Friday, May 15, 2009

Tacheeda, Bullmoose, Quintette Part 3 - Conculsion

Explorer Alexander Mackenzie, whilst searching for a Trans Canada crossing, explored the upper reaches of the Fraser River, the Peace River, and eventually descended the Bella Coola River out to the coast, thus becoming the first explorer to complete a trek across North America, other than Mexico, in 1793.

During his explorations, he observed coal seams visible at the surface in the Peace River Canyon, in what would later become British Columbia.

Modern day explorers, working for a handful of mining companies, mapped out vast reserves of coal, suitable for thermal energy and production of coke for steel making.

Finally, with changing world markets and aggressive marketing efforts on behalf of British Columbia and Canada, agreements were signed in 1981 with Japan to supply metallurgical coal over a 16-year contract.

To realize this potential, two mines had to be opened for production, a town had to be constructed, an access road to the outside world had to be built. A receiving and ship loading facility needed to be built. A railroad had to be built, and locomotives and rolling stock had to be manufactured to get the coal to tidewater.

Mine to Rail head

Both Bullmoose and Quintette mines were open pit surface mines. Coal beds, lying in sheets of varying thickness, were just below the surface. Once the overburden is removed exposing the coal, removal is straightforward.
Coal was moved from the mining pit to the BC Rail loading point, called a load out, by truck at the Bullmoose Mine, and by an 8 mile long conveyor belt at the Quintette Mine.

As with a grain elevator operation, each load out had storage silos. Each silo had a capacity of 5,000 tons.

Shown here is two of three silos at Quintette during construction. Each load out had a circular track, 20,750 feet at Bullmoose, 20,185 feet at Quintette.

Road crews did not operate unit trains around the circular load out. A load out operator controlled the throttle of locomotives via a radio controlled Pacesetter unit mounted in the cab. Trains crawled at 6/10ths mph around a 3.5-mile circular loop and through the base of a silo, where they were loaded by gravity.

It is interesting to note that car loading took place at the “end” of the curvature, so that a straight line pull of loaded cars could be achieved, thus preventing “stringline” derailments. A “Stringline” derailment occurs under conditions of slow speed and heavy power application, with the rail cars attempting “straighten out” a line of cars on a curve.

Rail head to Tidewater

Unit trains made the round trip from mine to tidewater in four-day cycles. An unusual part of the operation involved the BC Rail train crews, who switched power packs in the middle of their run, from diesel to electrics.

This is the Ridley Island Terminal located about 10 miles east of Prince Rupert, near the mouth of the Skeena River. Back in the ‘80’s, Prince Rupert’s original grain elevator, located on the Prince Rupert waterfront, was demolished, and a new grain handling facility was located here on Ridley Island. The Terminal eventually grew with facilities for grain, bulk, and then coal processing. The loading/unloading loop visible from Google Earth.

In this shot, you can see the site of the old Columbia Cellulose mill, where I rode log trains between Prince Rupert and Terrace back the late ‘50’s.

Again, under radio control, the unloading operator controls the unit train around the unloading loop and through a rotary dumper. Using specialized couplers, cars remain connected throughout the operation. A typical 98-car unit train was unloaded in less than two hours.

Empty unit trains, originally set up in 98 car blocks, were returned from Ridley Island Terminal via Canadian National crews approximately 450 miles east to Prince George.

At Prince George, BC Rail crews would pickup the empty unit train for a two-day turn to Tumbler Ridge. BC Rail diesel-electrics ran 72.9 miles up the Chetwynd Subdivision to Tacheeda, located at Mile Post 535.4.

In this Google view, you clearly see the route coming up from the south (bottom of photo) to the “hand off siding” at Tacheeda. The hand off sidings at Tacheeda were electrified, the end of juice from Tumbler Ridge Subdivision. Dark shadows of the catenary arches can be clearly seen.

Lutz Lehner and Helmut Wisinger captured the typical motive power pack hand off in this series of taken at Tacheeda:

Here we see three GF6C’s awaiting the hand off with the diesel powered BC Rail train coming up with an empty unit train from Prince George.
The crew removes the diesels from the train, parking them on a siding for the next “down-bound” full unit train.

In this view, we see the crew moving their grips from the diesel units to the electrics, for continued movement to Tumbler Ridge.

The electrics are hook up to the empty unit train and head north from Tacheeda 2.2. miles to Wakely, Mile Post 0, Tumbler Subdivision.

At Wakely the train makes a right hand turn and heads east up to Table Valley toward Tumbler Ridge.

A BC Rail track patrol checks out the rails following the passage of the train, “just in case” something may have been left behind! Once the empty unit train is dropped off at either mine, the crew tied up for the night in Tumbler Ridge. The following morning, they would reverse the process, completing a two-day turn.

Oh, yes. You may recall that in Part Two, describing the GF6C electric locomotive, I related that the throttle control on the electrics had an eight-notch paradigm, similar to diesels. This made the transition between electrics and diesel electrics much easier.

Beginning of the End

The last loads of coal were shipped by the GF6C electrics from the Quintette mine at Tumbler Ridge on the 19th and 20th of August 2000. On the 19th, a full 106-car train departed behind 6007, 6002, 6005, with helpers 6004, 6006, and 6001. On the 20th, loose ends were cleared out leaving Quintette with 106 loads, 21 empties. It stopped at Bullmoose – now renamed Teck - picking up an additional 21 empties.

And the 16 or so miles of rail between Teck and Quintette, were pulled up, including the load out loop.

With Quintette closed, electrics ran between Teck and Tacheeda until the 1st of November 2000, when they went into deep storage, along with 6003 at Murray - Tumbler Ridge – until 2003.

They never ran again.

Despite the fact the two major tunnels, used as justification for electrification in the first place, were still in use, a number of reasons were cited for withdrawing the electrics. Rationale ranged from the reduced number of trains, shorter trains allowing better speed through the tunnels, stabilized costs of diesel fuel, improved locomotive technology, and lack of spare parts for the electrics.

I understand BC Rail 6003 parked up at Murray, (Tumbler Ridge) had been scavenged for a number of parts. Sounds like a re-run of the Milwaukee Road story ... eventually the units were towed to Vancouver for storage.

In February 2004, following three years in storage, BC Rail returned the seven GF6C locomotives to their owner, CIT Leasing. Once it was clear the original contract had expired, all seven unique electric locomotives were pulled from storage in Vancouver BC and sent south to Tacoma - Coast Engine & Equipment Company - CEECo for destruction. Coincidentally, I understand CEECo is now shuttering ...

“On Track,” the newsletter for the Prince George Railway & Forestry Museum in Prince George, B.C., details how the museum was able to save one of the seven electric locomotives, Number 6001, in a dramatic last minute reprieve from the cutters torch at CEECo in Tacoma. It’s quite a story of persistence against all odds, as these locomotive preservation projects usually are.

By October of 2000, coal production had diminished from two or three trains per day to two or three coal trains per week. The handwriting was on the wall.

The Bubble Bursts!

The province had funded construction of a $400 million, 300-kilometer rail line linking the mines to CN Rail’s main line to Prince Rupert. It also built access roads, hydro connections and services for the all-new town of Tumbler Ridge, about 60 km west of the Alberta border. The federal government helped build the coal terminal at Prince Rupert.

The total bill to taxpayers came to about $1.6 billion. Development of the two mines added up to another $1.5 billion in private investment. The overall investment was to be guaranteed by 15-year supply contracts with the mines’ Japanese customers at well above the market price.

But before the first Japanese ore freighter even loaded its first shipment at the Ridley Island terminal in January 1984, the steelmakers began demanding cuts in volume and price.

Some politicians actually accused the Japanese of initially creating an artificial demand, so they could dicker for lower prices once the delivery mechanism was in place. But let us not get into the politics!

The End of Diesels

BC Rail dispatched the last diesel drawn coal train from the Bullmoose on April 10th, 2003. Headed by diesels DASH 9-44 CLW’s 4641-4624-4625-4644, with 62 loads and 43 empties.

Over the life span of the project, ten thousand eight hundred and eighty-two coal trains had delivered coal to Ridley Island Terminal.

With both Bullmoose and Quintette mines closed, and the 16 miles of track between Quintette and Tumbler Ridge pulled up, the catenary was de-energized. The arches were left standing, but time took its toll - stretches were wiped out by avalanches and not replaced.

At the other end of the line, the Federal Government was seriously considering selling off the Ridley Island Terminal deep water loading facility which was costing the taxpayers an estimated $500,000 a month just to sit idle.

In November. 25, 2003, Canadian National announced the acquisition of publicly owned BC Rail Limited for $1 billion in cash. In the deal, CN picked up the shares of Canada's third-largest rail company along with the right to operate on BC Rail's roadbed under a renewable 60-year lease. The roadbeds remain in public hands, while CN will took over rail transportation and maintenance.

No coal moved off the Ridge during most of 2003, all of 2004, and into 2005.

The Mythical Phoenix

Like the mythical Phoenix, Tumbler Ridge has arisen from the ashes. With new demands for her coking coal, not from Japan, but now from China!

The line was repaired and extended and once again, coal is moving from the mines. They mines carry different names. The original players are pages in history. But the mechanism is the same. Mine to load out to tidewater. And a new generation of diesel-electrics is doing the pulling.

Like so many towns who were tied to the forest products industry have had to do, Tumbler Ridge is on a journey to define itself free of the vicissitudes of the coal industry.

Editors Footnote: A blog article without photographs is a total bore and waste of real estate. Without the following folks, in no particular order, I would not have written this series:
  • The inspiration to write this series came from seeing Marty Bernard’s photographs.
  • I am thankful to the series of photos taken by Lutz Lehner, a German National who had taken a vacation trip to BC in 1999. I contacted Lutz and he was very gracious in providing the action shots of the GF6C’s handing off to diesels at Tacheeda. You can see all his photos of BC Rail at
  • Mark Forseille, of Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, who was also lucky enough to see those magnificent electrics at Tacheeda and other points along the Tumbler Ridge. Mark dug out photos of the specialized coal cars, which were built by Canadian National’s Transcona Shops on the original order!
  • Helmut Wisinger, who operates “Lines West.” Like me, Helmut is an avid fan of another great electric train, the Milwaukee Road. Other goodies by Helmut can be found at
  • Paul Roy, a friend of Helmut’s, provided the color file of the BC Rail GF6C Brochure – what a find!
  • Ms. Doreen Younge, with whom I had the pleasure of talking to at the Visitor Services Coordinator, District of Tumbler Ridge. Doreen was a great help in separating fact from fiction!
  • Mr. Bill Black, Manager, Process, Wolverine Coal Ltd., Tumbler Ridge BC. And now retired!
  • Mr. Brian Carli, Manager, Network Strategies, Canadian National in Edmonton, Alberta.
  • And to William Rogerson, who allowed me to incorporate the interior cab shot of BCR 6001, at her home at the Railway & Forestry Museum in Prince George.

Post Script

BC Rail 6001 stands in a railroad museum in Prince George, mute testimony to the halcyon days of the Tumbler Ridge Subdivision. And after all was said and done, BC Rail never recovered its investment cost.

3 Comments - Click here:

Eric said...

Awesome series Robert. Thanks for the posts and for the links to those who provided assistance.

SDP45 said...

I had wondered what happened to the line after the electric operation was unplugged. Thanks for filling in the details.


Anonymous said...

Great series, I really enjoyed it. Thanks for taking the time to put it together and finish the story. What is it about North American electric operations (at least the western ones) that always seem to end in the same way?

In an interesting irony, I seem to recall a certain Milwaukee Road pulled the plug on the electrics just as the fuel crisis of the 70s hit. As I recall, the period 2005-2008 were a fuel crisis of their own. Too bad the electrics from the Tumbler Ridge were already gone.

Take care,

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