Friday, September 14, 2018

Regional rail becomes an election issue in Ottawa

And here we go again. Most of my fellow Ottawa railfans know the city has once again pushed back the start date of the city’s Confederation Line O-Train service, although some of you out there who don’t live in this city might not know. I’ve tried to avoid too much commentary on this project, since I want to focus this blog on much more than LRT. It gets tiresome, to be honest.

Lots of construction, but no trains. Get used to this.

That being said, it would be crazy for me not to write about some of the recent developments in this city’s sad, sad history of rail bungling. And let’s be clear. Light rail transit has been bungled here many times. There was a plan under previous Mayor Bob Chiarelli, which once amazingly called for the removal of the existing Trillium Line (former CP Ellwood Subdivision, which is largely buried in a trench and hidden from view in the neighbourhoods it serves). Then there was the fixation with a downtown rail tunnel under Mayor Larry O’Brien, when a surface option was never seriously considered. Let’s not forget the giant sinkhole that collapsed near the O-Train tunnel on Rideau Street and the amazingly absurd insistence that this would not set the project back too far. More recently, we have seen the initial April deadline for the beginning of service missed. That was followed by the city letting the Rideau Transit Group off the hook by not insisting on a $1-million late penalty, which was written into the original contract. Now, the Rideau Transit Group is going to miss its own rescheduled deadline of November 2nd. When will service start? We’re being told the first quarter of 2019.

West end railway stations are still a long way from being able to host trains. This shot was taken in May, a month after service was to begin.

And I’m not even adding in the amazingly myopic decision that the Prince of Wales Bridge would be converted into a recreational pathway. This was very close to becoming reality until the city came under pressure from the Moose group and then the City of Gatineau, which wants to use the bridge as a commuter rail link as part of its own light rail system.

You can thank the City of Gatineau and the Moose Consortium for preventing this railway bridge from becoming an underutilized and overly expensive pedestrian bridge. In the coming years, it will host trains and yes, pedestrians. Everyone wins.

So, where does that leave us? Well, essentially in a holding pattern. I’m not bothered so much by the delays. This is a massive project and there were unforeseen delays, like the sinkhole. What bothers me is how little information has been shared, even when it is obvious to just about anyone that this project is nowhere near complete. Anyone that lives near the western stations on the Confederation Line knows they are still months away from even being close to ready for trains.

I will keep all this mind as the municipal elections approach. I don’t like the way the mayor has handled this file and I worry about Phase 2, as there are already some decisions in place that show an utter lack of understanding of how railways work.

So, all this to say, the light rail system has become an election issue, at least for those who know that there is more to the light rail story than the remarkably one-sided stream of “information” that has come from city hall.

Add to this drama an interesting twist. A former city councillor, Clive Doucet, is running for mayor. He has once again raised the prospect of using existing rails (what’s left anyway) for commuter rail. That would be a huge boon to my neighbourhood, which has rails running through it that are used twice a week.

Mr. Doucet, you may recall, once suggesting running rails down Carling Avenue and was harshly criticized for the idea. Honestly, I thought it had merit.

True to Ottawa’s recent history, Mr. Doucet is a day late and a dollar short (to be generous) with this proposal, although I happen to agree with the principle behind it. Mr. Doucet is proposing to run commuter trains to Smiths Falls, Fitzroy Harbour, Kinburn, Chelsea, Navan, Vars, Limoges and Lorrain Avenue in Gatineau, to name but a few proposed destinations. This includes using the Prince of Wales Bridge to connect the O-Train Trillium Line to Hull.

Next week, I intend to analyze just what it might take to realize the dream of regional commuter rail in Eastern Ontario. But, let me just say that part of Mr. Doucet’s plan involves commuter rail over scrapped railways including the old Beachburg Subdivision, the former Carleton Place Sub and the old Maniwaki Sub.

I would peg Mr. Doucet’s chances of winning the mayor’s chair as slim, but I hope he has at least generated some new enthusiasm for regional commuter rail. It’s at least worth discussing. Right? Anyone? Mr. Mayor? Is this thing on?

Friday, September 7, 2018

Canada Science and Technology Museum, Part I

I finally made it out to the new Canada Science and Technology Museum so I could take in the new railway display. The last time I went to this museum was well before the museum was radically renovated.

The steam engine display has always been one of the highlights of this museum, so I was excited to see what the new display looked like.

Before I get to my impressions of the exhibit, I have to commend the efforts of the Bytown Rail Society and their efforts to maintain these beautiful old giants. The old steam engines look great in the museum. The work this non-profit group does to keep rail history relevant in Ottawa is inspiring.

The new display doesn’t skimp on facts. The old steam locomotives are supported by numerous signs and information displays that put steam technology in its proper context, especially from a technological point of view. The displays really do explain to visitors just how much steam-powered trains served to build this country and drive the economy and innovation. In this respect, the display does an excellent job of educating people.

The new signage is sharp and the display as whole has a much more modern feel to it, which seems fitting, given this really is a brand new museum.

Just like before, you can sit in the engineer’s chair in one steam locomotive and even play around with some of the valves and levers. The cab also has a fake coal fire burning, which is a nice touch, since it drives home the point that these massive machines were living, breathing monsters.

You can also walk into the cab of another locomotive, but the controls and seating are behind a glass display.

All in all, this is very much a carryover from the old steam display. My oldest daughter loved being able to sit in an engine and touch all the controls.

The display is also supported by a number of railway related artifacts and bric-a-brac.

However, I have to say I was a little disappointed that the display no longer features the old Canadian National wood-slat caboose. I think that keeping this in the display and possibly adding a passenger coach, like the coach the Bytown Rail Society has been busy restoring, would have given visitors a much clearer picture of what it was like to travel by rail in the golden era of railways.

I also found that some of the signage around the locomotives prevents visitors from taking unobstructed photos of the locomotives. That was a real nuisance for me, although I am probably much pickier than the average visitor.

Other than those issues, I was nonetheless impressed with the display. I wonder, though, if having a rail museum in Ottawa might be a better idea than this display. After all, we have a spectacular Museum of Aviation, so why not rail? I think these types of museums appeal to more than just transportation buffs.

I mention this because there were a few other rail-themed items in the museum, which I will save for another post. I will also save some more specific information about the locomotives and other items in the display.