Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Memories of Ottawa to Sarnia in the late 1990s (Part I)

I wasn't in the habit of taking rail photos in the late 1990s when I began my post-secondary education in Ottawa at Carleton University in September 1996. In retrospect, it would have been a fun time to take shots. That's because every one of my trips home to see family at that time meant spending the better part of a day on the train. It was a time when you could still buy your student-discounted ticket at a Travelcuts travel agency on campus and the ticket you got might still have the red carbon copy. That quickly changed to those thick cardstock paper, one-fold tickets with the perforated lines to separate each leg of your journey. For me, taking the train regularly over those four years (1996-2000) was an eye opener, as someone who had seen almost no part of Ontario beyond Toronto for the first 18 years of his life. So, let's take a journey down memory lane and across the province back in the glory days of the late 90s.

A quick note about the equipment. As far as I can recall, every one of the trains I took were pretty much the same consist. I don't recall ever riding behind a P42. It was always an F40PH-2. The cars were almost exclusively LRC coaches. I don't recall riding in an old silver HEP car once during my university years. I don't know if that's a coincidence, but I'm almost positive of these facts. 


It's important to mention this off the top. In all my time taking the train in university, there was no Fallowfield Station. The train would roar through Barrhaven in Ottawa's south end and throttle up for the short leg to Smiths Falls. That meant all trips started at Ottawa's train station on Tremblay Road. Despite the fact that Ottawa doesn't have an historic train station as in Toronto, the east end station in Ottawa is a fascinating building, which is an award-winning architectural work from the 1960s. Given what many buildings of a similar vintage look like in Ottawa, the central train station is downright beautiful. Its main hall, with an endless wall of windows facing the tracks, is a bright, welcoming space. The circular ticket office in the middle of the hall is a creative way to create separate areas. The underground tunnel from the outside platforms is quite beautiful as well, especially the circular ramp to take you back up to the main station. The Via Panorama Lounge is well appointed as well, although I have only been there once. That was when I accompanied my friend, a person with a disability, who was accommodated in the Business Class (formerly Via1) car. All in all, the building hasn't changed much since I frequented it in my university years. The biggest change might be that there is no Harvey's at the station anymore. The food options are not great. Also, the rail yard is much smaller and the old Governor General's cars are no longer there. A small complaint.

Smiths Falls

Heading southwest, the first stop was (and is) always Smiths Falls, which had a classic railway town feel the moment you eased into the old platform at the former Canadian Pacific station on the edge of the CP yard. Of course, in those days, that old building still functioned as the Via station, which has since changed. The new Via station is more of an enlarged kiosk on Union Street, on the edge of the town.

The old station is now a centre for the arts and seems to be well used. Depending on which way I was travelling, Smiths Falls was either the stop where I was getting restless or the stop where I would be settling in with a book, magazine or my walkman (yes, I still listened to cassette tapes then). It was a town I didn't know much about until I learned of its history. It was the longtime home of the Hershey's chocolate factory and was once a very busy division point on the CPR, the dividing point between the Brockville, Winchester and Belleville subdivisions. It still is, but the Brockville Sub is now exclusively Via controlled while the Winchester and Belleville subs continue on as the eastern leg of the CP system to Montreal (and now beyond, once again). But the activity here is not what it was in the 1990s.


Brockville is another town that I must confess that I still don't know a lot about, other than it is still sees plenty of rail action each day, as the CN and CP eastern main lines converge here. There's plenty of history in Brockville, including its famous old railway tunnel, not to mention its name, which pays tribute to Sir Isaac Brock. Brock was a British military leader who many credit with preventing a successful American invasion of the Canadian colonies in the War of 1812. The red coat that he was shot and killed in on the Queenston Heights in the Niagara Region can be found at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. A gruesome relic, but a fascinating story.


This town was probably the most surprising stop in my early years taking the train to and from Ottawa. I didn't know the town existed, to be honest, and was absolutely shocked when I saw its railway station for the first time. I wondered what kind of one-horse town Gananoque was. I didn't understand at the time that the town's train station was actually not in the town at all, but in a rural area named Cheeseborough to the north. This station remains a vital link where Gananoque is connected to the main line. A short branch line south into the town itself served Gananoque as a passenger link until 1962 and as a freight spur until 1995, when the last freight service ended and the rails were pulled up. However, the first time my train stopped there and I looked around the station area through the window, it was hard to comprehend how a station could be placed in the middle of nowhere. That's what it appeared like to me, anyway. You can read about the town, its famous engine the Susan Push (below), and its heritage in this post, where I explored some of the town's railway history.


Prior to my university years, I had only been to Kingston one time. Over the years, I have made some visits and I really do love the city. It's an eclectic mix of historic charm, academia, Upper Canada Loyalist, blue collar ethos and innovation. The city's history, of course, is what underpins much of Kingston and its beautiful downtown and waterfront.

From a rail traveller's perspective, there isn't much to be gleaned when you stop at Kingston station. The Via Rail schedule here is packed, as Kingston sits arguably about half way between Toronto and Montreal and also hosts a number of corridor trains to and from Ottawa. I suppose my memories of Kingston in the 1990s are closely tied to my high school friend Chris, who went to Queen's University to study engineering. Chris and I often found ourselves on the same train between Sarnia and Ottawa, although rarely on the return trip west. Chris was (likely still is) a real card back in high school and university. He had a gregarious personality and didn't mind making fun of himself in a crowd if it meant drawing laughter.

My clearest memory of our rides together on the train happened when we somehow got onto the topic of Stompin' Tom Connors and his famous ditty, The Hockey Song. I'm not sure how it came about, but I remember Chris singing the entire song word-for-word on the train, just loud enough that the people around us could hear him, but not too loud that he would annoy them. I think he left a few people befuddled, to be honest. 

Chris made many a train trip a little more bearable, although I should point out that I had no problem sitting by myself, reading, writing or listening to my cassette tapes. I do recall that, in the days before everything was available online, my brother would sometimes tape a cassette's worth of my favourite radio morning show from back home, which I used to listen to over and over. 

I should also mention that Kingston to me is closely tied to nearby Ernestown, a railway ghost town if ever there was one! The old stone station still stands trackside and it was on my rides between Ottawa and Sarnia that I first saw that old abandoned station. Back in the days before everything was online (man, I'm sounding old now), the story of that station remained a mystery to me, which I think was part of its appeal. Later on, I was filled in on the Ernestown story by Trackside Treasure's Eric Gagnon, but back in the 1990s that old station was the stuff of my imagination. 

These rides featured many other memories and lessons for me, but these are the ones that stick out as part of the Eastern Ontario portion of my journeys. I'm grateful for that education.

Thursday, May 2, 2024

Illegitimus non Carborundum

In the spirit of full disclosure, which is part of my mission as a mental health public speaker, I will share that I am once again struggling with my life as it is, mainly due to an ongoing situation in my neighbourhood where my family is still being harassed and intimidated by a local resident. Long story short, our attempts to stop this behaviour through legal means have only met with mixed success and the threat remains. We had to report this individual recently, as he shows no signs of stopping. We are also desperately trying to get the Ottawa Police Service to take ownership of its litany of mistakes (my opinion, not theirs, obviously) in (mis)handling this situation.

That brings me to this blog and my continued efforts to find new and interesting things, or possibly old and interesting things, to share about my love of railways. The title of this post is a nod to the Latin motto of the now defunct Whitehorse Star newspaper, which recently closed its doors after 124 years. The scrappy newspaper's motto roughly translates to You mustn't allow the b@stards to bring you down. I love this scrappy attitude, which seems to be right out of the Klondike era Yukon.

In the spirit of that motto, I am trying not to allow anyone or anyone's failures to prevent me from living my life. It's hard right now, when I have my family's safety on my mind and the everpresent threat from this person, but through counselling, I have been able to deal with stress and anxiety in ways I couldn't a few years ago.

Part of my therapy, quite honestly, has involved going out on Wednesdays, after dropping off my girls at dance class, and sitting trackside. In the last few weeks, I've found some new spots to shoot the evening westbound Train 59 and the eastbound Train 43. It's all therapy and if we all learn something, even better, right?

Milepost 1.63 Smiths Falls Subdivision

I'll start at Milepost 1.63 of the Smiths Falls Subdivision, which is where the tracks cross Merivale Road, one of this area's more notoriously congested arterial routes. It's a throwback to 1960s urban planning when commercial development was grouped together in an endless pattern, with little thought to surrounding neighbourhoods or some sort of natural balance. There are Merivale Roads in every city and Ottawa certainly has its share of similar areas (Hazeldean Road in Kanata, southern Bank Street in Central Ottawa, Saint-Laurent Boulevard and Innes Road in the east end).

The Merivale level crossing marks the point where the commercial properties end and the residential areas re-emerge. It's a crossing that has a wide sidewalk on the west side of the road, with clear sight lines down the arrow straight stretch of track. Two weeks ago, I took a few pictures of Train 59, just to see if this crossing had anything interesting for visual purposes.

I framed the train to the left of this shot because I wanted to capture the symmetry of the power lines to the right. That overpass in the background is the Hunt Club Road overpass, where I have taken a number of railway pictures in the past few years.

Here's a shot (above) at the Merivale crossing itself. F40PH-2 6432 leads a four-car LRC consist east toward Fallowfield Station, which is situated just past the next level crossing at Woodroffe Avenue, to the west of this spot. You can see the petroleum storage tanks at Eastway Tank to the left of the crossing signals. To the right, you can see a residential neighbourhood. This spot really is the dividing line between commercial and residential areas in this part of the old Nepean.

I waited around for Train 43 eastbound, which is scheduled to come through this area around 6:48 each evening, if it isn't running late. Lucky for me, it was on time, which meant I could catch a shot of it running eastbound. Given the shadows cast by the buildings next to the track, I had to wait until the train emerged into a sunny pocket to get this shot. Note the last car in this six-car consist. One of these things is not like the other things.

Here's a closer shot nearer to the crossing. Note the shadows from the buildings on nearby Capital Drive. You can make out the new Via scheme, the old blue-and-yellow scheme and a wrap, if you look closely.

I'm not sure why an old HEP car was added onto the end of this train, but it made for a nice little surprise. I don't think we'll see too much more of this variety in the corridor. 

So that was my late April adventure at a new spot. I'm not sure I will return to this crossing, as I don't see many opportunities for new shots, but it's always fun to capture images of places in the city that I haven't documented before. This level crossing is at an interesting spot. It is worth a try, if you are a local train enthusiast and are looking for something new.

This past week, I returned to the Rideau River bridge, to get a new angle I hadn't tried yet. I will share those images in the weeks to come. 

These Wednesdays have been therapeutic for me, because they give me an evening away from my house and allow me to be free of household concerns and chores for a few hours. I'm sure I'll grow tired of taking shots of the same train at some point, but I have already identified two new vantage points I'd like to capture in the weeks to come, so I'm hoping to continue my efforts to find new ways to capture railway images in Ottawa.

Even if I don't come up with anything new, just being trackside seems to be enough for me right now. 

Monday, April 22, 2024

Let's give thanks for the Bytown Railway Society

In my years since I started blogging, I've come across the Bytown Railway Society regularly, mostly through social media, but also in casual conversations or through research. Chances are, if you are looking into the history of railways in Ottawa, you will come across someone from the society who either knows the history or was part of the history.

A while ago, I had an appointment on St. Laurent Boulevard, in Ottawa's east end, which gave me the chance to have a quick glance at the society's historic rolling stock collection outside the Canada Museum of Science and Technology. Those who have been to this museum know there is a great steam engine exhibit inside, which to my eye seems to be one of the most popular features. The society can be thanked for this exhibit, which explains the history of passenger trains and steam-driven machinery.

Then there's this beauty out in front of the museum, which was recently moved, complete with the laying of a temporary track to get it to its new spot. Again, the society did yeoman's work in this move. And the newly refurbished 4-8-4 6200 looks better than it has in years. 

Ottawa winters can be incredibly harsh, so seeing this old machine with fresh paint, a new bell, an operational headlight and vivid number plates is a wonderful thing to behold up close. It gives you an idea of why people of a certain vintage hold steam engines in such high regard and why these mammoth machines continue to be a source of inspiration. Again, this engine's new lease on life can be traced back to BRS.

When you make your way to the small BRS rail yard stashed away behind the museum storage building, you begin to appreciate the time and effort these people have put in to preserving railway heritage in a city that has largely forgotten about railways. In my opinion, there's a huge opportunity to be had in introducing visitors to the museum to these old antique pieces of rolling stock. I can imagine a small tour and explanation of these cars and an explanation of their role in keeping Canadians moving would present a wonderful and interesting hands-on learning opportunity. That is what museums are for, right?

I don't mean this as a criticism of the museum or the BRS. There are a number of priorities for the museum in curating an interesting collection that tells an overall story of innovation. Railways are only one piece of the science and tech story. However, it strikes me that having this collection in storage is a missed opportunity.

I think back to the museum's older iteration, before its renovation. This caboose was part of the railway display. Now, the display only features two steam engines. Again, it's a small quibble and I'm not criticizing anyone per se. I love the museum and I have great respect for the Bytown Railway Society and its members. I'm just saying that I think there's an opportunity for so much more storytelling here and who better to tell the story of railways that the society?

This brings me to a memory. Back when the Canadian Pacific brought its business train into the city a few years ago, where it was largely hidden away from view and guarded at Walkley Yard, there was a palpable buzz among railfans over the presence of history in the city. I remember getting a few long shots of the train from Conroy Road, which was the closest I could come to the train, as the friendly CP police officer stood nearby (really, he was great, we chatted and he was cool).

The next day, I camped out along the Smiths Falls Sub at Fallowfield Station, waiting for the train to makes its way out of the city and was joined by a member of the Bytown Railway Society. We talked about the society's new space in the museum archives building, which is a state-of-the-art facility and a fitting home for this railway equipment. However, I remember sensing the frustration in his voice over the fact that the museum is no longer connected to an active rail line.

For those who might not know, the Bytown Railway Society was once quite active in arranging heritage train excursions along the trackage around Ottawa. Some of these excursions made their way along the Alexandria Sub while others plied the rails of the Smiths Falls Sub and the now torn-up Beachburg Sub into Pembroke. Even as recently as about 10 years ago, I remember there was chatter about planning for another excursion, but so much has changed with railways in Ottawa, that the society now finds itself working with great facilities but no connection to active rails. 

The Society's latest project was its extensive work to refurbish this old CN coach. Those who follow BRS on Facebook, as I do, will remember that the society documented the extensive work of its Dirty Hands Club in getting this old heavyweight six-axle coach back to its former glory. It looks great and I would think it could serve as a wonderful reminder of what railway transportation used to be like. However, I was a bit sad to see chatter on Facebook about which group would be prepared to take on this coach and give it a good home where it can be appreciated. 

Personally, I would love to see it stay with BRS and be put into use on local excursions. The society, in my opinion, would be an ideal operator or partner for these types of excursions, if given the chance. However, the prospects for this are slim. Even the old Hull-Chelsea-Wakefield steam train is a distant memory on the old CP Maniwaki Sub, as municipalities there struggled with bringing that line back into operation following storm damage. The end result was the line was scrapped (some would say predictably) and the equipment sold off. 

My point is there doesn't seem to be a lot of appetite to support this type of moving, living history, at least among those who would have the power to make it happen. I'm sure the society would jump at the chance at either hosting or partnering on some form of excursion or even rail tour initiatives from the museum.

My point here is not to criticize anyone or any organization, especially BRS. Rather, I am trying to express that I believe local rail history and the society deserve better. I appreciate that they have new digs, which is a huge step up for them, and deservedly so. 

However, what happens when you have all this expertise, knowledge and volunteer power, but nowhere to really make proper use of it? Well, think about the BRS refurbished coach that now resides at the Railway Museum of Eastern Ontario in Smiths Falls. It's a great place for this old antique, where it can be appreciated.

But I can't help but remember the conversation I had with a society member who seemed to be a bit disappointed that this old coach had to go to Smiths Falls at all (and by truck, he mentioned, with tongue firmly in cheek). Again, it's a great outcome for this car, but I think it also represents a bit of a loss for those talented people who worked so hard to get it back to its former glory.

Many railfans know the BRS as the publisher of the Canadian Trackside Guide. I'm not old enough to remember when the society was a regular operator of special steam excursions and other heritage train rides. BRS is also active at area train shows and in arranging rail heritage discussions.

I do not mean to speak on behalf of anyone in saying this, especially the Bytown Railway Society, but I think many people in Ottawa are missing an opportunity to make use of this organization and its collection.

It can be as simple as people regularly touring the equipment as part of their museum visit. It could be something far more ambitious like re-establishing the rail connection at the museum and possibly starting up heritage excursions again.

I understand that there are many, many logistical and legal issues I am not accounting for here in this simplistic view.

But wouldn't it be great if we were able to better appreciate our history and allow the Bytown Railway Society to do what it does best without limitations?