Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Running Back to St. Jacobs (Part I)

Back in November, I was in Kitchener-Waterloo for a conference, where I was giving a mental health presentation. I made sure to carve out some time trackside, as KW has some unique rail photo opportunities. You can read about my time trackside in Kitchener here. My first stop was St. Jacobs, a small community north of the City of Waterloo. St. Jacobs is known for its area old order Mennonite population (think horse and buggies) as well as its tourist industry, which is very much a mainstay of the local economy.

The Waterloo Central Railway has a yard located in the town, which serves as its maintenance facility and starting point for some tourist excursions. At one point, the WCR operated from the former Waterloo train station, but the rails south of St. Jacobs are now all occupied by the Ion light rail system. CN still operates local freight operations during off hours, which you can read about in this blog entry. But the area is off limits to the WCR.

You might recall I've been to this yard a few times, which you can read about here and here.

This time around, I arrived in the early morning, as this was the only time I had to take photos. I was quite happy to get a few shots of the WCR's former Essex Terminal Railway caboose, clad in a wrap that would be useful for its Christmas Train. The railway added some nice touches, like the HOHO 2023 operating mark. Also, as a communications professional, I always like it when a business includes its web address in a visible spot. I remember a marketing professional telling me she couldn't understand why a company would ever hesitate to share its website at every opportunity. 

You can even see the WCR speeder to the left of the caboose as well as a Budd-build RDC unit behind the caboose. I got all these shots from a small park next to the railyard, which offers you some great vantage points to get photographs. It's like visiting a rail museum for free. There is even a street just north of this park that ends at the tracks, where you can get some shots from a different vantage point, but stay on public property (the street). There are signs here that clearly show you where you can and cannot go, as there are homes and a small trackside business here.

There were some other interesting things to see in the yard, as the railway was clearly getting ready to assemble a Christmas train. If you look closely at this old passenger coach, you can see that the crews had already strung up lights around the windows and across the top and bottom of the car. The WCR is clearly influenced by a love of vintage Canadian Pacific colours, as many of its cars and locomotives sport CP's maroon (Tuscan red, technically) and grey scheme, which was officially ditched in 1968 for the action red multimark livery.

This coach, however, is actually a former CN coach, built in 1954 by Canadian Car and Foundry. It served well into the Via Rail era, where it took on the blue and yellow scheme, before finding its way into the BC Rail fleet, where it became known as Sunset Beach, and finally the Orangeville-Brampton Railway. Coach 1978 has been with WCR since 2018. 

In previous years, WCR kept some of its coaches in the blue and yellow Via Rail scheme. I was lucky to get a shot of one of the last coaches to sport this scheme. I was happy I did, as I have great memories of these old blue and yellow cars as a kid.

Here's a sun-drenched shot of two S13s 1001 (left) and 1002 in the yard. Each unit was built by the Montreal Locomotive Works in 1959. While each bears the colours of the pre-action mark CP, these units were actually Pacific Great Eastern (later BC Rail) units upon delivery. After serving out west, they spent time on the Greater Winnipeg Water District Railway as 501 and 502, before moving further east and operating for the Ontario Southland Railway with the same numbers. They have been with the WCR since 2018. It's incredible to think of how much revenue service these old units have seen.

A little deeper in the yard, another MLW unit, this one ex-CP S3 6593, was sitting with a mixed consist, including 1930s vintage ex-CN baggage car 8751, a tank car and a former Toronto, Hamilton & Buffalo boxcar. Unlike the other units, this one was originally a CP unit, built in 1957. For Ottawa railfans, they might be interested to know that CP sold it to the National Research Council, where it served as the NRC switcher at its ground transportation research centre along the old CP Prescott Sub, near the Ottawa International Airport. It was sold to the WCR in 2012. Here is a cool shot from its move from Walkley Yard back in 2012. This unit began its work in these maroon and grey colours before being switched to action red, so this is likely a fitting scheme for this old unit.

The railway explains on its website that its small collection of rolling stock is for the purposes of television and movie work, where productions might need to include a freight train in a scene. Since the WCR also has a steam engine on its roster, I would imagine have a tank car might come in handy as well for the purposes of feeding the engine water.

All in all, it was a fun visit to this area. I will share a few more images from this morning in another post, since there was quite a bit to see in a brief time.

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Railway Reads: The Petrolia Spur has the goods, maybe a few too many

A few years ago, I read a self-published book, The Petrolia Spur, by Petrolia history buff Tom Walter. You'd be forgiven if you wonder why anyone would write a book on a spur line that was less than five miles long. But the Petrolia Spur wasn't just any branch line. It was a line that was wholly financed by the captains of the burgeoning oil industry in this boom town in the 1860s. In many respects, this book tells a good chunk of the story of the birth of North America's petroleum industry. So it's not just a book about a small piece of track.

Walter deserves full credit for the sheer depth of his research on this rail line and its connection to the town, which was for many years an affluent, influential boom town whose influence was global in reach. I say this without much hyperbole, as many of the so-called hard oilers who figured out how to find oil and get it out of the ground soon travelled the world and shared their expertise throughout Europe and other spots where crude was waiting to be tapped.

Walter focuses much of his research on the railway, of course, which began as a Great Western Railway branch, before giving way to the Grand Trunk and eventually the Canadian National. There is much to discover in this rail spur's story and Walter did an outstanding job of scouring the historic records and news articles, not to mention interviewing people who remember this rail line, which was finally torn up in 1994.

If you sensed there was a but coming, here it is. Writing a history book is not an easy task, as there are sometimes countless pieces of information to cobble together into a narrative. This is where I find the Petrolia Spur sometimes becomes too ambitious in its reach. There are many instances in the book where the overall story of the railway and its connection to Petrolia's development gets somewhat lost in a recap of newspaper articles and inconsequential details.

I found there were a few too many asides in the book, where space was taken up exploring inconsequential rail collisions, derailments and too much prose focusing on the station agents and their lives. I understand that this book is mainly for the people who live in and around this town and those who are fascinated by local railway history like me. However, I think this book might have benefited from a more thorough edit that could have streamlined the main story and discarded some of the less important divergences. In my opinion, many of these stories that do not fall into the main narrative could have been collected into a chapter of fun railway stories.

If you are willing to overlook some of this overabundance of ambitious detail, there are many interesting elements of this town's railway story that might surprise you. The rich collection of historic photographs gives you a surprisingly thorough depiction of what this railway operation, including the engines and rolling stock, actually looked like. Also, the author includes a number of appendices, like the architectural plans for the historic Petrolia railway station. These additions are excellent resources for those looking to model railways in this area or those who simply want to better understand some of the technical elements of the railway operation. Again, full credit for the breadth of research.

The author's passion for rail history shines through in his writing. As I mentioned, it comes across as unfocused at times, but I think this is a function of the sheer amount of material he was able to uncover. But he does succeed in presenting a complete story that very much gives you the big picture, rather than just a narrow local narrative. 

You just need to sift around a bit to piece it together at times. If you are interested in this book, your best bet would be to contact someone in Petrolia or call the town hall. I would imagine the book is available at local independent bookstores in the area. If you want to borrow my copy, you'll have to come to Ottawa.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

The Magnificent Seven: Highlights of 2023

Last year was a year where my railfanning was quite concentrated. I saw a lot of Via Rail action, mostly because my evening schedule on Wednesdays allowed me to meet the same westbound train many times. Rather than taking the same shot over and over again, I began experimenting with different angles and ideas, which ushered in the Year of Different. There was also a chance meeting with CN's Arnprior Turn, a few sightings of freight trains along Highway 401, lots of photography from a trip to Stratford, a few cool shots from Kitchener-Waterloo and a couple of other scattered highlights.

I like to temper the railfan posts with other posts that are more focused on history and research. Sadly, those posts were in short supply last year, for a variety of reasons. All told, I was able to get 37 posts online last year, which was my highest output since 2019. I have considered easing my pace to biweekly this year for a while, but a recent influx of new material means that I can continue my current pace for now.

So, the highlights...


At the tail end of Via Rail's buffer car period, I found myself at Ottawa Station and was able to get a shot of  Via Rail buffer car 8318 Craig Manor bringing up the rear of westbound train arriving from Montreal. It wasn't long after I took this shot that an investigation into the structural efficacy of the old silver streamliner cars showed that they were safe to use without the need for an extra car. But it was fun to see so many outliers in the corridor for a while.


In late May, I was happy to be able to get a first glimpse of Via Rail's new Siemens equipment at Ottawa Station. This was Train 24 bound for Montreal. It would be a few months before more of this new equipment began entering into regular revenue service across the corridor, so this catch was fun, as there were still just a few in operation last spring. It was a difficult morning to get quality images, as the harsh morning sun and scarce clouds made for some harsh glare. The shots near the Belfast Road overpass were a little easier, but the sky was a complete washout.


As I was driving my daughters to dance class in the Colonnade Road area, I saw the Arnprior Turn returning on the Beachburg Sub to Walkley Yard. I managed to catch the train on the Prince of Wales flyover, which was one of my finer catches, given the scenic location. I have caught several Via Rail corridor trains at this spot in the last year, but this catch was special.

Read the post here


It's always a coup to catch something unusual, especially when it's something that you won't likely be able to see again. In late July and early August, I was in Stratford, where I was able to catch an arriving GO Train that was making its way west back to London. Metrolinx has since shuttered this service, which was a pilot project linking London to Toronto in a commuter service. I often see these trains when my family travels through Toronto on Highway 401, but being able to see these trains in a small city like Stratford is a case of capturing some rare mileage. I'm glad I did.


I don't want to give away too much since these images are for a post that has yet to be shared online. However, my family found itself in Kitchener-Waterloo in November, which gave me several opportunities to railfan, including in Kitchener, where I saw some local yard action. Nothing special, but photos of a freight train in an exotic location are always fun for me. But it was in St Jacobs where I was able to capture some cool images that are worth mentioning. This town, north of Waterloo, is home to the Waterloo Central Railway yard, where the tourist railway has built an old-fashioned trackside flagstop platform and shelter. I have a model train structure just like this. It was cool to see something like it in real life. More shots from this yard to come soon.

Favourite shot of the year

I can't think of a shot I like more than this. I have one or two that are for upcoming posts that come close, but I have to say that this is my favourite. To be able to catch a CN freight on the platform in Stratford as it makes its way past some GEXR units was just about the perfect shot for me this year. It includes all the things I love. I love small towns, short line railways and seeing freight trains, since it is such a rare treat for me. You can see the full set of shots in this post.

Train 59

I needed to include a shot of Via Train 59, since I have caught this train more than any other in the past year. After taking photos of this train through the spring and well into the fall, I realized how many different methods I had tried to get shots of this westbound train. I intend to collect all these shots in a post sometime this spring. This shot below might be my favourite from last year. The shaggy trackside greenery adds a nice contrast to the train just past the curve in the Smiths Falls Sub.

There were other highlights from 2023, including winning the first ever Trackside Treasure Annibursary prize for excellence in railway blogging, an award initiated by one of the most prominent rail bloggers in Canada, Eric Gagnon.

This blog also logged the 10th anniversary of its birth, which was a nice accomplishment. Then there was the 400th post. 

All in all, there was much to celebrate in 2023. Here's to many more posts. Thanks for continuing to be along for the ride. I appreciate every person who reads and reaches out.