Remembering Canada's Worst Ice Storm Ever - Part 5/Postscript - what happened in my home town

in #history3 years ago

The cleanup from the three successive ice storms from 4-10 January 1998 would have started in earnest by 12 January for the 1.5 million or so people affected in Quebec, Ontario, the Maritimes and northeastern United States (see my other posts in this series for some other perspectives on the Great Ice Storm). But now the reality of being without power in winter had to have been top of mind.

The mayor of Boucherville has a genius idea

The mayor of my hometown, Boucherville, on the South Shore of Montreal (one of the areas worst affected), had a flash of inspiration that perhaps some essential services could be powered - by one of the national rail company's diesel locomotives. I'm not quite sure what services they were providing (it was used as an emergency operations centre); with gym facilities they might have been providing some shelter, or just a place for people to get warm and get some hot food and drink, as well as providing a place for civic authorities and emergency services personnel to coordinate their activities.

This story means a lot to me, because this is where I grew up. And it was one of the places worst hit.

Background and cool rail tech conversations

This is going to appeal big time to the diesel-heads out there. I found a super thread, followed by this one which together outline through rail enthusiasts' memories how the national rail company, Canadian National (CN), figured out how to purposely derail the locomotive and roll it along the street (less than a kilometre from where I grew up) to supply city hall and the Civic Centre (where I did all my kid activities from swimming in summer to tobogganing in winter) with power.

CN locomotive M420W 3502 being rerailed after serving the city hall of my home town, Boucherville, with electricity
Image source

Here's one of the critical technical observations about hooking up a diesel locomotive to a local municipal grid (by someone named "greendot"):

To use a locomotive as an emergency generator, you have to run the engine at the correct speed to generate AC at commercial frequency (60 hertz or cycles per second on North America). With an EMD GP38-2, for example, instead of running the engine at "notch 8" "locomotive speed", the engine would be operated at 720 RPM which would produce 60 hertz AC directly from the traction alternator. And that would be at a lower power output as well, probably around 1400 HP instead of the "notch 8" 2000 HP rating.

And a follow-up by someone with the handle Lackawanna484 in 2008:

There were pictures in several of the rail magazines about the idling engines and their use as portable generators. These were real jobs, with engineers assigned to oversee the speed settings 24/7, and fuel trucks detailed to refuel the power as needed. This article mentions that DEVCO had several specially equipped locomotives used to provide emergency power in the Maritimes.

Now THAT link is most interesting. Here's an extract relating to the Boucherville locomotives - the only one I've found which explained why they couldn't get the second locomotive to power the shelter:

There was an interesting phenomenon - a locomotive used as a generator. Railway locomotives use a diesel engine to drive an electric generator and this power in many cases is AC. A 2000 horsepower CN locomotive was taken off the tracks in Boucherville and literally driven down the street to the Boucherville town hall. With the locomotive sitting on the street out front the generator is providiing power to the city offices. The locomotive is set to the third notch on the throttle which sets the engine speed such that it will provide 60 hertz power. At this speed it will generate about 500 horsepower or 375 kilowatts of power - enough for several buildings. There is a second locomotive parked on the street near the grade crossing which is held in reserve. It was supposed to be used to power the shelter further down the street but an intervining overpass which would not support the 260,000 pound locomotive ended that idea. Nonetheless this is an interesting way to solve a problem.

In an interesting discussion on the internet on this subject it was mentioned that on the Devco Railway on Cape Breton Island there are four locomotives specially designed to act as generators in an emergency. Emergency planners may, in the future, wish to look at these locomotives since they could be quite useful in large scale emergencies.

With a friend I went to Boucherville On January 17 to see this spectacle and met some other friends there. There were folks coming from as far as Sherbrooke to see the sight which is most unusual. It was fun to see folks having their pictures taken in front of the engine. There was a soldier in the cab at all times to make sure no one got too close to the electrical connections or otherwise got themselves in trouble. I doubt that anyone is likely to steal the locomotive!

CN locomotive M420W 3502 doing its civic duty
Image source

I can't tell you how many times I've been over that overpass, either on foot or in a car. It was an integral part of my life. I have to say I'm glad they didn't crash it onto the highway by trying to get a massive locomotive over it.

A couple more images of the locomotive in and post-action

I wish I could find a larger photo of 3502 when it was actually in service to the city hall, but here's the best I've found:

Image source

And after a lot of hunting, I found another couple of images of CN rerailing the locomotive, both by Pierre Fournier:

Likely a view from the right hand side of the locomotive, during the rerailing
Image source
Image credit: Pierre Fournier

Rerailing 3502
Image source
Image credit: Pierre Fournier

All the threads mention that the loco went under its own power about 1000ft from the rails, on its own flanges, and left deep grooves in the pavement which had to be repaired afterwards. I'm pretty sure there was a consensus of "who cares" about the pavement - they could fix that in summer in the land of eternal potholes - but this was a crisis!

A more official report

Here's an extract from a report by one Bryce Lee, whose writings seem to have preceded the internet as every link I found to his report led me to a 404 Error page. Not to worry, here's the gist:

"The mayoress of Boucherville Quebec, Mme Francine Legault suggested borrowing diesel locomotives from Canadian National for use as emergency generators. She recalled that locomotives had been used as a source of power some years ago in Fermont, at the north end of Cartier Railway in Quebec. CN initially delivered M420W 3502, to the town on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River. The locomotive was lifted off of the tracks by a crane, and placed on de Montarville Street, and allowed to proceed 1000 feet down the street under its own power. The locomotive initially rolled on the edge of the wheel flanges on top of the pavement; the weight of the locomotive eventually cut flange-deep grooves into the asphalt of the street. This locomotive was used to generate electricity for the various local municipal buildings.

On January 14, M420W 3508 was delivered, and this time the locomotive was moved down the same street although not as far as the first locomotive. When it became apparent that M420 3508, loaned to the town by CN to generate electricity for use at a high school shelter, could not be utilized as envisaged, it was decided to leave the locomotive parked on de Montarville Boulevard just up the street from sibling 3502. CN 3502 and 3508 were not needed after Saturday January 17, since electricity had returned to the area. The two units were moved back to Taschereau Yard shop, and were shown into the shop for damaged gear cases (I wonder why...). 3502 is now stored serviceable, but may be back at work soon. 3508 is back on the road working. The StL&H (CP) offered CP Rail SD40 5417 to the city of Lacolle Quebec and the all-white ex-Kansas City Southern unit was modified and running January 14, 1998. The 5417 had been previously been supplying power at the St. Luc diesel shop and had to be chiseled out from its location it was so heavily embedded in ice."

A couple of notes on that thread:

  • the mayor's name was actually Francine Gadbois
  • it turned out she had excellent relationships with CN

So much of this history seems to be sleeping in magazines....

Here's another perspective from another rail forum (credit user williamsb):

I knew I kept all these magazines for a reason. The news article is in Trains April 1998 page 18.CN MLW M420W 3502 was derailed in the Montreal suburb of Boucherville and moved under its own power 400 feet down the middle of a paved street to serve as a portable generator for the town's civic buildings.

There was a huge ice storm that knocked out the power to 1.35 million customers taking in all of southwest Quebec, plus some adjoining areas of Ontario, New York state and Vermont in January 1998. It took several weeks to get all the power back. Our daughter and her family servived that storm in Ontario.

CN 3508 was going to provide power at a high school turned shelter, but only made it as far as the 3502. Two other locomotives remained on the rails and provided power in the Quebec towns of Richelieu and Coteau.

CP provided SD40 5417 and a container with a generator.

These moves were provided free of charge.

Maddening! CP (that's Canadian Pacific, Canada's other rail company) provided a locomotive as well? Where? Photos? Anyway, my self-interest means I'm focused on what CN did in Boucherville, less than a mile from where I grew up.

That high school must have been the French Catholic school about a mile up Montarville from the intersection with highway 132 - people who still live in Boucherville (you know who you are) can correct me on the details. In any case, we thought they were awesome because they could smoke in class and call their teachers by their first names. But I digress.

Remembering 3502

This plaque sits outside City Hall and was apparently installed posthumously in memory of the mayor. I've been back to Boucherville a couple of times since moving to South Africa during the storm...and clearly never saw this plaque. I'll have to return one day to pay my homage.

CN 3502 Commemorative Plaque in Boucherville
Image source

In English, the plaque says:

"In memory

At the request of Mayor Francine Gadbois, CN 3502 was used to power the emergency Operations Centre in Boucherville during the Ice Storm of 98."

I suspect we often wonder if mayors are useful or just figureheads - after you read this postscript to this past week's series, you tell me if all politicians are useless or if perhaps there might be some gray matter hidden in some of them.

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