Dodging Bullets and Bungee-Jumpers

HALIFAX - KEN CURRIE stared wide-eyed out the window of his locomotive, watching death hurtling straight for him.

A split second earlier, all brakes locked on, he'd plowed into a pickup truck stalled on the crossing. The impact reduced the empty vehicle to instant scrap, but catapulted the engine block high into the air, right at his cab.

But it wasn't his day to die.

At the last instant, the missile bounced off the locomotive's nose and ricocheted away.

"I don't think even our bulletproof glass would've stopped an engine block," Ken observes dryly.

Welcome to the riveting, heart-stopping world of the railway engineer.

I'm aboard Via Rail's afternoon Ocean Limited, riding shotgun with Ken and fellow engineer Curtis Foote.

This is national Rail Safety Public Awareness Week and I've been offered a driver's-eye view of railway safety.

I'm only going as far as Truro. It's a 90-minute trip, just long enough to learn some of the hazards of guiding a 150-tonne locomotive and its 12 passenger cars through Nova Scotia.

Last year, 72 Canadians died trying to beat trains at crossings and as many again were injured on the right-of-way. Happily, none of the dead was a Nova Scotian, but that seems to have been more by good luck than good sense.

So here I am, high in the air, perched on a jump seat between Ken and Curtis, with a 16-cylinder, 3,300-horsepower diesel engine throbbing behind my head. Curtis, who's from Tatamagouche, is driving today, so it's his partner who bears the brunt of my questions.

"Did you say 'bulletproof glass'?" I ask Ken as we roll through Halifax.

The lanky Halifax grandfather taps the side window and nods. "I was shot at once, going through Wentworth," he says, matter-of-factly.

"Good grief!" I exclaim. "It's not the public who need to be warned about you guys, it's the other way round!"

The two men fall diplomatically silent for a moment, then Ken stirs. "A lot of people don't know how a train operates," he says grimly. "They think these are walking paths and walk along the tracks."

As if on cue, a teenager in a hooded jacket appears in the railway cut ahead. He takes up position beneath the arches of a graffiti-emblazoned overpass.

"Blaaattt!" Curtis leans on the air horn. The teen doesn't move. He scowls up at us as we thunder by at 70 km/h.

Up ahead, we spot several younger kids frolicking on the track. Curtis reaches again for the yellow horn button.


The children vanish.

"We're going so fast," says Curtis. "People don't realize."

We curve along Bedford Basin, picking up more speed. I notice a number of the signals are covered in graffiti.

"Do vandals ever smash signal lights?"

Ken nods. "And they build barricades on tracks as high as the locomotive," he says, "and they hang off bridges; and they bungee-jump off bridges."

They also put spikes on the track, adds Curtis, and bars and concrete blocks.

"In Stewiacke," Ken murmurs, "we were so lucky no one got killed."

It turns out he was the engineer that terrible day when a troubled teen tampered with the lock on a switch, sending nine coaches spilling off the track. By the time the mayhem was over, 23 people were injured and a feed store destroyed.

I lean forward. "What happened?"

The week before, he says, on his regular run through Stewiacke, he'd felt some roughness on that section of track. He'd reported it and a directive had gone out, reducing speeds through the town from 125 km/h to 75 until the problem was solved.

The following week, as he came through again, all hell broke loose.

"I felt something was wrong," he remembers. "Then I saw, in the rear-view mirror, the roof come off the feed shed."

Ken believes the switch was still in place when he approached. Not only was the signal green, he says, but the engine and the baggage car made it safely across. The coaches that followed weren't so lucky. Vibrations jarred open the unsecured switch and, well, the rest is history.

Three days later, Ken went back to work, just in time to experience another emergency stop. Coming into Elmsdale, he almost hit a white cube van trying to race him to the crossing.

When the train finally stopped, Ken jumped out. "I went looking for the driver of that van," he growls.

The van was gone. Just as well.

Like his partner, Curtis has hit just about everything in his career, including people. "I ran over a guy," he says softly. "I was shaking."

"How do you deal with that?" I ask.

He continues watching the track unspooling ahead of us. "The way I bring myself to work every day," he says. "I try to do everything, constantly, that the rules provide for, safely. I'm at the proper speed; I'm attentive; I'm doing everything I can."

That philosophy gives him the confidence to get through, he explains.

Ken talks about the day he surprised two small girls on a trestle bridge. They were terrified and had flattened themselves against a girder.

"They were praying," he says, a catch in his voice.

Curtis hasn't forgotten the day his train separated a mother from her toddler. To his disbelief, he came upon them strolling along the tracks. Mother went one way, child the other.

"The mother was screaming," he relates. "She was running towards the train. She had her hands outstretched."

The child was safe.

As Curtis is telling me this, he glances suddenly in his rear-view.

"We just hit a duck," he announces gravely.

I can't help myself; I burst out laughing.

Copyright © 2004 The Halifax Herald Limited