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Fort Steele’s historic Locomotive 1077 suspended for safety review

Suspension of operations were unnecessary, some staff say

A year after Fort Steele Heritage Town celebrated “100 Years Of Steam,” operations of the site’s historic and celebrated train have been suspended – with some staff wary of what is to come.

Locomotive 1077, which to some has been dubbed the steaming heart of Fort Steele, will not be running for much of this season, if at all, pending a safety inspection and recertification by an independent third party.

Former Fort Steele staff and volunteers, and members of the public, have increasingly expressed concern about the future of the site, both as a tourist attraction and as a go-to outing for locals.

In an email to staff, the board for the Friends of Fort Steele Society said the province has been made aware of the suspension and that the review will assess locomotive and all rolling stock, the tracks and track bed and all safety-management related matters, including operating practices, personnel qualifications and training.

Recommendations necessary to resume rail operations – and estimated costs – will follow the review.

“We hope that the review, along with any required maintenance and/or required changes in operating practices can be completed in a timely manner, and if the railway is deemed safe to operate and be ready for a late season start-up,” the email reads.

Fort Steele is a key strand of the Cranbrook area’s historical DNA: Locomotive 1077 is one of the longest-serving steam locomotives in the country. Built in 1923, it worked as a log hauler until 1969. It moved to Fort Steele in 1969. For decades it has offered rides to Fort Steele visitors and has appeared in feature films.

Gene Roshau, manager of Fort Steele Rail operations for the past 10 years, says the reasons cited for the train shutdown are invalid, and that, since the train and railway are inspected and certified every year, he takes great exception to the suspension of operations and the implications of that.

“We inspect the track with certified track inspectors,” Roshau told The Townsman. “The mechanical aspects of the locomotive are certified with a Canadian Pacific Rail certified car inspector and A CPR certified locomotive inspector, every year for the past 35 years.”

Roshau, who has 35 years railroad experience, coordinates certified pressure vessel testers, inspection and repairs with a government engineer.

“The government boiler inspector is present during most of the process,” he said. “We do hydrostatic testing and inspection of water pressure of the boiler to above operating pressure. This is done every spring. All the tests are signed off by inspectors.”

As manager, Roshau has staff pass medical exams, as per provincial requirements, to qualify for safety critical positions — engineer, and fireman, etc.

“All staff were tested last year, [according to] rules required for steam firemen. All passed and are now certified steam firemen.”

“I have managed the steam train department for the last seven years. It has never operated if it was not first certified by the provincial boiler inspector and a certificate to operate given.”

He added that safety regulations are followed closely.

“It’s done to a tee. Safety is our utmost concern.”

Kevin Weaver, president of the Friends of Fort Steele Society, said that the age of the train itself has raised certain concerns, and that however well-maintained it may have been certain inconsistencies in health and safety protocols and procedures had been identified.

“We don’t have a person on staff who holds the title of a certified rule instructor and trainer,” Weaver said. “This is under Canadian Rail Operating Rules. If anyone is going to be testing other railway workers and certifying them, it has to be done by a person with those qualifications. We lost that person when Doug Martin passed away in February of 2023.”

He added that Technical Safety BC is involved in the process and a third party will need to recertify staff when it comes time to resume the locomotive.

Weaver said that what settled the issue for the board was discussion with Fort Steele’s insurance broker, which highlighted how any gaps in safety measures could lead to the board being personally on the hook.

But Shannon Panko, who served as interim general manager of Fort Steele Heritage Town last year, as well as a conductor and certified fireman on the 1077, feels there is no justification for the suspension of operations.

“One thing that cannot be ignored is that if one of the last operational steam locomotives is left dormant for a year, there is a very good chance that it will not be operational again,” Panko said. “If staff leave for other jobs, they take their invaluable knowledge and skills with them. Irreplaceable.”

Weaver said that the suspension is about more than just the train itself. In 2023, operations costs mounted to $350,000 – $150,000 of that being staff wages – while revenue totalled $441,000. Weaver remains hopeful the train will be back in service later this summer.

Despite the train being out of service, the site will be opened to the public earlier than the usual July 1, and instead open June 15 until Sept. 8. The site will be closed in April to prepare and train new seasonal staff. The site will reopen in May to school groups.

“We’re still deciding what to do to put on a Mother’s Day celebration,” Weaver said, adding that the Fall Fair is expected to happen, and he’s hopeful there will be a Spooktacular event again.

Fort Steele staff unionized in January of this year, and volunteer involvement on the site has been limited while Fort Steele works through that process; putting together a collective bargaining agreement.

The volunteer program will also be revamped upon return to require criminal record checks and include additional safety and work policies.

The board is in the process of renewing bylaws and expect to reopen membership to the society, which was suspended last year.

Barry Coulter

About the Author: Barry Coulter

Barry Coulter had been Editor of the Cranbrook Townsman since 1998.
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