounded the curve at mile board 15. Quickly followed the familiar sound of wheels clattering over the west switch of the siding. The train’s speed increased and the whistle for the small crossing just west of mile 16.0 soon followed. 58 seconds after mile board 16 followed mile board 17 and then braking was applied as the train closed in on the first bend of another reverse curve. Midpoint through the S the downhill grade changes to uphill. The E-8 unit growled as the train leaned into the second curve and charged up the small rise to mile 18.0. For a few wonderful moments I was treated to a spectacular wilderness sunrise scene of secluded Otter Pond with majestic Megantic Mountain in the distance. With strongly felt yearning from within, my soul cried out, “I want to get off and stay here!”

A segment of tangent track was traversed before another set of reverse curves through rock cuts led the way to McLeod’s Crossing. The E8’s horn blasted out the warning call for the crossing and then growled through another uphill curve toward Spruce, a siding at mile 19.7. With walls of conifers on each side of the right of way, the passing track was suitably named. The Atlantic cleared the east switch of Spruce and the engineer opened the throttle, intent on making up time over the mile or more of straight track following the two slight curves west of the siding.

The curved black line shows the route of the CPR between mile boards 22 and 25 with a bit added on each end. The red circle at the top shows the location of the quarry. The former CPR station was located at the second road crossing nearest Rue de Ditton. (lower left)

The train slowed for the 45 miles per hour on curves speed limit commencing at mile 22.0. From there to Scotstown, mile 25.0, the right of way is a downhill succession of curves interrupted by a bit more than a half mile tangent from which the town’s passing siding branches out. Through this three mile twist CP Rail’s route makes a vertical drop in elevation of about 120 feet. Train 41 was not going to win back any time on this part of the subdivision. West of the Dell Road crossing is the closed granite quarry that had been the source of the rock ballast under the track. The quarry sidings had all been removed since my previous journey over these rails. The Atlantic continued coasting and pinging through the curves, passing outcroppings of granite and crossing several small streams.

On the curved approach to the eastern crossing of Highway 214 at the edge of Scotstown the train slowed considerably. The engineer was preparing to stop if the green and white flag was hanging at the station to indicate that someone was waiting. After sounding the standard warning for the highway crossing, two short hoots from the horn followed. The train crossed Highway 214 a second time, rolled by Scotstown Station without stopping and rumbled across the bridge over the Salmon River. I assumed that the proceed signal was given to let the conductor know that no stop was required at the first scheduled flag stop west of Megantic. The engineer had covered the 25 miles from Megantic to Scotstown in 32 minutes instead of the schedule’s 37.

The CPR right of way and Salmon River west of Scotstown
The right of way through Scotstown west of the station is akin to the route of a screw thread carved out of the south bank of the Salmon River. The backs of houses overlook the railway on one side and the river flows below on the other side. The Atlantic drifted downhill well within the 35 mile per hour speed limit imposed between miles 25 and 26. The train seemed to be travelling slow enough to get off and walk along beside it. Approaching the long curve from behind Victoria Farm, the train’s E unit roared to life. The track changes direction by more than 90 degrees and then commences a three and a half mile ascent to Gould Station to gain about 210 feet in elevation. The engineer was taking a good run at the hill.

The summit is reached at the road crossing between the easement of the last curve and the switch points of the east end of Gould siding, mile 30.2. Through this curve east of the crossing the right of way has again altered direction by nearly 90 degrees. As Train 41 negotiated the summit bend, speed increased. Ahead was a four mile downhill stretch of “50 miles per hour on curves” track comprising of tangents and long gentle curves. The engineer did not waste any time in hustling the train over this mileage. I looked at my watch and timed progress between mile boards 31 and 32. About 56 seconds. Between mile boards 32 and 33 the count was down to 52 seconds. Rattling over the east switch of the Long Swamp siding mile 33.7 should have quickly followed but did not. The siding had been dismantled. About halfway past the recently torn out siding heavy braking was applied. CPR’s Train 41 quickly slowed for the lower speed limit and a double set of reverse curves. Ahead were 17 miles of 40 miles per hour “On curves” track and little of it straight. A few curves later the steward’s first call for breakfast was announced, so I headed to the Skyline car for coffee.

CP Rail’s “Atlantic Limited” was clearly “The Canadian’s” little sister; a daily dome train on an abbreviated route but utilizing the same stainless steel equipment for a shorter train. It was also a much less patronized train. The usual 1970’s consist was a lone E-8 unit pulling four cars including the baggage car. Of course on weekends and around holidays, the train’s consist would be augmented with an additional sleeper or two and extra coaches. For a period of time CP Express containers on flat cars were included in the train.

Listed in CP Rail’s schedules as 42 eastbound and 41 westbound, the trains did most of their travel between Montreal and Saint John through the night. Looking back over the years, the “Atlantic Limited” must have been one of CP Rail’s best kept secrets. It was certainly one of the must unsung of Canada’s name trains. Unlike many famous name trains however, the Atlantic Limited survived into the Via Rail era.

Train 41 continued its downhill roll into and through Bury, mile 38.3. Facing sideways at the small table, I was thoroughly enjoying my coffee and watching the wall of trees and telephone poles flash by the windows of the other side of the car. While CP Rail truly did not want the passenger trains nor always run them on time, CP Rail’s dining car crews could always be depended upon to provide excellent coffee with numerous refills.

The Atlantic rattled over the east switch of Ross, mile 42.4, the passing siding between Bury and Cookshire. Ross was one of the longer sidings on the Megantic Subdivision. Several sidings, including this one, were lengthened in the early 1960’s to accommodate longer freight trains following the end of the steam era.

With my coffee out of the way I moved upstairs into the dome. All 24 seating spaces were vacant so I was free to occupy what I always considered the best seat on the train; front right in the dome. From there it was possible to see and read all the railway signs and signals. Watching the leading passenger cars bounce and sway back and forth while the train twisted through curve after curve was soothing and deceptively unhurried.

The CPR station at Cookshire, Quebec, in July 1994
Signal 461 soon appeared. Green. I never saw that station protection signal display any other colour. Cookshire, mile 47.4, was about a mile ahead. First though would be the crossing of the Eaton River. The CPR alignment’s approach to the bridge is a downhill curve. At the other end of the bridge is a reverse uphill curve. Train 41 slowed and I felt the slight jerking action of the cars as the consist rumbled over the bridge. The engineer was slowing to stop at Cookshire if necessary. The station platform was deserted and with two hoots from the front, the E8 began spewing out a steady stream of dark exhaust. The train continued its climb out of town on the Megantic Subdivision's westbound ruling grade. The only other scheduled flag-stop between Megantic and Sherbrooke had also been omitted.

Cookshire is the junction station with the Sawyerville Subdivision. All the secondary tracks were void of cars, probably owing to the lack of carload shippers and consignees in Sawyerville. The decaying 6 plus miles between Cookshire and Sawyerville was all that remained of a former railway (under the control of Maine Central Railroad until 1927) that once ran between Beecher Falls, Vermont, and Dudswell Junction on the Quebec Central Railway.

July 12, 1994. Via Rail's Train 11, the Atlantic, has just crossed highway 108 in Cookshire, Quebec, and is making the climb toward Birchton on the westbound ruling grade.

The rail route between Cookshire and Birchton is mostly curved. For about a mile the Megantic Subdivision is shadowed by the Sawyerville Subdivision. I watched the rusty rails of the other track as they slowly appeared to move farther away while the distance in between increased. Train 41 turned and squealed through another curve and the Sawyerville Subdivision was lost from view. A year later the Sawyerville Subdivision was abandoned and the rails lifted.

Ahead was Birchton, Mile 52.1 as well as the last stretch of track for fast running before reaching Sherbrooke. Instead of increasing speed as was expected, the train slowed and eventually stopped at the east switch to enter the siding. Relegated to taking the “hole” to meet eastbound freight 952, the humbled passenger train consist slowly creaked and crawled along the secondary track as far as the west switch and waited. And waited. And waited. All the won back minutes since departing from Megantic were given up. More waiting and the train was down three hours.

Train 41 was nearly four hours behind schedule when the eastbound freight finally dawdled past. After 952 cleared the switch Train 41 crept out of the siding, paused again while the switch points were realigned, then proceeded after the trainman was aboard. Instead of making a quick dash the Atlantic rolled along at a subdued pace to and through Bulwer, a former flag-stop station at mile 54.8 and then slowed again near Johnville, mile 58.2. While I never did learn the official explanation for the delay, I did overhear talk on board 41 that train 952 had been in distress on its eastbound climb between Lennoxville and Birchton.

Clear of Johnville, the Atlantic Limited continued its subdued pace and commenced the cork-screw descent toward Racey, mile 60.7. Racey has the distinction of being the only siding on the subdivision that is all curved track. At one location in the woods beside the right of way is a large pile of bricks. I learned from the late Leslie McLeod, a former Farnham Division conductor, that many years earlier a brick factory had been located there. Except for the pile of bricks in the trees, no other trace existed of the industry that was once there.

Beyond the west end of Racey, the ravine which the railway was following widens and deepens. This brief part of the route is a ledge that was carved out of the rocky crags that formed the side of a steep hill. This is one of the most scenic locations on the Megantic Subdivision, particularly when viewed from the upstairs in the dome car. The train continued its descent, grinding and squealing through curve after curve. Buildings of Bishop’s University soon appeared as Train 41 reached the outskirts of Lennoxville, mile 65.4.

A 1954 Jim Shaughnessy winter photo taken at Lennoxville, Quebec. An eastbound freight train is about to cross the black steel-plated deck bridge over the frozen waters of the Massawippi River. Leslie McLeod once told me about a tragic incident which occurred at this bridge many years earlier. A young man, employed as an operator with the CPR, was walking across the bridge when he was confronted by a train. The man jumped from the bridge into the water and was drowned.

Trundling across the black steel-plated deck bridge over the motionless murky waters of the Massawippi River, the Atlantic canted into the sharp curve while slowing for both the road crossing in the center of town and approach to the interlocking signals protecting the crossing of CN’s Sherbrooke Subdivision. After banging over the diamond and crossing the CN right of way, the passenger train began the uphill finish toward Sherbrooke, mile 68.5. The CTC signals were all displaying green, thus indicating “Clear! Proceed!”

Moments later a very tardy Atlantic Limited groaned to rest at the dirtied red brick CPR station in Sherbrooke as I vacated my perch in the dome to return to my seat in the coach. My journey over the Megantic Subdivision was complete but I was now confronted with the fact that Train 41 was not going to arrive in Montreal in time for me to connect with “The Canadian” and alternative transportation to Vancouver would have to be found following my arrival at Windsor Station. But that shall be another story for another day.

(Written in 1992)
The Oddblock Station Agent

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