New Westminster train group gives new life to engine with tragic past
It was a transcendent moment when the 1,750-horsepower diesel engine turned over and the old VIA 6300 FP9 rumbled to life for the first time in six years.
But there was no time for Terry Ferguson and Andy Cassidy to revel in the oily fumes wafting around their heads, the deep rhythmic quaking tickling their bellies. There were seals and gauges to check, rattles and whines to investigate. And then there was that cloud of acrid smoke wafting from somewhere beneath the engine’s back right corner.
“Your adrenaline is pumping,” recalls Ferguson of the day members of the B.C. chapter of the National Railway Historical Society started the 6300 in a Braid Street warehouse after they had acquired it from VIA Rail. “But now you’ve got to check if anything is seriously wrong. You don’t want to wipe out the engine due to a bad bearing or a lack of oil.”
In fact, other than a seized cooling fan in a rear truck that caused the smoke as electrical wiring shorted out, the 1957 engine was in perfect running condition after years of sitting forlorn and forgotten in a rail yard, exposed to the elements.
“There was a guardian angel looking over it,” says Rip Peterman, the society’s president, of the group’s first engine acquisition.
For years, the 10 or so dedicated train buffs have been lovingly restoring and rehabilitating carriages from the 1940s to the 1960s, the peak of rail travel in Canada. Amongst the 23 cars parked in the warehouse and on a siding at the New Westminster/Coquitlam border are coach, observation, lounge, dining and mail cars. But whenever they were booked out for events, special excursions or even movie shoots, the group had to rely on the graces of railway companies to get the carriages where they needed to go.
Getting the 6300 fully operational again allows the society to better show off their collection. It also adds to Canada’s rich rail lore.
That’s because the engine comes with a story all its own.
On Feb. 8, 1986 the 6300 was at the head of the Skeena, VIA’s regular run from Prince Rupert to Jasper, Alberta, where it was latched onto the Super Continental that would then travel on to Toronto. Somewhere east of Hinton, a switching error put a westbound freight train on the same track as the 14-unit passenger train. The ensuing collision killed 23 passengers and crewmen.
The 6300, which was unoccupied and situated halfway along the Super Continental, sustained a destroyed nose but remained upright. After repairs and the installation of a new cab, it re-entered service and eventually became VIA’s last active FP9 diesel until it was retired.
When the society’s members learned of the 6300’s availability, they were undeterred by its tragic past.
“Having a story has made it special,” says Ferguson, who lives in Coquitlam. “It’s a part of history that makes it unique. Every time we take it out it reminds everyone of a tragedy that killed 23 people.”
“It’s a bit of a remembrance,” says Peterman.
The distinctive VIA colours and insignia are gone, painstakingly sanded away by volunteers then spray painted over by hand with a lustrous dark blue chassis and cream-coloured nose exclaimed with a bright red maple leaf.
“We’re proud Canadians, so the maple leaf was a natural,” says Ferguson.
Inside, the powerful diesel engine and electrical system just needed some tender loving care, new fluids and seals.
“When the engine operates, it puts it in a different class from one that is in a static display,” says Cassidy.
“This is alive.”