Saturday, July 6, 2024

Review: Riding the rails where the Ventures roam

This past week, I took my daughter to Montreal, as part of a late birthday gift. She is a big hockey fan so we went to have a tour of the Bell Centre, home of the Montreal Canadiens. We then followed that up with a trip to the team store, where she got her first Habs jersey. A fun day in a city that I love.

For the purposes of this blog, the trip was also a great opportunity to take the train. In this instance, it was my first chance to ride Via Rail's new Siemens Ventures train. 

This was the scene at Ottawa's main train station as our Venture was parked a few tracks over from a more traditional F40-LRC consist that was headed for Toronto. Our train was Via Train 24. My first impressions of the new Ventures coaches were that the centre aisle was wider than what you'd find on an LRC or silver HEP car. The interior is very white. The area for people with disabilities was spacious, much more so than the spaces you'd find on more traditional Via equipment. There was no shortage of space.

I've been reading some interesting commentary online about the new Via equipment being relatively scarce outside the Ottawa-Montreal-Quebec City route. There was also the Via "announcement" that its entire corridor now features the new Siemens trains, which is a bit of a stretch, to be sure. For my daughter and I, taking the train between Ottawa and Montreal meant we rode on a Siemens Venture set both ways. This seems to be the route where much of this equipment is being tested.

These digital signs were spread out along the car, which told you (roughly) where you were on your journey and how fast the train was moving. The Alexandria Subdivision is almost exclusively Via territory, save for the occasional CN freight train. On our way to Montreal, just east of Ottawa, our train managed to maintain a steady speed of 151 km/h for a long stretch, which was pretty impressive. As we got closer to Alexandria, the pace slackened a bit. Our train was given priority over a westbound train as well as a CN freight train closer to Coteau. As we neared Montreal, we yielded the main line for a westbound train, which caused us to pull in to Montreal's station a few minutes late, but nothing noticeable.


The train sheds at Montreal's Central Station were filled with new Siemens trains, but it's hard to get photos there, as it's so dark. The platforms at this station are as high as the coach doors, so there is no stepping down to the platform, as you have to do in Toronto. However, Toronto's train sheds are much brighter after the installation of much-needed windows there. It's a very different experience once you get off the train in Montreal.

The ride itself was incredibly quiet and smooth. Earlier this summer, I was on the last car of an all HEP consist on the way to Toronto. The difference in ride is not even close. The new Siemens coaches are a massive upgrade in terms of ride quality. I will say, however, the seats themselves felt a little stiff to me, although they weren't uncomfortable by any means. The leg room was more than enough and it was definitely a step up from the older coaches.

I mention the quiet. As someone with a hearing impairment, I have to wear hearing aids. I could hear all the announcements on the Ventures. I should clarify. It's not sound that is my problem, it's sound clarity. The acoustics of the Venture's sound systems are a massive improvement. Many details were well thought out in these new trains.

My daughter insisted on a platform shot, so I happily obliged. It's not easy getting anything decent on the Montreal platform, but I like this shot. My daughter and I had a wonderful day in Montreal. They locals treat you well when you're wearing the team colours!

The experience at Montreal station was pleasant as well. The Via personnel were very kind to us. We had to check one bag as we could not bring it on the Bell Centre tour. The gentleman at the baggage desk allowed us to check it for free, as he was enchanted with my daughter. I will have more to share about the Montreal station and my railway observations on this trip. Those will be for future posts.

Friday, June 28, 2024

Summer Observations in Eastern Ontario

These last few weeks have epitomized the line from a Tom Petty song: "The waiting is the hardest part." My family is trying to sell our home, which is a difficult task. Until we do sell it, we can't move on to next steps that will prepare us for a new life in our new home. Even though I was unsure that I would have much time for blogging, I am making an effort to do the things I love, which helps me deal with the stress of this time of transition.

I decided it would be fun to share some odds and ends that I have collected over the last little while and put together an observations piece. 

I'll start with a recent observation of Via Rail Train 59 in a new place. As you might have read in this blog recently, I am trying to find new places around Ottawa to capture some railway photos. I captured some nice shots of Train 59 on the Rideau River bridge, just north of Hunt Club Road. A few weeks ago, I decided to get a shot of the same train crossing on the Riverside Drive flyover. I have never attempted a shot from this spot before, so I figured it was worth a shot. Here P42 916 leads the train west toward the Rideau River bridge and Federal Junction.

A few weeks later, I was at the Hunt Club Road overpass, as my time was limited while waiting for my daughter's dance class to wrap up. I waited for Via Rail Train 43 making its way east to Ottawa Station. I haven't been to this spot in a while. While there, I noticed that the remnants of the old industrial spur to Bentley Avenue were still not cleaned up trackside. The tracks beyond the fencing are still in place, but the rails removed from the Smiths Falls Sub are still lying to the west of the tracks, along with the old switch stand. You can see the remnants of the rails in the weeds as Train 43 passes by.

My family recently spent the weekend in Toronto, which allowed me to get months worth of railfanning in, which I will share in a series of future posts. I will share a few shots, however, closer to Ottawa. On our way home from Toronto as part of a J-train, I took a quick shot of the CP offices in Smiths Falls, or should I say CPKC. As someone whose family has a long history with the Canadian Pacific, I had mixed feelings seeing this new logo. I understand the nature of modern railways. There's no room for sentimentality. Still, I can't help but think we lose a little bit of our heritage when an iconic name becomes part of some corporate alphabet soup. I have similar issues with BNSF.

On our way to Toronto, I noticed that there was a long line of empty intermodal cars parked on a track near where the Smiths Falls Sub gives way to CP territory. Possibly someone with more knowledge can tell me if this might be the last remnant of the old CP Chalk River Sub? I know that railways often keep short stretches of old subdivisions for car storage purposes. I don't know if this is the case here. It seemed odd that these cars would be here rather than the CP yard, unless they were here so they could be kept out of the way.

While we're on the subject of the Smiths Falls Sub, there was chatter online about the spur at SynAgri in Twin Elm being disconnected. I can confirm from my trip to Toronto that this spur has indeed been lifted. There isn't much freight trackage still connected to the Smiths Falls Sub, save for the Kott Lumber facility on Moodie Drive. Here's a shot of some hoppers at SynAgri from 2015. I'm glad I have these shots now.

In the west end of Ottawa, rails have begun to appear alongside the Queensway, where the end of the second phase of the Confederation Line is taking shape. The project is behind schedule, which is no surprise, given that the pandemic pushed most projects back quite a ways. I have seen some MoW equipment on the rails lately near the Corkstown Road station, but haven't been able to get any shots.

This shot was taken from the passenger seat of our car, as my wife drove toward the Tanger Outlets further west. The next part of the O-Train system that will come online will be the long-delayed north-south Trillium Line (former CP Ellwood/Prescott Sub right-of-way). When it is complete, it will operate from Bayview Station, near the Ottawa River, all the way south to the Riverside South community. The spur to the Ottawa International Airport is also nearing a point where it will come online as well, which will give travellers another option for getting to the airport. 

One final bit to share. My girls are on a break from their evening dance classes, which means my Wednesday evenings trackside have taken a hiatus. Here is a recent shot of Via Train 59 at the Merivale Road level crossing. I didn't have any plan in mind. I just happened to be there so I took a few shots as the train sped by. You can see the symmetry of the Via wraps on the P42 and the first three cars.


 The end of the train was a bit different, as this was a double-ender.

So those were a few observations from Ottawa and Smiths Falls from the last few months. I have quite a bit to share from my trip to Toronto recently, but that will have to wait until life settles down a little. I am also going on a day trip to Montreal on the train, so I am hoping to have more to share. It's always nice to have too much material. A rare challenge for me.

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

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

Note: Although my time right now is dominated by a move, I have found some time to blog. This is the final entry in my reminiscences of taking the train between Sarnia and Ottawa in the late 1990s. The route between these cities on opposite ends of Ontario is filled with memories and items of interest for me. - Michael

In the second post of this series, I focused on a few points of interest between Union Station and Kitchener. Once you pass Kitchener on a westbound train, you get into the smaller, more pastoral stops that speak to railroading from another era. 

St. Marys

One of these stops is found in the beautiful community of St. Marys. The town is located in Perth County, has a population of 7,200 and boasts a few historic curiosities. It is the resting place of Canada's ninth prime minister, Arthur Meighen. It is also home to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, which I have visited. Finally, it is home to an historic stone railway station. The station is situated on a hill just beyond a large trestle crossing.


The station itself has been well maintained and still hosts daily Via Rail service. That additional platform you see is the Metrolinx platform that was used when GO Trains were run between Toronto and London in a pilot project. That service has since ended. Just beyond the station sits an impressive trestle that crosses a creek that wends its way over Rotary Park. This bridge shows you the impressive geography that had to be forded to operate railways through this terrain.

The last time I was in St. Marys, I made sure to walk beneath the bridge just to get some perspective as to how high it is over the valley. This view below gives you an idea of the size and height of this railway structure. This town is known for its limestone deposits, which explains the stone piers holding up the metal girders. Now you also know the origin of the St. Marys Cement company name. It's this town.

When I took the train between Sarnia and Ottawa in the late 1990s, I always made a mental note to look out my window when crossing this bridge. It was cool to see people from my perspective atop the bridge. It always filled me with a sense of comfort to see people going about their business in this small town when the train passed through. As a small town guy at heart, I have a soft spot for this town. Also, there's an ice cream store near the station that has a dairy free option, which makes me happy. 

Stratford

I won't dwell on Stratford too long, as I have blogged about this town many times. I now have family living here, so I have made many trips to this station, which is one of the nicest in Southwestern Ontario. It really does suit the town, which has one of the richest cultural scenes of any community in Canada. The impact of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival cannot be underestimated.

London

London is the big city in Southwestern Ontario. If you are from Sarnia, it's the easiest big city to get to, as it is only an hour east. My first-ever train trip was between Sarnia and London when my Dad had an appointment in London. I remember travelling on a classic blue coach to London when I was quite young. I could not have been much older than 4 or 5, but I remember the excitement I felt as a train obsessed little kid. When I travelled between Sarnia and Ottawa, London was either the last major stop before I came home or it was the first major stop as I settled in for a long day en route back to Carleton University. 


Via's station here has been well maintained. It was not always this way, before the station was renovated in the early 2000s. This is not the station I remember from my travels in the 1990s. You can just make out an HEP silver streamliner to the right of the picture. As London is at the junction between rail lines going to Sarnia and Windsor, this station continues to host both Toronto-Windsor and Toronto-Sarnia trains in both directions. 

London's station has a small yard, which at times has hosted some oddities over the years. Here's an undated shot shared with me of the old GM Diesel switcher at the old London station. The last I saw, this old unit resided at the Lambton Diesel shop in Sarnia yard.

Wyoming

Between London and Sarnia, Via makes two stops, although in the 1990s, it made three. Heading west, the Via corridor trains stop in Strathroy and Wyoming. Just east of Wyoming in the 1990s, Via also made a brief stop in Watford, but that service has since been discontinued.

The Wyoming stop is a throwback to earlier days in railroading, when railways served small towns. Wyoming's former CN train station is long gone, as are the rails of the old rail yard, but there is still a tiny station just off Broadway Avenue, Wyoming's main street.

When I took the train in the 1990s, there always seemed to be someone who either got off in Wyoming in the evening or boarded the train in the early morning. It's somewhat of an anomaly that this town has Via service still, but given the population growth in this part of the province, the station might see more activity in the coming years. In my time on the train in the 1990s, Wyoming again was one of those stops where I was either itching to get off the train after a long day or it was where I was settling in for a long trip east. I have visited this spot a number of times to train watch. It's a great spot to watch mainline freights roar by.

Here's one of my meets with a passing freight in 2022.

Okay, here's a shot of the power. A shot of an autorack seems like a bit of a rip-off, I'm sure.

Last stop: Sarnia

I've disembarked on the Sarnia platform many times, always late at night when my train pulled in at the end of its run. My clearest memory of this station was when I returned home in October 1996. It was the first time I had visited my family after moving away to attend journalism school at Carleton University in Ottawa. I was homesick, as my first year hadn't gone all that swimmingly to start. My roommate and I didn't mesh. He was a good guy but I couldn't live with him. When the train pulled into the station, I had a window seat overlooking the station platform. I had already gathered my bags and was beginning to stand up to stretch my legs, as I was eager to get home. I recall my brother on the platform, jumping up to see where I was in the train, as he was excited to see me. I have never forgotten that moment.

As brothers, we don't often need to say anything to each other. We know we are each other's best friend. My older brother has been a great influence on me all my life. I have always looked up to him. When I saw how excited he was to see me, it reminded me of what family is all about. When people ask me why I am so sentimental about trains, that moment in 1996 is one of the reasons. Trains have brought people together for generations. That is what keeps me fascinated.

Thank you to everyone who has sent along their best wishes as my family tries to navigate through the last portion of a very difficult year. We're close to being free of this situation. I can't guarantee when the next post will appear, but I'm hoping it will be soon. All positivity welcomed.