While the ascent to the Kicking Horse Pass from Laggan was challenging, the descent from Hector to Field was dramatic. Following two comparatively level miles from the summit and around Wapta Lake the Kicking Horse River plunges 1,142 feet (348 m) in two miles (3.2 km).

Two solutions were considered to meet the 2.2 % maximum grade agreed to in the railway construction contract with the Government of Canada. The first was to follow the north side of the valley up the Yoho River valley and back again. However, this route was rejected because it would pass several unstable areas considered prone to mud sides and avalanches.

Looking northwest towoards Mount Field shows the north side of the Kicking Horse River Valley which was too exposed to avalanches.

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The proposed route down the south side of the Kicking Horse River Valley would take the line high up on the side of Mount Stephen, shown in the background.

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A five car passenger train, the longest initially allowed on the Big Hill, decends at a maximum speed of 8 mph (13 kph), with two helper locomotives stationed at Field, #314 and #316 (both 2-8-0 Baldwins) assisting in braking.

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Today the Trans Canada Highway follows the eastern portion of the Big Hill and its 4.5 % grade giving travellers an idea of the severity of the slope.

Today the Trans Canada Highway descends the Big Hill and its 4.5% grade.

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A replacement of the original Howe truss bridge at the second crossing of the Kicking horse River, now referred to as the Old Bridge, still stands beside the highway.

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To prevent accidents, the railway adopted strict rules on the Big Hill. The instructions for operating trains on the hill were detailed and very explicit. A special block, between the west yard limit of Hector and the east yard limit of Field, was created for the hill where both passenger and freight train tonnages a running times were strictly controlled. For the 7.12 miles (11.45 km) to Field passenger trains were required to run this distance in not less than 47 minutes with speed limited most of the way to eight miles per hour (12.9 km per hour). Careful tests of brakes, sanders and all related equipment were required before westbound trains could proceed down the grade.

Eastbound trains were also required to add a pusher locomotive to the end of the train before proceeding up the hill. The end locomotive was placed in front of the caboose as experience, obtained the hard way, had shown that if the lead locomotive lost power, the rear locomotive could ram the car ahead of it. Passenger trains of more than 5 cars were often split to avoid having to add a helper locomotive in the middle of the train. If a locomotive was added mid-train a baggage car was frequently positioned in front to avoid disastrous results in the event the lead locomotive lost power.

Four run-away sidings were built about a mile (1.6 km) apart. The switches were set to divert down hill trains onto the sidings. As a train approached a siding it was to give one long blast of the whistle to alert the switchman then, if the engineer had the train under control, four short blasts to tell the switchman to give the train access to the mail line. In the event that the switchman felt the train was going faster than the authorized speed, he could alter all concerned by pushing a button in his shack to activating an electric gong in each of the other shacks and in the operator’s office at Field. Even when Field was reached, safeguards were taken, by setting the east switch to divert any following train onto another siding. Careful records were kept of train movements and telegraph helped dispatchers and switch tenders monitor the whereabouts of trains.

Locomotive #314 sits on the second safety siding. The S-curve, sure to derail an out-of-control train, was later removed.

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Eventually an “Electric Staff System” was adopted to regulate train movements up and down the hill. For westbound passenger trains and trains following westbound passenger trains only one train was allowed in the block between the west yard limit of Hector and the east yard limit of Field. Electrical-mechanical devices were used, one at each end of the block, to dispense a six inches (15 cm) long steel rod in such a way that a staff could only be taken from the device by the joint action of the operations at both ends of the block. Once the train had reached the other end of the block the staff was inserted into the electrical devise at that end alerting the operators a both end that the train had cleared the Big Hill block.

For freight and other operations trains were allowed to follow each other at prearranged intervals. The system relied on the crews passing steel staffs with 11 removable rings to and from the operators at either end of the block. The staff or a ring authorized a train to pass through the block. If a ring were given to the engineer, he had to see the staff to verify that it was at that end of the block. The engineer of the last train moving through the block was given the staff with the remaining rings. Once delivered to the operator at the other end of the block, trains could proceed in the opposite direction. Both systems ensured that there could never be trains travelling in opposite directions, at the same time, over Big Hill block. All of these precautions added to the complexity of operating over this short but treacherous section of the railway, but they helped ensure the safe passage of trains over the Big Hill for 25 years.

Nevertheless, mishaps did occur. In 1889, a 14-car loaded coal train with locomotive #314 in the lead lost control coming down the hill. The switchman at the second safety siding thought the train had whistled for the main line. The crew jumped just before the train derailed. One of the brakeman was killed and the fireman died shortly after from his injuries. Locomotive #314 was rebuilt and put back in service but in 1894, while pushing a freight train up the hill two miles east of Field, the boiler blew killing the engineer, fireman and conductor. The remains of the locomotive were salvaged and it was rebuilt once again and returned to service on the Big Hill.

In 1904, locomotive #1077 and a 10-car coal train, the maximum tonnage permitted one locomotive westbound, were easing down the hill when the engineer lost control approaching the third safety siding. The switchman thought the train was whistling for the main line and began throwing the switch when the fast approaching train hit the switch and derailed and plunged over the mountainside. Both the engineer and the fireman were killed.

The very real problem of safety and the expense of maintaining helper locomotives to assistance trains over the 4.5 % grade of the Big Hill led to its replacement with two spiral tunnels, but not until 1909.



September 5, 2016

September 5, 2016

The Big Hill

The second was to follow the south side of the valley passing above Field at 500 feet. But, this would require construction of a 1,400 foot (427 m) tunnel through the nose of Mount Stephen, which would not only be costly but take years not months to construct.

The solution finally adopted was to ask the Government of Canada for a dispensation on the maximum grade agreed to, and build a temporary track with a 4.5 % grade directly down into the Kicking Horse River valley. This became known as the “Big Hill” and, although originally intended to be temporary, lasted in service for 25 years.

Operating on the 4.5 mile (7.2 km) 4.5 % grade was hazardous. The track at the front of the locomotive of a five-car passenger train was sixteen feet lower in altitude than that at the rear of the last passenger car. Today the Trans Canada Highway follows the eastern portion of the Big Hill and its 4.5 % grade giving travellers an idea of the severity of the slope.