Friday, May 17, 2019

My railway happy place

I’m tired. Tired from renovating my basement after a flood and tired of rehabilitating my property after we had a new pipe connected to our house, which destroyed our front yard and landscaping. So yeah, I’m tired from that. I’m also tired of this wet spring and cool temperatures. This spring has not been great and much of my time has been spent as a cut-rate Mike Holmes wannabe.

So the blog has suffered a bit. I was thinking of new things to talk about and there is no shortage of newsworthy items from Ottawa. Our new LRT is still not ready and doesn’t appear to be, even though it is more than a year behind schedule. Did I mention that one of the new electric trainsets derailed just outside of Belfast Yard recently? Okay, maybe this topic is not your cup of tea. How about the uncertainty over CN’s desire to pull out of Ottawa? How about CN’s recent (and vague) advertisements alluding to some sort of celebration they are organizing for Ottawa next year? I’m wondering if they’re even going to be here still.

I am not going to write about any of this. I’m bored with reality, tired of light rail and full up with day-to-day headaches. I want to think back to when I was young and just liked watching trains go by; a time when I simply admired them for the mechanical marvels that they are.

With that in mind, here are a few small anecdotes and observations from the railway of my youth, CSX’s Sarnia Subdivision. In many ways, this rail line is an anomaly that you don’t often find anymore. I was looking through some photographs of this line the other day when I noticed some interesting things that I hadn’t seen before.


1. In this shot, can you see the old telegraph pole? I never noticed it before and with good reason. They are pretty small, compared to the old poles I’ve noticed along other rights-of-way. Just a single pole and two measly wires leaning away from the roadbed.

As readers of this blog know, this line is actually quite old. It has changed hands a number of times and reads like a who’s who of CSX predecessors. It was the Erie and Huron Railway when it opened for business in 1886. It changed hands once and was renamed before becoming part of the Pere Marquette Railway in 1902. From there, it became part of the Chesapeake and Ohio in 1947, and then the inevitable mergers brought in the Chessie System group of companies before finally becoming CSX Transportation.

Unlike many other railways, this line shed its passenger service in 1933, much earlier than other lines. It’s a shame that none of the passenger stations have survived, other than the old Mooretown Station, which is located on the grounds of the Moore Museum.

But that little telegraph pole, barely noticeable as it is at the back of my sister’s property, which extends to the tracks, is a witness to the history of this line and its importance in connecting a very large and scattered group of settlements in Lambton County.


2. This is something I’ve noticed before but it was particularly noticeable behind my sister’s house. Usually, a railway’s roadbed is elevated a fair bit above the surrounding landscape for many reasons, not the least of which is to prevent washouts from floods. In many areas along this line, the roadbed is actually not elevated all that much higher than the surrounding area. I really noticed it in these images. It made me wonder if this was a factor of neglect in that the railway has not bothered to bolster its ballast in a while or if it was a factor of the line’s design. Did the elevation in this area suggest to the line's builders that it did not require that much of an elevation? I wonder.


3. I’ve shared this shot before, but I like the fact that this line still has concrete mileposts, like this one near Emily Street in Mooretown. I’m not sure how many are actually left but I like the fact that some of them are still around. I recall as a kid seeing concrete W signs as well, but as you can tell from this shot below, some of them have been replaced over the years.


4. I didn’t realize this until I was older, but this rail line has no speed or occupancy signals, and for good reason. The line, even in its heyday, connected with CN in Sarnia and CP in Chatham. The trackage through Chatham-Kent is now finished, of course, and the Sarnia connection is used only for once-a-day interchanges between CSX and CN at CN’s Sarnia Yard. CSX also connects with CN’s St. Clair River Industrial Spur at Terra Industries, south of Courtright, but this connection seems to be lightly used or unused at the moment. The point is, neither of these current connections require signals. The Chatham connection did have signals but I think that was it for this line. Up until the 1950s, the line also connected with the former Canada Southern St. Clair Branch in Courtright, but I have not seen any images of whether it was governed by any signals. A real throwback. I imagine the line was (and still is?) governed by OCS.


5. One more way this line was really different. I remember watching a competitive baseball tournament one summer when I was young and then hearing the rumbling of a GP38 (like this one pictured) on the adjacent rail line (this line in my day was the exclusive domain of this geep). Well, didn’t the engineer stop the engine next to the ball field so he could watch some of the action? How many rail lines have this type of casual attitude these days? It reminds me that numerous blog readers have told me that they see CN 589 stop at the March Road railway crossing in Kanata so the crew can pick up a Tim Hortons coffee on their way to Arnprior.

You know, I feel better now. It’s been a tough couple of weeks of hard work for me. And my commute to work has been changed by bridge closures, due to flooding. So, not a lot to cheer about, but I have plans to have a trackside day in the coming weeks. This was the same trackside day I planned a year ago. So, things are looking up.

What about you, fair reader? Where is your railway happy place? Or where was it?

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Lies, half truths and flat out numbskullery

I was waiting for my bus recently when a full consist O-Train trundled by on the Confederation Line. It was interesting to see the reaction of my fellow commuters. A few people turned around briefly while most seemed to ignore the train, which was a combination of two trainsets. Apparently, this will be the configuration used frequently. But, given this LRT system is already a year behind schedule, people are growing tired of being reminded that they should be excited by this tiny first phase of the city's new light rail line.


This was a shot of the train pulling out of Pimisi Station on the Lebreton Flats, just west of Ottawa's downtown core. Pimisi, for those wondering, is an Algonquin word for the eels that can be found in the Ottawa River.

The site of the O-Train got me to thinking of the lies, half truths and misinformed messages I've heard since the city decided to plow ahead with its electric light-rail dreams. Here's a brief list of things that have really bothered me about this project.

1. Phase I will benefit all commuters - The way the city is hyping light rail, you'd think there would actually be some sort of benefit to commuters. The truth is, unless you are within walking distance of the stations along this route, the first phase of this light rail service will not benefit you. I live in the suburbs. For me, this new line means my morning commute now involves two transfers. Right now, I need to transfer between my express route to a shuttle route across the river so I can get to work in Hull (those brown buildings you see in the picture). Adding another connection will only take away time from my day that could be spent elsewhere. The city's ad campaign really makes no attempt to be honest about this point. All riders west and east of the end points of this line will need to make a transfer. That adds time. There's no way around it.

2. Our way or the highway - Since the beginning of the rail renaissance in Ottawa, the city has been very clear that there is no other way to design a commuter transit system that is not the city's way. Ottawa has not pursued a option that multiple political candidates have put forward of using existing railways for commuter purposes, like they do in Toronto...


and in Montreal.


You might think this is a safe statement to make, since Ottawa is nowhere near as big as Greater Montreal and the GTA. But, here's something you might not know. Geographically, Ottawa spans 2,778 square kilometres. That makes it the biggest of Canada's big cities, in terms of area. (There are seven cities that are geographically bigger than Ottawa, but they are nowhere near as big as Ottawa in terms of population. Their land mass and city status are a byproduct of municipal amalgamations that created a city where there isn't always a population to truly back up the claim).

Think of the other very real opportunities Ottawa has passed on since 2009.

1. Commuter rail on Beachburg Sub into North Kanata and even to Fitzroy Harbour
2. Commuter link over the Prince of Wales Bridge, which may yet happen, thanks to Gatineau's own light rail plans (remember that this bridge was weeks away from being converted into a recreational pathway)
3. Extension of the existing O-Train to the Ottawa Airport and into Riverside South (Yes, I know that this extension is a go, but how long did it take and how many times was this plan presented and rejected?)

3. The O-Train will save the environment. Honestly, this argument that light rail is good for the environment is naïve to say the least. Long term, a LRT system should be good for the environment, but it depends on whether you are successful in getting people out of their cars. Right now, I can't honestly say that the train, even when it does reach closer to my neighbourhood, would convince me to change my habits. The sad truth is, in many North American cities, the most successful public transit systems owe much of their success to the fact that they are the easiest form of transportation to get downtown. As long as getting downtown by car is easy, people will not make the switch. I would never drive downtown for work, but I wouldn't take the train downtown on the weekend, either. To me, there's no net gain here for the city. And the interesting thing in Ottawa's case is that the biggest factor in reducing the city's CO2 emissions came from the province. Ontario's decision to shut down its coal plants did more for the environment than any local initiative.

Call me a disgruntled, skeptical commuter, if you must. But I'm not alone.