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Edition #91, December 1, 2008


Photographer: Ken McCutcheon

                                                                            Photo by Ken McCutcheon


When I say “Saskatchewan” to many people they say, "Yuck, it's flat and boring.” To the contrary, however, southern Saskatchewan is a mixture of rolling hills, coulees and, yes, flat land. We even have trees. And within this topography operates a shortline railroad, Great Western Railway. Composed of several hundred miles of ex-Canadian Pacific Subdivisions, the central point for train operations is Assiniboia Sask., the town where I live. The power for this shortline are five M420's. On Friday, May 30th, 2008 the GWR put on a show for this photographer that I will remember for a lifetime. The events leading up to my encounter began earlier that day when the two-man crew ran a light engine from Assiniboia 58 miles south and east to Coronach. 10 miles from Assiniboia they nosed onto two loaded grain hoppers left on the main track and shoved them 10 miles to the siding at Scout Lake. At Coronach they coupled onto two other units and assembled the 56-car train. The return trip necessitated a stop at Scout Lake to pick up the two loads from their southbound trip, pump up the air line and prepare for the three mile trip descending a 1.5% grade into a coulee. At the north end of the coulee they would encounter another three mile 1.5% grade raising them from coulee to flat land. At mile 13.5 while still on the grade the track enters a tight curve bringing the track to right angles with the previous alignment, before entering an S curve.

At 330pm a whistle is heard in the distance. Camera and tripod are setup and ready. Out of sight and behind the ridge the unmistakable sound of the Alco's is heard, first faintly, but soon the gurgling sounds fills the air The train shows its face, struggling along at a reasonable 15-20 mph, the power enters the curve, and, as the train is dragged through the curve a noticeable decrease in speed occurs until the train is barely moving, 5 mph max. The photographer is now cheering the skill of the engineer, willing him to make the hill, praying that a wheel slip doesn't hinder the progress and the inevitable knuckle failure from the run in.

With heat billowing out of the exhaust vents straight up into the air, the headend is now tackling the S curve. Wheels squealing on the flange, the photographer packs up his equipment and begins the one-mile walk alongside the train back to his vehicle.

After what seems hours but is only several minutes the rear of the train passes him and as it clears the right angled curve, train speed increases slightly, and as it pulls away into the distance their progress is followed, the photographer stopping to make sure he can see the train is still moving. It is, and finally tops the hill and disappears onto the flat land.

Three Alco's, 58 loads of grain, and one very gutsy engineer have triumphed over terrain in a coulee in not so flat southern Saskatchewan.

Ken McCutcheon

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