National Geographic : 1994 Dec
"If you do everything right in the first part of the hill, it goes pretty smooth. But if anythinggoes wrong, you can be in trouble in a second." BARRY KENNEDY Locomotive engineer Wayne's 31. He's like all the young crew members I've met along this stretch of track-cocky, cheerful, focused on his train. It's true that when you get enough seniority here, you usually choose other subdivisions, but Wayne knows that it's not fear: Other runs are simply quicker and easier than the Mountain Sub. But there is plenty here to scare you. This 125.7 miles of track consists of an initial downgrade, a tough upgrade through two tunnels, and a long, winding downhill haunt ed by the memory of one of the railroad's most costly wrecks. Right away we talk about disasters. "I once hit a pile of snow near here," says the conductor, Frank Bonanno. "I thought we were going to bite the weeds." Railroaders take a certain satisfaction in remembering old wrecks, like the time a train hit a Ferris wheel east of Calgary. (The Ferris wheel was being hauled to a county fair. No one was hurt.) But for some reason, as we cross the Columbia River and start up the long grade on the other side, we don't talk about the wreck that happened one night in November 1977 just on the other side of the hill, when a train run by Timmy Hamm, Clarence Thacker, and three other men bit the weeds big time. I have talked to both men and remember their story-a coal train without brakes plunging down 20-mph track at 50, 60, 70, 85 mph; the hammer and scream of wheels; the expectation of death; and the bloom of light at the end, when the train came apart just behind the lead locomotives, plunged into a river, and burst into flame. I remember Thacker's description of how the locomo tives, freed from the wreck, glided to a stop in the eerie light of the fires, and how, after a Light at the end of Spiral Tunnel No. 1 means a success ful passage. Numerous trains careened down the moun tain and crashed before this route opened in 1909.