Thursday, April 11, 2024

Trackside ABCs in Ottawa

Last year, I declared 2023 to be the Year of Different. This year, I am declaring 2024 to be the Year of ABCs. No, I'm not talking about kindergarten stuff, I'm talking about our collective approach to rail photography. That is why I am challenging myself to:

Always Be Challenging (my approach) and;

Always Be Changing (my vantage points, framing, subjects or locations).

Last year, I decided that I would begin shooting the evening approach of Via Train 59 westbound around Hunt Club Road, since I am in the area for my daughter's dance class every week. But after a while, there are only so many times you can shoot the same train with a similar consist from the same spot, so I started challenging myself to try different approaches. The end result was that I was able to get some new photographs that tell a little more of the story of railways in Ottawa.

Let's face it. If you are going to be a railfan in Ottawa, or west Ottawa in my case, you need to be creative because you are going to shoot mostly Via Rail corridor trains. That's just life. Yes, there is CN's weekly Arnprior Turn that operates on Wednesdays. But if you work, as I do, this train will remain a ghost unless you get lucky enough to catch it occasionally.

So this year, this is how I began my pursuit of rail photos on my Wednesdays trackside. I am once again chasing Via Train 59, which makes its way west past Hunt Club Road around 6 p.m. This shot below I would only be able to get this time of year, since the foliage around this spot will soon obscure this train's approach to the Prince of Wales Drive flyover. I decided to try and get a shot of Via crossing the Rideau River, which runs parallel to Prince of Wales, just to its east.

Since I have already captured Train 59 on the Prince of Wales flyover, I wasn't terribly interested in doing it again, but I did fire off a quick few shots as it passed by. Not a terribly inspired shot (below), given some of my previous work at this location.

But the thought of getting a shot of Train 59 crossing over the Rideau River trestle began to intrigue me. The question was if I could find a spot along the river to get a shot of the bridge without encroaching onto private property. This is a tricky proposition in this part of Ottawa, as the Rideau River is largely hidden from view in a narrow valley and the vast majority of its banks are private property south of Mooney's Bay. So, I had my work cut out in looking for any city easements, trails or vantage points where I could get a shot of this bridge. Given the natural course the river takes, even trying to get a long distance shot from the sidewalk on the Hunt Club Road overpass is impossible, since the river curves and the dense foliage obscures any views of the trestle.

However, after some searches along the west bank of the river, I turned my attention to the east bank and did find a public easement with trails leading to the river. I followed one trail, which led me directly to the riverbank, right next to the trestle. And, happily, the trail is on the side of the bridge where the train is bathed in sunlight at 6 p.m.

So on March 27, I attempted my first shots of Train 59 crossing the Rideau River. This shot was taken quite a ways out into the riverbed, as the Rideau was running low and I was able to wade out into the sand and rocks to get an unobstructed view. Note the original Via livery on the P42, the updated livery on the first class car, a wrap on the second coach and an updated livery on the next coach. Catch Via's rainbow era while you can. It's going to disappear quickly.

I was reasonably happy with this first attempt. The daylight was a mixed bag, as the clouds prevented a washout of harsh evening sun, but the overall grey couldn't be helped.

This past Wednesday, I ventured out to the bridge again, thinking it might be better to get a shot with better lighting. As the sky was mainly sunny with a fair bit of clouds, I set up on the east riverbank again, although I had to change my spot as the river level had risen, which meant I had to live with the skeleton of a tree in the shot. 

I chose this shot, above, with the tree for a reason. You can make out the reflection of the train in the water, for one, and this was the last shot I took before the sun began to wash out the F40. You can see the usual mix of Via LRC cars that are used on this train, which had six cars. It usually runs between 4-6 cars. 

Here's another shot, below, where the tree is less of a factor but the train is a bit more obscured by the sun. I like this shot as well, since it gives you that golden hour glow that you can only get around sunrise or around sunset, although the sun was still pretty high in the sky when I took this shot.

The next time I come out to this spot, I think I'm going to work in front of that tree, although getting too close to the trestle means you are shooting at a more intense angle and that is not what I'm going for exactly. Still, it might be fun to experiment with this point of view.

I should point out that, closer to 7 p.m., another Via Rail corridor train makes its way east in the same area. This is Train 44, which is usually slated to arrive at around 6:43 p.m. at the downtown station, although it often comes in closer to 7 p.m. In late March, on the evening when I shot Train 59 near Prince of Wales, I decided to see if I could also capture Train 44 before my daughter's dance class ended. 

I got this shot of Train 44 near the now dismantled Bentley Avenue industrial spur. The former Ottawa Sun building is to the left. I was reasonably pleased with this shot, although as the train was late, I'm not sure I'm going to stick around each week to catch it, as it's cutting it close to pick up my daughters at their class.

A few observations I made as I was experimenting with this new spot near the Rideau River. The Beachburg Subdivision from Ottawa's Central Station and Federal Junction is maintained quite well, to my untrained eye. The tracks seem to be freshly ballasted and the signalling is all modern. Of course, this is hardly a keen observation, as this stretch of track is part of a very busy Via Rail corridor. 

However, having mainly taken in the stretch of Beachburg that CN maintains west of Federal Junction, it was a bit of a shock to see a stretch of a modern railway right of way in Ottawa. Via has a maintenance of way area along this subdivision just east of the Rideau River. It is observable from public property, although it is behind a fence. The area has a fair bit of rail, ballast and other supplies. I didn't know there was a maintenance spot in this location, but now that I do, I might take a photograph or two if there is anything of interest.

So, here is my challenge to you. Take the ABC challenge this year and think of new things to do to change your approach to rail photography. Don't settle for the same images from the same angle at the same spot.

Next post, I'll share another new spot I found to get a different railway image. Always be changing!

Friday, April 5, 2024

Railway Reads: A most unexpected book about railways

Tom Zoellner is a veteran journalist who worked throughout the United States with different newspapers before becoming a writer. His works span diverse territory, from his book about the end of slavery in the British Empire to his look at how uranium has shaped world history. Zoellner's work has appeared in countless publications. So it was with some surprise that I as handed his book Train a few years ago.

Officially titled, Train: Riding the Rails that Created the Modern World, Zoellner takes you on epic rail journeys across the United Kingdom, India, the United States, Russia, Spain and China. Each chapter deals with a separate journey, where the author speaks to the people on the train and gets an idea of what it means to them. Zoellner weaves this insight together with his own research on the railway systems in these countries. On each journey, you get a vivid picture of how trains have shaped the history and future of countries all over the world. For better or for worse, it's an innovation that continues to shape world history, long after it ceded its crown as the dominant form of transportation.

If you are looking for a book focused on the technical elements or the history of railways, this will not appeal to you. Zoellner does pack a fair bit of railway history into his travelogue, but his focus is much more broad than the names and dates of each country's rail history. His focus is very much on how these railways have shaped each society and how they continue to leave their social impact. 

Some moments that stand out are his conversations with Russians who are leaving Moscow aboard a train that will traverse the entire country, all the way to Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean. On that trip, he muses on the Russian Revolution and where Russia is now. Of course, the attack on Ukraine and the country's descent into outright authoritarianism makes this part of the book a bit dated, but the elements of Russia's discontent are still very much at play in his observations. It's actually quite interesting to read about his insight into the Russian psyche before the country took a hard right turn into dictatorship and widespread oppression.

Then there's the chapter about India where Zoellner attempts to explain why India's national railway system is impossibly bloated and overstaffed. He also touches on some rather unsavoury elements of the railways in India, including the ongoing practice of railway washrooms essentially dumping human waste on the tracks. As I mentioned, this is not your typical railway read.

The chapter about China's efforts to build a railway to Tibet is particularly poignant and heartbreaking. As impressive as it was that people figured out the complex engineering to build the line through a high plateau of permafrost, one can't help but shake their head at the sociological impact of a country using a railway to essentially wipe out a culture, which is what many believe is the true reason behind this money-losing line into this ancient land.

I couldn't put this book down. It was a riveting read that combined railways with a much more broad contemplation of the importance of railways to modern society. Zoellner is a gifted writer and talented journalist in ferreting out small details. The humanity he brings to his travelogue makes this a book that railfans and non railfans alike can enjoy.

As a former reporter myself, this is the type of story I wish I could have told or had the ability to tell. Anyone who has read the reportage of Chuck Klosterman, Charlie LeDuff or David Eggers will be very much satisfied with the insights Zoellner has to offer.

Monday, March 25, 2024

November Surprise in Stratford

In November, my family made its way to Southwestern Ontario, as my wife and I were involved in a conference in Waterloo. That meant I was able to bring my daughters for a visit to Stratford, where their grandparents live. While there, I naturally made my way to the town's train station, which is always a treat for me. I haven't been to Stratford's rail yard at that time of year, so I wasn't sure what I would see. Given the seasonal nature of some of the traffic on the CN Guelph Subdivision and the GEXR Goderich Sub, the look of this rail yard likely changes with the seasons.

When I initially walked past the yard, I captured this image of a field full of rail and a blue boxcar in the background. CN maintains a fairly extensive maintenance of way facility to the east of the station, with large piles of track supplies. I thought this made a good image.

Next, I captured a clear shot of this piece of snow clearing equipment, a Jordan spreader. This car has been in the yard for quite a while, but I have never had a clear line of sight to capture it. I was happy to get a shot of it finally. Surprisingly, there were no identifying numbers on the car. I blew up the photo and saw the remnants of an old CR reporting mark and some numbers, but it was too hard to make out what they read. I can assume though that this car once belonged to Conrail, given its CR reporting marks that are still faintly visible.

For those who don't know about this part of the country, snow clearing equipment like this can sometimes be absolutely critical to keeping trains moving. Southwestern Ontario, especially areas not far from Lake Huron, are susceptible to extreme snow events and heavy snowfall, or lake effect snow, as they call it. 

In some areas, the wide expanses of open farmer's field make for dangerous drifting, which requires heavy duty equipment to clear rail lines. I often tell people that parts of the southwest are like the prairies, only with more trees. But the wide open space can still be quite forbidding in the winter. 

The Goderich Exeter Railway up to Goderich, in particular, is sometimes forced to use drastic measures just to keep its line open in the winter. I am guessing this equipment didn't get any use this past winter.

As is often the case, the yard was quiet when I walked by, with this GEXR-clad geep sitting on a stub-end track. I tried to frame it with the old Burlington Northern hoppers in the background, since they were remarkably intact and free of graffiti. Hoppers in this yard are very common, as agricultural products are a key commodity for the GEXR and CN on the Guelph Sub. Also, the Masterfeeds elevator facility is served by rail in the east end of the yard.

I also found this two-bay hopper a bit curious, as its metal sheeting was a bit angular at the ends.

Figuring that was it, as the mainline was showing nothing coming, I went downtown to enjoy some time at a coffee shop and a used record store with my father-in-law. I took one final overall shot of the yard from the platform. The little hint of sun on the old geep was a nice little surprise.

It is always a bit disappointing to capture bits and pieces, but since this trip was an impromptu visit, I figured it was a win since I managed to capture some additional interesting images to share.

Later on the same weekend, we went back to Stratford for another quick visit. This time, I was able to leave the kids with the grandparents so I could wander the town by myself, which I did. I returned to the rail yard and began to see if there was anything I had overlooked on my previous visit. It turns out, I had. As I walked around the yard on the nearby roads, I caught sight of something deep in the yard near the elevator.

Two GEXR units sat near the elevator, with a splash of sunshine illuminating the cab of the front unit. I was quite surprised to see these engines sitting there. I have only ever seen two GEXR geeps in this yard in all my visits to this yard. I figured the extra power might have been needed, as the end of the harvest in Ontario likely meant more moves to and from the elevator. 

I tried a few different approaches to capture these engines in the yard, but I like the shot above the best. I did zoom in to maybe get some more information on which engines were actually sitting back there. The lead unit is ex-Southern Ontario Railway GP38-2 2111. I was not able to get a shot that helped me identify the second unit. I did like the Grand Trunk Western coil car that was in the shot, although it made it a bit more challenging to focus on the engines. You can even see two brooms just to the left of the GTW car, for clearing off switches in the winter, I'm guessing.

Before leaving, I spotted a BC Rail lumber car, so I took a shot, given I don't have many shots of any BC Rail equipment, so I figured it was worth it. I also like that you can see a Burlington Northern hopper in the background. Two fallen flags in one shot.

Just before leaving the yard, the searchlight signals east of the yard came to life and showed that a train was on its way. I stuck around for quite a while waiting for that train, but it never showed and I had to move on. I made my way once again to a great used record store in downtown Stratford and found a cheap copy of Gordon Lightfoot's first Greatest Hits record on vinyl. I love listening to Gord at dinner time. So I missed the train, but I gained the Canadian Railroad Trilogy. Not a bad trade-off.